A few weeks ago, I was at a writers meeting where two new members showed up. After new member #1 described her project, new member #2 came up to her and told her exactly how she should write it. It was mansplaining, writer-style! I was horrified, but I didn’t know either woman well enough to say anything.
So instead I decided to write a blog post.
Of course, this “writersplaining” example isn’t the first time I’ve seen – or been on the receiving end – of a crime committed by another writer. Maybe you’ve committed a few of them yourself! Of course, most writers are very supportive of each other, and create communities that help each other become better writers and sell more books. But sometimes, in our eagerness to help other writers, we cross the line. And, in the words of the estimable Marlo Thomas: “Sometimes help is the kind of help that helping’s all about … and sometimes the help is the kind of help … we all can do without.”
So here’s a list of that second kind of help!
1 – Stealing her story. This should be obvious, but it’s not always. If a writer shares her story with you, that doesn’t mean it’s open season on that idea. And if she shares an incident in her past that she’s not ready to write about, that doesn’t give you the okay to write about it yourself. There are a million ideas out there. Come up with your own. Don’t take anyone else’s.
2 – Telling another writer exactly how she should approach her project. Unless the writer has specifically asked for this type of guidance, keep your mouth shut. It’s her idea and her baby, so let her develop it the way she envisions it.
3 – Offering help you don’t deliver. If you’ve promised your writer friend that you’ll have her manuscript proofread in two weeks, then by God proofread that manuscript in two weeks. Side thought: Don’t make promises you can’t keep. To anyone. Ever.
4 – Mishandling a request for feedback. It is always a tricky, sticky situation when your writer friend asks for feedback and you find major things wrong in the manuscript. And yet, she wouldn’t have asked you if she thought the manuscript was perfect. (If she did think it was perfect, you need more humble writer-friends.) Here are the three ways writers hurt other writers in this process:
Pulling your punches. If you think it stinks but tell her it just needs some proofreading, you’re setting her up for a bigger fall somewhere down the line.
Telling her it stinks. Yes, I know what I said above. But a flat-out “it stinks” is crushing and doesn’t help her at all. Be specific about what doesn’t work. Make a few suggestions how those problems could be fixed. Leave her feeling excited about the aspects of the novel that do work. If you can’t do any of that, then don’t respond to requests to read your friends’ manuscripts.
Telling her to give up on it. Just because you can’t fix it, doesn’t mean she can’t.
5 – Forwarding her project to another writer. Her unpublished work should be completely under her control, and she’s the only one who decides who gets to read it. If you have a friend who could give her good feedback, let her know and let her decide whether to make that contact. But don’t send it along to anyone… even if it’s someone you both know.
6 – Telling her what to write. You have ideas. She has ideas. You write yours, and she can write hers. End of story.
7 – Badmouthing the project behind her back. So you read it and hated it. Don’t tell your mutual writer friends how horrible it was. Let them make up their own minds. Maybe they can help her, even if you couldn’t.
8 – Asking your writer-friend who has an agent to pass your work along. If she believes in your work, (and her agent represents your genre), she will ask you if she can pass it along. If she hasn’t asked, then it’s not good enough.
9 – Pestering a busy writer for notes. Some writers say yes when they should have said no. If they haven’t gotten back to you on your manuscript, take the hint. Next time, ask someone who has more time.
10. Leaving a mean review after her book’s been published. So it wasn’t your cup of tea. There are a million other writers to whom you can offer an objective critique. But if she’s your friend, sing her praises on Amazon or keep your mouth shut.