I just stumbled upon a post by an author who often gives great advice about blogging, writing, and other important things in life.
What struck me was her passionate disagreement with another writing-advice guru who told a webinar audience that fiction writers should post a book review every month as a way to start blogging. That was terrible advice, she insisted — so terrible she entertained thoughts of virtual strangulation.
In her view, only readers should write book reviews — not other writers. Read whatever you like, but don’t even think about sharing your reactions in public.
I found this particularly germane because I’m an avid reader as well as a novelist, and I recently transitioned from a full-time job to freelancing. I plan to write a lot more in my new role — fiction and nonfiction — and I thought book reviews might be something I’d enjoy posting on occasion.
In fact, I’m nearly finished reading Just Mercy, and I’ve been writing the review in my head. Sure, the book is a few years old, and it’s already highly acclaimed. However, the movie, released in December, has been trending on streaming services, given the recent heightened attention to civil rights. No doubt there’s a resurgence of interest in the book as well, right?
So, my knee-jerk reaction to the advice to not write book reviews was something like, “Don’t tell me what not to write,” and even, “Now I’m definitely going to write a book review.”
Gulp. There’s something embarrassing about that self-realization. There are other words for taking advice only if you already agree with it: “immature,” “narrow-minded,” “lazy,” “stubborn,” “self-defeating,” “useless.” I quickly shifted into reverse. I needed to back up and give the advice the consideration it deserved.
I’ve written quite a few book reviews, both before and after I published my novel. The ones I wrote before — when I was just a reader, not a published author — are far better, if I’m honest.
It’s not because I lost my ability to write insightful commentary. It’s because, as my friendly advisor noted, after you publish your own work the wall between you and other writers thins.
When I became a struggling indie author, I found that I was much more forgiving of the works of other authors sharing my boat. I couldn’t avoid thinking about how they would feel when they read my review. I was less focused on how I might be of service — or disservice — to readers contemplating an investment of their time.
Perhaps needless to say, the wall between successful writers and me is still quite thick, and I have no concerns about inflicting pain on them with poor or lukewarm reviews. Yet who benefits if I add my take to the many reviews already in circulation? Is it really worth my time and energy?
What if I refrained from writing book reviews? I could still mention books in my blog posts. I could still point to passages that influenced me, or comment in general terms about my responses. It wouldn’t ruin my life as a writer if I were to cross book reviews off my list.
If I really wanted to weigh in on a book, I could write an anonymous review. Or in the case of Just Mercy, I could review the film instead of the book. In fact, that’s what I will do. I will take the advice I initially resisted and alter my plans.
The Golden Nuggets
This brings me to the promise of my post’s title — how to find the golden nuggets in the mountains of writing advice available on Medium and elsewhere.
Here’s my insight: If what you’re reading is generic information that recycles advice you’ve already internalized, you’re wasting your time. If you’re halfway through a post and you haven’t been challenged to think differently, it’s unlikely you’ll find any golden nuggets there.
What you should search for is advice that makes you squirm — that you instinctively don’t want to follow. That’s the advice you should take most seriously. It has the potential to be a golden nugget if it leads you to a better understanding of what you want to write and how you want to do it. It’s a golden nugget if it helps you grow.
Ultimately you might reject the advice — and for good reason. The key is to do the work to identify the reason. Don’t waste your time on advice that merely confirms what you already know. Don’t summarily reject advice that challenges you.
If you want to change your prospects as a writer, you have to venture into the deep, dark woods and explore. You have to leave the well-worn path, clamber through undergrowth, and look under rocks. It might seem a little scary, but maybe you’ll happen upon a rippling brook, and you might see something shining beneath the surface.