Friday, April 29, 2011

No help or bad help?

Have you ever been in one of those situations where you need help with something, you actually know what you need help with, yet people insist on giving you some other sort of help because they think they know what you need better than you do? Do you hate that? I hate that. I mean, I really, really hate that.

Let me give you an example:

A couple of years ago, my mother-in-law needed help with some yard work. It really wasn't a big thing she needed help with, but my mother-in-law was (she died last fall of pancreatic cancer) very independent. Preferred to do everything herself. She had enough tools in her garage to make men salivate. A drill press. A table saw. She built things. She gardened. She never went by "Mom" or "Grandma" or anything like that, because she had a name, and that's what she went by. Yes, she kept her maiden name when she got married. The fact that she asked for help at all was pretty significant.

The problem, though, was that the whole thing got turned into this big, yard work party. In and of itself, that would have been fine, but the event got out of hand. People were doing things that my mother-in-law didn't want or need help with. Being a very gracious host, though, she didn't say anything and allowed things to just progress. Until it became apparent that the thing she actually wanted help with was not going to be addressed at all.

A couple of hours into all of this, she approached me and asked me if I would help her with something. Sure. I wasn't enthused about whatever it was I was doing, anyway. Of course, I'm never really enthused about yard work, so doing one thing was as good as another. There was a large branch in her backyard, a fair sized portion of the tree it fell from, that was too big to drag off for disposal. That's the thing, the one thing, she needed help with. She needed it chopped up into small enough pieces to go into the yard waste disposal. And, yet, there it sat in the backyard receiving no attention at all. I got an axe and started chopping away at it while she cleared the smaller branches that I chopped off.

And she talked to me about being frustrated by everything that was going on. She didn't want to offend anyone, but this branch was the only thing she had wanted help with. She hadn't wanted to need help with that, but she knew she wasn't going to be able to do it by herself. All of the other "help" was actually depriving her of several weeks worth of gardening that she found enjoyable.

At the end of the day, there was talk from a few people about making yard work at my mother-in-law's a monthly event. People were kind of excited about it. They'd thought they'd really helped, and they felt good about it. Fortunately, in this instance, people, being what they are, failed to follow through with that threat, and her gardening space wasn't invaded again.

When I was a kid, my mom often gave me "help" that I didn't want. It was very traumatic. Like this one time when she cut up this Star Wars poster that I had colored so she could put it in a frame because "I would like it better that way." I didn't like it better that way. I liked it the way it was, and she took scissors to it. No, I never did get over that.
And then there was my very first poetry assignment from school. I was in 4th grade. We had to write a poem that had something to do with food for some contest. We were allowed to have help. I didn't write that poem. I stood next to my mother protesting as she wrote this two page poem, but she wouldn't listen to me telling her that I didn't want her to do it for me. Did you get the part where I was in 4th grade and my mom wrote a two page long poem? She instructed me to tell the teacher that I wrote it. I hadn't learned to say "no" to my mom, yet, so, when the teacher looked at what I'd turned in and asked me if I wrote it (and, yes, she asked me in front of the whole class), I said "yes." I felt horrible about it, but I didn't know what else to do.

I could go on...

But I won't, because I'm sure everyone has their own experiences with this. Maybe it wasn't your mother, though. Or, maybe, it was.

I'm sure part of the problem is that parents tend to train their children in the understanding that "help" actually means "do it for you."
"Here, let me help you with that," as the parent takes whatever it is that the child is doing and does it for said child. So children learn that asking for "help" is equivalent to asking to not to have to do it.

Of course, when you're dealing with children, actually helping them takes oh so much longer than just taking it and doing it yourself, so there's a great temptation there.

I think, though, that we carry that expectation on into our adult lives. Both sides of the coin. We still mean, "will you do this for me?" when we ask for help. And, when people ask us for help, we expect that they mean that very same thing.

I'm wondering if writing makes me more sensitive to this issue than other people, though. Well, I'm already sensitive to it in the same kind of way as my mother-in-law with her yard work. If I'm asking you for help, I'm not asking you to do it for me. I mean, if I want something done for me, like unloading the dishwasher, I'll just have one of my kids do it. That's what they're for, right? But only unloading, never loading, because there is that other kind of help where you have to go back and re-do the whole job and it takes longer than it would have to begin with. Kids are especially good at that kind of help. Which isn't to say that you shouldn't let the kids help sometime, just make sure you have time to re-do the job if it doesn't turn out the way you wanted it to.

With writing, the thing that I've found most difficult to get "help" with is feedback. Even when I'm specific. "Read this and tell me what you think of it" and a lot of "do nots." Like "do not correct spelling." "Do not correct grammar." "Do not tell me how you would write it differently." Invariably, I get all of those things back. Sometimes with correctly spelled words "corrected" incorrectly. These things don't help me. If I'm asking for feedback, I'm not asking for an editor. That's a completely different task. What I want to know is story and flow. How it makes you feel. Did you get bored? Do you want to know what's coming up? Did it make you care? The details (spelling, grammar, all of that) will get worked out, but I don't care about those at all if the story isn't working.

Is it better to have bad help or no help? Sometimes, it's really hard to know. I hate having to re-do something because of bad help (like when I had to re-type a paper that someone "helped" me with, but there were so many errors in it that the teacher handed it back to me and said to re-type it), but are there times when the bad help is better than no help?


  1. I enjoyed reading that (it had plenty of flow, in case you were wondering).

    i think you're a little harsh on those people who try to give you feedback. Often small errors like spelling and typos are distracting and prevent the reader getting into the swing of the actual story part.

    And they may also be at a different level to you writing-wise. It's hard to gauge where it's
    not working and sometimes more comfortable to your should be you're.

    I'd say bad help with the occasional useful pointer, even if it's more luck than judgement, is better than no help. Punching cushions also helps, I find.

    Moody Writing

  2. mooderino: I'm not actually harsh with -them-. And I don't mind the other stuff if I also get what I'm asking for. The stuff I'm asking for help with. It's when I get back the editing and nothing else when it's frustrating, and, often, that's all I get. Or I only get "it's good" along with re-writes.

    I'll have to look into a punching cushion. :)

  3. I understand your frustrations, and I agree with Mooderino a bit too. Asking an accountant to help with your oil painting might not work out to well for anyone. Asking a grammartarian to tell you how your character arc works might not be much better.

    As a critiquer, I know its hard for me when someone asks me to look for plot holes, themes, or other storytelling problems but hands me a chapter or two to work with. I honestly can't help with those issues if I don't know the larger story. So I do what I can with what I got.

    In the end, I think finding a good critique partner is like finding a mate. It ain't easy. It isn't because other people aren't great, you just don't always fit together.

  4. I'm terrified about asking for help with my writing. I don't think I will ever dare to venture out of my extremely small circle of betas. I'm chicken that way.

  5. Oh wow, what a post. I can sadly really relate to the whole issue that your poor MIL went through (thank goodness she had you to help her in the way she really needed) and with your Mom. Heck, my mom used to routinely make me throw out anything I had Star Wars related because she'd decide every now and then it was "from the devil". No, I'm not making that up. You'd weep for the movie programmes (from the actual first-run releases) and things I had to throw away.

    I also understand it from the standpoint of a disabled person who could really use some simple help at times. Like Monday, for example. Monday, I have to go somewhere 1.5 miles from my apartment. Too far to walk, for me. The local cab service is a nightmare. So I have to hire an expensive one because I can't ask my family for a ride because they'd rather show up on random days- on their schedule (the family I see at all, most of them couldn't handle my become disabled and other things and are not in the picture) and interrupt me when I'm finally actually feeling up to writing.

    Sometimes it's the simplest things that help the most, and people just complicate it. (and I heard a great saying once, "If it's not one thing, it's my mother..."

    Reminds me of Shel Silverstein's poem where he said something about the 'kind of help that helping's all about' as opposed to 'the kind of help we can all do without'.

    I'm terrified to ask people to read my writing for this reason. I don't know what to do with my current WIP when it comes to that. I have a couple people who have volunteered and one reader I can always, always count on. But aside from that, I'm just afraid what I'll get back is those incorrect corrections, or that I'll ask people so much better than I am that in the end I'll just feel I couldn't do it as well as they would.

    I hope you find readers that will help you with giving you what you're after. If my eyesight would allow it, I'd offer to help out myself. Sadly, sometimes people want to help more than they can :~(

    GREAT post.


  6. I think you hit the nail on the head with asking for feedback, but adding "do not"s. I'm so used to getting critiques that include line-editing items, comma errors, and things like that, and I imagine that it's difficult for some writers to ignore those things while giving critiques. They can't help themselves, and they're truly doing it out of a sense that they are helping (because, in their mind, "Who wouldn't want an error pointed out? Aren't they trying to make their manuscript as strong as possible?").

    I have a first critique meeting with a woman this coming Thursday, and I'm stealing your questions (How it makes you feel? Did you get bored? Do you want to know what's coming up? Did it make you care?) and suggesting we keep to those for the first round.

    Thanks for a great post!

  7. It's difficult, I think, to read a piece and not correct spelling and grammar errors when you see them. They pull you out of the story. Also, writers can miss egregious errors in their writing, and as a reader you want to help them out. Of course, that's not the help you want. I understand. It's frustrating! I've found, the more I write, the less I give out. There are only a few people that I let read my stuff before it is really, really polished. But the only way to really figure out who those people are is to hand it out and go through several frustrating experiences like the ones you just described. It's a conundrum, to be sure!

  8. Man, do I hear you!? I hate being 'overhelped', though I have fallen into the trap of providing that. One of my best crit partners is a high school special ed teacher, and the reason I love her so much is she highlights a section and says 'this didn't make sense to me' instead of rewording it for me (and changing the meaning) which so many people do. Providing good criticism takes some training (and I think being on the receiving end helps a ton)

  9. I am going to lean to the no help side is better than bad help. Nothing gets my irish up more than those over helpers....not just with writing. If I hand a chapter to my sister and say "let me know what you think of this chapter" she knows I am not asking for spelling corrections and such I first want to know if its worth going through and correcting. So I usually stick to a small trusted group when it comes to writing "help".

  10. I want to have some good comment to add here. I just wrote a whole paragraph about comma usage and adverbial phrases, but it doesn't -really- apply to any of this, but I was having fun. heh
    At any rate, I don't have anything else to say on the topic, I guess, that doesn't convolute it anymore. I'll just say 3 things:

    1. I don't -really- mind when someone points out spelling errors or simple grammar issues.

    2. I do -really- mind (hate) it when someone re-writes what I've written often saying, "I would have done it like this."

    3. Bru: If it's your story, no one else can do it as well as you. No one. Because no one else can tell that story.

    Oh, and Jess, I hope those questions work for you! Steal away! :)

  11. Oh, and these are great responses. I think I kind of expected to be bashed over the head for having a "bad attitude" after doing this post. It's good to know that I'm not the only one that has to deal with this kind of thing. Or maybe it's not. Actually, it kind of sucks that anyone has to deal with this kind of thing. But, then, I suppose "soylent green is people!" Wait...