Why writers should read advice columns

Advice columns are my catnip. It doesn’t matter what the advice is on—could be love (it’s often love), work, relationships—I’ll read it.

Much maligned as the realm reigned over by drama queens (and kings) and agony aunts, advice columns offer a fascinating slice into the lives of people you’ve never met, who anonymously pour their innermost worries out for a global audience. Curious about how a man would deal with a reluctant step-child, or a woman on the brink of getting fired because of her attitude to her ex-husband’s mistress? It’s all right there.

DTMF.jpg

The most thoughtful section is often the comments, where readers provide insight from their own lives. What happened when they tried a similar tactic? How did they cope? Or did they deal with a completely unrelated problem they’re dying to talk about?

There’s undoubtedly an element of the voyeur but advice columns also have the potential to take us out of our own world and sympathize with what others are enduring; even gain a sense of community. Whatever problem you have—from the common to the surreal—someone’s dealing with something similar.

For writers, advice columns can be an invaluable resource. They highlight people’s selfishness, greed, grudges and prejudice, as well as generosity, understanding and support. It’s everything a writer needs to build conflict and look at the many avenues there are to resolve it.

Here are my go-tos, but tell me if there are ones you love!

  1. Ask A Manager. Although geared to work and career advice, Alison Green and her commenters often veer into the delightfully strange. Want to know what to do if you discover a sex club at work? Find out here. Comments are respectful, and Alison is quick to step in to moderate out any nastiness. Some profanity.
  2. Captain Awkward. Covering the gamut of life issues, the Captain and her Awkward army are incredibly inclusive. Her advice, lovingly given, is usually along the lines of, yes this is weird and no, you do not have to deal with it as you are worth more. Profanity.
  3. Carolyn Hax. The grand dame of the Washington Post advice world, Hax’s advice is straightforward and seems more geared to middle America. Think: my husband won’t stand up to my mother-in-law. Comments get hilariously off topic, but are flagged as OT. You need a subscription, though.
  4. Chump Lady. A supportive forum for people coping with infidelity, with open discussion of abusive behaviours and how to cope. Profanity.
  5. The Guardian. As if reading my mind, The Guardian went straight to crowdsourcing the advice and bypasses an actual advice giver in their Private Lives series. It’s all comments.

I recommend every writer do scan a few columns on a regular basis. Like everyone, writers can get stuck in an echo chamber—advice columns offer that diversity of thought that can be so hard to access in our everyday lives.