Do You Really Care About Good Writing Advice?

Do You Really Care About Good Writing Advice?

“Could you tell me what I could do better for next time?”

I hear that question all the time. And by all the time, I mean ALL the time. It’s the invariable response when I have to (sadly) tell someone that their guest post just doesn’t cut it.

They get the “Sorry, I’ll have to take a pass,” and then – sure enough – they ask me for my advice. They want my suggestions. They clearly state (in writing, no less) that they’d like to become better writers and would appreciate my counsel.

Fantastic. I’m right there for those people. I’m willing to help. At least I used to be.

I’ve actually stopped answering the question.

You see, no matter whether I send people my thoughts on how they can improve their writing or comparative edits they can learn from or bullet points on what to change and how to change it, it’s the same old story every time:

Nothing happens.

I hated saying, “No, I can’t accept your guest post.” (And believe me, I wasn’t that much of a stickler about acceptance standards either.) Sometimes I’d sit on the post for days, putting off the inevitable because I felt bad. I didn’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings or come off like a pretentious artist who only approved of the finest material.

So when I finally did say no and got a reply email thanking me and asking for my advice, I felt better. I felt I could do right by these people. Help them improve their writing. Quickly. Easily. Free of charge.

And I’d gently tell them where they went wrong, what they could work on and how to do better next time.

They rarely used the advice.

I’d say things like, “This is a great concept and I like the style of your writing, but it seems that you have three topics meshing together into one by accident, so it was a bit difficult to figure out the main point. I edited it down, though, and I think without the extra fluff it’s really honed and concise. See the difference?”

Or maybe this: “I like this idea and you write well, but the post seems a bit scattered. An outline would really help you focus on exactly what you want to say. And try to keep asking yourself, “Is this relevant?” with each sentence you write. I think you’ll see a huge difference!”

I’d wrap that all in some extra encouragement and quietly hit ‘send’.

But most didn’t want to improve.

Hardly anyone wanted the advice. They asked for it, but no one wanted the honest feedback – not really. Very few actually wanted to do the work and put in the practice they need to do to become better writers. Even if it was easy. Even if it was simple.

Even if all it took was paying a little more attention towards doing a better job.

It’s like that famous Pareto Principle, only in this case, it’s more like a 99/1 ratio. 99% of the people that ask for advice do nothing about it.

Only 1% actually gives a damn.

The 99% neglect the good, solid writing advice they get – the advice they asked for. They turn around send their guest post to a blog that doesn’t care as much as I do about posting material that’s worth reading. (And very often, they publish it too.)

Or worse, they shrug and publish to their own blog, as if their blog and their readers didn’t matter enough for them to polish up the work and deliver a better piece.

Do me a favor: Don’t be like that. If someone you’ve asked for advice takes time out of their busy day and gives you good counsel on how to improve, don’t ignore it. Don’t waste their time.

Don’t waste yours.

Use the advice. Benefit from it. Learn from it. Reap the rewards of doing a better job than you were yesterday, each day of your life.

I want to hear from you: Have you ever ignored good advice and regretted it? (I have – and I’ve learned not to do that!) Have you ever applied smart counsel that changed your whole game? Where else have you noticed people ignoring good advice?

Post by James Chartrand

James Chartrand is an expert copywriter and the owner of Men with Pens and Damn Fine Words, the game-changing writing course for business owners. She loves the color blue, her kids, Nike sneakers and ice skating.

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  1. This is very true. I can relate on the level as a writer having submitted the same story over and over again to countless magazines. I think it takes maturity to know that something you submitted isn’t good enough. For me, a short story I wrote recently got rejected. I did ask why. And the editor told me something I knew from the start was a flaw in the story. Since then I have changed the issue, or at least, I think I have. And I will submit again.

    The story I am submitting is so far from where it started…all because of my willingness to learn and change. And I think all writer’s should be there.

  2. This is very true. I can relate on the level as a writer having submitted the same story over and over again to countless magazines. I think it takes maturity to know that something you submitted isn’t good enough. For me, a short story I wrote recently got rejected. I did ask why. And the editor told me something I knew from the start was a flaw in the story. Since then I have changed the issue, or at least, I think I have. And I will submit again.

    The story I am submitting is so far from where it started…all because of my willingness to learn and change. And I think all writer’s should be there.

    • I don’t mind something being submitted all over – you spread your eggs in many baskets, after all. But if someone came back and said, “This really needs some work,” I’d probably stop everything to fix it and resubmit, and I’d be thankful for getting the extra advice.

      Like you say, willingness to learn and change!

  3. Terrific post! Thanks. I am always willing to get input on how to write better. And I hope I take the advice I am given!!

    BTW, just found this (undated) piece of yours, and it’s great: http://www.copyblogger.com/fast-writing-improvement/. An absolute must-read. Short, sharp, and to the point.

    Thanks again

    R

  4. James….

    HA!! Well, I’ve recently been told by Mr. Jon Morrow that you shouldn’t DARE submit a guest post until you have developed a relationship with the blogger to whom you are querying, that you read MINIMALLY 50 of their posts and that you spend hours reading the comments.

    Given those rules from the king of blogging, I wouldn’t think of doing otherwise. Otherwise, you’re setting yourself up for failure. What do you think?

    Advice I didn’t listen to? Plenty, plenty…that’s for another day.

    I don’t want to let your head get too big but I posted this on Jon’s forum for Guestblogging..

    The motivation for coming? James Chartrand’s writing class, Damn Fine Words. It was the first time I understood the importance of writing compelling headlines.. (yes….I”m more than happy to get out the word about James…she along with Jon are at the top of the heap when it comes to excellence at their craft/art…and are generous in sharing it)

    SO…anybody who is reading this…SIGN UP FOR DAMN FINE WORDS….you won’t regret it …(oh yeh, I need a benefit) … you’ll have a best selling book, end up living in a penthouse in NYC and be happy! :) Fran

    • LOL, that’s hilarious – thank you, thank you.

      For Jon’s advice, he certainly knows what he’s talking about, but the biggest bit of advice is right here: Culture a relationship with the person, absolutely… and then by god, appreciate it when you have it.

  5. This is so very true and not just concerning writing. No matter what field you name, advice requested is seldom heeded.

  6. I’m constantly on guard of that natural resistance against constructive criticism, because almost without exception, when I listen and apply, the results are noticeably positive.

    With others, I’ve adopted the three strikes rule — if someone asks for advice twice but clearly doesn’t receive any advice given, I withdraw emotionally and don’t offer any more. In your position, I understand how you’ve gotten to the point of not offering it at all since it’s your time and your livelihood.

    Thanks for this important reminder.

    • I think I’m less tolerant… I’m asked often for free advice, and for some people, I’ll happily, willingly offer it. For others? “Sure! I’d love to critique your work, and the buy-now button for consulting is right here.”

      The moral of the story? Some people are worth taking under your wing, but wings only spread so far.

  7. Oh, advice! It’s always beneficial in hind sight, right? I’m still a student (8 years of college under my belt and still going strong–and still degree-less) and I recently had a paper slaughtered by a professor of mine. Not going to lie, I went home and bawled my eyes out–but I’m really glad I recorded our conversation, because now that it’s been a week and I’ve let myself calm down from the initial attack (because no matter how tactfully the critique is given, it’s always a shock to the system), I’ve re-listened to it, and my prof makes some really good points that I’m trying to assimilate in order to make my next paper better.
    Advice matters, but it’s often hard to hear because let’s face it–writing is an art, even if it’s a term paper, and art comes from the soul, and having it critiqued feels like somebody’s stepping on a corner of your innermost soul. We’ve all got to develop thicker skins in order to succeed as writers–but sometimes it takes longer for the advice to make sense as legitimate concern for you art and not an attack on your soul.
    Here’s to sucking in the gut and writing better the next time around.

  8. People aren’t looking for advice, they’re looking for empty compliments and aprroval.

  9. People aren’t looking for advice, they’re looking for empty compliments and approval.

  10. Hi – I agree with this post. I think ego is a major factor sometimes, too, but it is something writers need to get over. Sometimes it is impossible for the writer to see the error of their ways because they are simply too close to the work and have lost objectivity. Writers must, must, must develop thick skin because criticism is part of the game. Or don’t, and suffer the consequences. I’m in the middle of a re-write now of a short story. I asked someone whom I knew would give me his honest assessment (a self-proclaimed asshole in fact lol) because I knew he wouldn’t tiptoe around the problems in the story. I appreciated his feedback and am currently employing them. If you’re a writer and can’t take the criticism, the feedback and advice of others, you won’t improve – plain and simple.

  11. I think this is one of the most compelling reasons for NOT giving away our work for free.

    Obviously, I don’t mean stuff that we *intend* to give away for free! articles, free e-courses, whatever it may be.

    But when we give away our core work, the work that we get paid for, there’s something funky that happens. It gets taken at the value for which it was received (free), which creates the kind of situation you describe.

    For myself, I know it can be very hard to take criticism, and I’ve learned that my first reaction tends to be defensive. I’ve learned to step back, walk away for a while, and then come back and take a calmer look at what was suggested.

    Then I can make constructive use out of the advice I was given, instead of immediately coming up with all the reasons why it was wrong! :-) That doesn’t mean I always agree – but it does mean that my *dis*agreement will be thought through and rational, instead of an emotional tantrum.

  12. Siita Rivas says:

    I hate to sound ‘sucky’ here but my greatest piece of writing advice came from the DFW course.
    As a former deviating creative that wasted hours writing poorly it was a major breakthrough.

    It’s what I call ‘writing in a straight line.’ Where each sentence contributes to the next and all words are pruned hard so there are no deviations.
    That line can be pencil thin, colourful or bold but it’s written in a unique voice, designed to take you somewhere and makes a valuable point.

    Now I only read writers who convey their message uniquely and succinctly.
    When I use that approach in my writing – the results speak for themselves.

  13. Very true thoughts, James. In my experience, those who genuinely want to improve their writing don’t ask for free advice from busy people. Instead, they take the initiative to discover their areas for improvement, either through study or by getting a critique partner, and teach themselves how to do better next time.

  14. This happens in writing and life as well. Most of the times, when people ask for an advice, they’re just waiting for you to say what they want to hear. But because of the 1% that actually gives a damn, I believe it still worths it. And the other ones may show us why we must keep ourselves into this little percentage ^^

  15. Yes, I DO care about great writing advice, but most people don’t and that is why there are SO many average writers out there. They pretend to want to improve their work, but all they want is instant money and fame. They don’t give a shit about the fact that they don’t have spend more than 30 minutes on their article. Most people want to be average wishing to stand out, but they are not willing to simply work their butts off. Most people are lazy.

  16. This exposes an interesting thing about writers. We are crippled by self-doubt but distrust anyone who gives us the very criticism that we are sure that we deserve. Instead of saying ‘thank you that’s exactly what I thought too’ it becomes a defensive thing. Accepting critique without being a baby is one thing, and should be standard. Following through on it is an entirely different thing and clearly is not as standard!

    • I think there’s a lot of truth to that, up to a certain point that self doubt can be indispensably valuable when it comes to driving ourselves to personally improve our own work. It’s when those doubts cease to be constructive (such a near finished product for example) that we end up seeking a potential critic to take us by the hand and deny our self doubt for us. It’s hard to jump over to that other side and remember the experience of a story ultimately depends crucially on the audience, but it’s very necessary. That is, if you intend to satisfy anyone other than yourself.

      At least thats how I think I feel sometimes.

  17. However nicely it is phrase, if you get an email back telling you where you need to improve then you are “in the wrong”.

    Very few people like being in the wrong. We have a whole school system that punishes people for getting it wrong, and that’s a lot of conditioning to overcome when we try to accommodate feedback.

    I think a lot of people will feel hurt and push away the message however well intended. If you can get through the reaction to consider what is being offered then there’s room to grow – not a comfortable process but worth the effort.

  18. Oh I have the perfect example of this. For the last five years I have been writing under the pen name Michelle D. Keyes. I’ve been published several times and seen some moderate success based on my sporadic efforts. Then, a couple weeks ago I read “Are You There Blog, It’s Me, Writer” by Kristen Lamb and had my whole perspective changed regarding social media and writing.

    Upon finishing reading Kristen’s book, I immediately changed my information to my real name. Not only have I seen an increase in my blog visitors, I’ve seen a tremendous increase in interest in my work from friends, family, colleagues, and even online. Somehow it’s made it easier to talk about my work with pride. I don’t hide behind a pseudonym and if a conversation lends itself to the topic, I proudly state I’m a published writer who’s recently finished her first children’s novel.

    Not only that but now my husband is proudly talking about the book to everyone without hesitation. So is my 11 year old daughter. No more trying to explain why I have two names. It has completely eliminated barriers about my work. My husband recently went to our daughter’s middle school sweetheart dance and while there talked about the book to the school librarian. My daughter was so excited for me to meet her! I met her on Friday for the first time and was blown away by her enthusiastic support and interest. I never got that when writing with a pseudonym.

    While initially I was nervous that such a drastic change would cause me to lose what little audience I had, it has done the opposite. In the last two weeks I have seen my twitter following double, my mentions quadruple, and my conversations increase dramatically. Her book is some of the best writing advice I’ve ever received.

    I guess I’m part of the 1% club. And you know what? I’m rather proud of that! And isn’t making a difference for 1% of people just as valuable? So what if not everyone takes your advice. That’s THEIR problem, not yours. If you give and people don’t accept what you’ve given, that doesn’t mean you should stop giving. Because that 1% you make a difference for might just be worth the 99% who ignored it.

    I owe Kristen a great debt for her writing advice and as a result, I tell every writer I know about it. I hope it spreads like wildfire and makes her rich. She’s an incredible giving individual and someone I really admire. So when 1% takes the time to sing your praises to everyone she can find, that would probably make up for the rest, don’t you think? I say, embrace that giving spirit, revel in it, take pride in it, don’t get made angry by others. You can’t predict who that 1% is going to be. You do what you feel is right and leave the anger on the curb.

  19. Cyd Madsen says:

    Thank you so much for this article. It’s helped calm the raging anger I’ve felt the past few days concerning a young man I’ve mentored for over a decade. A DECADE and his writing still sucks. He asks for advice and critiques, but he’s never wanted anything he could act on. It took a long time for me to realize he was hitting up a lot of people for advice, piecing it all together and submitting a patchwork quilt of work, none of which was his own. He’s never developed his own skills, and why should he if he can get others to do it for him?

    Well, because he’s finally worn us all out and he’s got to make it on his own. He’s turning out work that’s as flawed as it was when he was a teenager, and I’m smarting from the sucker punch of a lifetime. With gratitude, I can say that the same hasn’t been true of other young writers I’ve worked with. (I used to be managing editor of a University cultural arts publication.) So many of those writers have gone on to do fabulous work because they not only took the suggestions, they built on them. They’re the ones who soothe my inner savage beast and receptive to giving and receiving advice. I’ve seen how it plays out.

    As a writer, sure, my ego was on its hind legs in the early years, but time and distance from my work, critiques still on file, helped me make the decision about whether I wanted to be applauded for my “raw talent,” or if I wanted to be a writer readers wanted to spend their precious time with. The latter won by a dozen miles, and those filed critiques were pure gold. Now if anyone is gracious and generous enough to offer advice or a critique, it’s exciting. It’s a challenge I’ll work my butt off to meet because I understand the value. Writing is a lonely job, but thank God there are still people so in love with their craft that they’ll share time and experience with others. It’s probably a sign of profound mental illness, but I think grappling with the advice of others is fun, kind of like a slumber party where you and your BFF plot how to snag the cutest boy in the class. And if you can’t tell me why you’ve *accepted* a piece, point out the strengths that make it valuable to you, then I’m suspicious of your motives. Ah-yep, definitely mental illness, and a welcome one at that.

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