Jane Friedman – How to Avoid Being Fooled By Bad Writing Advice

Jane knows her stuff.

One of the problems I’ve run into lately is trying to figure out who’s full of BS and who isn’t.

Jane isn’t. I’ve gone to her site time and again, mainly to learn about writing craft. Her blog is chock full of good stuff. There’s a ton about story structure, publishing, self-publishing, finding an agent, you name it.

She gives great advice, too. Check out this article, originally posted on writerunboxed.com. Even though the date is, well, dated (ha!), the content is just as relevant today.

How to Avoid Being Fooled By Bad Writing Advice

January 28, 2011 By 

foolDuring my teaching this quarter, a theme that’s coming up again and again is the either/or fallacy. This fallacy occurs when we divide the world into black and white, and don’t allow for other options.

As humans, we have a crazy predilection for thinking in this way. Us versus them. New versus old. Print versus electronic. Zero-sum games.

When I speak at writing conferences, I fall prey to this thinking myself. For instance, I start to see the field in terms of writers who are resistant to marketing/promotion versus those who embrace it.

I did this just recently at the Writer’s Digest Conference. I jotted a note to myself saying: There are 2 categories of writers!

Category 1: For these writers, it’s all about the work, the writing. The reading. The art and the craft. Story is paramount. The writing speaks for itself. It’s not the job of the writer to market—that’s not what he’s good at. He writes (dammit!).

Category 2: These writers market and promote before the work is even good enough to be published. They’re focused on getting known, maybe because they’ve been told that’s what they must do. They’re after readers because it’s been hammered into them that it’s about community, relationships, connections. (Meaningful ones, dammit!)

Why would I categorize like this? Because battles erupt visibly and people take sides—in the Q&A sessions, the Twitter streams, in the hallway conversations. The conflict attracts attention.

The truth is, though, that we’re all on a spectrum. Most of us balance the two sides, or switch gears when we see that it’s necessary for progress.

But we all like to label and categorize as if there were extremes, even if that’s not an accurate reflection of how we operate.

Playing to extremes is exceptionally helpful in getting readers. Writing a great blog post or developing a successful online presence is often about knowing how to attract attention, or be bombastic in a charming way. Talking about the gray areas within an issue—parsing through all the intricacies—isn’t known for generating traffic. Boldness is.*

You’ll all pay close attention if I say: You Will Fail Instantly If You Do XYZ! But it’s a huge snoozer if I say: A Few Might Stumble By Not Considering XYZ.

When you read writing advice online—or in any medium—please keep this dynamic in mind. The people who talk about the contingencies, who make allowances for differences? Those are the ones to pay close attention to.

The black-and-white advice? Take it with a grain of salt.

* Notice that I’ve slipped in another fallacy here. Yes, there are popular bloggers and personalities who have made a name by being reasonable and rational—and discussing all those gray areas! However, it is not the predominant style or modus operandi that you frequently encounter. I also realize few of us are easily hoodwinked by extreme positions; yes, we can spot sensationalism! But it’s very easy to focus attention on the most contentious or “interesting” positions.

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