How to Succeed By Ignoring Advice
Updated: Jul 13
I'm not saying that you shouldn't seek advice. You should. When you're starting out as a writer (or a sales clerk or a lawyer or whatever you are becoming), you should be hungry for the stories of those who have gone before you. You should ask people with more experience than you what they have learned doing this job (or this art form or this thing called "life"). In fact, don't ever stop asking, even when you start feeling a little more comfortable doing whatever it is you're doing. But I suggest that you learn how to listen to advice. Which is to say, learn how to take advice and how to ignore it.
Advice is cheap and plentiful. Look, I'm giving you advice right now. For free. And I'm not the only one. Observe what happens when you do a quick little search for "writing advice":
Gah! What's a person to do with 1.26 BILLION pieces of advice? One option is to read as much of this advice as possible in the remaining years of your life. If you do this, you will find everything from big-name authors dispensing their eternal wisdom to nameless hacks trying to sell you something. You will soon find that a lot of the advice is contradictory, which will be frustrating to you. But you won't have to worry about it too much, because you'll be so busy reading all that advice that you probably won't ever write anything.
Here's what I recommend instead. First, try talking to actual writers in person so that you can ask questions. It's easy enough for a writer to say to you, "Create an outline of where you are going and tape it up next to your computer to hold yourself accountable." If you're reading this advice off the internet, you might think this is a golden rule of writing. In conversation, though, you can say, "What if I don't know where my story is going? I kind of feel like I'm just along for the ride." And the writer can say, "Oh, yeah. That happens sometimes. What a thrill, right? Ride that wave, baby! But having a place to jot down ideas of the longer arc of the piece as they come to you can be really helpful. It doesn't have to be a complete outline--it's just a way not to lose sight of the big picture." Of course, when you are in conversation with real, live writers, you have to be willing to question them. When you ask sincere questions based in your experience, it evokes generosity from others.
My second piece of advice (in a post all about ignoring advice) is something of a truism: don't miss the forest for the trees. Remember back when you were reading all of the writing advice that the internet could offer, and you were getting contradictory advice? One site said, "Write without distractions." But another site said, "Let life's little interruptions become inspirations." One site said, "Write what you know." But another site said, "Let your imagination run wild." One site said, "Do your research before you start writing." But another site said, "Leave yourself notes about what needs more research." You get the idea.
They can't all be right! Well, maybe they can. For every piece of advice that you encounter, imagine that the advice-giver is saying, "I have found that . . ." Because that's exactly what they're saying, even the famous ones. They don't possess some great truth about writing--they are just telling you what has worked for them. The good news is, it's a viable option for at least one other writer in the world. The bad news is, it might not be a viable option for you.
So, why bother seeking advice at all? Because when people are giving you advice, they are revealing the writer's mindset. This is the forest. They are showing you the kinds of things that writers have to think about. The exact actions they are prescribing (writing for an hour or two every morning, reading a certain number of books a month, outlining, note-keeping, etc.)--those are the trees. Use the trees to get to know the forest better. The terrain of writing, you'll find, rises and falls with time management, organization, inspiration, research, introductions, conclusions, style, and more. When you get advice, pay attention to where that tree is planted. Now, probably you'll find a particular tree or two that you really like and you keep coming back to as you write. These are gifts--receive them with gratitude. But maybe you'll find that none of the trees down in the valley of proofreading, say, meet your needs, and you'll plant your own tree. I hope you do, because I'm looking for some advice.