Top Ten Things NOT To Say To A Writer: A Handy Safety Guide

- by Laura Resnick

10. Have I read anything you’ve written?
People ask me this all the time.

Come on, dude, how would I (or any other writer) have the faintest idea what you have read? I’m a novelist, not a psychic.

Recommended instead: “What’s your latest (or next) release?” Or: “Can you name some of your titles? I read a lot, so maybe I know your work.”

9. Have you ever had anything published?
Actually, this is a fair question, given that some aspiring writers call themselves “writers” when asked what they “do.” But anyone who writes professionally is so tired of being asked that, they may remove your tongue if they hear that question even one more time.

So I recommend that you instead ask, “What’s your latest release?” A professional novelist will answer this question. (And an aspiring writer who has not had anything published will clarify the situation.)

8. “How much money do you make?”
Yes, people ask us this. Surprisingly often.

Try instead: “What sort of money do writers make?” Which is probably a lot closer to what most people are wondering when they ask invasive questions about my personal earnings.

There’s a lot to say about money in this industry; writers discuss it often with each other and are probably willing to tell you a bit about how money works in publishing. But if your mother didn’t teach you this, then I’ll say it now: Asking someone whom you scarcely know how much money she makes is rude.

7. “Where do you get your ideas?”
Probably the single most-asked question.

Pardon me while I yawn.

Getting story ideas is simply the way writers think. Some people can play the piano by ear, some people have perfect pitch, and some are natural athletes. Writers get story ideas; if we didn’t, we wouldn’t be writers.

But, okay, for some specific examples and anecdotes from me and other writers, see the “Where Do You Get Those Crazy Ideas?” page on my website.

6. “Will you write my great story idea and then split the income with me?”
To clear up a couple of common misconceptions: (a) Ideas are not the crucial aspect of successful fiction; execution is. (b) Ideas are not the hard part of writing a novel; writing is the hard part.

In using her skills to write your idea for you, a writer has nothing to gain, and a great deal to lose—such as time, energy, career momentum, and income.

5. “If you help me write my life story, I’ll split the income with you after we sell the book.”
Unless publishers are already interested in publishing your life story (probably because your life is already being splashed all over the media, but possibly because you are a well-known expert at something unusual or important), the chances that anyone will pay you (or, more importantly, pay me) for your life story are remote.

4. “I’m going to write a book someday when I have time.”
We hear this one all the time, everywhere we go. Statistically, there are more people in America who say they “want to write a book someday” than there are people who read books.

Realistically, if you’re not already writing, the chances that you’re ever going to start writing are marginal. Most people never get past just talking about writing.

Additionally, most people who start writing a book never finish it. (And most people who finish writing one whole book… never sell it and never write another.)

The only people who write, who stick with it, and who have a serious chance of becoming professionals are the ones who can’t stand not writing. And you already know who you are. (Hi, there!)

3. “Will you read my manuscript?”
Aaaagh! Back–back, foul beast! Back, I say! Stay in your lair!

Now and for all time, if a writer is willing to read your manuscript, she’ll offer. Because, believe me, she gets asked this so often (sooooooo often) than she knows you want her to offer.

But do not put a writer on the spot by asking. The list of reasons is very long, and includes, for example, this being a much bigger imposition than you realize (much), the probability of injured feelings (yours), and legal risks for the writer (yes, really).

2. “Will you read the manuscript of my offspring/spouse/sibling/parent?”
Remember what I just said about how awkwardly it puts the writer on the spot if you ask her to read your manuscript? Well, take that and multiply it by thirty if you’re not even asking her for yourself, but rather for someone whom you love.

1. “Will you introduce me to your agent?”
This, too, really puts the writer on the spot. For a long list of possible reasons.

Your excellent work may not be suitable for her agent. Or your work may be unprofessional and unpublishable, and the writer is too polite to tell you so. Or the writer may have had a catastrophic experience with the last person whom she referred to her agent and been warned (by the agent) not to do it again. Or the writer may be having problems with her current her agent, and she neither wants to discuss those with you nor refer potential clients to an agent whom she’s finding problematic. And so on and so forth.

So just don’t ask. If the writer thinks it’s a good idea, she’ll bring it up. (Yes, really.)

9 comments

  1. The write my story idea and split the income sounds just like corporate america :-) The ‘big picture person’ expects the glory for having the idea, while the ‘rank and file’ do the bulk of the work to execute it.

    You need both. A great story idea without execution doesn’t work nor does a bad story idea with great execution.

    Actually, I think I would prefer the great execution and watch a great writer make a bad story idea better!

    Thanks for the thought provoking article Laura.

  2. LOL–ten bullseyes on a row! Good work, Laura.

  3. I love this article. I am sometimes guilty of Number 9, and appreciate the suggested line “What is your latest release?” I am a new writer/old writer, and can appreciate that question and the appropriate responses. I am a NEW (unpublished) Romance Writer, but I have been a Technical Writer for years. However, no one has read my published writing projects unless they have purchased power tools or industrial cranes, or taken an AutoCAD class at the school where I teach!
    Deb

  4. Deb, in truth, while -some- “questions NOT to ask a writer” are just bad manners (“How much money do you make?), a lot of them are perfectly friendly questions–and it’s not the questioner’s fault that we’ve heard that question so many times that we’re by now ready to GO POSTAL on them. Ergo, the suggestions for a phrasing of the question that’s a little safer to pose…

    Laura

  5. LOL, Laura! These are fabulous and so, so true. Thank you :).

  6. Ms. Resnick,

    Your list is excellent, and applies to nonfiction authors such as myself too.

    Number 8 is the one I’m ask the most, and the question that is most upsetting, still, 40 years after getting my first work published. It amazes me people can be so insensitive.

    Another one for your list is, “Could you give me one of your books so I can see if I like your work?”

    Of course, this one is hard to believe on several fronts. To assume that my labor is something I wish to give away freely is hard to fathom. Secondly, why people think that authors have a warehouse of all of our books stashed away in a supposedly extra back bedroom floors me. LOL!

    Good list and thank you for pulling it together,
    Loren

  7. And:
    “10 Answers for Writers to Reply with a Smile to Annoying Questions That Shouldn’t Have Been Asked” [*]
    (or:
    “People Want To Talk About Themselves Anyway”)

    10. Have I read anything you’ve written?

    Tell me everything you’ve read and I’ll let you know. Why not start with your favorites of the decade?

    9. Have you ever had anything published?

    Why, of course; have you? (if yes)
    I was just going to ask you the same thing! Who’s your favorite publisher? (otherwise)

    8. How much money do you make?

    Only my accountant knows for sure, how about you?

    7. Where do you get your ideas?

    Probably the same place you get yours, dear, but are you sure you want to let them all in on it?
    (or)
    People offer them to me all the time hoping I’ll write them up and naively thinking I’ll split the profits with them! Why do you ask?

    [That should preclude Q #6 unless it's asked first]

    6. Will you write my great story idea and then split the income with me?

    Just as soon as your agent sells the pitch for a $20K advance for me; have you been tape recording your ideas?

    5. If you help me write my life story, I’ll split the income with you after we sell the book.

    I’d love to, but I’m already committed to writing That Lady’s story idea this decade, thanks anyway. Who would you like to play you in the movie adaptation?

    4. I’m going to write a book someday when I have time.

    Oh, please do! How much time will you be setting aside?

    3. Will you read my manuscript?

    Just as soon as it hits the shelves, I’ll buy my copy; have you thought about your jacket photo?

    2. Will you read the manuscript of my offspring/spouse/sibling/parent?

    Oh thank you for asking, but I couldn’t bear to risk subconsciously adopting their work/ideas/style/structure/typeface/whatever. Are you representing them?

    1. Will you introduce me to your agent?

    Of course! You’ll love my broker, when are you listing your home?

    * When asked by a professional lit agent or publisher, adjust for friendly, respectful business networking and bond building. Meaning, straight answers with real personality.

    Good luck, and keep up the good words,

    ~ @TheGirlPie

  8. As for #4 – “When I have some time I’m going to write a book too…” I once read the greatest comeback for that, from the nonfiction writer and outstanding writing teacher Bill Roorbach. Find out what the other person does for a living. Let’s say he’s a cardiologist. You then fire back with, “Yeah, when I get some time, I’m going to do a few heart surgeries myself.”

  9. Also, as my friend Roy Blount Jr told me, never ask either of these:
    “How’s your book coming?”
    and after publication,
    “How’s your book going?”