Why I cannot read your writing

ask writer for feedbackTHE IMPOSSIBLE DREAM: USABLE FEEDBACK

A person who is becoming an online friend has asked me to do the impossible: she sent me a sample of her unfinished work, and asked for me to comment on it.

Worse than that, she has said nice things about my own published work.

She has no idea what she’s done.

I have been agonizing for two days over this simple request.

Why? Because there is no way to fulfill it OR turn it down.

If I didn’t value her friendship, I would merely have said, “No. Sorry. I don’t read other writer’s unpublished work unless we are in a writer’s group.” And let it go at that.

Instead, I’m going to send her back an email that says, ‘Please read THIS blog post about Why I Cannot Read Your Writing.’

With the bunch of links I have gathered (yes, I’m trying to pawn this off on the professionals), and a separate list for those which use bad language.

And the additional information about me:

  1. I have CFS and considerable brain fog: every minute when I’m coherent is fought for with blood.
  2. I am no one. I have published (self-published) one novel.
  3. I have been writing for twenty years, and just last fall got to the point where I had something publishable; it is impossible to condense that experience.
  4. I have NO editing experience beyond working on my own novels.
  5. I wouldn’t know where to start.
  6. I don’t want to. It will take/has taken me out of my safe mental writing place already.
  7. If you really, really need my commentary, my going rate is currently $1200.00 per hour (see 1., above), and we will still have to negotiate about whether I will work for you.
  8. Having to turn down a friend has already cost me those two days of agonizing over how to do this.

Google on your own the phrase, ‘I will not read your writing.’ In no particular order:

Relatively clean links:

dmattricino (Writers Digest)

Peter Clines

Gavin Pollone

Danny Manus

Links with language I don’t usually use (read at your own risk):

Chip Street

Cynthia Haven

Josh Olson

David Gerrold

What to do if you want feedback:

Create a critique group.

Join a writers’ group.

Join a professional association and request a mentor.

Put your work in public – which is automatically asking for feedback. I did this: I posted Pride’s Children, a new polished scene every Tuesday for two years.

Join Wattpad and post your work (they also have groups where you can specifically request feedback).

WHY DOES THIS MATTER? BECAUSE IT DOES

To be absolutely clear, I have not even read the rest of the email which incited this rant: as soon as I figured out what was being requested, I stopped reading the email. I did not read a word of the work sent to me.

And if you think I’m making a huge deal over a tiny request, then remember I take this step with the full expectation that I will lose this friendship which I value AND I will be called nasty names by others who may read this post.

Because… go read the links.

What say you: Am I being paranoid?

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28 thoughts on “Why I cannot read your writing

  1. Chip Street

    Hi. Just wanted to thank you for including a link to my article in your blog. Nope, you’re not at all paranoid. The last time I even let someone pay me for reading their stuff, it turned into a thing. I struggle to find time to think hard about my own stuff… much less somebody else’s.

    Again, thanks!

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    1. Alicia Butcher Ehrhardt Post author

      Oh, you said it far better than I could – I don’t mind a little salty language. I liked what you said very much.

      The perception that writing is somehow NOT professional work (ie, we don’t get paid by the hour or the consult), and that it is also easy, is rampant.

      I’ve even given up encouraging people to write when they say something like, “I’ve always wanted to write a book.” It took me a number of times before I realized those people are expressing an impossible dream, not a goal they have any intention of putting work behind. It is unkind to start giving them detailed data on what to do. It pops their bubble. Better to smile and say, “Good for you!”

      Those who want to write somehow get going and do it, and MAY survive the part where it gets hard. I know lots of them online, only one in real life, my former writing partner who had the gall to move to Vermont! Those have very specific PRACTICAL questions, such as “How do you write group scenes?” or “How do you get Scrivener to produce ebooks with right-indented paragraphs?” and have already done their due diligence before asking. Those are a pleasure to help when I can.

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  2. Janna G. Noelle

    Another thing to keep in mind is the potential legal complications that can arise from reading an unsolicited work: you read it; it just happens to contain similar elements to something you’re currently working on (or a variation of this: it contains an element that would go nicely with something you’re currently working on); you publish and become reasonably successful, and, lo and behold, you’re being sued for plagiarism. This isn’t to say the person would win their case, but who needs that kind of hassle? Best to just not even go there.

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    1. Alicia Butcher Ehrhardt Post author

      Exactly; I mentioned that above, and I did NOT read the words she sent – without thinking, I’m sure, in the body of the email after her signature!

      I think that’s when I panicked – because I’m reluctant to even read published work when I’m writing (I tend to reread old favorite) lest I be affected, pick up a way of wording things, etc.

      And the CFS brain is not one which works well enough for me to trust it – when I find pieces I like in a published work, or someone’s blog, I copy them to a text file AND carefully label where I got them from. Right away. So I don’t lose the words OR the attribution.

      And I try to say things in original ways. Fortunately for me, I’m terrible at remembering the exact words someone said. I have to make a deliberate effort, over and over, to remember most things verbatim, from poetry to song lyrics to quotes by famous people. Even TV shows I love, like Firefly, cause me huge problems: I can’t remember the exact words. I would know immediately if the actor’s dialogue on my DVD had been swapped out, but I’ll be darned if I can remember exactly what Mal Reynolds said about middlemen without looking it up.

      We do not want plagiarism! That’s the kiss of death for writers.

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  3. Widdershins

    Taking ‘no’ for an answer is one of the first thing a writer needs to learn, and being able to say, “cool.” and move on, is a bonus.

    Hope this person values you as a friend more that a critique-er.

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    1. Alicia Butcher Ehrhardt Post author

      She did – and wrote to apologize. I think we are real friends.

      There is so much I could say to new people – but most of it (from my point of view) is already on my blog; anyone who reads through will quickly figure out whether what I do to write sounds intriguing or horrifying. I am guessing mostly the latter, for whom I’m hoping at least it has some entertainment value.

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  4. clairechase51

    Your post made me think of all the times people have asked me translate something for them. Short or long, these can be very hard and take a lot of time. Correcting a bad translation is even worse. There are professionals that do this and they charge a pretty penny. I used to help out, but now, even with me not having a disability, have to say no. I only have so much time and like one of the comments above, we don’t have enough time to do things we want to do, let alone something that is hard and that we don’t want to do. Also as someone said above, it is okay to ask and okay to say no. We just have to do it. I support you, friend. 🙂

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    1. Alicia Butcher Ehrhardt Post author

      Translate a sentence or two for them – and then quote your hourly rate. Make it twice what the professionals charge (or more). Tell people if you are doing their work, you can’t be earning a living – so their work has to pay.

      ‘Help out’ is a euphemism people use when they don’t value your work enough to pay for it, but want you to do it anyway.

      Most people don’t ask me to look at stuff, and this friend said she really wasn’t thinking. But it panicked me, because I also want to be a good friend – until I thought about it and read the opinions I quoted.

      Translation arrangements for books can give the translators 50% of the royalties from the translated work. That seems fair; in some ways translating is harder than writing, and in others it is easier.

      It’s okay to say no, but it’s HARD to say no to a friend. As I said, I value the friendship – and sometimes you lose them over things like this.

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      1. Holly Jahangiri

        I don’t think that “help out” is a euphemism for not valuing someone. Sometimes we can’t afford what someone’s worth – in cold hard case. But bartering, trading services, may be an option (especially if we’re good at something THEY need). Saying no, setting limits and boundaries, and being honest but kind are important things. As you say, a royalty sharing arrangement may be agreeable. Or perhaps a friend could cook or clean house for you, if they’re local.

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        1. Alicia Butcher Ehrhardt Post author

          It would be hard to establish value for bartering for some things, but if you can reach an agreement with a friend to trade one thing for another, why not? I wish I had friends who would clean for me! Unfortunately, I have nothing to offer them in exchange. So I pay people to do things for me.

          There are a bunch of lines in the sand. Writers get asked to write ‘for a good cause’ as if their writing were worth nothing but the person doing the asking would never ask the caterer to supply lunch ‘for a good cause.’ Wait. Take that back – it’s done all the time, but the caterer gets something out of it – because what the caterer supplies costs the caterer money as well as time. A mention on the program MAY be considered enough payment (depends on the situation), but people are reluctant to ask for things that ‘cost money.’

          Writing has a very slippery value – until you pay money for it. Writing is more like real estate than goods and services, in that writing is worth what a willing buyer will give a willing seller. Restaurants don’t charge different diners different amounts for the same entree at the same time.

          I’m getting myself twisted up here (it’s late), but the point was that time and effort are worth money. So far I haven’t made it up to 1/1000th of a cent per hour for my writing. That won’t get any better if I spend my time looking at other people’s writing for free.

          If you are happy being paid in ‘exposure,’ there are many places out there who will give you space in exchange for free words. Huffington Post is one, The Mighty is another. There are others that will pay you professional rates for your work, with all that entails.

          Liked by 1 person

        2. Catana

          Alicia, the issue of gaining exposure in exchange for free work is being hotly debated these days. In fact, writing for Huffpo for nothing but exposure has come under heavy fire. There’s been a movement, in England, and possibly in the US, to force conferences and such to pay authors to appear and give talks. And about time.

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        3. Alicia Butcher Ehrhardt Post author

          Oh, I know – I’ve been following on ThePassiveVoice. I even asked myself if it would serve our community to put something about CFS on The Mighty.

          I don’t have the energy to write anything extra, so I’m watching from the sidelines. In a very special case I might consider it, but the answer from me would probably be no. If I heard about a strong causality between writing for HuffPo and selling lots of books, maybe. But it would have to come from something other than HuffPo.

          ‘Free’ makes relatively little sense unless it’s the first book of a series. It will be a long time before I have the second book finished; I’ll see what I think then. Discounted is more likely, for me: I want to attract serious readers of long fiction.

          For reviewers, there will always be eARCs available. And I’ve given review copies to people, friends of friends, who I knew would probably never write a review. As long as the possibility they will write the review is there, I’m just doing what the big publishers do.

          Money changes things. I’m into this for real, for money, for a second career. For vacation money, I tell my patient husband. Would I write if I didn’t publish? Yes, but I wouldn’t put so much work into the business side of it!

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        4. Alicia Butcher Ehrhardt Post author

          I’ve seen that link – Harlan Ellison’s Pay the Writer – before. He says it well, but he’s not the only one.

          I get it. I am a professional now (turned pro 12/12/12), so I will write for pay from now on. Meaning I will have work available for sale.

          Many writers have talked about writing as being naked under a trenchcoat – desperately wanting to be seen. Not all writers can be that vulnerable, and of the ones that can, we don’t like many of them. Delicate line, exposing what’s uniquely you without making readers think everything is autobiographical and icky.

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  5. Jennifer

    No. You are not being paranoid. And I think you’ve set out very well why you cannot meet this request. If it’s okay for people to ask someone to do something for them, then it is also okay for the person asked to say no. Sometimes, no is the only answer. I often say no to requests for review: at first I felt bad about it, but now I realise that I just don’t have enough life time left to do the things that I want/need to do, without trying to accommodate everyone else. Stay strong!

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  6. jrose88

    I feel like it’s weird to ask someone if they’ll read something AND include the said something in the message. It gives little opportunity to decline and assumes a positive answer, which is jumping the gun a bit. Especially if it’s someone who’s never read anything for you before. I feel like the Internet is giving us all some warped sense of consent – from this to posting pictures of kids too young to know what’s happening on Facebook. And I say this as a never-far-from-my-smartphone-and-Internet-connection millennial…

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    1. Alicia Butcher Ehrhardt Post author

      It’s a newbie error – really. We all start out as tabulae rasae, and need to learn everything, when we start to think first of writing, and then of admitting we’re writers.

      There’s so much to learn, and each newbie learns what is necessary (if they ever do) in a different order.

      Now I tell all new writers who ask, to start following a few blogs (TPV, Kris Rusch and Dean Wesley Smith, David Gaughran…) and realize they have access to current publishing information if they make the effort. I don’t know if any take me up on it, but that’s what I’ve been doing, IIRC, since early 2011. There are books – but how do you assess the books? You need a bunch of voices.

      If you want a traditional publisher, I have no list. Newbie + traditional big publisher is way too close to the lottery. If you’re that good and very lucky, someone will notice and push you in the right direction.

      It cannot be condensed into a quick pill form: you have to do the reading for at least a couple of years’ worth of data. It is WORK. But if you don’t, you are at the mercy of whoever you let make decisions for you – there are plenty of scam artists and some legitimate businesses out there who will ‘handle’ things for you – for a fee.

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  7. naleta

    No, you are not being paranoid. If this person is truly a friend, she should already be aware of your physical situation. My first impulse is to tell her that she needs to finish the book before you will even consider looking at it, but then, what if she actually does? You will still have very limited time and energy available. The story might not be something that you would choose to read for enjoyment, even if she turns out to have promise. And then she’ll want your feedback.

    I love to read. The Internet Age has turned the trickle of available reading material that I grew up with (living out in the country, the bi-monthly county bookmobile was a very big deal for me in the summertime when school was out) to a flood that overwhelms me if I let it. I read fast! 450 words per minute with 100% retention for a few days after finishing that story, before the next few things push it down in my memory. I never liked making book reports in school, and I feel very uncomfortable about posting book reviews even now. I do understand your emotional upset at her request, and I rather resent her making it, selfishly, because that means that it will take you just that much longer to get your next book ready for publication.

    One of the comments at the link to Peter Clines site said that one should not ask if someone will read their work, if they are not comfortable asking to borrow their car.

    *frowns at her* and {{{HUGS}}} for you.

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    1. Alicia Butcher Ehrhardt Post author

      She wasn’t rude and she asked nicely – but I don’t think she understands what she asked for.

      This is far more about ME than about her and what is an INNOCENT request.

      I did not mean to come down hard on her, but on the concept that ‘she didn’t realize what position this puts me in.’ If I didn’t value our developing friendship, I would have had an easy time saying no. With no emotional problem on my side.

      As I said in response to another comment: I did this myself many years ago. Once. That writer responded nicely – she didn’t have my additional complications – and I took her response as well as I could at the time and let it go.

      What I responded to here (and thanks for the hugs, btw) was that it put ME into a tizzy. I may have lost her already simply because I didn’t know how to respond.

      I looked online for guidance (where responses to similar question ranged all over the place) – which took time I don’t have.

      But once I wrote this, I saw WHY the request had such an impact, WHY responding in any way left me in a wrong position, and WHY I could neither say yes nor no. In the future (I will put a link to this post on my About page), I will know how to act.

      I always post when I learn something about myself and my writing that might be useful to someone else. I was VERY careful not to identify my correspondent by anything personal – you have nothing in my post you can google, and the emails between her and myself are and will remain completely private.

      The additional thing that drove me was a recent conversation I had with my daughter (as a designer she has similar problems with idea people) about how people who might offer you the 50/50 deal will react later if ANY part of your output EVER implies that you had access to their idea: they sue.

      I told her my solution: the instant someone tells you something they think is original, accuse THEM of stealing YOUR idea. Ideas are free-floating in the zeitgeist – people have no trouble having the same one roughly at the same time.

      I emailed back that I had not read a word of the appended material; I didn’t – I will now quarantine the relevant emails. It puts me in another bad place – having access to something that might turn out to be her work, and ever accidentally using something similar in mine. A minute worry – we write in very different genres – I’m writing this here and now to establish publicly the precedent possibility: she’s been writing this for a while, and I am stating I didn’t look at it.

      Maybe I need more sleep. That last paragraph sounded distinctly paranoid.

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  8. juliabarrett

    No, you’ve got it all wrong. If you value someone’s friendship do not ever critique their work. This is my hard and fast rule. I may read your work when you post it. I may point out a spelling error, but that’s as far as it goes. I’m dealing with the same thing right now and it’s a writer I don’t know. A friend referred her. Gaaaaaa!

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    1. Alicia Butcher Ehrhardt Post author

      Once or twice, when a writer friend mentioned on her blog that she was having trouble, I have made very specific LIMITED offers: if you’d like me to, I’ll take a look at that scene…

      And was very relieved when they said no thanks, but thanks for offering.

      Especially, since as is usually the case, we write vastly different genres. But that was a voluntary offer to someone with whom I have a long established relationship – and I initiated it. And we’d traded blog posts and books over time.

      I appreciated my beta reader enormously – I think she had a hard time believing me – when she DID point out more than typographic errors, and mentioned what she liked, but more importantly, what didn’t work for or confused her. Again, I asked, and we had established a relationship that included me requesting critique and accepting it.

      You say, ‘A friend referred her.’ I’m assuming NOT a writer friend.

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  9. Catana

    This really provoked a lot of thinking. First, it reminded me of an article on the Literary Hub site: When a Self-declared Genius Asks You to Read His Masterpiece — http://lithub.com/when-a-self-declared-genius-asks-you-to-read-his-masterpiece/ Not that your friend is making that claim. It’s the reasons for not reading that matter. Very good article.

    Your own reasons are plenty good enough, of course. But what strikes me most about the email is that she didn’t bother to ask you if you’d be willing to read the book. Inexcusably rude. Other than that, what does she want? To be told that she should go on with it? If she really cares about her story, she doesn’t need permission. Does she want praise? If it’s about ego, there’s nothing you could possibly say that wouldn’t hurt, unless it *is* praise. Putting you between a rock and a hard place is also rude. If you don’t read the darned thing, she’ll probably hate you. If you tell her something other than what she wants to hear, she’ll hate you. Last, why would anyone waste their time looking at an unfinished novel when the chances are that she’ll never finish it?

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    1. Alicia Butcher Ehrhardt Post author

      You have the negative parts down pat.

      Some potential writers need encouraging; they may not survive even with it. And often don’t even take the encouragement as real.

      Others – or the idea people (“I have this great idea, see? You write it up and we’ll split the revenues 50/50.”) – you need to extricate from asap.

      But the ones who mean well (there are a few; I suspect my friend is in that category), they are the hardest to turn down.

      Worst? I did this myself many years ago. Once. It was not met with that adulation I needed at the time, so I said thanks, accepted whatever she wrote (writer friend of my friend – she was kind) and slunk away with my non-existent tale at low mast).

      It is fraught with all kinds of peril to be asked – I constantly see people on GoodReads begging, requesting, or demanding that you read their work – and extremely rarely leads to anything good for both parties. If it does, you have yourself a potential mentor or mentee; from there on it is still a lot of work.

      I’m off to read your link.

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