In September, I shared two lists of questions people frequently ask me about my writing, one containing some I dislike and one with questions I wish people would ask more often.
One thing I omitted from that first list was my feelings towards unsolicited advice. It was a point I wanted to include among other grievances, but it spiraled into a number of tangents that could not be feasibly covered as one segment within a larger post.
Which brings us to this one!
Unsolicited advice is something everyone is bound to face in their everyday lives and can be a common source of irritation for writers.
Speaking from my own experiences, it can take many forms, and it can be not only disheartening but unsettling when it comes out of the blue and from a stranger.
Unsolicited advice is when someone butts in with their opinion without being asked for it, perhaps regarding a sensitive topic or in a scenario where it is inappropriate to do so.
For example, imagine you are at a funeral. You run into your pearl-clutching mother-in-law, and the first thing she tells you is that your shirt isn't fitting you quite perfectly and that you really should try and lose some weight before the holidays so you'll look better in the family Christmas card photo.
Unsolicited advice, in my opinion, is different than receiving criticism on your writing. For the most part, a writer setting out to publish their work goes in anticipating rejection and understanding that bad reviews are part of the job. No book is perfect for every reader, nor is everyone going to like what you write. There are going to be people who are dissatisfied with your story and will not hesitate to let you know how they feel.
However, this critical reception can come into play before a book is even sent off to prospective agents thanks to the wonders of social media.
Some hashtags or prompts shared by writers on Twitter encourage others to share a snippet of what they are working on. This might be an exchange of dialogue featuring their favorite secondary character of their WIP or a bit of narration they are especially proud of. It's meant to spark engagement and spread excitement about one another's projects.
However, these are sometimes met with negativity.
Someone in the comments might drop a note like "Have you thought about doing XYZ with this?" or something more blunt like "This is bad" when someone shares a line or two from their story.
The issue here is that this feedback has not been asked for.
Some writers might post a snippet from their WIP to seek advice from outside sources, maybe something like "Can my non-American followers let me know if this phrase sense?"
Commenting on something like that is different than just commenting on a something where the poster has not asked for it. It's especially appalling to me when it happens on a post where the author is clearly excited about what they have written and want to share their work because they are proud of the progress they've made with their project.
Unsolicited advice of this nature can feel as though you are telling someone they are doing something wrong but that you can do it better.
Think back to first-year Hermione's LeviOsa not LevioSAH.
It's like that. The know-it-all stepping in to show you how it's done and stepping all over you in the process.
I remember a discussion in elementary school over whether or not it's okay to keep your hand raised after your teacher has called on someone. The teacher suggested that keeping your hand raised implies that you believe the person answering will be wrong and that you are oh so much smarter than they are.
Saying Duh! was a similar conversation.
It's these feelings that I experience with unsolicited advice and its presence within social media is something I compare to an audience member heckling a comedian during a show.
I'm hesitant to share glimpses of my writing on social media platforms for a number of reasons, especially unfinished products, and among the causes for this is that likelihood of unsolicited feedback.
But that doesn't mean I'm immune.
A while ago, I shared a tweet about the irony of being a romance writer who has never been in a serious romantic relationship and how that makes writing a kissing scene when you have not yet experienced your first.
This got a substantial amount of attention compared to other things I've shared, surpassing my average of maybe three likes or single retweet.
I meant it with a sense of humor. I half-expected someone offering to change that (yeah, no) or waking up to a dick pic in my DMs from someone my settings granted access to, but it was something I wanted to put out there because writing about love to get a semblance of being in love when you yourself have not been is something that may be relatable to others.
And while I did have a couple of people expressing that they shared the sentiment and were glad to see that someone else out there understood the struggle, I ended up getting some unsolicited advice mingling within that. There was the typical "Research!" "Read more!" and such that I anticipated.
And one individual who just flat-out asked what they called the "obvious question" of why I'm not writing young adult books since I don't know how to write these scenes because then I won't have to worry about dealing with them.
As if characters do not or cannot kiss in YA.
There is a LOT to address in that particular question, and it's one I could go into a whole separate post about, but as far as that original tweet goes, I didn't respond.
The initial notification caught me off guard. Reading that response made me a bit uncomfortable. It was not insulting or offensive, and I don't think that was the intention behind it, but it didn't exactly sit well with me.
This may have been related to the fact that I was not following this person and had never interacted with them prior to this altercation, but also because of the tone I perceived upon reading it. For lack of a better term, it felt almost invasive.
Similarly to a scenario where someone says they've always wanted to write a book but didn't have the time, unsolicited advice can feel like my efforts are being either devalued or impugned. It's kind of like intervening with the subtle declaration of knowing the story better than the person writing it.
I like to think that writers know what they're doing, but don't at the same time. We have the tools we need to write and know what we want to write in varying degrees (depending on one's Planner/Pantser/Plantser status), but between all the changes guaranteed to occur between plotting, drafting, editing, and publishing, it's nearly impossible to predict the final state of our projects until we have it in our hands.
But that doesn't mean we require outside advice.
One of my favorite quotes about writing comes from Terry Pratchett: "The first draft is you telling yourself the story."
The first draft is very much about finding our way through the story we're trying to tell. Even for those who go into a project with a comprehensive outline detailing every scene, beginning a new story is stepping into the unknown.
For every detail we know, there are no less than ten we discover and learn along the way.
Circling back to the tweet that led to this digression, the reason I didn't reply to it despite having so many feelings and thoughts about it was because I didn't think it would stop the unsolicited advice from pouring in. I feared my points would be glossed over because I seemingly don't know what I'm talking about and so on and so forth, and I didn't want to put myself in that position if I could avoid doing so. The simple fact was that nowhere in this post did I indicate I was seeking advice. People just assumed I was.
In the end, I just had to take that one with a grain of salt because, frankly, it wouldn't change the direction of my story or what I wanted to write. Historical romance has been my passion since I was fourteen. I'm not going to let myself get into an argument over whether or not I'm qualified to do so because I have or have not personally experienced something. The story itself will speak to that.
The adage about having too many cooks in the kitchen can also be highly applicable to writing a book.
Unsolicited advice can also be accompanied by advice that has been asked for.
You might ask someone for their opinion and receive the feedback you want, but then they continue beyond what you sought.
This is a territory that beta readers might dip a toe into.
Depending on what you task your betas with, whether you give them a list of questions or particular things you would like them to keep an eye out for as they go or just drop your document in their inbox with an okay, have fun and do what you will with this! vibe, there is the chance they will give you more information than you asked to. They might touch on something you weren't thinking much of or didn't care about, or bring the axe down on something you really love about the work and criticize it.
The difference is, writers are requesting this feedback. We are asking our beta readers for their opinion, to tell us what works about our story and where it falters. We want to make it better and need their guidance to do so. Ideally, their criticism is constructive and not just there to tell us what we're doing wrong but why it's falling short and how we can improve.
No matter how they reply, none of it is uninvited.
Even when it's with the best intentions, unsolicited advice is going to find its way to you. People want to help out where they can, but sometimes it can be better to take a step back and wait until you are called on.
There are times where writers will ask for your advice, whether it's just to get your opinion on a character name, bouncing off an idea for a plot thread, or enlisting you as a beta reader to get feedback about their story.
Until they indicate they would like your help, don't intervene.