Part 2: The Moral Obligation of the Mentoring Writer

Part II of the Moral Obligation of the Mentoring Writer:  Everybody Knows it All, but Nobody is Actually Doing it

I had to expand on the moral obligation of the mentoring writer.  I have discovered another alarming trend in my writing groups.  That trend is “writers” who post rules and tips that they have taken from other blogs/sites/books/self help novels/etc. While doing this is fine (when proper credit is given, mind you), what really annoys me is the amount of people who are leaving comments telling these posters how great “their” advice is when it isn’t really their advice at all.  While lending a helping hand is well and fine, I feel a bit let down by the sheer volume of people who are looking up to these posters as “mentors” when they are not giving advice based on their own experiences as a writer.  If you have not actually written anything of your own, then how can you possibly understand the advice and rules that you are copying and pasting into a writing lesson?  It is disturbing to me as a writer that people would rather take the ‘advice’ of someone who actually has never really written anything over the wisdom of one who has been there, done that, gotten the book deal.

On the topic of these rules, it goes back to telling budding writers that “doing this instead of that” will cause the audience to get confused/not want to read it/etc.  The number one rule that I see posters of these courses make is to either tell people or suggest to them that doing things a certain way is better than doing them another way.  I have said many times that there are very few written-in-stone rules when it comes to writing.  And the only ones that I can think of that could possibly be universal are misspelled words and missing paragraph indentions (translate:  giant wall of text with no paragraph breaks in them).  And even misspelled words are okay if they are used in the dialogue of a character.  It is my opinion that telling people that following a specific set of rules will make them a better writer is ill advice. 

Let me give an example.  On an adult writing forum, a poster recently began posting a story based on her life.  I will not go into detail in regards to the storyline.  This member asked me to read her story and give her honest feedback on how it sounded because she greatly valued my opinion as a writer.  We will call her ‘Jane.’ Now as a writer, I do not base my opinion on a story the way most people do.  A lot of people think that if the idea is good, then the writing is good as well.  I hate to break it to you if you are one of those who think this way, but a good idea and good writing do not go hand in hand.  I have read many books that had a great idea but the telling of that idea was not nearly as good as it could have been, making what could have possibly been a fantastic story into a mediocre retelling.  Learning to write well has very little to do with following certain rules.  The bottom line for writers is to grab their readers’ attention and keep it.  Following rules does not always do that.

I read Jane’s story.  Misspelled words aside, there were fragmented sentences, run on sentences, improper use of punctuation, among other things.  The spelling and punctuation could have been cleaned up.  However, I would not have touched the fragmented sentences or run on sentences if you paid me to.  Why you ask?  Isn’t writing about following writing rules and making it look perfect?  In my opinion, no.  Writing is about getting and keeping your audience’s attention.  Janet not only captured her audience’s attention, but their heart and admiration as well.  Her informal approach to writing drew her readers in, tugged on their heart strings, and left them begging for more.  She broke so many writing ‘rules’ that an editor would have thrown it out with the trash.  But it worked for her. 

Notice I said it worked for her.  It will not work for everyone.  Some people will do better by following rules.  However, the ‘rules’ of writing will not make you a good writer, or a better writer, or make you more creative.  Good writing is something that evolves over time.  It is about finding your inner writing voice, discovering what works best for you as a writer, and going with it.  If that means breaking all the rules, then go for it.  If that means following all the rules to the letter, then go for it.  At the end of the day, what constitutes a good story is the person who is reading it.  Every publishing company in the world can think it is great, but if there isn’t an audience for it then it is not worth the paper it is printed on.  It is why there are thousands of really great stories out there that have never been published by traditional means.  And it is also why there are thousands of books out there in publication that are gathering dust on a shelf.  A good story, after all, will always be in the mind’s eye of the reader.

N. C. Matthews

The Moral Obligation of the Mentoring Writer

As a writer, I belong to several writing groups, forums, and websites.  One of which is called The Writer’s Cafe.  One thing that I find particularly valuable is the site’s option to allow writers to create “writing courses” and “writing lessons” that are viewable by other members.  Now this site has a fairly large number of impressionable, young budding writers.  Some of these young writers are gathering quite a following of other impressionable, young budding writers, which is to be expected.  What concerns me is that some of these writers are posting “writing courses” that are little more than personal opinions and bad advice.  This in itself is nothing to really be concerned with.  What does concern me is that there are young writers following these posters, posters who have very little real world knowledge or exposure to the writing world.  These same followers are taking the bad advice and opinions as gospel truth when it comes to writing.

With such concern on my mind, I wanted to explore the moral obligation of writers who are seen as mentors.  I have been writing for some twenty-eight years now, but I have had no formal training besides the courses forced upon me in college and high school.  I am by no means an expert on writing.  What I do have, however, is twenty-eight years of wisdom at my disposal that I can share with others.  I can share my thoughts, my personal experiences, tricks and tips that I have picked up, tricks that work for me, what doesn’t work for me, what I have learned from trial and error, etc.  They are, of course, only opinions and personal experiences.  That is not to say that what I have to share has no merit.  I could certainly sit down and write an entire book on writing.  My point is that what I have are opinions formulated over twenty-eight years of tried and true wisdom.  For those who wish to partake of it, it may or may not help you.

My major concern is that all those young budding writers are being given bad advice and opinions, and they are too young to even realize that what their ‘mentor’ is giving them is just that…an opinion based on a very limited writing experience.  For instance, one ‘writing course’ I came across written by a 16 year old has over 200 followers.  In one course she told her readers to accept all criticism.  While this may sound like good advice, for those of us with more writing experience, that advice makes it painfully obvious that the poster has never been exposed to hard-out, cut-to-the-bone critics whose sole purpose is to rip a piece of work to shreds.  A more experienced, wiser writers knows that all criticism is not created equal.  The simple advice of ‘accept all criticism’ leaves out a lot of good lessons to be learned, such as the difference between constructive and deconstructive criticism.  For this poster’s 200+ followers, it is a lesson that could have spared them a lot of heartache.  Unfortunately, it is a lesson they will not likely get from a 16 year old with limited writing experiences and exposure.

As a writer, I do not believe that there is necessarily a “right” and “wrong” way to write.  Every writer is different and unique.  What works for one will not work for another.  So I do not think it would be fair to tell someone ‘if you follow these rules, you will become a better writer.’  I don’t believe anyone can make that guarantee, no matter how good they are, how many years they have been writing, or how popular they are.  What I can say is that I have experience as a writer and wisdom to share.  I can give you my views, I can give you some ‘universal truths’ that I have discovered over my years as a writer, and I can try to guide you along and help you find your own unique writing voice.  To tell anyone anything different would be morally wrong.  There is nothing that I or anyone else can tell you that will definitely make you a better writer.  So take my advice for what it is:  advice.  And my advice is that, in the end, it is up to the individual writer to find out what works best for them.