Over the past month or so I’ve been asked my advice a number of times. My daughter wants me to advise her about baby-care. Best pal Jane is moving house and asked for suggestions about the packing and the sorting. Various other people have asked about writing: How to bring a character to life. How to stick with a project. How to write a novel without, you know, putting in any effort.
We all like being asked for our advice. It makes us feel appreciated and valued. But proceed with care. Even though people are asking you what you think, it doesn’t mean they’ll love your response, if you’re truthful. For instance, your friend is having marital problems. “Should I leave him?” she says. Be very careful how you proceed. If you say, “Yes,” then she’s always going to remember you were the one who told her to go. That’s particularly tricky if she opts to stay.
Obviously, marital dysfunction is a dicey topic, but even giving advice about writing can pose unexpected challenges. One of my friends is writing a memoir. She has thirty years of journals to sort through and is feeling, naturally, a little overwhelmed. She was overwhelmed when she asked for suggestions last month. And last year. And the year before. It’s not that she thinks my advice is rubbish — I hope — but the task is just too big for her to wrap her head around. She keeps asking for my input because she hopes one of my suggestions will be the magic wand she needs to get the job done.
The thing is, she’s been trying to tackle this memoir for years now, but she is no further along in her project. It dawned on me, finally, that by giving her a number of suggestions, I was merely adding to her sense of confusion. This time, I offered just one tip. Since she’s an artist and is stimulated by the visual, I suggested she draw a mountain on a wall chart, and with each 5000 words she writes, she should draw a base camp on the side of the mountain. She sent me a text a couple of days ago to say that she had finally made a start, and the mountain idea was working. Whether she’ll continue or not I cannot say, but I hope she will.
Sometimes you’re better off not giving advice at all. When the person asking for it is under the influence of some chemical or other, for instance, or when they’re buttering you up for some reason. Sometimes, too, the advice you know is right is exactly not what your friend wants to hear.
“I know I can write a book if I can just find the time. I can spare a half-an-hour a week. How do you suggest I get started?”
They won’t thank you for saying, “Either find another ambition, or give this one the time and attention it properly deserves.” No, they want you to lie and say you wrote your first novel exactly that way. Writing a novel is easy, anyone can do it.
Your friend with the abusive husband is hoping you’ll say, “Oh, but abusive men change their ways all the time. He’s just tired / stressed and it’ll pass. He loves you really.” They don’t want you to say, “Leave the bastard before he kills you.”
People don’t want you to tell them they’re alcoholics or delusional or idiots. They’re not looking for change, they’re looking for someone to reinforce their world view.
If you write, especially if you’ve had some degree of success at it, you’ll find people will think you have some sort of magic elixir. You didn’t get your books written and published because you worked hard, but because you happened upon some secret formula. They want you to give them that formula too. If you read between the lines, they’re saying, “If a dope like you can write a book, well, how hard can it be?”
Sometimes people give me things to read, short stories or the chapters of a novel. I admit I can be a tough critic. I read carefully and highlight issues that need work. I make suggestions that I know will improve the manuscript. My belief is if someone has gone to the trouble of writing something, and they expect me to go to the trouble of reading it, they must want my honest opinion. Right?
Oh, some do. The ones who have a genuine desire to succeed will drink up every comment and suggestion that will improve their work, regardless how much time it takes. If they disagree with me they have good reasons for doing so, and that’s fine. We can discuss the options and take a professional approach to the rewrite. I’m delighted to help anyone who has a genuine desire to learn their craft. Such people are rare, though. Most people want me to ignore the cliches, the bad grammar, and the cardboard characters, and just tell them they’re wonderful. I can’t do that, not if it’s rubbish. I try to be gentle, “It has a lot going for it. If you make these changes it could be excellent…” Doesn’t matter. Don’t I know they spent twenty minutes on that thing? Do you really think I’m going to work on it more? Are you mad?
The thing is, advice isn’t one-size-fits-all. People seeking advice tend to come in the following broad categories:
Those who genuinely want your opinion are usually good friends who know you’ll be honest, or would-be writers who are serious about developing their craft.
Those who are canvassing a lot of people to get feedback. Your suggestions don’t mean more than anyone else’s. Less, in fact, if you radically disagree with them or the rest of their pack.
The ones who ask for advice simply as a way of opening a conversation. “I don’t know what to do about my job,” isn’t an invitation for you to tell them to quit, or to stick it out. Your expected response here is, “What’s going on? Do you want to talk about it?”
Then there are the ultimate time-wasters. They neither need nor want your advice, but they figure by asking you you’ll be flattered enough to give them a loan / walk their dog / recommend their services to someone…
So, here, though I’m breaking my own first rule, is my advice on giving advice:
- It should never be unsolicited.
- Just because it’s asked for, doesn’t mean it will be taken.
- Remember the words of Solon: “In giving advice, seek to help, not to please, your friend.”
- Once you’ve given your advice, let it go. If your friend wants to give you an update or ask for other suggestions, that’s entirely up to him.
- Remember, most people only want to take advice if it matches what they had already decided to do.
- Never give advice you know to be wrong or harmful, just because it’s what you think your friend wants to hear.
- And the most important one of all: