I don't want to turn into the guy who trashes literary agents' advice, but I must admit I'm getting a bit tired of the industry (and yes, I think we can safely call it an industry) that thrives on making writers feel bad about their writing.
I was thinking this when I read an agent's recent post titled "6 Things That Are Wrong with Your Manuscript." The ostensible purpose of this post was to help writers identify weaknesses in their manuscripts before submitting them to agents, and thus, presumably, to help writers acquire agents in the first place. I'm sure no offense was intended; I'm sure this agent is a wonderful person and a stellar advocate. I'm also sure she does blog regularly on "the great things writers do and how they surprise me all the time with their wonderful prose."
But I'm not talking about all that. I'm talking about this particular post, which is all about the terrible things writers do and how they confound her with their horrible prose.
The advice itself isn't bad: start your story in a strong place, differentiate characters through distinctive dialogue, avoid "info-dumping," etc. But as a teacher, I'm troubled by two things: the apparent assumption that you can simply tell writers what they're doing "wrong" and make them start doing it right, and the corollary assumption that writing instruction is primarily a matter of "fixing" a set of issues that writers get "wrong."
If only it were that simple.
The reality is this: writers don't learn from being told what they're doing "wrong." One of the agent's own rules, in the very same blog post, is: "Show, don't tell." And there's a good reason for this advice, in writing instruction as in writing: writers learn much more from doing than from listening. And while they're doing, they learn much more from being shown what they (and others) are doing right than from being told what they're doing wrong.
("Right," of course, is a very large and flexible term, which is another problem I have with the sort of restrictive advice that assumes there's a simple "right" or "wrong" way to do anything in writing. But that's another issue, which I addressed in an earlier post.)
So for what it's worth, my advice to writers is to look over their manuscripts and find 6 things they've done well, 6 things they're proud of themselves for doing. That list might start with:
1. You wrote a complete, book-length manuscript. How many people, really, can say they did that?
And it might go on from there:
2. You've got an interesting main character.
3. There's a scene in the middle of the book that's really intense and well-paced.
4. There's a lovely phrase on page 234.
5. The description on page 13 is haunting and perfectly worded.
6. The dialogue in chapter 15 crackles.
There's probably more to be proud of, but let's start with these 6. Now, go back through the manuscript and find the stuff that doesn't equal your best, and work on making it so. Learn from your strengths, not from your weaknesses.
And one final word: spend more time making your writing better than you do reading about all the things that make your writing bad.