How to Use Input From Others to Sharpen Our Writing

Last week we looked at using writing tools and aids. Today we consider tapping human input to improve our work. While this is a great way to advance as a writer, a bit of caution is also in order.

When we read books, we notice what other authors do and may adopt their writing idiosyncrasies, including bad habits. We emulate them because we think it will make our work better, but this is often to our detriment. Here’s why. First, we should recognize that what we see could be a mistake. Alternately, their publisher and editor may tolerate things that other publishers and editors won’t. Or maybe, because of their success, they are given more leeway than we will be afforded. Just because someone else does something, doesn’t mean we should.

Next are beta-readers and critique groups. While these can be very helpful, they can also be dangerous. If we implement every suggestion offered, we risk producing work that meanders. When me make changes to meet every suggestion, the end result is not always better. We need to evaluate their ideas and implement only what makes sense. When I give feedback to writers, I like to preface my comments with, “Remember, this is just one person’s opinion.”

Last are teachers and paid experts. When I invest money to take a class or obtain feedback, I assume everything I am told is correct. Usually it is, but occasionally some of what teachers teach is wrong. This is hard for me to accept. I put educators and paid gurus on a pedestal, and I assume they are infallible. Unfortunately, I’ve picked up some wrong lessons by accepting every lesson without hesitation.

We can learn much from others – and we should – but we do need to be careful what we pick up. Discerning what advice to follow and what input to disregard is essential. Grab what is good, discard what is suspect, and learn to know the difference.

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