There are some things that people say to writers that makes us want to strangle them. In reality, we’ll probably just sigh and smile politely to hide the fact that we’re clenching our jaws as a small part of us dies inside. But we’d really rather you didn’t say them at all.
Why, though? Why do writers hate it when people say these things, and why don’t people realise that we hate it?
I think it’s because there are some misconceptions held by the general public about what writers actually do. I wrote a series of blog posts (called The Writing Process: A Guide for Non-Writers) hoping to clear this up, but if you don’t have time to read that, here’s the short and more direct version of what misconceptions are behind these 10 things that people say to writers, and why they’re wrong.
Warning: I did try to be serious and avoid sarcasm, I really did. I promise. Not that you can tell at all…
1. So you’re still writing your little book?
Frankly, this is just patronising. For most writers, writing is not just some cute hobby; it’s something we work hard at because we want to succeed with it. And our stories mean a lot to us, so having you come along and tell us that they mean nothing is just really not cool. In fact, it’s downright disheartening.
2. Must be nice not having a real job.
There are two things that this implies that writers don’t appreciate. Firstly, it implies that writing can only bring in pocket money, if anything at all. And sure, many writers do struggle, because there are thousands upon thousands of books out there, and there’s only so much room on the bestseller list. But that doesn’t mean writing has no income – and if it has an income, it’s a real job.
Secondly, it implies that writing is easy. Full-time writers don’t have a “real job” because all they do is sit around daydreaming – right?
Oh, I wish.
If you’ve ever wanted to write a book but have no idea where to start, I’m sure it can’t be too big a leap of logic to presume that that’s because writing is actually a pretty complicated process. Somehow, I think people have managed to get into their heads that ideas, plots, and characters walk fully-formed into writers’ heads, and every word they write is perfect. I have no idea where this notion came from, because it is the most untrue thing any writer has ever heard.
My series The Writing Process: A Guide For Non-Writers, discussing what actually goes into writing a book, consists of a post on planning (making many, difficult plot and character decisions), one on the painful writing of the mess that is the first draft, and one on the even-more-painful rewriting, revising, and editing of the book until it eventually resembles something like a good story. If you don’t have time to read it, then I hope you at least take away the fact that the description of how a book is created is too long to fit into one realistically readable blog post – because the writing process is long and difficult. Like, full-time job long and difficult.
And for some of us, it’s a full-time job that we fit around other full-time work or education.
3. Writing doesn’t sound too difficult.
Think about the essays you wrote for school. How long were they? Maybe a few hundred words long, or a thousand or two? Did you find them easy? No?
Well then, try imagining writing something fifty thousand words long. Or over a hundred thousand words long.
Easy? No. I don’t think so.
And if you still do think it’s easy, I refer you once again to The Writing Process: A Guide For Non-Writers.
4. I always thought I’d write a book after I retire, once I have some time to kill.
Um, okay. That’s nice. Good for you.
I mean, really, what am I supposed to respond to this?
Other than: “Thanks for your attempt to relate to me, except that your vague and occasional daydreams of writing a book don’t really relate to my experiences of putting blood, sweat, and tears into writing books, fueled by my intense determination to write books because I consider writing books part of my identity and one of my most important life goals. Also, I appreciate the implication that writing a book is a nice, relaxing hobby for people with nothing better to do; it really makes all my hard work feel valued.”
5. Wait a second, creative writing degrees are a real thing?
Loads of people know how to write – by which I mean, loads of people know how to draw shapes on a page that other people read as words.
But not so many people know how to write a novel – by which I mean, know when to use which tense and which point of view, and how to portray characters on a page, and when and how to use foreshadowing and symbolism, and how to construct an entertaining plot, and how to arrange words into appealing sentences and paragraphs so that readers don’t get bored of your writing, and how to make dialogue sound realistic, and how to write increasing tension at the right points in the story, and how to create a specific image in the reader’s mind, and…
And so on.
So while yes, writing is an art, and as such there are no hard-and-fast rules to follow, there are guidelines on how to write if you want to write well and have readers enjoy your work, and these guidelines can get pretty technical.
Having read that, are you still surprised at the existence of creative writing degrees?
6. Have you been published yet?
Sure, it’s fine to be curious about whether or not a writer you’ve met is published, but that “yet” just makes your question sound so condescending, as if you think they’re not worth anything if they’re not published. As if you’re judging them for not even being published – like, wow, what a casual, they’re not even published yet.
For one thing, this just puts hobby writers down. Some people aren’t aiming to publish their work, they’re just having fun with their writing, and saying this to them will make them feel like they have to publish to be considered a writer. Which is no fun. The only benchmark you have to pass to be considered a writer is that you have to write. So please stop adding extra benchmarks to make people who write feel like they’re not good enough, especially when you don’t actually know what passing that benchmark would involve.
And trust me, many of us can feel like we’re not good enough without your contributions. So don’t go adding to that.
For another thing, please find out a bit about what publishing actually involves before you go around expecting all writers you meet to be published, because publishing is so easy, right?
Here, I’ll refer you to Part Four of The Writing Process: A Guide For Non-Writers, which discusses the basics of the various publishing options, but reading anything at all on how the publishing process works would be greatly appreciated. The points I want you to take away from this are that traditional publishing companies are selective so writers trying to get published often end up with huge piles of rejection letters; that self-publishing can be time-consuming and expensive; and that the system isn’t as straightforward as send to publisher, become a bestseller.
7. Can I be a character in one of your stories?
Do you really expect us to say yes to this? Why?
Why do you think that we would want to include you in our stories? What makes you think you are so special and unique that someone would want to write about you, over everyone else in the world?
Why do you think it’s okay to try to interfere with someone else’s personal project?
Don’t make presumptions about a writer’s work and their desires. Don’t make everything, including someone else’s novel, all about you. The world doesn’t revolve around you, and neither does their book.
Besides, if you ask an annoying question like this and the writer says yes, brace yourself for an unflattering portrayal; this question might have just gotten you on their bad side.
The likelihood, though, is that the writer won’t say yes; they’ll just feel incredibly awkward while trying to find a polite way to tell you that doing a real human justice in their writing would be difficult and they probably don’t need the added complication of trying to squeeze you into their story. So if you ask this question, I hope you’re okay with making someone feel really uncomfortable.
8. So I have this great idea that I think you should be using in your book…
Again with interfering with someone else’s personal project! How do you know it’ll fit in with the rest of the story? How do you know it’s something that’ll even appeal to the writer? Sure, make suggestions, but don’t tell them your idea is the only way to go, don’t pressure them into writing your idea, and don’t expect them to do anything at all with it.
Anyway, if it’s such a great idea, why don’t you write it?
Oh wait, it’s because you’re clearly not devoted to the idea enough to put in the time to learn to write, so you’re just gonna chuck it at the nearest writer and leave them to deal with the hard bit – spending months developing plotlines and characters, slaving over their computer and agonising over word choices. As if we don’t have enough of our own ideas that we really want to work on but haven’t gotten around to yet.
9. Aren’t writers just professional liars? They tell stories for a living, after all.
Yes. Obviously. Because labeling something as “fiction” definitely implies that we’re trying to convince you that our stories are true.
And while you’re at it, how about you tell children who like playing pretend that they’re liars too?
10. You’re writing a book? Tell me everything.
I know this one’s pretty innocent compared to some of the others, but this is one surefire way to leave a writer speechless and babbling. Expect to hear some “um”s and “ah”s, and at least one “what do you mean, everything?”
If you ask this and the writer obliges you, you better buckle up because you’re in for a long ride as they tell you about how they got over their last writer’s block, and how this thing was going to happen but then they realised that that thing would work better instead, and how they can’t remember which version of events they’re going with at the moment because they’ve changed it so many times. Get ready to hear all about every character’s backstory and every little bit of inspiration behind every little aspect of their story. Oh, and prepare yourself to be confused, because they probably didn’t know where to start when you asked them to tell you EVERYTHING, so now they’re just rambling and nothing is in the right order and they keep interrupting themselves to add something they forgot to mention earlier, and nothing will make sense.
You have been warned.
What’s the strangest/most annoying thing a non-writer has said to you about your writing? What do you wish the general public understood better about writers and novel writing? Let me know in the comments!
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Also, if you want to read more about the annoying things that people have said to me personally about my writing, feel free to check out my blog post Things People Say When I Tell Them I’m Writing A Novel! 🙂