It’s tough to be a writer. Writing involves giving so much of yourself to this project that everyone is going to judge and read with preset expectations. Even for folks who are trying to show their support, sometimes that support can come off as judgmental or worse. I’ve seen lists like this one on the internet before, but I’ve always wanted to write my own because there are things non-writers have said to me that always rubbed me the wrong way.
Of course, I never want to be impolite to anyone, especially if that person is trying to show their support. Or if they might become a future reader.
Please don’t take this post as my complaining about people who say these things. When faced with occupations that are so idealized by the media, it’s natural to have questions. That’s why my list will show you not only what not to say to a writer, but what you can say instead.
So let’s get to my list of three things writers never want to hear…and what you can say instead.
#1: “When is your book going to be finished?”
I’ve been asked this many times. Honestly, it’s flattering. If you’re that excited to read my book and all you know is the title, I’m thrilled. Here’s the thing though–writing and publishing a book takes a lot of effort and a lot of time. Much of the process is out of the author’s hands, especially if s/he decides to publish with a traditional or indie publisher.
It can take a year or more (some books take a decade) just to write. Then they have to go through rigorous rounds–yes, multiple rounds–of editing. They have to be proofread. Marketing plans must be devised. Covers must be designed.
Oh, and don’t forget actually getting an agent and editor to decide to publish a book. It can take many tries to find the right match, and each one of those attempts takes time.
What can you say instead? How about something like this:
“Your book sounds fascinating! I hope you’ll let me know when it’s on the shelves.”
You’ve just taken away all of the unnecessary stress of asking for information the author doesn’t have. You’ve opened up communication. You’ve made the writer’s day.
#2: “Oh, I just read/saw that same story!”
Back in 2008, when I first participated in National Novel Writing Month, I tried my hand at fantasy. I wrote a book that included, among other things, a race of creatures that looked like large blue cat people.
When I saw the movie Avatar, I was crushed and annoyed. How dare James Cameron rob my ideas even though we’d never met or communicated!
The fact is I could make the argument that every story has already been told. The caveat to that is that not every story has been told from every viewpoint. It’s also important to understand that a story may resemble another in its most basic structure while differing in other ways.
Usually, this exclamation is made as an attempt to connect to the author and her or his story idea. Or, even better, it’s to offer some avenue for inspiration.
Here’s the thing though–it can come across as an attempt to tell the writer s/he shouldn’t bother writing because the story already exists.
Avatar was basically Fern Gully plus Dances with Wolves, yet people flocked to the theater to see it. They learned a fake language because they loved it so much. Powerful stories repeat because they’re powerful.
What can you say instead? Try something like this on for size:
“Wow, that idea sounds great! What inspired you to write about that story?”
You’ll be able to connect with the author on a personal level. As a writer, I love talking about the craft and where I get story ideas from. You want to make that connection–that’s great. Make it in a way that doesn’t assume that the author won’t have a fresh new way to tell a powerful story.
#3: “You love writing; it seems so easy!” or, “I thought about banging out a book.”
No. No, no, no, no, no. I can’t say no enough to this statement. I also can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard it. I love writing. It is my passion and part of my life’s purpose. But it is definitely not easy.
If you think it’s easy, you haven’t really tried it. I don’t mean that you haven’t tried drafting. Drafting isn’t so hard. But if you’re going to go in-depth into writing a novel, it is a lot of work. You need to research…a lot. That’s true for any genre, not just historical fiction (which happens to be my favorite). You need to become an expert on the topic you plan to use as your story’s backdrop.
You have to plan. Outlines and notebooks and late-night FaceTime sessions with fellow writers overtake your nights and weekends all in an attempt to incorporate your themes in a way that makes sense and will engage readers.
You need to weave plots and subplots and fill in all the plot holes because, for some reason, readers love to point out plot holes.
You need to know your characters. You need to make them real. This is probably one of the most difficult tasks in the planning and writing stage.
And that’s just the beginning. You need to force yourself to write even when you don’t feel like it, even when your muse has checked out for the day. You need to write all the time, learn all the time, and you need to develop a skin tougher than a stegosaurus probably had.
Because everyone is going to have an opinion. Someone with an important job title will probably reject your work at some point and you need to be able to take those spears out of your heart and soldier on.
Perhaps I should amend my previous statement. To write is easy. To write well is one of the most difficult tasks one can face. I’m not being melodramatic–it’s really hard.
So I get it. If you’re saying this, you’ve probably read some of the author’s writing, or you probably really like her or him. You’re trying to say that their writing makes it seem effortless.
Remember though that every page you read is the result of hours of agonizing–yet necessary and rewarding–work. Instead, try saying something like this:
“I believe in your ability to write well.”
“I’ve read some of your work and I really enjoyed it. I especially like how you [say something you honestly liked].”
If you want to avoid annoying an author, don’t demean the effort her or his work requires. Think of it like this. If you’re someone who looks at a Jackson Pollock and says, “All he did was splatter paint; I could do that.”
You didn’t. And you probably wouldn’t have. Being that I majored in Art History in undergrad, I can tell you there’s more to his work than just splattered paint. If you had done it, your paintings would be hanging in museums, not his.
I don’t say this to be harsh, but the truth is that every artform takes something out of the artist. Every piece of art can offer something new to enjoy, to make us think, to add to the wonderment that is existence on this planet.
Writing might be fun sometimes, but it’s a lot of work. Pretending otherwise is just insulting.
Now that you know what not to say to authors–and what you can say instead–it’s your turn. What would you like to say to an author? If it’s in the wrong direction we can brainstorm some alternate phrases together.
At the end of the day, if you’re lost for what to say, you can always stick with, “Hey, that sounds cool.”