The worst writing advice I’ve ever received

It’s a bit specific, so I’m going to have to give you some context.

Back in the days when I was hung up on getting external validation for my writing, I submitted various short stories to various places. Some of them were good; some of them weren’t. One of them got published. They gave me a chance to play around in different genres and styles, and also to find out that the short story isn’t my favourite form. All useful information.

Among other things, I discovered that I enjoy writing slightly unreliable narrators – narrators who are so caught up in their own world-view that they don’t realise that they are unreliable. The narrator of the story in question was one of them: a creepy man on a train eyeing up a fellow commuter who’s quietly minding her own business.

The publisher to whom I sent this has a pool of readers who comment on a story. Half the ones who looked at mine seemed to have issues with the concept of ‘unreliable narrator’. One line ‘inadvertently makes him seem like a stalker’, said one of them. Nothing inadvertent about it, mate, and I didn’t think I’d been overly subtle.

The worst writing advice I’ve ever received, however, came from somebody who objected to a line in the first paragraph:

She gets the same train. Every morning, 0752, there she is. Crimson coat, straight blonde hair, gorgeous legs. I don’t know her name or where she works. I only know that she gets on one stop after me, gets off at London Waterloo, and heads straight down to the Tube, where it’s impossible to follow her. Not that I’d do something like that, I mean. Obviously. What I’m saying is, I get fifty-four minutes every morning to sit opposite her, or beside her, or behind her, and to look at her, and to wonder…

This particular reader didn’t like the elliptical ‘Crimson coat, straight blonde hair, gorgeous legs’. Fair enough. They suggested I replace it with

Her tight leggings outline her gorgeous legs.

At which point I drew a horrified breath, laughed a bit, and decided that it was not worth submitting anything further to this publisher, because their idea of what made for a good story was a very long way away from mine.

The problem is, of course, that this reader had clearly received some pretty appalling advice of their own: that the passive voice must never, ever, ever be used. (See what I did there?) And if the result is horrifically clumsy, if it assigns nonsensical agency to an inanimate object, well, who cares? We’re following the rules, and that’s the important thing. I suppose Nicky Morgan would approve.

Anyway, this was more or less where I stopped giving a damn what other people thought about my writing, and started trusting my own judgement. Learning to trust one’s own judgement was, it turns out, a prerequisite for publishing my own writing under my own name. So perhaps it wasn’t such bad advice after all.

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