In writing and in life, “caveat emptor”

Recently I’ve come across a number of Facebook and blog posts sharing information of questionable accuracy. Some of it was definitely erroneous while other bits were extrapolated from a shaky premise. Those who shared, unknowingly believed they were doing others a favour. I’m not sure why I let it bother me, but it makes me gnash my teeth at how gullible people can be.

Since childhood we’re cautioned not to believe everything we read. Television news and advertisements warn of scam artists and e-mail phishing schemes. Yet false claims continue to circulate and people continue to be fooled.

One thing the internet has done is allow every ‘Tom, Dick and Harry’ to have their say, instantly, and in a very public way, on a blog, in Twitter or Facebook posts, advertisements or e-mail messages. Because a person promotes himself as an expert doesn’t make him one. Because someone states something with apparent conviction, doesn’t make it true.

Stellers Looking

“What? You don’t believe I’m a crow? I just need a haircut and my roots touched up a bit. Of course I’m a crow!”

I think we tend to be lazy consumers, whether it’s of information or products. We trust government agencies to test the safety of almost everything; we assume the CRTC filters out misleading TV commercials; we believe everything on Wikipedia is accurate; we think everyone in cyberspace has our best interests at heart. It just isn’t so!

The “caveat emptor”* admonition applies to more than purchasing items. I look at my shelves of books on the craft of writing, realize how different some of the advice is, and wonder what I should believe. Which ‘expert’ should be followed? There are templates for how a story should unfold, tips for making characters come alive, suggestions for fleshing out settings or cutting down on description, advocates both for and against using prologues and epilogues. Who’s right?

In critique groups we say that any suggestion for a manuscript change is the opinion of the critic. If only one person in the group makes the suggestion, it can be evaluated and discarded if desired. However, if several people make the same observation or suggestion, weight is added to its importance and it shouldn’t be disregarded without a valid reason. I believe the same criteria can be applied to more general writing advice.

If a certain method of writing produces a bestseller for one author, there is no guarantee it will do the same for another. We each bring our individuality and unique abilities to our writing along with our own slant on plot, characters and setting and our own style. Focusing on the work and advice of other successfully published authors is valuable, but still needs to be done while filtering the material through the lens of our common sense. On the other hand, if the person offering advice is a self-made expert, perhaps we need to put some effort into researching its validity.

How do you determine the usefulness of available advice and information?

* Let the buyer beware

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