Beware of the writing expert!

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Since I’m not an expert on the craft of writing, you don’t get many how-to posts from me. Generally I share my personal writing experiences and observations, or perhaps point you to someone else who has posted something brilliant. That’s what I believe aspiring writers can accomplish with their blogs – offer experiences, opinions and referrals, along with support and encouragement.

Photo credit: Graur Codrin

I’m always a little leery of what I call ‘instant experts’… people who may be self-taught and either self- or traditionally-published or still unpublished, but have made many discoveries during the process.

Writing isn’t a science. Yes, there are hundreds of books, blogs and gurus to expound on the dos and don’ts of good writing. But what one promotes as gospel, another dismisses as garbage. There are guidelines, some of which are important to know, but there are also best sellers written by people who have never followed them.

As I read the many comments on my post about cookbooks last week, I was impressed by those who suggested the value of recipes lies in the experience of those who developed them. The best cooks adjusted quantities, added pinches of flavouring, taste-tested, lowered or raised oven temperature until the product was exactly right.

Photo credit: Carlos Porto

I have a recipe for scones given to me by a member of one of our churches. Kay often brought us a bag of her fresh-made scones, along with a jar of homemade raspberry jam. Oh, what a wonderful treat that was! Those scones were indescribable! (The jam was wonderful, too.) I begged the recipe from her and carefully followed it, but I absolutely cannot get scones to taste like hers. Others have shared their not-quite-as-good recipes and offered advice, but nothing I make is quite the same. I don’t have Kay’s touch, or her knack of “not really measuring” or knowing the exact moment when they are ready to leave the oven. I wish I could intern in her kitchen… be her baking apprentice on scone-making days. I’m sure it’s the only way I could hope to learn how to make perfect scones. Either that, or spend years developing my own unique recipe.

There’s a writing analogy here. I’ll bet you can figure it out, too.

How do you distinguish between useful writing advice and advice you should ‘take with a grain of salt’? What makes a writing mentor valuable?

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13 thoughts on “Beware of the writing expert!

  1. timkeen40 says:

    My wish is that I would write something on my blog and have a million people chime in to criticize. That means that one million would have read it. That is not a bad thing. Plus, in one million pieces of advice, I am bound to find something that will be make me a better writer.

    http://timkeen40.wordpress.com

  2. ezzylanguzzi says:

    Awesome post. I follow several blogs for their author’s personality, voice, humor. Ones I follow for actual writing, or publishing advice, are a handful of agents and pubbed authors. I do enjoy reading experience pieces, though, and learning about the writers themselves. : )

  3. On my online review site, I looked at the overall quality of the reviewer’s own work and their review. (In other words, if they had typos, etc. in the review, I dismissed their “advice”; if their own writing was awful, ditto.) Same thing with the writing blogs I’ve ventured across.

    Personally, I don’t read writing blogs unless the person is published and I have actually read their published works. I have read numerous books on craft and I will listen to those advisors. But I gravitate toward those who acknowledge that the “rules” of writing are not set in stone & those who write their writing-advice books in a beautiful, engaging voice. (Roger Rosenblatt’s recent book, Unless it moves the human heart, is one like this.)

    Some of the ability to distinguish between good/bad advice is intuitive. I learn about writing by reading well & thinking/analyzing it. The best-written books teach me more about writing than I could ever learn from a nuts-and-bolts book on what I “ought” to do.

  4. Judith Robl says:

    I read a few professional agent/author blogs like Ezzylanguzzi does. One I enjoy immensely is Randal Ingermanson’s Advanced Fiction Writing blog because of the dialogue between him and his readers.

    This is one of the very few personal blogs I read regularly. I like the ones that make me think. Patsy Terrell is a personal friend, almost a daughter. Seth Godin is a business guru, but some of his posts (generally short) are very pithy and pointed. This one I read for its beauty and uplift and the photographs and thoughtfulness.

  5. Sue Harrison says:

    I have the same problem with some of my mother-in-law’s recipe’s. I just can’t make rolls like she used to, and her butter fudge is way beyond me!

  6. Heather says:

    I can’t say much about writing….but I sure did love Kay’s scones!

  7. joylene says:

    I think you read the piece and something sings inside of you. I feel that way whenever I read Donald Maass. Like singing.

  8. I guess that proves we’re all one of a kind. And now I want a scone.

  9. That is a great question, Carol. When I began, I wasn’t always sure of myself and took any critiques to heart. Later, not only do we learn to get a thicker skin, I think we also get a better handle on who we are.

    When the advice sounds like an out-of-tune tin horn, I believe there is an inner ear that tells us.

    There is something wonderful in that rare and generous creature who reads our work, can be honest about what needs to make it better and still has the grace and good sense to couch it with kindness. That … as Martha Stewart would say … is a good thing 🙂

  10. How do I know good advice when I hear or read it? I’ve received a lot of good advice on what to do and not to do. I thought I had implemented it, only to find that I hadn’t recognized those very problems in my own writing. I think advice that is specific to one’s on manuscript is the more readily understood. As far as the advice being worthy goes, in my case, I knew immediately that the advice I received was right. I need to get busy with the job of fixing, but I may have to stop blogging to do it. My time is limited. Blessings to you, Carol.

  11. Laura Best says:

    I don’t, as a rule, share my work with anyone before it’s published. Lately, my daughter has been offering me some advice and I have to say it’s nice to have someone to talk over my work with.

    I think advice is good in the beginning, when we’re just starting out. As we write and grow we need to learn to trust our own instincts, and not alway look to someone else for the answers. I think this instinct is something we develop over time.

  12. Dave Ebright says:

    “There are guidelines, some of which are important to know…”

    I think that sums it up well. Like Laura, I’m not real big on sharing my work while it’s in the works. I’ve done it twice – you were one of the 2 “victims” – hah!

  13. So many different ideas about this! Thanks for your thoughtful responses. I’m not sure I could handle a million critiques as Tim would like, but in principle the idea has possibilities. It could result in ‘the blind leading the blind’, although as Joylene and Carol Ann mention, good advice usually resonates as such. You just ‘know’ if it’s right for you.

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