Sunday, February 23, 2014

Are There Too Many "Writing Experts"?

In his controversial book The Cult of the Amateur, Andrew Keen argued that one of the downsides of democratization is the empowering of amateurs. Nowadays, anyone with a social media platform -- no matter how unprofessional, extreme, inflammatory, wrong-headed, or downright wacko they happen to be -- can broadcast their thoughts to the world. Pure volume of "hits" can empower just about anyone. Which creates a problem. As Keen puts it:

By empowering the amateur, we are undermining the authority of the experts.
This principle is at work, I believe, in the writing community. What makes someone a "writing expert"? Are there any real writing "experts" anymore? What qualifies writing advice as good advice? And with the market in so much flux, is it possible that those we once viewed as "experts" must surrender their market cred to the more forward thinking?

For this reason, nowadays, being an aspiring author can be rather overwhelming. There is so much writing advice available, much of it contradictory, it's hard to discern the "experts" from the "amateurs,"  who to listen to and who to dismiss. Heck, are "experts" and "amateurs" even legitimate categories anymore?

I recently met with my critique group and we were brainstorming about ways to pool our talents to help ourselves and other writers. It was a fun discussion that caused us to reflect more on our own career paths and some relatively new models that could benefit groups like ours. (I go more in-depth into the details of that discussion in this post: What Writers Talk About When No One's Listening.) The big question for me was what qualifies me to give advice to other writers?

I am a hybrid author (2 trad published novels, 2 self-published); in many respects, I'm probably an "average" sampling of the writing community. I've been pursuing a professional writing career for almost a decade, am agented, have attended writers conferences, taught at writers conferences, have a decent résumé, and don't mind offering my two cents about writing when asked. I have a completed non-fiction project and an Urban Fantasy in the chutes for publication. So I'm still truckin'.

But by many counts, I'm still an amateur. At least, I'm no "expert."

I haven't earned back royalties for my first two trad novels. I have no formal education in writing, no BA or MFA in Creative Writing. I'm not a New York Times bestseller. None of my stories have been optioned for movies. I haven't won any awards, so I'm not an "award winning author." My full-time job is in construction for a school district -- I'm not even a full-time author!

So what qualifies me to give advice to authors about writing?

That's how I put it to my critique group that day. And was soundly rebuked. "You may not be an 'expert,'" they said. "But you have something to offer other writers." Listen, it's encouraging to think that my advice or observations could be helpful to someone. Really. But at what point is my "expertise" just a blasted opinion? Or an educated guess? In other words, I'm no "expert." I'm just an average writer plugging away, learning the ropes, trying to get my voice heard amidst the cacophony. If someone can glean some wisdom from my mishaps, mis-adventures, and advice, that's icing on the cake.

But I'm no expert.

And half the writers who are now considered "experts" aren't much different than me.

The new world of publishing, the one that empowers authors and wrests control from those myopic gatekeepers, has turned amateurs into experts. The rise of indies, across the board, has been a good thing. A great thing! The downside, however, is that just about anyone can position themselves as in-the-know. Land a significant endorsement, pay for a good cover, start some social media chatter and, bingo, you're an authority. 

I can't help but side with Keen's observation -- by empowering amateurs, "we are undermining the authority of experts." At the least, we are diminishing the advice of seasoned writers and publishing professionals in favor of what works, what's affordable, and what's trending.

Things are changing SO fast in the writing industry, it could rightly be asked whether or not there ARE real experts anymore. However you answer that, it's the opposite that I fear: That anyone who has published a book or two, has a website, and an internet connection, can now be considered an "expert."

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Mike Duran is a monthly contributor to Novel Rocket, and is represented by the rockin' Rachelle Gardner of Books & Such Literary. Mike's novels include The TellingThe Resurrection, an ebook novella, Winterland, and his newly released short story anthology Subterranea. You can visit his website at, or follow him on Facebook and Twitter.


Kathryn J. Bain said...

I agree. I tell beginning writers to look up who has written an article or book. Some only have one book out. Listen to those that have more experience. I'm amazed how many people write books on how-to-write fiction, yet they have never done it themselves. If they know how to do it, why don't they?

Ron Estrada said...

Mike, I'm going to disagree with the notion that there are too many self-proclaimed experts giving writing advice. Here's why: the average fledgling writer is very good at picking out what is good information and what is just opinion. We've come from a place where we only had the advice of a dozen or so contemporary authors to where we are now, where we have hundreds, if not thousands, of sources to choose from. We can choose what works for us. This is especially true for us in the Christian Fiction world. When I first started, the instructional books on Christian Fiction wouldn't have filled one corner of my desk. Now look at the options. Sure, many are beginnners like me, but I have no issue weeding through those. And some of those beginners know the mechanics of writing and how to pass them on.

Here's my second point: blogging about writing is teaching yourself about writing. I've made this point on my own blog. I'm not teaching anything that you can't find from an expert, but I do it more to embed the information in my own mind. If you want to learn something, teach it.

I don't think there can ever be too much information. It keeps the "experts" honest. If a New York Times reporter makes a false statement, there are a couple of thousand bloggers out there ready to call him on it. That's nothing but good news for all of us.

Suzan Robertson said...

My rule about writing advice is that I only take advice from writers whose work I've already read and admire. Even then, it's just advice, not law.

Gina Holmes said...

My advice is always to read the writers whose advice you're listening to. Sometimes the yet to be published writer is more qualified to teach on a certain subject than a multi published. If someone is brilliant at description, then by all means, take their teaching on writing description to heart. If someone is teaching on building a platform, check out their platform, etc. Experts are as experts do.

Ane Mulligan said...

I'm going to argue this point slightly. There are some writers whom God holds back for reasons of his own, but they know how to write an done God opens the door, their work shows that. So should they not share what they've learned in articles and teaching? I've learned a lot from writers who hadn't published yet but had as way of explaining things that made them clear.

I taught a class last year, before I had a contract, and a published writer told me she'd never heard the concepts I taught. She told me that was what had been eluding her.

Never taking advice from unpublished writers is like tossing out the dog with the uneaten biscuit. Better to weight the advice first. If it benefits you, then take it. If not ... then give it to the dog.

Nicole said...

I don't think Mike's saying that unpublished or lightly published authors don't have authority to teach or preach on writing. I think he's saying there are those who consider themselves experts on writing/publishing because they've been published, have written a novel or novels, and consider that more of a qualification than actually having bona fide creds. I could be wrong in my interpretation of his thoughts.

I agree with Suzan above.

And I think the "experts", primarily the established professionals in the field of publishing, sometimes tend to miss the mark on instruction(s) to writing. I think in any profession "language" sets the tone, and the dogmatic rules for writing suggested for writers, if followed succinctly, make for boring and stereotyped literature. We see a lot of it from the CBA.

I will never consider myself qualified to teach on writing, but I do consider my opinions on writing valid for those who are like-minded readers and writers. And, yes, they are my opinions. I also think that not all those in publishing are above "trending" and staid versions (theirs) of what sells. In fact, I think some of them (in CBA) have missed the mark on a lot of readers' preferences and stuck with a rigid demographic that eliminates a lot of potential readers.

Good post, Mike.

Jennifer said...

I agree. I get really confused at times. I tend to read only articles for encouragement instead of actual teaching if I'm not sure of the person writing it. Saying this, I always read your articles :)

Jill said...

I don't give out writing advice very often. That said, I'm educated. I have a CW degree and have attended numerous classes and workshops outside that degree. I've also edited and critiqued and beta-read numerous works of fiction. Yet, before I self-pubbed, I earned no money for my services, which meant I was an amateur. But you know what? I consider myself an expert in many ways--an expert who still has learning to do, as even people with doctorates still have much to learn. I consider you, Mike, to be even more of an expert than I am. Shrug. I guess it's all a matter of perspective.

Heather Day Gilbert said...

I think each writer has had a different journey and, if they've been at it for any number of years (not just a few months), they're going to have SOME KIND of insight on the process. Who HAS arrived, I'd like to know? Every author is constantly growing, esp. in this e-book environment.

I just know that for me, as an indie, I totally appreciate the indies who share advice on how they went about the process (whether for one book or 21). We can research a variety of approaches and decide which one will work best for us. We can learn from watching other published authors' techniques, whether marketing, formatting, or even writing.

For me, the proof is always in the pudding. I research the authors whose opinions I listen to. I check out their numbers, the quality of their writing, etc. But that doesn't mean a bad writer can't have a kickin' marketing strategy.

Just like with crit groups--you take the best, forget the rest. Glean from a wide variety of sources, integrate what you know will work for you. If you try to integrate ALL your crits or ALL the advice out there, your career won't be grounded. But if you filter that through what you KNOW about yourself and your writing style/marketing approach, it will help you.

Just my thoughts. I'd also say that indies have a really steep learning curve. We either figure out how to get the biggest bang for our buck or we sink. I will gladly listen to an indie or a trad. pubbed author if I respect their book(s) and product, because obviously, they've done something right!

Thought-provoking as always, Mike!

Ane Mulligan said...

My point, exactly, Jill! With a degree in CW, you knew your stuff. Why do we think if we aren't yet published we can't charge for our services if we're good?

Amy said...

Meh. Sometimes being an expert is more about being able to understand, digest, and teach information more than it is about being able to execute what you're teaching. Skillful execution of the process makes you a professional, but not necessarily an expert when it comes to explaining what you did to someone else. You see it in the music industry all the time - vocal coaches are often people who can barely sing a note, but who are able to bring out the best in their clients. why wouldn't the same be true in publishing?
I'm going to agree to a certain extent with Suzan, above. I'm much more likely to care what advice someone gives if I enjoy their work. But not everyone who gives good advice is published, and not everyone who is published gives good advice. Sooo...

Janet Grant said...

I think there's a difference between someone who shares from his or her experience and someone who is an expert. Publishing is an extremely complex and often subjective business. What worked in publishing two years ago might not work today. What worked for one author might not work for another. An expert can draw from breadth of experience and knowledge and put his or her pointers into a context.
That's why, when a writer has one book published and hangs out her editing shingle, I'm skeptical. This person is unlikely to have breadth of experience in either writing or in the publishing process.
Even authors who have succeeded in their genre over a 10-year period might not have the best advice for someone in a different genre or in how to break into publishing today. Breaking in this week looks different than it did last year, let alone 10 years ago.
The experts are, in my opinion, those who can bring breadth to a conversation about the craft or about the business. And those tend to be long-term free-lancers (especially those with publishing experience), editors at publishing houses, and agents.

Ane Mulligan said...

Well said, Janet. :)

Michelle Ule said...

I agree, there are a lot of advisors out there and it behooves the writer to beware.
One of the differences between publishing and a “regular” job is writing is a craft (that you can learn) and an art (that takes skill and intuition). I don’t believe you can be a fine writer without spending lots of time working on your craft, while you learn about your art through studying the masters.
The problem is, one person’s Rembrandt is another person’s Picasso. What works well for one writer does not work well for another. We tell people all the time to be a good writer you have to read across genres—you have to be familiar with how “the greats” have used literature throughout time. That includes King David in the Psalms (KJV).
My experience with artists is they are constantly growing and changing; trying on new techniques to see which work with their particular “bent” and which satisfy them. I think writers go through that process as well—once they learn basic technique. You can’t start using multiple point of views until you’ve demonstrated you understand the point of point of view, say.
Amateur comes from the Latin word for love—an amateur writer would be someone who loves the craft whether they’re successful or not. An expert is someone who has “comprehensive and authoritative knowledge.” Since writing, however, is an art and subjective, expertise is malleable. Some of the worst writers I’ve read were literature professors.
I have a BA in English Literature from UCLA and am the most minor of New York Times best-selling authors. I’m also Janet Grant’s editorial assistant. I’d take her writing advice over mine any day, and in fact often do.