bad advice

Advice is a tricky thing.

I gave some bad advice recently. I didn’t mean to, of course, it just happened. A writer in my local NaNoWriMo chapter asked a broad question with a vague description of what she meant, and I gave her the “best” answer I had.

Which of course, was the wrong one.

Our group kept chatting–more information came out about the specifics and how those changed the best answers. I was wrong. It was bad advice.

We live in a culture that wants you to believe you need all the answers. Now. Give the wrong answer quickly and loudly, and you’ll be better received than if you research the correct answer murmuring.

With a few exceptions (the medical field and law), anyone can authoritatively give advice. In fact, despite laws that prevent the sharing of legal and medical advice outside of certain circumstances, many people are happy to say “oh, you can just do this.”

Problem is, when you get bad advice, you’re the one to deal with the consequences of acting on it. In the end, our actions belong only to us.

I’ve let this roll around in my head for a few weeks. not just how I can give out better advice–when I choose to give it–but how I can decide whether I actually know enough about a situation to correctly asses whether or not I should be giving advice in the first place.

Again, it’s tricky. Since I host a writing seminar once a month, there is pressure for me to answer any and all writing questions. After all, if I’m qualified to write up a three hour presentation on aspects of fiction/wordcraft, then I must be qualified to follow up with a Q&A, right?

Right. Problem is, one extra piece of information can change the answer.

The question becomes, when we’re asking for advice, what all do I need to include in my question to get a good answer?

I use this all the time when I run into problems in a story. I’ll open up my NaNo group chat and start typing away at the question or problem I have. Before I’ve gotten to the actual question, the answer has made itself clear to me… because all the time spent articulating the problem makes me realize I was stuck on the wrong thing or that I know what I want the answer to be.

Here’s some tips for getting good advice:

  1. Be honest with yourself about the answer you want. Questions that require a crystal ball–no clear-cut answer–are unfair for everyone. No one can look into the future and tell you which path will wind up being the right one. Should I do this, or this? Sorry. Getting advice on that is probably not going to make you feel any better about making that decision.
  2. Choose someone qualified to offer advice. Personally, I’d be happy to answer your fantasy fiction questions all afternoon. But don’t ask me about romance or literary frau-frau, because I have no idea.
  3. Refine the question and choose relevant background information. This is probably the trickiest part, because how do you know what’s relevant? The answer, for me, is keeping the question in the back of my mind for a time. Oh, and google.

How about doling it out?

  1. Check your qualifications. There’s this pressure to avoid saying “I don’t know,” and just to wing an answer, but honestly, it’s really okay to say so. Better yet–it’s fine to say, you really need to ask a lawyer/veterinarian/dietitian about that.
  2. Check your bias. We all have opinions and beliefs that form our world-views and how we respond. Being aware of these biases can help shape the answer, and alert the person seeking advice that we’re coming from X perspective. I’m not saying don’t include your bias–in fact, quite the opposite. I seek advice from certain parenting communities because their answers will skew toward my style, and when I offer advice in those communities, they know where I’m coming from, too.
  3. Ask probing questions. Make sure the person seeking advice is truly asking the question they meant to ask, and get all the relevant information you can to give a solid, confident response.

What advice do you have about advice?

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