3 Things NOT to Say to a Writer

...or just me, maybe.

 I think, if I were not a writer, and I were trying to talk to me, I would find it baffling.  Exactly what is this person doing who does not appear to be doing anything?  Is she happy?  Is she frustrated?  Does she like what she does?  (She never even talks about it.)  Talking to a writer about writing can be hard if you're not a writer yourself - I totally get that.  I often get some (extremely) well-meaning questions that leave me up a creek with no paddle, and just take an awkward situation from bad to worse.  SO - here are three things NOT to say to a writer, so hopefully you can avoid making your already precarious social situation more precarious still.  You completely care about the writers in your life, but you don't always know what to say.  Hopefully I can help.

"Are you writing anything?"  
I know this seems like a harmless question, right?  This person is a writer - of course she (let's pretend it's a she) is writing something!  HURN.  Wrong.  This question has the same result as kicking a full bucket of Legos across a dark room.  Not only does the writer start thinking about ALL the stories in her head, and feel dizzy trying to find her balance, there is always the chance that the writer is not working on something at that moment, and this brings up a flood of guilt.
Instead, try "How is writing treating you lately?"
This gives the opportunity for excitement (ha HA, writing is being amazing for me! I'm on a roll!), or casual commiseration (boo hoo, I am so. stuck. you wouldn't believe).  Everybody has ups and downs in her sphere of work: this is something we can all relate to.

"What's it about?"
This is a terrible question.  Let me repeat - a terrible, terrible question.  Yes. I know.  This is how you want to show interest in the writer's work.  Duh!  You care, you want to be invested in the writer.  But don't do it this way, please.  If, like me, the person you are talking to is a highly organic writer, she is probably building the plot as she goes and won't know exactly what the whole thing is about until the very end - it's always subject to tweaks and changes as she goes!  She'll have basic markers along the way to guide her, themes or ideas that she will incorporate, or which are inspiring her, but if she were to give them to you jumbled up, all at once, it's going to sound stupid and she is going to feel like an idiot, and you are going to think she's nuts.
Instead, try "Do you have a Pinterest board for the story that I can look at?"
Because Pinterest boards are the bomb.com, you know?  They give visual inspiration and subtle information about the story without pretending to be THE WHOLE STORY ITSELF.  (Psst, writers: if you're picky about the images you pin, you're going to be showing your audience great shots of things that reflect your work, rather than blabbing a bunch of indistinct nonsense about a story that you secretly think is pretty good.)

"But I thought it was good."
This always comes right after the writer expresses discontent.  What it is meant to convey is, "No way! You're an awesome writer and I enjoyed what I read."  What is heard is, "You're being stupid.  Your conflicting emotions about this piece are ludicrous and you should just feel 100% happy with what you wrote."  WHOA.  So not what you meant to imply, right?  But let's just look at it this way: the writer, who has been doing this for awhile (we'll assume), has a gut instinct that something isn't right here.  Instead of brushing these emotions aside and trying to cheer the writer up (cheering up your friends is legit and I'm not against that at all), look at the situation from the writer's perspective of trying to create something as absolutely perfect as can be managed.
Instead, try "What were you going for, and how can you get your current piece from HERE to THERE?"
What is the difference between where the work is currently and where she perceives the work to need to be?  Where is the gap that needs that little extra lift to get it across the finish line?  Maybe you won't be able to hash out the nitty-gritty with the writer (writing is a very intimate business, and needs to be done in private), but you can get the writer thinking along the right lines, and perhaps alleviate some of that mental fog by setting her on the right path.  You never know! 
What are YOUR stumper questions, and what would you recommend be asked instead?

4 ripostes:

  1. I'm sure I've said the last one a few times (maybe all of them) and I've got to say I'm really sorry if that was what came across. Thanks for the tips! :)

  2. These are hands down, the worst questions. XP It's not that I'm trying to be difficult for my non-writer friends, and I know they have good intentions, but a lot of times they just don't get it. (And that's okay, because how could they without us explaining ourselves?)

    I might share a cheeky link to this with a few people I know...XD

  3. Lilly - Yo! Just to be ABSOLUTELY CLEAR so I can scrub off ANY terror you might be feeling right now, I have absolutely no memory of you ever saying any such of these things to me, and also I TOTALLY REALIZE THAT PEOPLE ARE TRYING TO BE COMPLETELY NICE AND INTRIGUED WITH MY WORK when they say these things to me. It's just awkward. And we try to avoid awkward.

    Raquel - YOU & ME, MAN. YOU & ME.

    Carmel - Just don't let me be the catalyst for a sudden exodus of friends from your life. I AM TRYING TO COMPLETELY UNDERSTANDING HERE. I KNOW THESE PEOPLE LOVE ME. 'K? K. XD