4 Things Not to Say to Writers
I’ve been a professional writer for sixteen years, and I’ve had a lot of it. Hundreds of emails from literary journals saying, “Thanks, but this isn’t for us.” Dozens of responses from writing contests that say, “Close, but not close enough.” Agents with their letters of “I really liked your book . . . you got anything else?”
I don’t have to sit here telling you about how much rejection is involved in this line of work, and if you haven’t found this out, don’t worry; you will. If someone hasn’t said no to you, prepare yourself because it will happen.
However . . . the worst rejection I’ve experienced as a writer didn’t come from agents, editors, or publications.
It came from the people I know.
I remember when I graduated high school and started getting ready for college. I had decided to major in creative writing and professional writing, had gotten a scholarship to my first-choice college, and couldn’t wait for summer to be over so I could get started.
But then, family members and friends started asking me what was up next, and when I told them, they usually squinted up their eyes and said . . .
“Are you sure that’s a good idea? You know you’re never going to get a job doing that.”
I felt my enthusiasm drain out of me.
Then there was my graduation party. You know what’s worse than having a chance encounter with someone and having them criticize your choice of a creative writing major? Try a whole social event full of them.
Some people came around and supported my goals, but most of the time, they continued to be confused. Then, as my senior year of college began, I announced another bold move: I felt like I could go beyond my college writing experiences, so I decided to apply for a Master of Fine Arts program.
When I got into my first choice school, West Virginia University, the critics were even more baffled. Surely I’d had my fun earning a useless degree, and now I was going to grow up and do something serious with my life.
Nope. I was going to move to West Virginia and get another creative writing degree.
“You really just don’t want to get a job, do you?” one of my parents’ friends once said.
The thing is, many people think they’re being funny when they say stuff like this, or maybe even have the best of intentions to be helpful. But if you’ve been in this position—and you’re reading this post, so I’d venture to say you have—you know that these comments are not helpful or amusing.
In fact, they really sting.
You know what you're signing up for when you decide to be a professional writer. It looks more like living a gypsy-like existence where you go from one job or client to the next, always looking for the next source of work and wondering where money will come from next.
It’s true. The financial rewards aren’t terrific. But what you get back in terms of the flexibility to create, the ability to explore different types of work, and the chance to truly use your skills to help people succeed is worth far more than that.
Most people, however, don’t understand this. They have a particular idea of what writing for a living means—one that is sadly inaccurate yet perpetuated. The writer who sits alone in an office blissfully crafting bestsellers does not exist.
As a result, there are many things that people say to writers that, as well-intentioned as they may be, can do a lot of emotional harm.
I’ve compiled a list below of actual things people have said to me as a writer.
“What do you do with that degree? Teach?”
Why do people assume that writing is synonymous with teaching? I know a LOT of professional writers, and, not counting myself, only four have spent any time in a classroom. Most writers are stereotyped as being quiet and introverted, yet teachers literally have to be on their game with people all day. Who started this bizarre comparison?
It also didn’t help my situation that I had a teaching assistantship in grad school. I agreed to teach freshman English courses in exchange for a stipend and free tuition. (Remind me to tell you my stories about teaching freshmen at the then-number one party school in the country where football is worshipped as a spiritual ritual.)
The problem was, people had trouble separating the fact that I was teaching as a way to pay for my degree from the fact that I actually had no desire to do it for a living.
I don’t want to sound like my time teaching was useless because it wasn’t. But when my primary goal for being there was to be a better writer and people were coming up to me asking me how I liked teaching and where I wanted to teach in the future, it didn’t exactly help clear up the confusion surrounding why I was studying creative writing.
Teaching and writing have overlap, but they are not the same thing. Case closed.
“How much are they paying you for (your job, your book, your short story, etc.)?”
One time I got a publication acceptance that I was super psyched about. Like, it was a case of trying for four years to find a home for this story I really loved, and then it finally, FINALLY happened.
I told a friend about it. He asked me how much they were paying me.
We all know that most publication acceptances don’t come with money. The reward is that your story gets in print and an instant public audience. This, for us, is a great reward.
However, because people still expect that most writers experience Stephen King-like success, they don’t get it.
I know people make fun of the idea that writers and other artists often do things “for the exposure.” There are times when that is an exploitative situation, like you should be willing to give away your talents for free (more on this later). But sometimes, exposure is good. It’s very good. Publication credits look good on a resume. Having your work chosen for a literary journal or online webzine is an honor.
This is what we need to tell people when they ask about money.
“Hey, you’re good with writing—can you [proofread my paper, comment on my story, serve on this committee, help me plagiarize, etc.]?”
On the one hand, it’s great that people appreciate my skills. I see these requests primarily as praise: people recognize my abilities and think I’m a fit for what they’re doing.
On the other hand, this kind of thing really burns me.
For one thing, despite the compliment, I feel taken advantage of. My skills are not something to be given away just because I’m friends or have a social connection with someone. If money enters the picture, then yes, we can negotiate. But it bothers me when people come to me with the expectation that I’ll just do it, especially now that I run a business.
If you think that sounds pompous or self-serving, sorry not sorry. I do this for a living, and it costs money to run my company. You wouldn’t walk into a grocery store and say, “Hey, you’re doing a great job running this register, can I have this Milky Way?” So why do people think it’s okay to assume you will edit their work, write their paper, etc., for nothing?
We criticize writers for not making enough money, then set the double standard of not offering compensation.
To be clear, this isn’t ALL people. Many of us have been approached by people we know with an offer to edit their work for pay. But many people think this is totally okay, and it isn’t comforting.
“Are you still writing your little stories?”
If someone says this to you, remind them of your biggest writing accomplishment (winning National Novel Writing Month, writing an article for an online magazine, publishing a poem, running your own website, etc.) and change the subject.
Or move on. You don’t need that kind of sarcastic belittlement in your life.
For the Road: Here Are Five More Things to Not Say . . .
“Have you finished your book yet?”
“I’d love to write a book someday, but I don’t have time.”
“I’ve got this great book idea. You should write it!”
“Aren’t you, like, worried about the economy?”
And of course . . .
“Let’s hang out sometime! I mean, you work from home, right?”
Is all this a little too negative for you? Does my sarcasm bother you?
Never fear—I’ll be back next week with 4 Things You Definitely Want to Say to Writers!
However . . . knowing how to respond to these comments comes with confidence. And the best way to gain confidence in your writing is to write more.
Inkling Creative Strategies has tons of FREE resources to help you do just that.
Click here to read about the workbooks, guides, and toolkits I offer to help you reach your full creative potential so you can impact and inspire readers.