Friday, 15 October 2010

Learn From Everyone

You must know those internet adverts. The one where a "single mom" discovered one simple trick to whiten teeth, lose weight or achieve world peace. Well, this is my version, one simple piece of advice for addressing all of life's challenges. It's there in the title: Learn From Everyone.

This doesn't just apply to writing. I learned plenty of new things about plumbing from the guys changing our boiler this week, and you can learn a great deal about living in the moment from a four-year-old child. No-one should assume that they know everything or nothing on a subject - everyone falls somewhere in-between.

Few people are more tiresome than those self-proclaimed "experts" who hold forth on blogs and message boards, politely stomping on any who dare to challenge their world-view. This seems to be a disease that affects some writers after their first published novel - hubris, perhaps. The irony for me is that this used to be my view of things - one of the reasons that I didn't join a writing group earlier was that I was waiting until I had an agent or publisher lined up. It would then have been my job to "offer" my learned advice to the unwashed, unpublished masses. Yeeeuch!

One of the things I love about SCBWI is the verticality of it, that a newcomer can rub shoulders with an established author and find that the author is just the same as them, albeit five years further through the process. Social media have done wonderful things to break down the barriers too - there are few lines of demarcation on Facebook and almost none on Twitter. I can follow a whole raft of popular authors and, within reason, join in with their conversations. We all need friends, and I find myself bonding online with the most surprising and interesting people. And, of course, some self-serving or impossibly dull ones - what I learn from those people is to avoid them. 1

Rules are made to be broken, and this is what new writers do all the time, often because they don't know what the rules are. This can be incredibly exhilarating to see and is one of the reasons that agents keep wading through the slushpile day after day. I'm sure there are some rules we would consider sacred, like "show don't tell," but I'm discovering that even this is flexible; an editor has recently asked me to unpick my similes and add more telling for reluctant boy readers.

I've had some superb advice at critique groups from writers seemingly further down the publishing ladder than me. The same editor recently praised me for my chapter endings, which used to be dreadful. I hadn't realised they were even a problem until another writer pointed this out in critique and showed me how I could easily move the ending back a few sentences to really drive the reader into the next chapter.

This has been quite a long post considering I can sum up my philosophy in a three word title. So I'll end by asking you to please go out there and share your knowledge generously, whoever you are. But also be prepared to change your mind if someone else thinks differently. They might know better than you.


1 Special note to any of my more insecure friends - before you ask, this is not referring to you. You are lovely, so stop stressing about it.


  1. Well said. My husband teaches a U3A sculpture group and reckons he benefits enormously from his 'students'' critiques of his own work. (Did you notice the tricky bit with the quotes + apostrophe there?) As for published writers, they should be able to take advice and criticism from any reader, let alone any writer.

  2. Terrific post! Some of the best critiques I've ever had were from unpublished writers. And some of the best writers I know aren't yet published.

    Glad to have met you in person at Paddington!

  3. Excellent post! i learned from it!

  4. I agree Nick! SCBWI is great for creating a community of writers who are mutually supportive. I have to tell you though, I'm published and sometimes, when I'm Sasquatching myself in my writing cave, I'm unwashed! ;-j

  5. I agree with the comment about commenting on other writers while still unpublished. I regularly offer to look at manuscripts, but I only give my views as a reader, not a writer. I'm working hard to find an agent so hopefully this approach will change soon!

  6. Well said Nick. It's amazing what you can pick up if you're prepared to listen and share. Great post.