How to Take Advice


I’m bad at taking advice. I’ll give it freely, but if you give me an idea that makes me freeze up, I won’t even give it a second thought. For me to take advice seriously, one of two things have to happen:

1 – A bunch of other people have to make convincing arguments to the same point.

2 – I have to try it and prove it to myself.

The first instance is often a huge waste of time. Why not just try something the first time the advice is given and adapt to the difficulties? It would cut out searching through even more books on writing for others who agree (or disagree) before deciding it might be worth a shot.

The second comes with the implicit assumption that I’m also going to try to disprove that something works, which is not typically a great way to view things of difficulty and questionable viability, especially when I’m biased against it. If I don’t think something will work, sure I can “try” to make it work. But I’ll do so begrudgingly, expecting terrible results.

Now I’m in the middle of editing my novel, trying to pull the third draft out of the second, and I remembered some advice someone gave me in a forum once. I can’t remember all the circumstances of the conversation, but I brought up that I had several first-draft novels sitting around and thought the one I was working on at the time (which is the same one I’m currently editing) would be the one I’d finally get to a second draft. I think I was looking for advice on where to start with the process.

I got links to various methods, some helpful pointers, but ultimately I was (and often still am) too stubborn to try anything that doesn’t fit “my way.” Thing is, I didn’t have a “my way” for this particular endeavor so I had to pore over all the suggestions and links and piece together the method I thought would work for me. I ended up cutting a lot of corners and moving onto another project for a time when it became difficult, before I finally decided to rewrite the story from scratch.

Rewriting that novel was the best thing I’ve ever done for my writing, but that’s for another blog.

But the one piece of advice that stood out was that even if I didn’t think anything would come of it, I should at least try to edit a novel, because it’s a learning experience. Now that I’m in the thick of it (again) I can say that I really agree.

Learning to write is a trial and error process, and so is learning how to revise a novel. I’ll admit that I’m still doing it “my way,” but that method has evolved and adapted and doesn’t stick to any sort of rule set. One popular editing method is to jot down all the issues on note cards and work through each issue separately, starting with the most difficult task. When I tried this, it resulted in me picking and choosing areas of the story to revisit completely out of order, which risks dropping context. Plus, I might go through the story again and realize that I missed some more subtle references to the issues and suddenly that issue which I thought was resolved is reopened.

Instead, I adapted this same idea by listing out all the issues I noticed with the story and some possible solutions to them. But instead of going in and fixing each issue piecemeal, I’m working through the story in a linear fashion, from front to back.

Now when I get to a chapter, I consult my list of issues, read the chapter, and make notes on what to do to improve that chapter specifically. I’ll sometimes do multiple passes on a chapter before I think it’s suitably unproblematic. It’s a process that’s working well so far, but it’s still early. Plus, I’m in the part of the novel right now that needs the least amount of work. Things are gonna get a bit dicier as I move along.

Moral of the story: Don’t knock it till you’ve tried it. If you’ve ever gotten some reasonable advice that you didn’t even give a chance because it didn’t sound like it was meant for you, now might be a good time to try it. You might surprise yourself. Or you might prove that you were right and you’ll never have to wonder.


About David Shank

David T. Shank is a writer, runner, and musician, in that order. His blog is hopefully an oasis among the vast ocean of negativity that is the Internet. He lives in Cleveland studying how to write good.

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