A Lesson In Writers' Etiquette

Image courtesy of Stuart Miles
"I think you and I got off on the wrong foot."

I looked up in surprise at the newest member of our writing group. "Why is that?"

"You said certain things weren't clear, so, I brought you a copy." He handed me a manuscript bound in one of those clear plastic covers high school students use to dress up their reports.

I glanced at it and looked back at him. After a confused moment, I asked, "Do you want me to edit it?"

He looked surprised. "No. I want you to read it, so you'll understand where it's going. It's only thirty pages."  He shuffled his feet when I didn't say anthing. "Look if you're not willing to give me a chance, others in this group asked if it was finished. I'll give it to one of them."

The meeting was about to start, so I set it aside, unsure how to respond. After the meeting, he left before I could talk to him again.

The next day, I received an enraged email from this same member chastising me for asking if he wanted me to edit his story. He insisted I give the copy back, which I had planned to do.

Unfortunately, he didn't understand the etiquette of working with other writers.

Image Courtesy of Pixabay.com

Etiquette Between Writers

This new member, I'll call him George for simplicity, arrived at his first meeting prepared to read. First-time visitors don't usually read, but he was a paid up member, so I allowed it.

George sat to my right, so when he finished, it fell to me to give the first response. I told him I liked his concept and voice, which I did. I don't recall much of his story now, but it had some speculative fiction elements in it, so it fell in my line of interest.

I suggested he scrap the first pages because nothing was happening in them. He objected, so I tried to explain. He was new, so I didn't say much else. The feedback he received from the rest of the group echoed mine. We liked his concept, but he started the story in the wrong spot.

One or two people asked him if he'd finished the manuscript. He had. Throughout the feedback section, he kept telling us, the answers to the issues we identified would be cleared up in a few pages. Everyone told him to drop the first few pages and get to the story.

From this, George decided I hated him and his writing. No one else, just me. An unfortunate misunderstanding, probably based on the fact that I went first and others reiterated my thoughts.

I liked George's writing voice and his concept, but our group provides constructive feedback to help a writer improve. I followed our process of giving feedback: start with something positive, his concept, and move on to areas of improvement, the story's beginning.

When George's angry email showed up in my inbox, I took my time responding. New writers struggle with their first feedback. I try to be helpful when I give it. I explained this to him as gently as I could. Then I addressed his request for me to read the entire manuscript.

The Problem With George's Request

What was wrong with George's request? His timing mostly. We'd met for the first time two weeks earlier. I had many obligations--work, family, the writing group, my own writing. It's inappropriate to ask a writer you've just met to read your manuscript. It's presumptuous to think this writer has time to read your manuscript in order to disprove their feedback.

When I wrote back to George, I explained that establishing a critique partner took time. It's a mutually beneficial relationship. Since we didn't have a relationship, yet, it made sense to think he might want me to edit his work.

Establishing Critique Partners

Most writers choose critique partners from writers they know well and respect. Usually, they have talked about their writing outside of a meeting and established an understanding of what they want from each other. The door swings both ways. It you ask someone to critique your work, they will want your feedback on their own writing. Or you pay them or compensate them in some way.

What about the people who asked if he'd finished the manuscript?

Our members often ask new members this question. It does not mean they are dying to read your work. The question serves several purposes:
  • It hints at your dedication and experience.
  • It tells us what kind of feedback you need. First-time writers often keep re-working the same pages over and over if we don't advise them to keep writing the story, to not get stuck at this one point. 
  • It lets us know how much we can ask about the developing story.
When our members asked if he'd finished the manuscript, they weren't asking to read it. In fact, this isn't done either. You don't ask a writer you've just met if you can read their entire manuscript. Agents and editors can ask this, but other writers shouldn't and won't.

The Point

Although I tried to explain, George chose to not return to our group. This happens. Some people aren't prepared for true feedback, even when it's given with kindness and respect. If you want to improve your writing you have to develop a thick skin for feedback. Listen to it, consider it, decide what to do with it. It's ok to ask someone why they said or thought something about your work. It's ok to ignore their feedback. It's not ok to try to prove your point by asking them to read the entire piece. At least not until you know them better.


Phil Arnold said…
You nailed it. Exactly right on. By the way, I have manuscript I'd like you to read.

For you, Phil, of course!
Valerie Norris said…
Yikes! Sorry this happened. When I led the group, a recent graduate (college, I think) called and asked about selling children's books. I explained the process. She apparently thought of it as a career path--she would write books, sell them, and earn a living. I warned her about the competition, that it might take years to sell, or maybe she never would. That unless she was independently wealthy she needed a job to support herself. She got mad at me and never came to the meetings.

Ah, truth, you are so cruel!
There's a famous movie one that fits this: "You can't handle the truth!"

We don't want to be dream thieves, but a dose of reality never hurt anyone,

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