10 Questions You Should Never, Ever Ask a Writer
When most people think of writers, they imagine someone hunched over a desk lit by lamplight, stabbing at keys, and guzzling coffee. I’ll just say right now that this isn’t always accurate (I, for one, don’t drink coffee or write at desks). But certain things are pretty uniform for writers, including the questions we hate being asked. These 10 are some of the top offenders.
1. “How do you make money?”
Really, does anyone like being asked this question? Writers write, and believe it or not, we can get paid for it. It’s true that some writers have other day jobs, such as teaching, working in an office, or pretty much anything you can think of (Jack Kerouac worked as a dishwasher and a night guard).
But there are lots of ways for a writer to earn a living by writing – freelancing, editing, advertising, publishing, etc. It’s not always a choice between writing a bestseller or getting a real job and giving up on writing.
2. “What’s your ‘real job?'”
Speaking of real jobs, I mentioned earlier that writers can get paid. Writing is work, and anyone who says differently is doing it wrong. Sure, we love to write, but that doesn’t mean that every time we sit down to write, a masterpiece flows out. Writing is a skill that takes preparation, editing, rethinking, a tough skin, and lots of self-determination. It is my job, no matter what it says on my tax return.
3. “Will you edit my book?”
Writers and editors are not the same thing, and the answer I’ve taken to giving complete strangers who ask me this question resembles the following: “Sure, I charge $10 a page, how long is it?” This usually earns me confused stares, which is far better than the alternative of explaining that my ability to write fiction has nothing to do with my ability to spot and fix grammar mistakes. Even the most famous writers have dedicated editors by their sides.
4. “What other hobbies do you have?”
Please just stop right there. When I say that I’m a writer, that’s different from saying that I like to write in my free time. Writing can be a hobby, and a great one at that, but being a writer is a full-time job. One you don’t get to leave behind at the office when you go home at night. Writers are always writing, even if you can’t see our pens moving.
5. “What is your book about?”
The response I wish I could give: “You can find out when you buy it.” The response I actually give: “Oh, well, it’s a middle-grade fantasy novel about a boy…” and then I get self-conscious and babble like an idiot. That’s what you get with this question.
6. “Where do you get your ideas from?”
The quick answer to this question is life, but that’s not quite the full truth. Writers can and do get their ideas from anywhere, and the way one writer finds inspiration is not the way all writers do. Basically, there’s nowhere we can’t get ideas from. This isn’t a question that can be answered in anything less than an evening filled with philosophical rants and discussions of the fickleness of the muses. You have been warned.
7. “Can’t anyone be a writer?”
This isn’t exactly a question intended for an answer, but it’s infuriating nonetheless. In the age of online fanfiction becoming best-sellers and poorly edited vampire sagas launching multi-billion dollar franchises, I can see how it’s easy to think that there is little to no skill involved in writing. But if that were the case, then everyone who asked that question would become the next A-list author, and universities wouldn’t offer competitive MFA and Ph.D. programs in creative writing.
8. “What have you published?”
This is a loaded question. If the writer you’re asking has been published, he or she may choose to answer honestly, and you probably won’t read any of the links or magazines you’re directed to. If the writer hasn’t been published yet, this is a usually well-intentioned question that can cause imitation heart attacks. If you don’t know the writer well or don’t actually mean to read any of the published pieces, you should probably not ask. Our fragile writer egos will thank you.
9. “Can I read your novel?”
This one goes hand-in-hand with #5. Don’t ask writers to let you read their unfinished work. If we wanted you to read it, we would ask you to. There’s an unspoken (actually, it’s becoming more spoken) rule that we don’t show our work to friends, family, or significant others, because more often than not we end up regretting it. We might just end up regretting the relationship too…
10. “Do you write about me?”
Don’t ask writers this question, even if you’re talking to your best friend. If we do write about you, it’s probably not in a flattering manner, or at least you won’t think it is if you read it. In my experience, any characters I began writing based off of people I actually knew turned out much different than their real-life counterparts.
Trust me, it’s pretty awkward when your friends think your fictional versions of them are actually how you see them. Feelings get hurt, things get said, and we’re likely to never work on that piece of writing again. There’s a reason it’s called fiction, and if we’re writing memoir then we knew the risks we were taking when we started.