Monday, March 22, 2010

Knowing Enough to be Dangerous

Meredith Frampton--Sir Frederick Gowland Hopkins 1938 My husband is a computer whiz. He does something so complicated at work that I don’t even understand it enough to explain it.

I’m pretty good on computers. I’m much better than many people, but I know only a tiny fraction of what my husband knows.

But I can open up a computer control panel and make changes. I pull up the run box and type commands and paths in. I know different things to type in at a C prompt. I can get into a system folder.

Basically, I know enough to completely destroy a computer…unintentionally.

I’ve always believed is that knowledge is power. So I read a lot online—different writing links, mainly.

But I’m good at writing, unlike computers. And I’m practiced at writing—I’ve been doing it for a while now. I take snippets of different writing approaches from one post and tips from another and I mull over my plot and run little experiments.

On Twitter, I tweet the posts I find interesting. I don’t add any opinions on the tweet, I just summarize the post and put the truncated link on there.

I’m not endorsing the approach in the link. In my mind, I’m saying, “Here it is. See what you think. Maybe it will help you.” If I see something I think is absolutely wrongheaded (pointing writers to a scam, or giving incorrect industry advice, etc.), I’d never tweet it.

I got a direct message on Twitter yesterday from a publisher regarding one of the tweets I’d sent.

She was concerned (and she was very polite in her exchange with me) that one of the articles I’d linked to could be troublesome.

The article covered book openings and gave tips for hooking readers (or agents and editors) in the first paragraph.

The publisher implied that a little knowledge was a dangerous thing. That there are writers who are not experienced and will take the advice too literally—and too far. They’ll take the tips one by one and stick them in their WIP until it’s a gimmicky mess. They’ll diligently follow a checklist…and it won’t work.

I did see her point. I’m sure she gets an incredible number of bad manuscripts dumped on her desk and probably a fair amount of it results from formulaic writing.

But—there has to be a mistake-making period for writers to learn. There has to be a period of time where we read up on techniques…and fail miserably while using them. There needs to be a learning curve.

I think the important thing is recognizing when we’re not ready to submit yet.

The dangers of a little knowledge:

Not adapting the advice to fit your writing style or WIP Being too formulaic in our approach Information overload (which sometimes results in paralysis) Overconfidence

The dangers of too little knowledge:

Lack of growth. Longer period of time to improve our writing (we’d be improving it on practice alone.) Fewer ideas on handling problem areas of manuscripts

I still believe that the more we know, the better we get. But the publisher was right to inject a note of caution—take writing advice with a grain of salt. Adapt the ideas, don’t just follow them like a checklist. Trust our gut, practice, and know when we’re not ready to submit our work.

One day I might be a computer whiz, too. I’ll just have to mess up a whole lot of computers to get there.