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Tuesday, February 21, 2012

How To Take Writing Advice

In 9th grade I wanted to be a rock star. (Yes, along with every other kid who had a modicum of talent on the guitar.)

That meant buying an electric guitar. I searched my school for someone experienced. Someone who could tell me the secret of getting the right guitar.

Finally I found him.

He explained there were two types of electrics:  rhythm and lead. And if I wanted to play screaming solos—which I did of course—I needed to buy a lead electric.

Because I knew nothing about electric guitars I asked, “What’s the difference between a rhythm electric guitar and a lead electric guitar?”

My acquaintance leaned back, assumed an impressive air guitar stance and said, “You can wind a lead guitar out!”

Being a typical 9th grader I pretended for a few minutes to understand what he meant. But my desire to know was greater than my insecurity at being looked the fool.

So I said, “What do you mean?”

“You know! You can wind it out!” He nodded at me with wide eyes. “You know?” Another impressive air guitar solo ensued.

No. I still didn’t know. But I was determined to find out. So I went to a music store in downtown Kirkland and asked one of the staff to show me his LEAD electric guitars. His response: “Uh, I’m not sure what you mean.”

Those of you who play guitar are ahead of me. (For the rest of you, there’s no such thing as a lead electric or a rhythm electric. An electric is an electric is an electric.) But I didn’t know that. I was looking for advice and went to someone who was more experienced than me, spoke with confidence, and knew the lingo.

Now the rest of you are ahead of me in regards to how this applies to writing, but I’ll say it anyway.

Before you take writing advice from anyone ask yourself:

1. Does this person have the credentials to be offering me their advice?

2. Have I asked three or more different people the same question? (There is wisdom in many counselors. Often you’ll get different answers even from multi-published authors and teachers.)

3. Have I looked in books from respected authors to get their perspective on the question?

What About You?

Have you ever taken writing advice which you later found out was wrong?

How do you make sure you’re getting the right counsel when trying to an answer to one of your writing questions?

Must go. I just came up with a great ending for a chapter I’m working on.

I think I’ll be able to wind it out.

James L. Rubart is the best-selling author of ROOMS, BOOK OF DAYS, and THE CHAIR. During the day he runs Barefoot Marketing which helps businesses and authors make more coin of the realm. In his free time he dirt bikes, hikes, golfs, takes photos, and occasionally does sleight of hand. No, he doesn’t sleep much. He lives with his amazing wife and teenage sons in the Pacific Northwest and still thinks he’s young enough to water ski like a madman. More at


  1. Sound advice, Jim. ha. Great example of what I try to warn writers of. Too often just because someone's published, their advice is taken as gospel. And someone else who isn't is ignored. Find out who is teaching you. If you're going to sit under someone, actually read their books so you know what advice to take to heart and what not to. And some of the best advice you'll get is from some further along unpublished writers. Great post Jim!

  2. I absolutely have! Fortunately, though, I'd read enough books on the craft of writing to realize this person, while a published author, was telling me wrong. Why, I'll never know.
    I've always been careful to never give advice if I'm not 100% sure about my subject.

    And y'know, the Barefoot Guitarist has a certain ring. ;o)

  3. Enjoyed this post. I learned quickly in a critique group that there were some people who "got" what I was trying to do with my writing, and some who didn't. Usually, those were also the people whose OWN writing style drew me in and seemed to flow best. However, once we land an EDITOR, if he/she is worth his/her salt, listening to them can take our writing from good to great.

  4. From the time I began writing I've made it a point to seek out advice from several, not just one or two people and it has always worked well for me. I have not been steered wrong, though I certainly have had to discard some advice occasionally knowing it wasn't right for my WIP.

  5. That is so true, Jim. I hear so much advice handed out to novice novelists that really is just someone who knows the lingo, but doesn't know the business.

  6. Sound tips, Jim. I'd add that advice in writing is often like the craft itself: highly subjective. Still, seeking help from established sources is the best route to real improvement. If you want to be a pilot, there's only so much you're going to learn from a guy whose certificate is barely dry. Find the gray-head with several thousand hours in his logbook.

  7. Excellent advice. Thanks from a newbie writer who tends to take just about everything from others further on the journey as gospel. I am just now starting to evaluate what I hear or read on the basis of what is right for me.


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