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Why So Salty

falmouth, tasmania/lutruwita. 35mm.

"The critical opinions of a writer should always be taken with a large grain of salt. For the most part, they are manifestations of his debate with himself as to what he should do next and what he should avoid. "  ~ W. H. Auden

To take things with ‘a grain of salt’ or ‘a pinch of salt’ was a heartily imparted wisdom in my family home. Growing up, my mother and grandmother would read ‘advice’ (even the news occasionally) and instruct each other and any young ears listening to take it with a pinch of salt. 

It’s a delightful British idiom that has stood the test of time and something I now find myself calling to mind when I’m reading guidance I come across online - whether that's to do with my skincare regime, nutrition, or indeed, writing advice.

The phrase harks back to stories where a grain of salt was indicated as part of an antidote to a poison. And it’s in this context that the phrase has held.

It may seem somewhat oxymoronic to write an article advising writers not to take on writing advice (also having written a few articles offering writing advice) but hear me out won't you.

Like most people, I love a good google of whatever random question might spring to my mind at any moment. As a writer, these questions usually focus on a writing conundrum or challenge I’m attempting to overcome. If you’ve ever googled any kind of question relating to writing in search of advice, you’ll know what an Aladdin’s cave of treasure, junk, and outright waste this tends to uncover.

I recently googled writer’s block in an attempt to overcome a lack of general motivation regarding my writing practice. Pages and pages of results greeted me. I scrolled through a few of them, seeking something more personal over the stock-standard listicles and found one that stood out. I began to read through what started as a great piece but quickly divulged into a shouty, bold lettered: ‘This Is What I Did And This Works So You Should Do It Too!

Ignoring any form of nuance or self-deprecation, the piece's writer saw fit to assume they did things the ‘right’ way,  the ‘best’ way, and the ‘only’ to approach a lack of motivation with writing. It completely put me off anything else they might have to say.

The advice can only be helpful if it offers insights and potential, not if it's positioned as a prescription that must be followed to the letter or else, pain of death! Acknowledging that any advice we receive (especially when it comes to writing) might not work for us is the only way to get the most out of the advice. When we take writing advice with ‘a grain of salt,’ we accept that all we do is pick up some guiding points. How we apply those points, manipulate and adapt them to suit ourselves and figure out if they work for us should be the key outcomes of any advice we read.

Writing advice is not one-size-fits-all. Writing, in general, is not one-size-fits-all. And that’s one of the beautiful things about being a writer and giving yourself time and space to write - you really get to make all the rules. In my time interviewing editors and writers for Aniko Press, I've really learned one key thing (that I sort of knew anyway) and that's that there is no one concrete path to success when it comes to writing. There's no magic formula, and this is a wonderful thing. You just have to write, and edit, and write, and edit some more. How you decide to do this is entirely up to you.

(I, for one, cannot stand writing exercises. URGH. But I do love the concept of 'hot' writing - something my friend Charlotte shared with me, where you focus on where a piece of work feels warm and ready to be written, and go from there.)

Just to confuse you, for the fun of it, I’d like to offer some advice that has helped me over the years to make sense of any advice I receive. I’m sharing this because any advice can feel or sound good when we’re lost, confused or unsure. It’s a relief to have someone tell you precisely what you need to do and skip the decision-making challenge for yourself.

It’s imperative during these times to ensure we’re not letting uncertainty take control and to apply a slightly critical lens. This isn’t about shooting down the messenger but about making sure the information you receive has ‘you’ at its heart.

A few things to consider:

The Advice Giver’s Motivation

What motivates someone to give advice? Why do we choose specific people to ask for advice from?

Look at the motivation behind why someone is giving you advice: it should be impartial with your interests at heart, but this isn’t always the case. People who love to blow the advice trumpet (especially unsolicited) often have self-motivation behind this. Make sure you’re aware of the who and why advice comes from.

It’s also worth exploring why you choose specific people to ask advice from. Is it because you know they’ll tell you what you want to hear or won’t challenge you? Advice needs to help you move forward in some way, and sometimes, that means hearing things that can be uncomfortable.

Understand What You Want

Bad advice is often too general and based on narrow definitions or personal opinions.

The truth is, success in your writing is linked to whatever makes you feel good about getting out of bed in the morning and cracking on with your practice.

Make sure you know what you want to achieve before seeking advice.

Listen to Your Gut

Our guts are powerhouses in helping us to make crucial decisions, so when weighing up whether the advice you’ve received is ‘good’ or ‘bad’, spend some time reflecting on what you know and feel.

Don’t ignore that little voice telling you to go after something or abandon something because of the advice someone else is giving you.

Seek Out Multiple Opinions

Seeking advice from multiple sources will help you begin to question the information you’re provided with and apply nuance to how the advice and guidance might apply to you.

Like a collage, start to piece together what you’re presented with so you can create the best next steps for you personally.

Remember: No Advice is Perfect Advice For You

We’ve all thought or said things at one time that have changed as we’ve grown, developed, made mistakes and discovered better ways of approaching life.

Throughout my writing life, I’ve learned that other things matter more to me than what I’ve been advised — and these are the things I should aim for.

Never rely on one old piece of advice from one person or source you can’t even remember any more. Continually seek to refresh and revise your standpoints and keep seeking guidance.

Stay curious about your journey, and you’ll begin to build the best path for you and your writing.


A version of this article was first published with Write or Die Magazine.


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