The worst ways to help a writer

Today, I’m going to very carefully try and explain how friends and family can help their tortured writers. I say carefully because I hope not to offend any well-meaning soul who has fallen into one of these traps!

  • No, it really isn’t.

The writer has just spilled out their soul about their amazing idea. The characters are alive, the story is real. Whatever they tell you, they have in fact been thinking about it for months, if not years.

Please don’t say: “That’s just like the plot of that movie/book.”

There’s nothing that kills the passion for an idea quicker than being told that someone has done it way more successfully than you’ll ever do it. Apart from being a massive buzzkill, it’s also not true. At the end of the day, there are maybe ten plot lines. In the entire history of literature, film, and television, of course, everything is going to sound like something. But at the fragile, infant stage of an idea, this is like kicking a puppy

  • Gee, you shouldn’t have.

The writer has handed their work over to a friend to proofread. This is probably one of the most exciting and stressful moment. It not perfect, but you’re happy with it enough to give it to someone else. It’s a fine line, but it exists. You wait in trepidation for the verdict.

Please don’t: take it as an opportunity to reveal your hidden writing skills.

The friend hands it back and it’s covered in notes. Amazing, feedback finally! But the more you read, the more your heart sinks. They’ve not read your work and judged it on its own merits, they’ve re-written it. There’s a world of difference between “you should look that this paragraph because it didn’t read right/I didn’t understand it” and “I’ve rewritten this for you, use this.” It’s agonizing and you walk away with the bitter realization that they’ve not really looked at your work at all. Rather, they’ve used the opportunity to show you how they write. It’s probably one of the most depressing things that have happened to me as a writer and I’ve never asked them to proof again!

  • Why don’t you write it then?

The writer says half-heartedly “I don’t have any ideas”.

Please don’t give them your idea which is the best idea ever, is certain to be made into a feature film and the writer has to write.

This is one of the most unfair and tragically common forms of help. First of all, when I writer says ‘I don’t have any ideas’ that’s usually not true. Being a writer means you’re generally having a dozen ideas a minute. But for a random idea to become a story isn’t as easy as writing it down. An idea is a spark in the dark. A fire is what happens when one spark meets another spark and they have lots of sparky babies.

Secondly, there’s a hesitancy in taking someone’s idea. And I don’t mean plagiarism. It’s their idea, born of their moment of inspiration. Usually, the romance of having found it, nursed it and want to write isn’t universal – see point one above.

And finally, and probably most pointedly, if it’s the best idea ever then why aren’t you writing it?

I don’t want to put anyone off supporting their delicate, touchy writers! We really are harmless, just terribly high strung. Writing is a massively creative art and it involves hacking a piece of your soul out and offering it to the masses.

On the other hand, Writers, no one exists to be your cheerleader. BlondeWriteMore once wrote an amazing post on this very subject called Why You Need To Become Your Own Cheerleader. Loved ones don’t hang around for your next draft. And while every idea may be the best idea you’ve ever had, don’t expect the world to be as excited as you.

This is one of the many, many reasons I go to the London Writers Cafe or events like Swanwick Summer Writers School. There you’re amongst people who understand this all. But as these are rare moments, we have to learn to take these well-meaning helpful suggestions with a smile and good grace, or else we’re going to be writing alone!


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