The Anatomy of Bad Writing Advice

About three years ago, I was thinking about being a writer as my career. The book I was working on was quickly becoming one of the best things I had ever written. A friend offered to have his talented writing MFA graduate colleague look at it. I sent the first chapter of that book to, we’ll call him Phil, so Phil could provide feedback.

The feedback I got was confusing, mostly not constructive, and disheartening. These are the exact opposite qualities of good feedback, but because I hadn’t yet met established authors I took his feedback seriously.

What I should have done is weighed what he said against what test readers of that book said. The test readers agreed, he was the outlier.

Instead, I decided that I wasn’t ready to show my stuff to publishers yet.

Elements of his bad feedback:

  • General criticism that suggested I was quite inexperienced
  • Disdain for the genre of fiction I was writing
  • Confusion about things that fantasy readers are not confused by

What ties all of this bad feedback together is that he criticized me through my writing. When I give feedback, I focus on the story itself and how the writer can improve it. I don’t say, “you haven’t learned how to use semicolons yet,” I say, “I would put a semicolon here.”

For instance, he commented that I had not learned how to “set up the rules of the world” at the beginning of a story yet. I admit that I may have been a bit weak on this in that first chapter, but he hadn’t read anything else I had written and was making a generalization.

Later, when I looked at other beginning chapters of fantasy novels, I discovered that the authors don’t try to set up most of the rules of the world in the first chapter because fantasy is often about world building. If one were to set up all the rules of the world in the first chapter, it might be as long as one fourth of the entire book.

Phil was actively trying to be nice about the fact that he was a literary fiction writer and my story wasn’t literary fiction, but he kept acting as though the general quality of genre fiction was lower. He even said that I might succeed just because the bar was lower.

It took me time to realize what he was actually saying, and I didn’t realize it until I met him a second time when I went out to coffee with him to ask about MFA programs. Even though he had left a bad taste in my mouth, he was the only person I knew who had been through a writing one.

This time, my view of him was properly jaded and I noticed that he spoke less favorably about writers that didn’t get an MFA and that I’d be better somehow simply if I got one. He said things like, “Not everyone can make it through an MFA program,” and “It helps you polish your writing to the point it is more marketable.” Those things sound benign, but it was the underlying feeling I got that he had a lot of bile about the fact that he wasn’t a bestselling author.

It wasn’t any one thing he did, but it was a general use of anti-aircraft discourse aimed at my idea about starting with small publishers and working my way up and about being successful by knowing what my readers want. When he took fire at my positivity, he said things like, “Well, you can’t know what will be popular,” and “there are good writers who get no readers at all.”

His tone and facial expression was that of deep frustration. Phil really wants to be a successful writer and he wants to do it the traditional, before small presses, way. It isn’t what he wants to do that’s wrong, it is his lack of compromise. It’s that he seems to think that success as a writer must be directly tied to how “good” of a writer they are and that somehow he knows what a “good” writer is.

That leads to a question I’ve asked myself a lot lately, “What is the point of impressing English majors if that feat has no bearing on one’s success as a writer?”

His suggestion after dishing all this out was that I should take a creative writing class. I talked with the English department at the University of Minnesota and then sat in a creative writing class. In the creative writing class, the professor invited me to join a critique group and participate in class like I was a student in the course.

When I gave feedback to the class, the professor smiled and nodded and would grab onto my points. Some of the points I made about improvements to the stories I read were:

If dialogue is too clean, it comes off as stilted. Dialogue needs to be a little messy to ring true. People interrupting each other and completely missing each other’s points happens sometimes.

Characters are weird, normal characters are weird because they’re normal, eccentric characters are weird because they aren’t. There is no 100% pure generic character that every reader can pick up and relate to. Don’t be afraid to give characters details that some readers might not relate to. Readers are not reading your story to get exactly what they expected.

Every word in a story is from someone’s point of view. The more you can own that, the more life you can breathe into your story.

I had a lot of fun and I made sure to not speak up too often so that everyone had a chance to participate. After class I talked to her for over twenty minutes and she said that I’d be bored in an intro creative writing class and said I should see if I could get into the masters level course. She said she would tell the English department that I could skip the prerequisites, but that I might have trouble getting in because there weren’t many slots.

It turned out that there weren’t any available slots after the masters students picked their classes, but this experience did teach me something. Phil was wrong that I didn’t know the basics. The creative writing part of the English department was convinced that the lower-level creative writing courses would be a waste of time for me, and it wasn’t just one professor who thought so.

Part of what made this bad writing advice stop me in my tracks was that it came from a source I thought I could trust at the worst possible time. My friend vouched for Phil and I didn’t have any reason to be jaded about what Phil was going to say. I didn’t have the proper filters up and I was seriously wondering if I should focus on making a living off of my writing. I now have a schematic for bad writing advice to protect myself from future instances of it.

Bad writing advice:

  1. Comments on the failings of the author instead of the story
  2. Is aimed at the story’s genre, sexuality, religion, etc. and not at the story itself
  3. Comes from people who are frustrated with writing or their lack of influence
  4. Is overly general and does not give you individual things you can act on to improve the story
  5. Makes you want to stop writing because you’re overwhelmed by the idea of fixing your story.

If the advice I get hits on any of these points, I put it off to the side and see if I can salvage anything useful from it. If it is bugging me and interfering with my forward momentum, I jettison it and move on.

What themes are common in bad advice that you’ve received? Let me know in the comments.

Z.A. Tanis is a writer, linguist, programmer, artist and public speaker who’s lived on a tropical island and in the frozen tundra of the upper midwest. The loves of Z.’s life are a wise and beautifully honest boyfriend, an understanding and brilliantly intelligent wife, and writing imaginative fiction. After many years not fitting into the simple categories of “male” and “female,” Z. has rejected them and happily inhabits the space between. Only since joining and writing for the LGBT+ community has Z. found true expression.

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