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On taking advice

Art History 3
The writer Toby Litt recently let off a little steam in The Guardian when he wrote about what makes a ‘bad’ writer. As I read his opinion piece, I have to say I found myself nodding along, rather too vigorously. (Read the whole thing here).
The lines that particularly spoke to me, as a writing tutor, were these: ‘Writers are bad because they cleave to the causes of writing badly…Bad writers bulwark themselves against a confrontation with their own badness by reference to other writers with whom they feel they share certain defence-worthy characteristics. They form defensive admirations: “If Updike can get away with these kind of half-page descriptions of women’s breasts, I can too” or “If Virginia Woolf is a bit woozy on spatiality, on putting things down concretely, I’ll just let things float free”.’
I’m happy to say that most OCA students are very open and mature in their attitude to feedback and advice, but this is not the only tutoring I do. Over the years, I’ve lost count of how many times a writing student has defended their poor practice by citing other works, some of which were written more than a century ago, in order to suggest that they can get away with the same. Poor punctuation or rambling sentences? It didn’t do Joyce any harm. Telling rather than showing? Here’s a place where Dickens does it. In his opinion piece, Litt takes this ‘defence’ apart.
I understand why it happens, up to a point. I was once at a conference where the author Stephen May described writers as ‘all megalomaniacs, but with very low self-esteem’. It prompted a ripple of uncomfortable laughter, as most of us in the room felt as if he’d just held up a mirror.
It’s hard for our large and super-sensitive egos when someone else makes a perceptive comment about our work, so the instinct is, often, to find ways of proving the critic wrong. But an hour spent Googling ‘writers who tell don’t show’ or ‘writers who use lots of adverbs’ could be much better spent working on our craft, to see if we can make it better.
I’m no feedback angel. I like to pretend that as a former journalist whose work was regularly changed, cut and spiked, I’m not precious when it comes to revisions. But the truth is, my fiction is wrapped in a very thin skin.
When my agent suggested the ending to my YA novel was too ambiguous, I wore him down with arguments, until it went out on submission the way I liked it. What was the publisher’s response? They loved it, apart from the ending, so could I please rewrite that part? That’ll teach me to take feedback on board with a little more grace. (Until the next time, probably).
Going back to the erudite Mr Litt: he nears his conclusion by saying, ‘Bad writers often believe they have very little left to learn’. And this, for me, sums it up. As soon as we start to dig in our heels and claim that no one can tell us anything useful, or that everyone else just doesn’t get what we’re trying to say (yet somehow, one day, a publisher will) then we’re in dangerous territory. That’s not to say that we have to take on every bit of stray advice that’s thrown at us, of course. But nor should we put our defences up quite so readily. Following that piece of advice could be the difference between finding a publisher or not – and that, for most of us, is the ultimate goal.

Posted by author: Barbara Henderson
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9 thoughts on “On taking advice

  • An interesting piece Barbara. I have found it a puzzle why so many writing student are reluctant to let people look at, let alone comment on, their work. Surely any writer is aiming to have others read what they write and your readers are the ones that count.
    I am open to constructive criticism and maybe the reason is that I have reasonable self esteem, so it doesn’t threaten me.

  • Precisely, John! In fact, most OCA students are very open to constructive criticism, I am happy to say.

  • Thank you for this thought provoking article. I think you held a mirror up too, Barbara. I don’t discount any criticism, though. I take it all on board because I do lack self-confidence and think that everyone else has got a better handle on this ‘writing’ malarkey than I will ever have. I write what I think is quite a good piece and then can’t believe how many glaring holes there are in it when I get some feedback. Despite all this, I shall endeavour to become a competent writer one day and try and make the most of the journey by grabbing hold of any help and advice I can get..

  • Thanks Carole. I think we all have to stay open to advice. My agent read this post with great glee, I have to say!

  • Great blog Barbara, thanks! So many writers I admire (the poets Seamus Heaney and Kathleen Jamie spring to mind) talk about writing as a lifetime’s apprenticeship – I love the humility that approach suggests, as well as the dedication and hard work. Worth the effort I’d say!

    • Yes, you have to go on working at all the things that matter within each and every piece of writing. And whether you are already published or not, it’s always worth listening to suggestions from other writers, students and tutors.
      I often say to students that if Heaney had been in one of my groups asking for advice about his poem, Digging, I would have said,:”Now, Seamus, go home and take out the last three lines.” And I did once hear him say at a reading, how he had learned about not rubbing the readers’ nose in it. He said he wished he could have taken out the last three lines but the poem had been printed in too many school anthologies and exam papers.
      So take advice before it’s too late!

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