Seeking Encouragement and Asking for Writing Advice: What’s the Difference?

We all secretly wonder, from time to time, if we should just give up on what we’ve been working so hard on and pick a more “practical” profession.

“I’m trying so hard and I’m still not published and I don’t know what the point of writing even is anymore.”

We’ve all felt this. Every single one of us. All writers are the same in at least one of a few ways: We all have our dark moments. We all secretly wonder, from time to time, if we should just give up on what we’ve been working so hard on and pick a more “practical” profession.

In moments like these, it’s very common to feel lost, stuck, and like you’re completely alone in the universe. It’s during these periods of creative despair that we often turn to other people — often those more experienced than we are in our desired fields of expertise — for help.

But people aren’t always as responsive to these “requests for assistance” as we’d like them to be. And maybe that’s because we sometimes approach other writers seeking advice when we really need encouragement … or the other way around. Perhaps the problem is that many of us still don’t know the difference — or why it matters.

Not everyone can (or should) offer writing advice. I’m not saying not everyone is ALLOWED to give advice — this is the internet; anyone can pretty much do whatever they want with the knowledge they believe they possess, and it’s not my job to tell them otherwise.

But the only reason seeking out writing advice both from strangers and people you know is that not everyone knows how to give good advice, regardless of what the topic might be. There’s no course in school that teaches you how to help someone who has come to you with a problem (unless you specifically study this in higher ed, I suppose). It’s something you typically learn (or don’t) through “real” human interaction.

Writing advice is hard to give even when you have the skills and experience that technically qualify you to give it. Giving advice isn’t about you, it’s about listening to someone else, understanding what they need, and using your experience to give helpful suggestions (if that’s what they’re after). Not everyone is capable of looking past themselves and seeing the needs of other people — humans are strange that way, sometimes.

Plus, there are also writers who — I’m just being honest here — think they have more knowledge and experience in the field than they actually do. Be wary of advice that’s very “I” focused (this is what I do and it works for me so it will definitely work for you). Don’t trust “I’ve been told” advice. High-quality writing advice says “here’s my experience, here’s what I’ve learned from it, and here are some ways you might be able to apply it to your personal writing life.” It starts with “I” but is ultimately all about the advice-seeker.

But anyone can offer encouragement to struggling writers. It doesn’t take any special skill, degree, or experience to be someone’s cheerleader. We’re all human, and sometimes life gets us down. Sometimes we need a little sunshine to warm us up, and that occasionally has to come from the people around us — even the stranger on Twitter who recognizes you might be having a hard time.

Encouragement is different from advice. While advice is specific and requires a specific skill or background to respond to, encouragement is basically universal. When someone is struggling, you offer them your hand. Sometimes all a person needs to hear is that things are going to get better and that writing is not as miserable of a profession as it might seem some days (for example).

You should be able to approach just about anyone if you’re in need of some kind words and a genuine “you got this.” It’s really not hard to cheer people on. You just have to make it clear that this is what you need — and if someone isn’t able to offer that, then you might need to move on to someone else to fill that need.

Know who you’re asking, and what you’re asking for. Most experienced writers are happy to receive questions and listen to anyone who might be struggling in their writing lives. Writers like myself who are in this space specifically to help others ended up here because we know what you’re going through. We’ve been there. We all start out in the same place — aimless, with nothing but dreams and a dusty keyboard in our hands.

But just because many of us are willing to listen and help doesn’t mean we can answer every question and hear every complaint. There are many reasons for this — one of them being that not everyone willing to encourage and offer advice is equally experienced in every area you might have specific questions about.

I, for example, tend not to answer direct questions about query letters, proposals, agents, and publishing. Not because I don’t want to help, but because I lack the personal experience that would technically qualify to speak on these topics. I’ve never had an agent or submitted a traditional book proposal. I’ve technically never published a full-length book.

Does that mean I’m totally inexperienced as a writer and you can’t come to me for advice? Absolutely not. There is a reason I focus most of my energy and attention on offering advice related to creative productivity and helping writers organize and transform their ideas. I’m experienced in this area. I’m confident and qualified to give advice in that space, so I do it.

And when people do ask me about publishing and other things I’m not comfortable addressing, I’ll usually link them to an article, book, or video produced by someone in the field who is more qualified to answer their questions than I am. In a way, I’m still offering help in this regard — the advice itself just isn’t coming from me directly. Anyone is welcome to ask me anything about writing. You just won’t always hear the advice in my own words.

Yet when writers come to me asking how to make more time for writing, how to finish what they start, why they can’t seem to nail down a “good” idea to write about — I’m all over that. Even more so, when writers come to me discouraged and down on themselves for not being able to meet their goals, I have an infinite supply of encouragement to offer — mostly because I’m willing to put the energy and effort into providing it.

When you approach an experienced writer in need of help, know what you’re hoping to gain from consulting them. Do you need specific advice on how to do something? Do you have a specific question about writing you’re hoping they can answer? Or are you just feeling the need to vent and you’re in need of someone who will listen to you?

Writers offer the best help when you’re clear about what you need upfront. If someone comes to me and says, “I’m not feeling confident in my work and I don’t know if I want to keep writing because it’s hard,” I’m not totally sure what to do with that. But if they follow up with, “How do I write when I feel like it’s not worth it?” Then I can tailor my response to that specific need — quite easily, in fact.

There is help out there, if you are willing to ask for it — and if you know exactly what you need, so that someone can outstretch their hand ready to assist.

Meg is the creator of Novelty Revisions, dedicated to helping writers put their ideas into words. She is an editor and writer, and a 12-time NaNoWriMo winner. Follow Meg on Twitter for tweets about writing, food, and Star Wars.

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