Advice is a tricky issue for writers. On the one hand, we need it, seek it out, and hope it will help. On the other, we sometimes resent it. Advice can save our writing, as good editors have done for me more than once, or it can lead us into writing disaster.
But as muddled as our feelings about advice may be, there are some fairly clear-cut ways to know when to listen to it—and when to give it. Before you accept advice, or offer it yourself, ask these four questions:
Is it solicited?
“You really shouldn’t wear your hair like that. A sleeker style would be much more becoming.” These were the words of a woman I’d just met after a conference on Cyprus years ago. We were sitting at a café, sharing thoughts about teaching and research and planning a day trip the next day, when her opinion came out of the blue. “I hope you don’t mind my being blunt,” she said.
Well, I did mind—enough to bow out of our planned excursion—not because I cared what she thought about my personal style, but because I was disturbed by the idea that a perfect stranger felt she had the right to comment on anything about my life.
Unsolicited advice is intrusive. It violates personal boundaries. It seeks to put the advisor in a position of power over the advisee. And it almost always comes from the advice-giver’s own perfectionism and insecurities, rather than a true desire to help.
Of course, there are occasions when it’s necessary—such as when the welfare of a vulnerable person or animal is endangered. If you see someone shutting a dog in a hot car or leaving a child without supervision, by all means, step in.
But, except for those unusual cases, my basic rule of thumb is: Don’t give unsolicited advice, and be wary of taking it.
Is it knowledgeable?
Many years ago, when I was feeling down about the sales of one of my books, I started getting all kinds of advice from friends. It was so kind and well intended, I didn’t have the heart to tell them their suggestions were making me cringe. None of them had ever published a book, they had no idea why my book wasn’t selling—even my professional publicist wasn’t sure—and their advice ranged from the impractical to the downright ludicrous.
It’s not that non-experts have nothing to offer. Sometimes they come with fresh eyes and creative ideas. But people without sufficient experience or training are also likely to lack the understanding to give truly useful advice. Guidance based on deep and thorough knowledge is the whole reason we go to doctors, attorneys, and therapists, rather than relying on the advice of friends when we have serious problems. The same basic principle applies in all situations: Make sure the advice you’re getting or giving is based on reliable information.
Is it balanced?
I’m suspicious of advice that is all negative. When I evaluate students’ or clients’ work, I always discuss the things that are working as well as the things that aren’t, and when my students do peer reviewing, I make them start out by saying one thing they genuinely like in the paper they’re reviewing. Once in awhile one of them asks, “But what if there’s nothing we like about the paper?” My answer: Keep reading until you find it.
Writers need to know what is strong and clear in their work as well as what is weak or muddled. Criticism that is purely negative doesn’t give them that: It shows only part of the picture. Add to that the fact that negative advice can be discouraging, and you have a pretty strong set of reasons to make sure the advice you give—and the advice you take—shows both sides.
What is the advisor’s motivation?
Advice should be given for one reason: to help.
People offer their opinions to deal with their own anxieties, make themselves feel important, give themselves a sense of power, and draw attention to themselves. Perhaps the most common reason is to show how much they know about a topic—to present themselves as authorities. But none of these are good reasons for doling out advice. In short: Unless advice is based on a genuine desire to serve another person, it will be neither helpful nor appreciated.
When someone offers you advice—or you feel the urge to give some yourself—ask yourself these four questions. Make sure the advice you get and give is solicited, based on knowledge and experience, balanced, and offered in a true spirit of giving.