The Good, The Bad, and The Useless

Just like gossip, give a story to five different editors and you might get back five different edited copies. When this happens to me, I try to find a common theme in the critiques. In one instance years ago, a novella I wrote was reviewed by seventeen different classmates and received seventeen wildly different edits. This was the first, and so far, only time I’ve had that happen.

When you submit your writing for editing and critiquing, what advice do you consider accepting? What do you reject? And what editing do you merely shrug your shoulders and laugh at?

In some cases, it may depend on the type of person you are. Do you follow the crowd or do you break out of the pack? Do you believe everything or do you always have questions? Or, like most of the rest of us, are you a little of both? Whatever your personality, taking advice from someone else concerning your writing should always be taken with a grain of salt and a good sense of humor.

Individuality makes a story glow. If the advice you receive from someone else changes your story too much, then it ceases to be your story – it turns into someone else’s writing.

I have a friend who is a literature professor and he’s just like that: the only high grades in his classes are from those students who learn to mimic my friend’s writing style. I’ve never let him edit any of my own efforts because I already know how it would turn out: my story would cease to be my own and would mutate into his version.

That’s not to say some stories don’t need major overhauls – some of mine have and I’ve redone them accordingly when I’ve received good advice. However, when a good story you’ve written is edited with the intent to change the theme or style, that’s when it’s useless advice. Stick to your guns, or pens, and get a second or third or fifteenth opinion.

Bad advice is just that: bad, mean-spirited and it follows a dark path.  Bad advice is recognized by its very personal overtones: phrases like “This really sucks” and “I’ve never heard anything so stupid” or, the classic, “You call yourself a writer?” and other direct attacks.

Good advice is free of personal diatribes and has a very constructive style to its critique. This type of advice will help you turn your story into a work of art. Like a good mechanic who gives your car a tune-up that lasts, a good editor/advisor will help you fine-tune your writing. Instead of personal attacks and instead of trying to turn your writing into a clone of their own, good advisors will help you polish your work into a diamond.

How often do you get bad or mediocre advice? Are you able to “read between the lines” and recognize when someone is purposely trying to mislead you? What is the best advice you’ve been given and by whom?

J J Dare is the author of two published books, several short stories and about thirty works-in-progress.

Current enthusiasm is co-authoring at Rubicon Ranch

5 Comments

Filed under books, life, writing

5 responses to “The Good, The Bad, and The Useless

  1. Some advice is essential, like when I’ve written an English house in an American town. Some is invaluable, when I pile up similes and metaphors into a leaning tower of Pisa. Some is encouraging, when I’m told “it doesn’t quite work but I’m not sure why.” Some is educational, like learning those hidden slips in point of view. And then, as you say, there’s bad advice, best ignored, though those lines can cut as you try to read between them. Great post.

  2. William Zinsser’s advice: Don’t give early drafts to your readers. Give them your very best work, after you have edited it to within an inch of its life.
    Stephen King’s advice: Give it to a half dozen erudite people whose judgement you trust. Go with their consensus. E.g., if 4 say they love the interior detail you provide and 2 hate it — keep the detail. If the other way around, bag the details. If its 3 and 3 its a wash. Probably keep it.

  3. You definitely have to consider the source when deciding whether or not to take the advice. I usually heed what is suggested, as I trust the instincts of the people who are critiquing me. Before I entered my first book, Night and Day, in the contest that resulted in a publishing contract, I was told I should cut about 1/3 of it and pick up the pace to make it more appealing to younger readers. I listened, and the new pages I wrote to replace what I scrapped were infinitely better. If that person hadn’t been honest (and a bit brutal) with me, I probably wouldn’t be published today.

  4. After writing for more than 20 years, I’ve gotten fairly good at spotting what is and what’s not useful. I often have a more difficult time coping with what I know is useful because sometimes it deals with something of which I’m very fond and don’t want to change or cut, and other times, again because it’s something I like but at some level know needs to go, I was simply hoping I’d get away with it, that no one would notice. In both cases, I may kick and scream, but after a day or two I do what I know needs to be done.

    The other feedback I get, the feedback that’s not helpful because it’s simply subjective, I discard.

  5. It’s rather ironic to see a topic about editing because most of the books I’ve read lately have clearly not been edited or proofread at all. These, mostly from “major” publishers. Perhaps today’s writers are just too sensitive to endure the editing process? In my own work, I only once had someone edit who didn’t have a clue what I’d been trying to write. This was because she wasn’t familiar with mysteries as a genre. I guess that’s the most important thing, overall, to have an editor who is familiar with the genre.

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