5 Things Not to Say to a Writer
As a writer, there are a few things I hear a lot… that I really don’t want to hear. Here are five things not to say to a writer (or at least to me!) about writing.
1. “Oh, you’re a writer? Everyone has a novel or two in them, I think. I’ve always been meaning to write one. How hard can it really be?”
This is something I hear pretty routinely, and it makes me cringe a little for a number of reasons. First and foremost, I’m not that arrogant, but I do recognize that there’s something different and bit special about what I do. Not everyone writes. Not everyone has written a novel. And many of the people who claim that they’re going to never do. Because what do writers do? Writers write. And if that person were a writer, they’d be writing. I won’t discount the possibility that someday they’ll pick up their pen or start typing away on the story of their life, but it seems a bit reductive to tell a writer who’s currently putting in the hard work every single day that you, too, intend to write a novel some distant day in the future.
The other thing is that is really can be and is that hard. It’s not just the writing, you see. Unless you’ve taken a novel project from the idea stage through the first, second, third, and final drafts, and then gone through additional rounds of revision until you hate the damn manuscript, you’ve not really experienced what it’s like to write a novel… and bring it up to a polishable state. Being a writer implies a lot more than just writing. There’s rewriting. Revision. Editing. The heartache and heartbreak of querying. Back when I was a writer who had never queried, I didn’t talk about querying. Because I didn’t know it, and I didn’t want to reduce the experiences of those who had queried and did know it. Think about doing the same for writers and writing.
2. “Oh, you’re a writer? You must be starving… How do you survive?”
I mean, by the same token, please don’t say, “Oh, you’re a writer? You must be rolling in dough!” This is a general piece of advice. Don’t think that you know from someone’s job what their income is, or what their facts of life are, or what their quality of living is. Because there are some (few) writers rolling in dough, and there are some (few) writers who are starving at any given time. Most writers have day jobs that keep them from starving. We may be writers, but we’re not stupid, and especially if we have families or are trying to build families, we understand the importance of having a sustainable income. The starving artist story happens, but it’s not something we really want to sit around wallowing in, especially if that’s where we’re at in the moment. It’s something we might want to revisit later to see how far we’ve come.
So don’t commit these fallacies when talking to a writer. Don’t suggest that they’re starving or are going to starve and bring down their entire family with them. And don’t suggest that their next book is going to hit #1 on the New York Times bestselling list and they’ll be made for life. Because neither of those things are inherently likely to happen.
3. “Your writing is the best writing I’ve ever read!”
Yeah. Now, I know. As writers, we like compliments as much as the next person. And we do like getting compliments when we share our work. But a compliment like this rings alarm bells in my head for a number of reasons. One, because most of the people I’ve heard it from were teenage boys when I was in high school with them, and I’m pretty sure they were trying to get into my pants. Two, because… honestly? You expect me to believe that out of all the writing you’ve ever read, mine is the best? No f—ing way. That just makes me think you haven’t read anything besides my writing, or that you’re sugarcoating.
If you want to provide good feedback to a writer, say something like, “I can see your talent” or, “I really enjoyed your [insert poem, short story, novel chapter, etc.].” Please, none of this pandering. By the same token, don’t tell the poor writer that their writing is the worst writing you’ve ever read. Because, let’s be honest, it probably isn’t. Think before you critique.
4. “You know… you’re never going to be a bestseller or anything. You’re wasting your time here.”
This, to be honest, should top the list of things not to say to a writer. If I’d ordered these, it probably would. This is the worst thing, hands down, to say to any writer, especially a young writer. But I heard it time and time again. That I was wasting my time. That I ought to go on to something bigger and better. By bigger and better people usually meant something more lucrative. Which made me think that all they cared about was money. Meanwhile, they seemed to think that the only reason I wrote was because I wanted to make it big and make a lot of money. Which reinforced what I was thinking about them.
Writers, on the whole, are not obsessed with money, or with making it big. Yes, it’s a consideration. Yes, it crosses my mind — what would it be like to have a bestselling novel that made me rich and famous? Of course it crosses my mind. I’m human. But it’s not my biggest concern, and it’s certainly not the reason why I write, and even if in my life I never have a bestselling novel, writing will still have been worth it. It will not have been a waste of time. It will never be a waste of time for me, because I write for so many varied reasons — first and foremost of which is that writing keeps me alive. And I really mean that. Remember that Stephen King quote? It boils down to “Art is a support system for life.” And that’s how I feel about writing.
5. “Oh, you’re a successful writer? You must be a sell-out. Or you’re writing pretentious stuff for pretentious people.”
So, you know a writer who’s made it. Maybe they have written that bestseller. Or maybe they’ve won a big, pretentious prize.
It’s pretty funny. My mom used to tell me that writing was a waste of time and that I better find a “back-up” plan. Now that I’ve started writing poetry that people like, she’s changed her tune a bit. She tells me that poetry is a “pretentious” form of writing written only for people who take literature courses — people like that. And she’s begun telling me that I should take up freelance editing. Which is not a bad idea in and of itself, it’s just that she expects me to give up writing to now become… an editor. Okay, Mama.
Not to rag on my mother, who I love dearly, but this isn’t a nice thing for a writer to hear, especially when that writer has begun finding some success. It would be really nice to hear a heartfelt congratulations or an, “I’m proud of you.” But too often, successful writers in the genre space hear things like, “You’ve sold out by writing something commercial,” while successful writers in the literary space hear things like, “Your work is so pretentious and literary and that’s the only reason the critics like it.” Listen. We’ve worked hard. The world has decided our work has value. If you want to say something about that, you don’t need to say much at all. We’d much prefer if you picked up a copy of our work, gave it a read, discussed it with us if you wanted, and told us congratulations and good, hard work.
Now, listen. If you ever come across me and say one of these things, I’ll forgive you. I might point out the flaws in what you’re saying, but I’ll forgive you. Some people, though, aren’t as forgiving as I am. They might do something like trash your name all across Twitter or, at the very worst, write you into one of their novels as the villain. Eek. I’m sure you don’t want that. Sometimes, it’s best to stay on a writer’s good side.
But all the same, I don’t want you to police your thoughts or your voice. So if you genuinely think that one of these things is the right thing to say to a particular person, go ahead and say it. They might become mad, though. So prepare for the consequences.
Writers out there, I’m curious to hear whether you agree with the points I’ve made here. Are these things that also bother you, or are they “me” things? Which is the worst? Do you have more things not to say to a writer about writing? Let me know in the comments!
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