Don’t Be A Dick: Give Advice Without Being Negative

At the 2007 Penny Arcade Expo Wil Wheaton delivered a rousing keynote speech about sportsmanship in online gaming. “I’m feeling like a cranky old man by even mentioning it,” he said. “But would you all do me a favor? When you’re playing online, have fun, and don’t be a dick, okay?” The phrase caught on.

PAX attendees quickly began invoking Wheaton’s Law in the same way one invokes Asimov’s Laws of Robotics. Wheaton’s Law continued to spread, providing a clear framework for interacting with strangers online: don’t be a dick.

In a world of hyper-partisan division and inflammatory think-pieces, it’s time to again call on Wheaton’s Law. Yes, it’s okay to have dissenting opinions. Yes, it’s great to share your ideas with strangers on the internet. You can do these things without being hurtful or harming other people.

As a writing advice publisher, The Writing Cooperative’s mission is to support and encourage other writers. It’s hard to provide support and encouragement when violating Wheaton’s Law. While it’s perfectly acceptable to develop advice based on a visceral reaction to someone’s writing, it is not okay to demean the author in the process.

Here are a few quick tips to provide actionable writing advice while adhering to Wheaton’s Law:

Set the stage

Kate Niederhoffer, a Ph.D. psychologist, developed a simple, science-backed method for giving advice. Niederhoffer explains it’s essential to set the stage for your suggestion to be heard. While firing off 1,000 words about why specific work is “terrible” might be fun, it does not set the stage for advice.

Instead, acknowledge the work in question inspired your advice. It’s okay to share you weren’t a fan, but provide concrete reasons why you disliked the work. Your explanation should be based on mechanics and not your feelings.

For example: saying “the characters sucked” is based on feelings and breaks Wheaton’s Law. Instead, what caused you not to like the characters? Were they one-dimensional? Know-it-alls? Too perfect? Focus on the reason and avoid your personal feelings.

Remember, the thing you didn’t like is someone else’s creation. There’s a human behind those words, and whatever they published is most likely the version they wanted in the world. It’s okay not to like it, but it’s not okay to tarnish it or the author.

Model your solution

Another psychologist, Thomas G. Plante Ph.D., explains giving advice rarely works because the receiver is stripped of their choices. Instead, Plante encourages people to model their intended changes.

Deconstruct the reason you didn’t enjoy the work in question. Were the characters flat? Did you not like how the plot unfolded? Was the author’s tone or style challenging to follow? Use these reasons to share how you approach your own writing.

For example:

  • If you felt the characters were flat, explain how you try to write well-rounded characters.
  • If you didn’t like how the plot unfolded, explain how you develop conflict in your work.
  • If you felt the author’s tone or style was difficult to follow, explain how you approach voice.

When modeling, be cautious not to revert to personal feelings. It’s easy to couch your advice as the “right” or “better” way to approach writing. Your process is precisely that, yours. It may resonate better with some readers than others, but there will be some who also dislike what you have to say. Keep that in mind when modeling your process.

Stay humble

Art Markham Ph.D. reviewed a set of psychological studies and concluded giving advice increase feelings of power. We all want to be in control and have power over our lives. It’s important to stay humble and not use providing advice as a means of taking power away from someone else.

Again, return to the reasons why you disliked the piece and avoid the feelings. Feelings like jealousy and anger can easily lead to advice that violates Wheaton’s Law. Instead, stay humble and understand where your emotions are coming from. Then, write your advice from a place of construction and not destruction.

Conclusion

As writers, we want our work to cause people to think, feel, and react. However, no one wants someone to respond in ways that belittle our work or our abilities. When providing other writers with advice based on someone else’s work you didn’t enjoy, remember Wheaton’s Law: Don’t Be A Dick.

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