The other day, I came across a promoter who sells all kinds of information on how to write book proposals – but as far as I can tell has never sold a book to a traditional publisher. A blogger recently suggested that before “hiring” an agent, you should interview the last three publishers she has worked with and ask how professional and ethical the agent was in her dealings with them.

And then there’s always that contest judge who criticizes writers for poor grammar when they fail to write in complete sentences, or marks them down for starting a sentence with a conjunction. Such judges feel gloriously superior as they sleep with their beloved copy of Strunk & White, and it will never occur to them that developing a personal style – which may, in fact, include incomplete sentences and other sins – is one of the most important steps a writer can take on the road to mastery. You can compose as many grammatically correct sentences as you like, and that does not make you a good writer. (It won’t even make you a good editor.)

As a writer, you’re going to get a lot of advice/judgments/opinions from people who don’t what the hell they’re talking about. It’s important that you figure out, early on, how to distinguish between people whose advice/information/feedback is worth considering and those who are just blowing smoke. How can you do that?

  • Know who’s talking. I love online forums and participate in a couple of them. But while letting people post anonymously may allow for a freer and more open exchange of information, it also means you don’t know how credible an advice-giver is. Be careful and use your brain. Do a little research. When you read a blog post (yes, even mine), find out a little about the person who is writing. If they’re talking about the finding-an-agent process, are they an agent? Or at least have an agent?
  • Have they done what they’re talking about? Or at least interviewed some experts?
  • Question the advice: Is what they’re suggesting completely different from or the exact opposite of what everyone else is saying? Mavericks and renegades are all well and good, but there’s a reason why most people don’t suggest calling up publishers and asking them to dish to a total stranger about the ethics of a specific, named agent. Do the words “Not gonna happen” mean anything to you?
  • Slow down if the information is “secret” and “confidential” but can be yours for only fifty bucks. There isn’t much in this business that’s confidential (except perhaps what a specific agent sold a specific client’s manuscript for.) And the stuff that is confidential isn’t going to be yours for fifty bucks.