Advice and Dissent

I have a friend who asks for advice then argues over it. I’d like to give him advice about THAT, but…

Still, it made me think about advice and criticism. When it comes to advice — especially unsolicited advice — I guess I argue, too. Unsolicited advice seems to inspire the knee-jerk “Yes but…” Solicited advice? I hope I accept it with more grace. In that case I believe the right response is, “Thanks. You’ve given me something to think about,” or something along those lines.

The worst advice is when you’re doing something the way you want and someone jumps in to straighten you out. I know that makes my blood pressure rise. I have to hold myself back to remember they are not the boss of me; they’re trying to help.

Criticism is a species of advice — thinking about my friend yesterday I realized that. If he asks what I think about something, and I think differently than he does, he thinks (feels like) I’m criticizing him, and not criticism in the good sense — analysis and a studied opinion — but fault-finding. Sigh…

When I destroyed the future of the best novel I will ever write by NOT finding an editor for it early on (I didn’t know what an editor did, frankly, or how to find one) I learned a major lesson. The agent who rejected my book with the note, “Great story, but you need an editor” said the most useful thing to me maybe anyone ever has. I have a great editor now. She said something to me that made me feel really good. She said, “You know how to take criticism.”

Huh? I didn’t know that. We kind of talked about it and it seems that when she offers an opinion or advice to someone who’s paying her for that very thing, some of her clients get defensive and angry. I just said, “I don’t have to do what you tell me. And, when a suggestion you’re giving me looks like you don’t understand what I meant, that burden is on me to be more clear.” I understood she was trying to help me tell MY story. For a few hundred bucks I had a captive, interested, intelligent, supportive critic who was authentically interested in helping me tell MY story.

My attitude toward her criticism resulted from nearly 40 years of teaching other people how to write. That’s not intrinsic to me or my personality. I’m definitely a “I want to do this my way” kind of person by nature. Now, because of having been a writing teacher for such a long time, I get it. An editor is not an authority, but it probably feels like one to many of the people whose work they’re editing. We’ve all had so many teachers in our lives and they have all held red pens. It actually happened in one of my classes that a student handed me a purple pen with which to grade my papers. I don’t think I ever went back to red even though — for me — red, blue, green, purple it was all the same. For some of my students, that red pen was a sword slashing at the skin of effort and ideas, replacing their ideas with mine. Blinded by various things — the fact they hate English, they’d had mean teachers, pressures at home, they didn’t want to write the paper, the project was way difficult, etc. — they couldn’t wrap their minds around what the red ink really was. It seemed that — for many — a different color of ink sent a different signal.

I think the same might be said of advising my friend. My new strategy? “Cool. Try it and see how it works.” What the heck do I know anyway? 😉

23 thoughts on “Advice and Dissent

  1. I understand the defensiveness of unsolicited advice. However when someone asks me for an opinion then that’s what they get. If they don’t want to hear then why ask?? Anyway, constructive criticism is very different from mean spirited and negative criticism. I personally liked to add my comments to homework in fluorescent pink gel pen – it seemed less harsh that way…

  2. People are gonna do what they want anyway. I hate giving advice, and if I do it it’s gonna be short and sweet and we damn well better move on to the next topic.

    • I hate giving advice, too. People react to it and that can lead to ugly places. I’m trying to avoid it and I’m trying to avoid correcting people even when they’re wrong and even when they ask for it.

  3. Love this piece, Martha. You surely hit the nail on the head. Interested intelligent captive (lol) reader. but yes, in a nutshell, and you had the right attitude. She was trying to help you say what you intended to say. Someone once pointed out to me that often we think we’ve said what we intended to say, but we weren’t quite there. I get that. I understand the students “feel” for the red pen too. It never bothered me, but I surely understand how it could.

  4. I love and appreciate this post so much. My Mom, bless her heart (obligatory statement used at not so nice times sometimes), wants to give advice on everything. Solicited, unsolicited~she knows no such of these two words as advice is part of her everyday language. “Thank you for your care and concern,” my reply always. I love feedback! I have certain ways I do things (one reason I’m alone perhaps? Lol). I was born asking questions~when I ask them for clarification or understanding I am NOT trying to give unsolicited advice in a “sneaky” way, I’m literally trying to understand. I’ve been told that I’m a very good listener and offer good feedback. Editing is black and white (thanks for not using red pens MAK), yet revising is an open field. It seems some would like to revise your thoughts versus edit. It gets tricky there. I don’t feel worthy enough to offer advice, but my experiences might offer partnerships in helping with solutions! Otherwise, I’m a good ear and I’ll stay quiet. I really enjoyed this, MAK and wish I would’ve been one of your students (well, I kinda am ~and you offer good advice even if you don’t know it 😉). 💛🐶🤗

          • Ha ha! I totally knew! Give them advice please. I went back to Dr at 8 this morning. My ribs hurt so bad from coughing and Dr wanted X-ray. No pneumonia, but she put me on an inhaler, steroids, and cough medicine. She was a new P.A. and a Godsend. She actually listened as I shared all about my health journey and the fact that I had to have two biopsies in January and no one has ever called me but threatened over bills even after the biopsy machine “failed” and I was to get a discount. It’s been 4 months and they want me to do another one in July and then this Covid had hit. She was such a wonderful listener and even asked if she could hug me. 🥹 she apologized that I felt the health care had let me down. She knows I’m alone and basically, I took her advice on everything. I’d take it from you, too. 🥰❤️💛

  5. I have an old friend who was a new farmer in Vermont. He quickly learned that the Yankee Way was to mind your own business. Experienced farmers never gave him advice even when he did stupid things. He eventually learned to tell his neighbor what he was planning and would get the response, “You could do it that way”, which told him it was probably not the best way. He would then ask, “How would you do it?” and would get a thoughtful response. He would then try his neighbor’s suggestion, which was never advice, but always a better way to do it.

    • That’s smart. I experimented with my friend today. He’s looking at a job that will require him to learn some life skills he doesn’t have but he could learn. I paid attention to what he HEARD vs what I actually SAID. It was very interesting. I’ll try the New England way next since now it’s a Petri dish. 😀

  6. I generally never offer advice. I may offer help if a person seems like they would both need and accept it but not advice.

    What really drives me up the wall? The person who specifically asks for my advice and then goes down the “Yes – but…” rabbit hole. I read somewhere that the word “but” automatically and irretrievably erases itself and everything that was said or written before it.

    • That “yes but” is maddening. It’s as if the person thinks they have to talk you out of what you said! My friend does that and I finally said “the thing is I don’t care what you do. It’s not my problem. You asked ME!” And cracked up. 🤪

  7. I write a lot of collaborative documents, and as I grow older, I miss (what seems in the moment as) vicious tearing apart of my draft. When you take a day to think over it, there’s a lot of insight in all the comments.

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