29 July 2015

About Those Things You're Not Supposed To Say To Writers

Yesterday, there was a hashtag running wild on Twitter. I follow a lot of professional writers, so I saw a lot of tweets carrying the tag: #TenThingsNotToSayToAWriter. They were mostly funny, but some of them made me cringe. And one or two of them shot me right through the heart. For example:




A writer is, by definition, someone who writes. Some of us, like the tweeter cited above, write long-form novels for traditional publication. Some of us write essays or short-form fiction, which we publish in magazines or blogs. Some are journalists. Some of us are poets, either traditionally published or self-published. But anyone who writes is a writer, and it is insulting - and short-sighted, in this information age - to suggest otherwise.

It is true that there are a lot of terrible writers in the world. The opening of the internet has enabled anyone with a keyboard and some very basic skills to establish a blog and start writing. This is one of the things that surprised me when I first started blogging, and that continues to surprise me to this day: many of the most successful active blogs are riddled with spelling and grammatical errors, or are full of posts that are simply poorly thought out or poorly composed and presented. In the beginning, I commented on posts that I thought needed more work or more editing. Sometimes I wrote posts responding directly to bloggers with whose ideas I strongly disagreed.

I learned quickly, however, that the world is so saturated with writers doing their own thing that my opinion simply doesn't matter. Nobody cares where the apostrophe goes, as long as they have a solid and engaged readership. That's what makes any writer successful, after all: people who want to read your writing. You can have seventeen finely-crafted, well-edited, traditionally-published novels that no one has ever opened, or you can have one blog with thousands of followers who read your work on a daily basis. Who's the real writer?

Nor do I agree with the suggestion that being a writer necessarily requires any specialized training, like being an eye surgeon:


With apologies to Harlan Coben, who, despite his snarkiness, is a very successful novelist by any measure, one doesn't just wake up one day and decide to do eye surgery. But that's how most novels get started. There is an idea, and the idea is sketched out, crafted, and put to paper. A novelist is someone who writes novels, and nothing more. He doesn't need specialized training, an advanced degree, or a professional license to do so. He just needs to write. That's not to say it's easy work, or that it doesn't require discipline and skill and talent and the support of professionals with experience. Not everyone can do it. But someone who decides to do it can. And should.

In my quest to become a writer, I have been rebuffed many, many times by professionals who treated my inquiries and enthusiasm the same way Coben and Mieszkowski apparently would. I'm a lawyer by training, and several writers have said, "I don't try to practice law, and you shouldn't try to write fiction." One editor rejected me many years ago with the blunt: "I'll call you when I get a traffic ticket."

On the other hand, I have been encouraged by many kind-hearted people I've reached out to. A high-school friend who is an editor at a major publishing house handed me her business card and told me she would read my completed manuscript whenever it was ready. (It's not ready yet, but I still have her card.) Another friend, a very successful published writer, offered to put me in touch with her agent (again, when I'm ready). Even the great Philip Roth, whom I had the good fortune to meet in person some years ago in a social setting, was kind and encouraging. "Just write it. If it's good - and there is every reason to expect it will be - it will find readers."

If you know someone whose writing you like, I can suggest a few things you can do that will put you into the encouraging column. First, if their writing is traditionally published and is available for sale, buy it. In a bookstore, if possible, or for your electronic reader. If you can't find it for sale, check it out of the library. If it's a blog, visit often and post comments. Share good writing - give good books as gifts, or pass them on to people you think might like them. Choose your favorite titles to discuss at book groups. Write online reviews. Repost and tweet blog entries that have struck a chord with you. This increases readership, sending your favorite writers down the road to success. And for blogs, click on the ads - doing this provides the financial support that enables your favorite bloggers to keep going.

If you are a writer or editor, aspirants are asking you questions because they admire you and are seeking your expertise and help. Good writing is not a zero-sum game. Helping out another writer is not going to ruin your own career. There is and will always be a market for good content. Stephen King is not threatened by J.K. Rowling; they sing each other's praises and they both rise. Instead of discouraging aspiring writers with mean-spirited tweets, be welcoming. Everyone will benefit from your efforts.