Monday, September 21, 2009

By God, I Love This Article

For those of you who deplored my use of the f-word earlier, this article may be a little tough to get through.

But it is such good advice. Editors of all stripes know just what this guy is talking about, because we get pressured, wheedled at, and begged to read manuscripts all the time with the same selfish discourtesy behind it and the same lack of interest in an honest answer, however hard we try to put the feedback we've been asked for kindly.

Some of you, I know, will have a hard time with this article, because of his free hand with the swear words. If that's you, try cutting and pasting the article into a word document and using find-and-replace to delete all the instances of "fucking", change "asshole" to "jerk" and "shit" to "crap". Then read it, because it's worth reading.

And, because I doubt this article is really news to any of my faithful readers, feel free to pass it along to the less clued-in out there.


Anonymous said...

I love this article! Someone linked to it on the Blue Boards and (thankfully) my fellow members generally agree. The craziest part of that piece are the comments, which clearly show a sample of the exact group of people who really need to read and understand what the author is saying.

Anonymous said...

I loved that article too!

Jan said...

Wow, The hostility in the comments back to the article All the guy was saying (albeit in a fit of temper) was that it's not fair to expect a professional to work for free just because you know him/know his mother/ met him on the street.

I really felt for the guy. My husband's doctor asked us to meet with him to discuss the possibility of my husband needing a LUNG TRANSPLANT. During the discussion, he asked what I do for a living. When I told him...he proceeded to launch into a proposal to collaborate on a book!!

Honestly, what is it with people?

I've gotten to the point where I almost asked my daughter to keep my occupation a secret. She's proud of me and I love her for it, but the SECOND perfect strangers hear what I do ...they ask me to read their manuscripts.

Honestly, I felt for the guy. Not only do people expect you to work for free, but after you do the job FOR FREE, then you get talked about like a dog because you didn't say what they wanted. Been very very been there.

Sarah Miller said...

Variation on that theme:

(via Barry Lyga)

Anonymous said...

This was posted on Verla Kay's last week. The concensus was we all liked it, and the f word was pretty well waranted.

Deirdre Mundy said...

Sigh... well, I guess I won't be sending you my screenplay for "Pat The Bunny, the animated series" then. But when Western Civilization collapses because you refused to read it, don't come crying to me! ;)

The funny thing is, even fairly NEW writers have the same problem.

I've published a couple of short stories in magazines and random people ask me to read their stuff/ comment on their ideas. And if I'm honest, they get angry and discouraged. Not to mention that sometimes, the writing's so bad it kills MORE than a day because I don't want to read it, but feel like I ought to, so I just entirely avoid anything writing related for the rest of the day!

(Note-- I don't TELL these people I've published... I'm not an idiot! But when a story comes out, my husband tells all and sundry... )

Anonymous said...

I'd read this also from Janet Reid's blog. Loved it.

Actually, I would have preferred more F bombs.

Anonymous said...


Yeah. I can't count the number of doctors' appointments or other encounters with professionals whom I'm paying for *their* expertise have been steered into discussions of their nieces' manuscripts.

I'm starting to understand why people don't let on that they're writers.

Hope your husband is well.

Donna Gambale said...

That's wonderful. Bravo for the honesty! (And the same for Sarah's link.)

sarah mccarry said...

Seriously and amen.

Sarah Laurenson said...

EA - you have to hear this version of it. More in line with a children's book editor.

I love this article.

Lori W. said...

I think I'll pass this on to my husband who works 50-60 hours a week as a software engineer and then gets asked if he can "come over and take a look" (a four hour look!) at people's buggy computers.

Of course, those people don't get mad at him when he gives his honest feedback: "Shouldn't have clicked on that sketchy link", etc. They don't take it personally when he says "It's trashed. Get a new one." They trust he's an expert, that it's not subjective. Too bad people write off good, solid writing advice from experts and make those generous professionals who give the GIFT of their insight never want to do it again.

jeanne said...

I love it Sarah!
Harlan Ellison is full of awesome.

Trixie said...

WOW. Lots of energy in this one. I'm just happy that I'm not a screenwriter. I have no script.

Dana Strotheide said...

Holy Cow... that totally made my day. :)

Danisidhe said...

I've been watching the discussion that this article launched since it was published and it is, indeed, an important point to make (and has been made with less swear words by others since) HOWEVER it is a point made by a WRITER.

Sure, the whole don't-ask-for-professional-services-for-free thing applies to editors but what else in the article does? Writers are not editors, neither their job nor their expertise is to recognise, comment intelligently or improve other people's writing in any way - as editors (I am a script editor as well as writer) that IS our job.

I don't think this would have been anything but a bitter rant had it been written by an editor because asking an editor to read your script is actually hitting up the right person - a writer is completely the wrong person. A writer is entitled to say "No, I won't read your @#$@ script" because you shouldn't be asking him in the first place - an editor who gets that pissed at merely being asked to read something needs simply to learn how to politely say "Sure, here is my card and these are my fees"" or "No, I'm swamped atm, sorry."
I feel there is little appropriate camaraderie between writers and editors here.

Or am I wrong?

Ebony McKenna. said...

Oh yes, this is a great rant despite the F bombs.

I think some times you have to be brutal. I have blogged on this recently - partly because of the f-bomb rant - because just last week a friend asked me if I'd look over his wife's writing . . .
I cut him off and said 'that's not a good idea'. But then I feel awful because I don't want to be the bad guy.

It's lose-lose situation for the writer.

Khanh Ha said...

We're far too busy with our own work and other trivialities in our daily grind to be a charitable ass.

Anonymous said...

One of the most useful things I ever read on the internet was this lovely phrase. "Oh, I'd love to read your manuscript, but my agent won't allow me to read unpublished stuff, you know how it is..." Shrug/smile apologetically.

So I wouldn't have to lie, I asked my agent if he subscribed to this rule, and he said, "Absolutely!" And then he added, "The legal reasons are good enough, but really, I'll back you on this if for no other reason than so you don't have to spend your time reading other people's crappy manuscripts!"

Hope Vestergaard said...

Danisidhe, I think you're wrong. Editors are not paid to read manuscripts from total strangers (who haven't done their homework!) outside the context of work. And reading manuscripts from total strangers (i.e., slush) is but one small part of an editor's job. To impose on an off-duty editor is to cut to the front of the line: show up at a doctor's house for treatment before she's had her breakfast, to demand a shop change their opening hours because you're ready, etc. Just as a lawyer or teacher or garbage collector should/would not be considered "open for business" when not on the job, editors shouldn't be, either. I also disagree with this blanket statement: Writers are not editors, neither their job nor their expertise is to recognise, comment intelligently or improve other people's writing in any way for many reasons, but that's a whole nuther conversation. The point of this piece was: it's rude to impose, and doing so impllies laziness, thoughtlessness, and egocentrism. Not exactly the best send-off for a beloved manuscript, eh?

Wendie O said...

I haven't read it yet (but soon), but when one of the commenters said it was Harlan Ellison, well -- he's well known for his rants.

I think this happens to every published writer. (along with the assumption that You're a Writer? You must be rich!)

When my daughter got married, one hour into the formal meeting of her future husband's parents, his father asked me to look at his writing. I wiggled out of it claiming that I only wrote for children and directed him to writer's groups. California is full of writer's groups, but I don't know if he took that step.

When other unpublished writers have asked, I simply told them that I sometimes did it -- for pay. That was the end of that. (and referred them to a friend's editorial service.)

But the worst was the self-published picture book writer who had paid $20,000 to get her book illustrated and published and needed me to read it and write a glowing quote for the back of the book. (Her 'publisher' wouldn't publish the book without it.) No matter how many times I told her that I wouldn't be comfortable doing such a thing, she kept insisting -- taking up my time while I was working at my day job. I finally told her I had customers waiting, wished her luck, and hung up.

(love your blog)

Anonymous said...

"Word has completed its search of the document and has made 12 replacements." Thanks for the readability tip; it didn't get rid of every expletive, but it helped.

People do ask even professional housepainters to paint for free. I sew, and have been asked to replace a broken zipper on a neighbor's backpack or hem all of someone's son's school pants without any offer of remuneration or trade. Although anyone can be caught off guard or get tricked when what sounds like a small request mushrooms, a person can avoid many impositions by mastering a few polite evasions. Here are my favorites--all of them work best when offered with a cheerful smile, as though assuming the best intentions:

"I don't do that kind of thing, but this person does" (give them the name of a professional.)

"Sure, I can do that; I charge $X/hour." Quote a much higher price than you think they're planning to pay (easy if you suspect they're expecting to pay nothing.) Only use this option if you're actually willing to do it for the high price.

"I'm sorry, but that won't work for me." Telling them WHY it won't work for you gives them an opening to argue, and they're not owed that information. If they're rude enough to ask why not, repeat, "I just never do that kind of thing." You can add "It's a long-standing personal policy of mine. Alternate this with "That really just won't work for me," until they give up. As long as all this is said with a confident, cheerful smile, and perhaps just a hint of surprise at the questioner's persistence, he or she might decide you're a rude jerk (it's human nature to project one's own traits onto others,) but any observer with common sense will be able to identify the true source of the rudeness. This is not to say that it's not unpleasant and disappointing to lose friendships by turning down impudent requests, but since (as the article points out) that's the almost-inevitable eventual outcome, anyway, better it happen sooner than later.

All that said, I'd sure love to learn some polite evasions for when I do say yes and the manuscript turns out to be awful. So far it's only happened to me once, and I got lucky when the author needed the manuscript back before I "got around to" finishing it, but I'm still afraid of being asked for my opinion of the parts I did read.

Hilary said...

awesome, awesome article. said...


Anonymous said...

Danisidhe -- Wow, I hadn't really thought about it like that. But I think you are correct. Excellent points.

Other professionals -- including editors -- have taken on this article and gone off cheering about it as if it applies to them specifically. I think the underlying theme is, "I-Get-No-Respect." So you've got tons of people who feel disrepected in life saying "YES, THIS IS ME" to this article.

But it is specifically a writer's burden. A writer has to have an editor's eye as much as they can for their OWN work, but an editor's skills are not a writer's. When people are asking you to "look at their ms" as a writer they are asking you for a skill set you don't even possess for your own work. If you say yes AND THEN through blood, sweat, and tears manage to come up with things that need improving (after spending way more time than you have) they are going to be pissed you didn't praise them, give them the name of your agent, and help them get a million dollar book deal.

If writers were editors they wouldn't need editors.

Editorial Anonymous said...

I don't think there's a difference between asking writers to offer a stranger the feedback they'd offer a critique group partner
and asking editors to offer a stranger the feedback they'd offer a writer they knew well.

The thing that's missing in both cases is any intuition (A) that it's not ok to ask strangers and bare acquaintances for favors and (B) that people in certain lines of work are likely to get such inappropriate requests at a very high rate.

I mean, when it comes down to it, if I only happened to be asked to do such a favor for someone once a year or so, then I would probably be just fine with doing those few strangers a favor.

But writers and editors meet people EVERYPLACE who think they have a book in them, and who don't realize how much time, torture, and social anxiety it asks of us to do favors for people we barely know.

On the other hand, I do think that editors have it a bit easier than writers in that we have more practice hedging our negative feedback and are less likely to lose a friendship over it. I can talk easily about how tough the industry is to get into and how tough the market is for particular projects without implying that the real reason this manuscript has a tough road ahead is because it's less appealing than earwax.

Anonymous said...

A few more evasions:

"My therapist won't let me."

"I can't; I'm under doctor's orders."

"I'm not qualified."

I like the "legal reasons" one, too. Again, all of these with a cheerful smile. These ones are a little more risky since they do invite disputation (everyone thinks they're an exception.) That's where my other favorite advice comes in, which is to be a broken record and just keep repeating your response (at the same decibel level, and with the same cheerful smile.)

Anonymous said...

EA said this: "...I can talk easily about how tough the industry is to get into and how tough the market is for particular projects without implying that the real reason this manuscript has a tough road ahead is because it's less appealing than earwax..."

I get what you are saying, EA, but your statement is also why this is a writer's problem and not an editor's. Writers, at some point, have had someone offer false praise and encouragement for a ms that they later realized had absolutely zero chance of getting published. Later on, after they become better writers, they are pissed that anyone would lead them on like that. They've wasted huge amounts of time to improve something that clearly, cleaerly had no chance of publication. Hence, in the article, Josh Olson see-saws back and forth between not wanting to be dishonest and have the writer continue to waste their time working on such slop but also not crushing them as a writer.

The fact that agents and editors CAN and WILL lie, going on and on about "how hard it is to get published" etc, even when they know the ms is a joke and doesn't have a snowballs chance in hell is exactly why this is a writers problem not an editors. Editors are trying to spare themselves pain. Writers are trying to spare other writers pain and are then disprespected for it.

Amy said...

I didn't like the article so much. The beginning was great. He had every reason to NOT read the synopsis. So I was shocked to find out he had. I thought he had to be a complete idiot -- WHY DID HE READ IT?? Guilt? Really?? If he didn't want to look like a bad guy, he could just say he gets asked all the time, and he's got a huge pile of papers by his bed. This one has to go at the end, but he'll get to it as soon as he can. Could take months.

Just a tip -- if someone does not take "no" for an answer, or can't wait, then they're going to act exactly like this acquaintance of Olson's did. If they're not going to respect your time, they certainly are not going to respect your honest opinion. Don't waste your time on these people. That was Olson's mistake - he wasn't forced to do anything, but he gave in to his guilt, and his good efforts were wasted. Bitter doesn't even begin to describe him.

It's just sad that people like Olson's "friend" ruin it for those of us who are just looking for ways to improve our writing in every way that we can. Many of you WANT to help & can make a little time, but loonies like this make it too risky for you. At least Olson knows who his true friends are.

Christine Tripp said...

And then there are the authors who approach illustrators with their manuscript that needs to be illustrated and since your published, you certainly have all these "contacts" (hahaha) and could get this one published too. No, they don't have any money to pay you, (you mean you would charge me????) but not to worry, they will happily share HALF of their royalties (oh sigh, let me explain how that works, we don't get half of your royalties... we get our OWN!!!)
So, since this is a normal once a week, on average, occurance for published illustrators, I can only imagine what a well known illustrator goes through at parties and such.
I agree though, there are many professionals and trades that go through much of the same thing.
"ah, so your a Doctor? Well, let me ask you, what do you think this bump on my thumb is?"

Anonymous said...

Sarah, I loved the take-off on Dr. Seuss.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the link! I went through the article and added more f-bombs.

As an illustrator I get approached by many writers and illustrators. I think the main problem is that a good many people who ask for feedback are being disingenuous in the first place. They secretly expect us to fall head over heels with their amazing genius, eagerly offer to take their work and go off and get it published for them [as if I could] using all our hard earned connections. Oh hey, that's exactly what an agent actually CAN do, but gee, aren't those hard to get?

Despite giving them whatever they are pretending to ask for [advice, whatever], anything short of saying you'll submit something FOR them, and they will act let down and resentful. And no matter what I say to these types about the reality of how publishing works, I can tell they think I am holding out on them if I don't invite them to ride my coattails to the magic land of publishing.

To be far I have also been approached by polite, informed and sincere people, and I have always been happy to give them tips. But honestly, it is about 1 out of 20. For whatever reason I notice they tend to be very young.

In general I too have stopped mentioning what I do, because the merest acquaintances can suddenly look at me like I am one big scratch off card: their ticket to sudden riches the easy way. Children's books! And like a scratch off card, the moment it reveals itself as not being instant easy success, the person is not happy and never thinks to blame their own magical thinking or the fact that they are basically trying to get something for nothing.

Sorry to rant, but I can't help mentioning this winner: I got a call from a "reporter" wanting to do a story on how to "make it in children's book publishing". She sounded a bit off, so before I returned the call I looked into it. She did not work for the paper she claimed to [unlike friends of mine who do]. THAT took the cake.

ae said...

If you are an illustrator never mention that to anyone except your best friends who are also artists. Because they understand. That is why they are your best friends.

Jimmer said...

I think it was the poet Basho who told his students: "Never show your work without being asked, and never refuse when asked."
No fucking around with the banana tree worshiper!

Reina said...

I'm a graphic designer, but this article crosses all professions. If I got paid for all the stuff I've designed gratis, I'd be a millionaire instead of a day-time civil servant. Truest thing I've read in a very long time.