What do you think of my writing?
By J.S. Watts
Most writers will tell you there are questions they don’t enjoy answering. Ironically (or perhaps not) they are often the questions we are most frequently asked.
I’m writing an occasional series of relatively lighthearted blog posts looking at some of my personal “oh no, not again!” questions and exploring why I don’t relish having to respond to them (though I recognise other writers may invariably feel differently).
The sixth and penultimate question in the series, “What do you think of my writing?” carries with it a world of pain. The nature of the pain depends on who is asking the question, but you still know it’s going to hurt.
I realise that writers, myself included, often benefit from an honest, skilled and objective appraisal of their work. Writers at the start of their career are especially anxious (well, I know I was) to receive a knowledgeable review of their work from someone whose writing is further advanced than theirs and ideally more successful (whatever that means). I also freely acknowledge that I’m not a best-selling, especially well-known, writer (most of you are probably still scratching your heads and going, “So who is this person?”). I am therefore constantly surprised by the number of people I don’t know who feel free to ask me (usually by email, but not always) to read and comment on their writing. If this were a purely professional and commercial conversation it wouldn’t be quite so bad (although pain is still possible – see later).
I undertake paid freelance editing work and also run workshops and writing groups that people pay to attend. These can involve feedback on submitted work. Yet, in response to that question, as soon as I mention cost and quote my current professional rates for reviewing their work, my questioner invariably gets stroppy and indicates in no uncertain terms that they are expecting me to give up my time and critique their work for free. Sometimes they openly lead with the expectation of free as in, “I’m not able to pay you anything, but what do you think of my writing?”
I’m also surprised at my questioner’s level of upset when I decline their generous offer of unpaid work. I mean, have you ever approached an unknown dentist, electrician or plumber, told them you admire their work and then asked them to provide root canal treatment, re-wire your house or replace your bathroom taps for free? You have? So how did it work out for you? Perhaps I should try that approach at my local restaurant? I wonder where it would get me? I doubt it would be a free three-course meal.
There is another major downside to this question and it is one that tends to apply equally to those soliciting my time and professional expertise for free, those who might be willing to actually pay for it and close friends who may, just, have a reason to hope I will do stuff for them without charge. In my experience, people contact other writers in the hope of being told a fairy story. They are not looking to have their fantasy bubble burst by cruel reality or an honest opinion. Let me explain.
Basically, although they ask the question, “What do you think of my writing?” it seems many people don’t necessarily want an honest answer and can become quite upset when provided with a rigorous, professional critique of their work. Yes it’s an opinion, but that’s what they asked for, right? Wrong. It seems what their question really means is, “Please tell me I have amazing ability and that this piece of writing, lengthy epic poem, thirty thousand word short story, one hundred thousand word manuscript is an outstanding work of literary genius.” Surprisingly, I’ve rarely felt able to do that. So what’s to do?
If you choose to take the question at face value and provide them with genuine, honest feedback on their writing, and it’s not glowing, they will not believe you, will likely become quite upset (see above) and possibly hate you for ever. If, however, you choose to respond to the sub-text of the question and to (let’s not beat about the bush here) lie, you tarnish your professional and creative integrity and deceive them. Either way you (and they) lose.
For the above reasons, when asked, “What do you think of my writing?” what I want to say is, “If you don’t want to know the real answer, don’t ask the question.” However that can and does offend as well. In other words, there really isn’t a good response to this particular question other than run away and hide, or pretend to be deaf. Sorry, what did you say about wiring?
The next and final question in the series of Questions I Don’t Like Answering will be the rather sensitive, “How many books have you sold?”