THE BEST WRITING ADVICE YOU WILL EVER GET, EVER!

Actually, it’s more than writing advice; it’s life advice.

When I was a sophomore and in the same Children’s Theatre class that gave birth to my thesis idea, my professor gave me the best advice I’ve ever heard regarding presenting material. At that time, it was directed toward our writing, but I’ve used it in pretty much every area of my life since:

Are you ready? Here it is:

Don’t ever, in any way, shape, or form, apologize for what you’re presenting.

Sounds simple, right? But how often do you want to turn in a piece of writing (or open a speech or share an art project or present an idea) with a prefacing comment that runs along the lines of, “I know it’s kind of a dumb idea…” or “I probably didn’t do the assignment right, but…” or “Compared to everyone else’s, mine is kind of weird…” or any other statement that ends with implied ellipses and the shamed lowering of eyes.

I know it seems like qualifying your piece like that, before anyone even reads it, will keep them from thinking those things themselves or tearing their eyes out later when they deign to read your craptastic writing, but the fact is that you, as the writer, are not a reliable judge of your own skill. If you think that this piece isn’t as great as something else you’ve written, you may be right. But chances are, you finished whatever assignment you’re making excuses about not too long beforehand, which means that you’re still way too close to the project to see it clearly. And introducing a piece with “I don’t think this is very good” is like opening a conversation with “Don’t get mad.” The recipient of your words will automatically have an idea of what they’re about to hear (or read), and it’s not a good one.

I think about this advice a lot, because I am wont to make excuses for what I believe are substandard pieces. Usually, I restrain myself, even if I am bursting inside with the need to qualify. But today was the perfect example of why this advice is great to follow:

I had a short story due. I do not like writing short stories, or short plays, or short anything. I am a full-length writer. But the assignment was the write a short story. The assignment also came with a topic, one that was broad but, for me, very difficult. I didn’t have an idea for it until two days before the story was due and it was a flimsy idea. My way of carrying out the inspiration (dare I call it that) was even flimsier. I was working on the story until I had to hastily pound out a convoluted conclusion, print it out, and go to class. I hated it. I thought it was the second-worst thing I’d ever written in this class and also possibly ever. I considered skipping the session or turning in a section of a completed novel that fit the prompt. When I checked the critique schedule for today and saw that I was being reviewed, I felt sick.

But I went to class. I read my story aloud, as we must, and waited, cringing, for my feedback.

It was all good. Like, really good. Save for some small critiques here and there… my classmates and my professor and the visiting high school girl loved it. Even the guy who hates everything everyone else writes said he thought it was “funny and well-constructed.” (You don’t know this guy, but he might as well have just awarded me the Pulitzer.) When, after the feedback was over, I revealed my struggle with the assignment, my professor said, “Then maybe you should write under the gun all the time, because I think you should definitely send this around. I think people would be interested.”

While the feedback itself might not have changed if I had introduced my piece with some sort of excuse, it would have weakened the reception of the story. My classmates would have gone into the reading aware that the piece was substandard, and even if it wasn’t, that I thought it was. Their perception would have been altered before they even began to read.

So don’t apologize for your work. Stand by it proudly. It might not be the most amazing thing you’ve ever composed, but it’s probably not as bad as you think… and sometimes, it may just be awesome.

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Posted on March 1, 2012, in Rachel, Writer Advice. Bookmark the permalink. 5 Comments.

  1. Fantastic advice. You’re so right: sometimes we try to, I suppose, soften the blow of what’s to come for our readers/listeners just in case they hate it. Kind of like “hey, if you don’t like it, don’t blame me: I told you so!”

    It can also create a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy: believing that something is bad may cause you to present it badly.

    I’m glad your classmates enjoyed your short story, and if your insightful posts are any indication, I’m sure it really was good. 🙂

    Thanks for sharing!

  2. Regards for all your efforts that you have put in this. Very interesting information. “To flee vice is the beginning of virtue, and to have got rid of folly is the beginning of wisdom.” by Horace.

  3. Thanks for this.:) I’ve just realised that I probably do this all the time – perhaps it’s part of an english upbringing to start humble. But you’re quite right in that it would prejudice an audience to think it’s draedful before they’ve even read it.
    Exactly the opposite of advertising in many ways – they talk up the item and say it is incredibly good, so you are tempted to give it a go even if you are doubtful.

  4. So nice to get someone with an original thoughts on this subject. thank you for starting this up! this amazing site is a thing that is needed around the web, someone with some originality. 🙂

  5. I have never ever imagined that studying can be so significantly exciting.

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