Monday, May 7, 2012

Hear No Evil, Or: When to Ignore Advice

For no reason in particular, I've taken a fancy to the idea of writing a series of three posts loosely inspired by the old Hear No Evil, See No Evil, Speak No Evil proverbial principle. This should be an interesting exercise, as I have no idea what the other two posts will be about. Adventure!

None of that!

Hear No Evil... when is it time to plug your ears against writing critique or advice?

To begin, I believe writers should be open-minded and welcoming of critique. It's so much easier to find the flaws in someone else's work, because you're simply too close to your own. You know what you mean to say, so that's what you see on the page. A reader will offer fresh perspective and let you know if you actually succeeded in your intentions. By the same token, you can offer valuable critique to another writer. I can't stress enough how important it is to have, at the very least, a critique partner. Critique groups are great, too. The more eyes raking over your work, the bigger the net that's catching your slip-ups.

However, when you're on the receiving end of critique, you must judge the merit of the advice you're given and determine whether to make changes based on that advice. Sometimes you should; sometimes you shouldn't.

That ant on the grass is far more compelling than
the tripe falling from your lips, sir.
Consider the critic's reading history. In a post I wrote a while back about how to critique a manuscript, I suggested not venturing too far beyond your own reading comfort zone. The flip side of that is: Is the person critiquing your writing familiar enough with the genre to offer sound advice? If you're looking for a critique partner to team up with, it's imperative to find someone who writes in the same or a closely-related genre as yourself. You don't want to work with a writer who's always suggesting you kill off the heroine of your romance novel for dramatic impact, when you know the industry standard requires Happily Ever After.

In a group setting, you might have a variety of writing and reading backgrounds all mixed together. This kind of dynamic can be great for generating ideas, or getting a feel for how a first-time reader of the genre reacts, but again, bear in mind whether or not the critic knows what they're talking about in regards to your genre. If they don't, then by all means, ignore their genre-conflicting advice.

The same goes for a topic you have thoroughly researched. If you know you know your material, then don't let someone talk you out of your facts. I often hear, "Did people really do / wear / say that?" in relation to my Regency-set writing. Sometimes members of my critique group have asked me about a detail in my work to which I reply: "I don't know! I'll check on that." Mostly, I'm able to say, yes, I have my facts straight. Don't think you're infallible in your knowledge, but be confident enough to assure readers that you've done your homework.

What is the goal of the person reading your material? Is she trying to make you feel good about your writing, or is she trying to help you become a better writer? If the person reading your manuscript is your mother, you should ignore 95% of what comes from her mouth (Love you, Mom!). Pay most attention to the people who have the ability to help you grow as a writer.

If a person's critique makes you feel like any of this, tell
that person to descend a ladder into a lake of fire.
Know your writing partners. Learn their strengths and weaknesses as critics, and filter accordingly. I know who gives great grammatical advice, and who to listen to for pointers on action. One friend is the best at judging the overall feel of a piece, while another zeroes in on the nuances of setting and dialogue. This isn't to say they don't all offer good general guidance, but I know I can count on each individual's take in their specialty zones.

Finally, criticism shouldn't all be gumdrops and rainbows and ego strokes. You should come away with an idea of both the highlights of your writing, as well as areas that need work. You should be challenged to improve, but never verbally cut down. If a critique partner makes personal attacks or suggests you quit writing, cover your ears and walk away. Sadly, there is such a thing as a toxic critique partner. Don't let anyone drag you down and tell you you can't do this. You can! Following good advice helps you grow; following bad advice holds you back. Learning to separate the worthwhile criticism from the worthless is an important writing skill worth cultivating.

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