It’s inevitable. Every few months I’m strolling merrily along in life, minding my own business, when someone drops a bomb on my head and there’s just nothing I can do about it. I’m helpless.
I’m talking, of course, about people I don’t know asking me to read their work. People hear you’re a writer and a writing teacher and they see a proofreader, an editor, and a champion–someone to give accolades for their unrecognized brilliance. This happens to all writers, and when I say writers I mean people who write professionally or went to school specifically for creative writing–not amateurs. Amateurs are the people who ask writers to read their work. Unsolicited. I’m not exaggerating when I say it happens to all writers and it happens frequently. And it’s awkward.
I understand why people do this. When you’re an amateur writer—that is, new to the craft of writing—you’re excited about what you’ve been working on and you want to know if it’s any good and if it’s something you should continue to pursue. That’s fine. We get that. It’s completely appropriate to ask an honest friend who really cares about you and your success to read your work, granted you give them a small sample. Generally 5-10 pages of a short story or 2-3 reasonably sized poems is acceptable. That will give someone a general idea of your writing abilities and style. Now, please note that I said you should ask a friend who really cares about you. Not a stranger. Not someone you kind of know, or someone you just met, or someone your friend knows who’s a writer. That’s not cool.
Well, first of all, it’s really kind of rude to ask someone to work for free. Editors, publishers, and teachers get paid for their time. They generally don’t get paid terribly well, but they do get paid. This is why I’m happy to give lots of credible, detailed feedback to my students, but I’m not thrilled to give feedback to other teacher’s students who hear that I’m a writer when I give a guest lecture in another class. When you ask a stranger to read your script or novel it’s akin to being at a cocktail party and asking a lawyer for free legal advice or a doctor to check out that rash you can’t seem to get rid of. You’re essentially asking someone to give you their expertise at no cost.
Reading a manuscript, a script, or even a short story takes time out of someone’s day, and to give quality feedback takes even more time. Furthermore, expecting someone to proofread for you is nothing short of abhorrent, especially if your grammar and spelling skills are weak. Again, editors get paid to edit work, but even editors will send back appalling messes of work and tell authors to fix them before resubmitting. Editors fix small overlooked mistakes, not glaring misuses of the English language, like “u” for “you.” When I do accept the rare manuscript or script from someone I’ll give it right back unread if there’s more than one error on the first page. I’m sorry, but I don’t have time for that.
Secondly, those of us who have been put in the position to read the work of someone who isn’t paying for our time know one thing that’s pretty much universally true: most people don’t actually want to hear our advice. People don’t like to be criticized, they like to be praised. If I tell someone the pacing in his story is off, his character isn’t believable, or his story has no plot, and that’s not what he wanted to hear, he’s just going to ignore me and look for someone who will tell him how amazing he is. That’s not to say that there aren’t people who are really serious about writing and really want some quality advice, but the majority of people who solicit their work to strangers don’t really want advice. It’s frustrating for a writer to give her opinion only to be ignored. James from Men With Pens wrote this great article about how he’s stopped answering the question “Could you tell me what I could do better next time?” because very few people ever really want honest feedback from him. If you’re just looking for praise, have your mother read your work and call it a day.
Finally, when work is really bad—like, painfully bad—it’s really uncomfortable to crush someone’s dreams. No one likes to tell someone their writing is terrible. As a teacher, I can spend time with students who need extra help to get them through the class, but I don’t have the time to sit down with someone I know casually and teach him the basics of creative writing—especially not for free. I recall a situation years ago when a coworker asked me to read his novel, which was over 200 pages, and not only wanted my opinion on the quality, but he also wanted me to edit for him. The novel was a mess; there were actually pages of nonsense I couldn’t even understand, and the story itself was unbelievable, tacky, and predictable, AND had a cliche “twist” ending. I felt terrible telling him that he needed to keep working on it and handing over the notes I had painstakingly made. You know what he did? He ignored my comments and asked another coworker of ours to read it.
If you’re serious about writing and you’re not currently enrolled in a writing program, start a writing club. Find other people who are writing who are willing to read your work and give you feedback in exchange for your opinions on their work. Look into creative writing programs, free writers’ workshops in your community, and advertise to like-minded friends on Facebook who might have work to exchange. Those are appropriate methods for getting people to read your work and give you feedback. Real writers have networks of people they trust to get feedback from.