January 23, 2007
What to Know Before You Ask Me to Read Your (Unpublished) Work
Another of those "posting here now so I can refer people to it later" posts:
Perhaps since I give out a whole bunch of largely unsolicited writing advice, I am often asked by readers if I would look at the unpublished story/novel/screenplay/poem they're working on and give them some feedback or advice. Indeed, perhaps you yourself have been thinking of asking me this very same thing. I have two things to say to this sort of request:
1. I'm really flattered that you would think of asking me to critique your work and would trust me to give you valuable feedback. Thank you.
And now, all the reasons why I won't read your unpublished work, presented in no particular order.
Reason #1: I don't have the time. As of right this very moment, here are the things I am committed to writing: One novel, a second edition of a non-fiction book (which requires substantial revision and rewriting), a novella, a novelette, several short stories, five blog entries every day of the week, several informational pieces for a book on Ohio, a magazine article on Elvis Presley and other ongoing work for corporate clients. All of this work has to be done because I'm contractually obliged to do it and it pays my bills.
On top of this I write daily for this Web site, which does not pay bills but which over time has become incredibly important to my career (and to my sanity). On top of that, I need to read at least a couple of books a week for an interview series I do with authors, occasionally read one with an eye toward giving a blurb, and check out yet a few others to discuss here on the Whatever (pimping writers! Yay!). On top of that, I have a family which would like to see me from time to time, not to mention friends who I would also enjoy socializing with. On top of all of this, I'd like a little time for my own non-work-related recreation. And on top of that, I'd like to eat and sleep.
Now, over time the details of what I'm doing will change. What is unlikely to change is the volume of what I'm doing. That has remained constant pretty much for the last decade and seems unlikely to decrease any time soon, for which I am fantastically and appropriately grateful. But it means that I don't have time to read your work, because critically evaluating work in a way that's going to be useful to the author takes a fair amount of time, and it's time I don't have. I understand that from your point of view it may seem like it should be a trivial thing to slip in a little bit of reading and evaluation. But over on this side of things, there's no time. There's just not.
(How do I have time to write all this, then? Well, I'm writing it once. Saves me from having to write it over and over again.)
Related to the time thing:
Reason #2: I'd rather look like a dick by saying no than look like a dick by saying yes and then not following through. Several months ago and against my better judgment I agreed to look at someone's manuscript for them and offer them an opinion on it. And I still haven't gotten to it. Why not? Because ultimately it's the last priority in my day: I have paid work, I have to respond to clients and editors, I spend time with family, I write on this site, I sometimes travel on business, and so on and so forth. All of this fills up my days, and at the end of the day I'm tired and I just want to watch the goddamn Daily Show and then go to sleep. I don't want to give this fellow a half-assed evaluation, so I keep postponing getting to the manuscript until I have time to give it the time it deserves, and that time just never manages to get here. I'm being a total dick to this guy because he's been patiently waiting for me to deliver on what I said I would do and I'm just not doing it.
I'm telling you this for two reasons. The first is that a little self-induced public shaming is just the spur I need to actually get this manuscript read. But more relevant point here is that when I say "no" to you, at least you're not left dangling for months and months like I've made this poor fellow dangle, waiting to hear back from me. Your disappointment is brief and over, not long and lingering and continual. And of course, I'd also personally prefer not to disappoint people on a daily, continuing basis.
Reason #3: You're not paying me. This sounds like me being a snide jerk, but there's actual truth to this. Here's the thing: I get paid pretty well for what I do. When people ask me to read their work, they're usually not including a consulting fee; they're expecting I'll read the work for free. Thing is, giving people a useful critical evaluation is work; in effect they're asking me to work for free. And, well. Generally speaking, I don't do that. It makes my mortgage company nervous. And since my schedule is pretty packed (as noted above), any evaluation I do takes place in time I usually allot to paying work. So not only am I not making money doing this evaluation, there's also a reasonably good chance this evaluation is taking up time I could be using to make money. And there's the mortgage people getting nervous again.
Now, let's be clear, here: When people ask me to read their stuff, it's not like I fly into a rage at their insensitivity and appalling willingness to take food from the mouth of my darling child; that's just silly. No one who asks me to read their work is saying I ought to prioritize them over actual work; they know they're asking me for a favor. What I'm saying is that all things being equal, whenever possible I'm going to fill up work time with paid work. If someone wanted me to read their stuff and was also willing to pay my corporate consulting fee, I might be willing to make time, and bump something lesser-paying down the work ladder. But I don't suspect many people are willing to pay my consulting fee -- nor should they, as there are lots of wonderfully competent editors who would be delighted to give feedback at far more reasonable rates -- so generally it's going to be people asking me to do work for free. I'm not likely to do that.
Reason #4: Some people don't really want feedback, and if they do, they don't want feedback from me. This works on two levels. First, to be blunt, there are a lot of people who, when they say, "I'd love feedback," actually mean "I want a hug." Yes, most people say they really do want honest feedback, but you know what? A lot of them are lying (or, alternately, don't know themselves well enough). How do I know which of these you are? Well, in fact, I don't, unless I actually know you in real life, which in nearly every case I do not.
This matters because, to put it mildly, I'm not a hugger when it comes to critiquing work. I'm not intentionally rude, but I'm not going to bother sparing your feelings or sugar-coating what I think you're doing wrong. In my experience this is hard enough for people to take if they genuinely want criticism; when they don't actually want criticism -- when in fact what they want is some sort of bland positive affirmation of their work or ego validation -- it's like being whacked in the face with a shovel full of red-hot coals. I think a lot of folks ask me for critiques because generally speaking I present myself as a nice and reasonable guy, and so they feel safe asking me for feedback. For certain values of "safe," this is wildly incorrect; I don't think it's either nice or reasonable to tell people their work is good when it's not. This has surprised people in the past. Over time I've decided it's usually not worth the hassle.
Reason #5: I don't want to enable you not finishing your work. Lots of people ask me to read the first few chapters or a section of something and offer feedback on it. As a philosophical matter, I think offering critiques on incomplete work is a terrible thing to do to a writer, because what all-too-frequently happens is that writer goes back and keeps rubbing and buffing the same three chapters (or 10 pages, or scene, or whatever) for months and years, and what you end up with is a highly polished useless piece of writing -- useless because it's incomplete. Also, the critique is useless because it's only about a part of the work, and who knows how all that fits in with the rest? It's like giving someone a handful of cherries and asking them how they like your cherry pie.
For God's sake, if you're going to hand your work over for critique, finish the damn thing first. Even if it's broke, you can fix it. But you can't fix a fragment. All you can do is fiddle with it, and in fiddling avoid finishing it. I don't encourage this; even with friends, I don't read things that aren't finished.
Reason #6: I don't know you. Why does this matter? Well, simple. As noted in reason #4, I don't know if you really want feedback or just a pat on the head. I don't how you respond to criticism. I don't know if you're mentally balanced, and whether a less-than-stellar evaluation from me will turn you into a pet-stalking psychotic. I don't know whether, should I ever critique something of yours and then write something vaguely similar, you'll go and try to sue me for stealing your story idea (you'd lose the case, but it would still cost me time and court fees). There are so many things I don't know about you, they could fill a book.
Now, I'm absolutely sure that, in fact, you're an entirely sane, calm, reasonable person. Most everybody is. But you know what? I actually have had someone online go genuinely and certifiably crazy on me. They seemed nice and normal and sane, and then suddenly they weren't, and then there were police involved. Don't worry, it was a while ago, everything's fine, and it didn't involve a work critique in any event. However, strictly as a matter of prudence, it's best that I don't read your work.
Realize, of course, that the converse of this is also true: You don't know me, and while I'm sure I come across as reasonably sane and decent, you never do know, do you? Maybe I will steal your ideas. Maybe I will be needlessly cruel toward your work because I'm a little weasel of man who needs to feel big by dumping on you. Maybe I am just that big of a twit. You just don't know. Maybe this is my way of protecting you from me. Flee! Flee!
So, those are the reasons why I won't read your unpublished work. I sincerely hope you understand.
Posted by john at January 23, 2007 12:00 AM
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