Saturday, February 8, 2014

Why to Give Advice in Your Own Words

In Good Will Hunting, a young Harvard student, Clark, comes up to the Will’s friend, Sean. Sean is trying to pick up some girls and Clark is trying to embarrass him. Will is quickly fed up and steps in.



Will: Of course that’s your contention. You’re a first year grad student. You just finished some Marxian historian, Pete Garrison prob’ly, and so naturally that’s what you believe until next month when you get to James Lemon and get convinced that Virginia and Pennsylvania were strongly entrepreneurial and capitalist back in 1740. That’ll last until sometime in your second year, then you’ll be in here regurgitating Gordon Wood about the Pre-revolutionary utopia and the capital-forming effects of military mobilization.

Clark: Well, as a matter of fact, I won’t, because Wood drastically underestimates the impact of—

Will: “Wood drastically underestimates the impact of social distinctions predicated upon wealth, especially inherited wealth…” You got that from Work in Essex County, page 421, right? Do you have any thoughts of your own on the subject or were you just gonna plagiarize the whole book for me?”



When I first sought out this quote, I was looking at it from a more “predictable” standpoint. My brother and I were talking about when people make book suggestions. I said I was always skeptical of what people tell me are “good books” because they tend to give me things they want to like over things they actually like. He cited this for me as an example that liars will be predictable.

But now that I’ve found the actual source, this ties in much more than what I was going to say. This is not just an example of predictability, but an example of the extreme reason why someone might go out of their way to not say something in their own words—they don’t have original thoughts.

My argument is not about why people tend to repeat age-old advice, but why it benefits everyone to say it in their own words.

1) If I’ve heard it many times before, I’m insulted, and I think you don’t know what you’re talking about.

Imagine if you were to ask me for a good fantasy novel, and I tell you to read Lord of the Rings. At best, you think I don’t know a lot of fantasy novels, at worst, you’re going to think I think you don’t know any fantasy novels.

If I’m seeking advice out and someone gives me something more common than a fair-weather cat, one of us has to be stupid. Lord of the Rings is a great book, but it’s not something that fantasy lovers will suggest to you when you’re looking for a new book. They’ll assume you’ve heard of it. People who know what they’re talking about will have more unique suggestions than the most obvious.

So when you say to me, “show, don’t tell,” or “don’t use passive-sentences,” I’m offended at how inexperienced you think I am. I know that, sometimes, there’s not always a way to tell what the other person knows—which is why it’s helpful to say it in your own words. You can tell me to “only use said,” in your own words, and I won’t feel like you’re saying something incredibly obvious; it will be new.

2) I probably already have passed judgment on it.

I can’t clarify enough how likely it is for people asking for writing advice to have heard the basics already. Typically it’s a lot of beginners who really seek out answers, but even still, most advice is given readily and repetitively.

Most people will have already decided whether or not something is true. And if I didn’t believe it when Stephen King said it, why would I change my mind when Professor Smith does? Unless he’s added something else to it.

Einstein claims insanity is trying the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. Advice can’t be bludgeoned into someone by just repeating it. But a person can be convinced when shed in a different light.

The most commonly restated pieces of wisdom are liked for their snappy quotability, not for their clarity. “Don’t ever use adverbs.” What? Never? Why the hell not? There’s lots of problems to be solved by minimizing adverbs, but you’ll notice that the problems aren’t what people are spewing, just the solutions. And when considering a lot of these solutions are cover-up for chicken pox (they conceal the symptoms rather than fixing anything) the suggestions tend to look… well, stupid.

You’re telling me that if I delete every synonym for “said,” then my book will be a thousand times better? I’m going to go with bullshit. There’s a lot more problems than that, thank you. In fact, let’s talk about those:

3) Your own words will consider context.

The other day I read a short story that was hard to follow. The sentences were long with, honestly, a lot of “excessive words.” Now, I know damn well that if someone told me I should blanketly cut any extra words, I would be annoyed and ignore them, thinking that they were just looking for something else to say, so they fell back to a default.

Instead, I told him that before I knew what the sentence was going to say, I emphasized the wrong words, and had to go back and reread it every time I emphasized too soon. Because there were a lot of in-world inventions with more than one word in them (like “machine god”) there were a lot of adjectives functioning like nouns. He also had a lot of nouns functioning like adjectives (a “planet threatening” problem.) Then, on top of all that, he had words that weren’t “needed.”

In the English language, we cut out as many words as we can when we speak. “Go walk the dog,” versus “You go walk the dog.” So when we included words that aren’t “necessary,” it tells the audience to emphasis them. “He had had a big lunch yesterday.” Emphasis on “had.” “He stood out in the hot sun.” Emphasis on “out.”

Sometimes this is exactly what you want, and exactly why you should keep “extra” words even when people say you shouldn’t. But when a reader looks at a sentence for the first time, he needs be able to correctly assume which words to emphasize as he’s going, and when you have a sentence with a lot of propositional phrases, “that’s,” and “hads,” the reader can get mixed up. If that’s happening, by cutting down on the size of the sentence, they are less likely to error on which word is the most important.

Whether or not he agreed with me, it still seems like I put far more thought into his story, why he was doing what he was doing, and the options for how to fix my personal problem. I basically said, in a long way, to cut down on extra words, but because I explained what problem I had from these extra words, it is easier to find other solutions, if he doesn’t like mine, and he can better look at the problem that I am discussing and figure out if I’m wrong. If I’m the only person in the world not knowing which words to emphasize, then he doesn’t need to worry about it. An issue only manifests in one way, but solutions can solve thousands of problems. So there are a lot of reasons why I might want him to cut words, and just because someone else has another solution doesn’t mean that we’re not agreeing on the problem.

4) The saying doesn’t mean the same to everyone.

A while ago a man kept telling me I needed to “set-up the scene” more. Told me over and over again, and as I looked at it, I could not see what he was talking about. Finally, I told him, “I think that I set up the hut pretty well, that you know exactly where you are and what it looks like.”

He says, “Yeah, you did.”

I frowned.

“I want to know more about the world. Are we in outer space?”

Oooooooooooooooooohhhhhhhhhh. That’s different.

Just like most people have already passed judgment on whether or not something’s right or wrong, it also means something different to each and every person. After having made a correlation to what a phrase means, we start to ignore the actual words and make assumptions. So when someone is telling you something in the exact same way each time, it’s more likely you won’t get it. When they restate it in a contextual way, you’re more likely to understand what they’re talking about.

There’s a dependency on academics’ words, for many reasons, but I believe a big one is that the speaker has the support of reputation behind them. When you’re a no-name, you have to work damn hard to prove you’re right. It’s wrong until proven true. When you are an “expert,” you’re right unless proven otherwise. For some people more than others. So if I tell you I emphasized words wrong, it’s easier to say, “You’re an idiot,” then if I tell you, “Hemmingway says the best sentences are the short ones.” You could say, “Hemmingway’s an idiot,” but we all know how that would look.

So instead of talking about my personal reaction, I use someone else’s words to explain a solution to my personal reaction. But because a solution could solve so many different reactions, and because an author has his own established opinion as to what reactions it is trying to solve, there’s a fairly good chance he’ll look at his work and not know what the hell I’m talking about.

5) Quotes without citation perpetuate lies.

Hemmingway says, “Blank.” Freddy Smith repeats, “Blank.” Your professor is friends with Freddy Smith, and tells his students, “Blankety blank.” His students grow up to be teachers (because what else are writers going to do?) and they tell their students, “Blankety blank blank.”

Hemmingway is a specific writer, saying something in a specific context. Mr. Smith simplifies that context for the sake of the story. The professor snaps up the most witty line and uses it as absolute truth. Some of the students accept it as absolute truth, not really understanding why, and give it out to the next generation. Not only could many things be lost in translation, but you can’t discount the fact that Hemmingway could be wrong. Or lying. Or talking about his own personal tastes. Or Freddy Smith is telling his own opinion, but saying it was Hemmingway to give it more viability. (I’ve caught people doing this). Or the professor thinks it’s Hemmingway when really what Mr. Smith said was, “I want to be like Hemmingway, so I do blank,” which is actually Mr. Smith’s impression of what Hemmingway is doing. When you’re getting it five people down the line, all of whom respect experts unquestioningly, it’s a thousand times harder to determine if it’s true. When you’re being bombarded with information, and you don’t outright agree with something, it’s difficult to determine if you should be spending more time with it, or if is just wrong.

But, here’s the thing: Whenever someone tries to say what is true for them, using other people’s ideas as a jumping point, it is self-correcting. If Smith truly believes what he’s saying, and he’s made sense out of why it’s true, then it doesn’t matter that the idea started from miscommunication or even an outright lie. When he tries to be convincing and say why it’s true, as long as he’s honest with it, it resets the information, making the next person able to decipher what Mr. Smith feels, instead of trying to figure out what Hemmingway feels through a peephole of Mr. Smith’s interpretation.


Professionalism is about doing things for the sake of keeping up appearances. It is an important evil of making people take you seriously. But, as long as we accept expert’s twisted advice as law without questioning why, we’ll be forced to limit ourselves in stupid and unbeneficial ways. By thinking and interpreting advice for ourselves, we’re less likely to continuing lying about what makes a good book, and come up with new conclusions about what makes a good book.