The Hardest Words to Write

Embarking on a creative career is risky for several reasons. The barriers to success are many and the advantages are few. For instance, you get to set your own schedule, but there is no guarantee that you aren’t wasting your time. Even if you do create something good, you have to draw attention to it. If it gets attention, you still have to turn that into further opportunities and (hopefully) money. Just attempting to be a creative writer requires a great deal of creativity. Ostensibly, being a writer is simple; you become one as soon as you write. What makes a good writer different from every other literate person with a keyboard?

Success as a writer is completely based on one thing: People have to read your work. It’s entirely possible that the most talented writers in the world have never had their work read by another soul. If that’s true, they certainly aren’t successful, and not just because they aren’t making money at it. A good writer has to involve other people, because improvement requires feedback. Every reader and every bit of honest feedback is helpful. In other words, the proof of the writing is in the reading.

So what are the hardest words to write? They always start the same way: “Will you read … ?”

I can almost hear you groaning from here. After all, I just asked you to do something potentially boring and you might have to admit it. I get roughly the same response from everyone: “Yes, but not right now.” It’s nice and diplomatic, but deceptively negative. Much like getting “Ask Again Later” on a Magic 8-Ball, it doesn’t help very much.

Am I imposing? Absolutely. I know you’re busy, and when I ask you to read something, I’m requesting your undivided attention. Ew. Reading is a homework assignment! It’s horrible! You’ll procrastinate, I’ll pester you, and we’ll both have to figure out how to share it online. How can a friendship survive a sudden, obnoxious jolt into a teacher/student relationship?

Then, after you read it (or just skim it), I’ll want feedback. Chances are good my work was unpolished or stupid. I may have completely wasted your time. But time is ticking, and you have to say something! A positive response is the safest approach. It’s a compliment, right? After all, what could be worse than negative feedback? Easy. Dishonest feedback, or worse, no feedback at all.

And that’s the problem. What I’m really asking is for you to be my friend by being a total asshole. You aren’t criticizing ME, you aren’t dismissing ME. You are reacting to my writing, and as long as you’re doing that, I’ll be just fine. Only hold back if your suggestion is that I stop writing altogether and cut off my hands for the good of humanity. At that point, it stops being constructive.

Once you’re done, I will put your feedback in my brain for thoughtful consideration. Most of the time, I will change something. Sometimes I won’t, and sometimes I will consider what you suggested and deliberately not do it. Who’s the asshole now, right? However, my reaction to criticism is never “Screw you! I like it!” or “You just didn’t get it!” I know better. When someone criticizes your beliefs, it doesn’t usually change them, but it almost always reminds you why you have them. Sometimes it will reinforce them. Other times, it will nudge you ever so slightly toward a new viewpoint.

Now that I’ve said all that, I will say this: It really is okay if you don’t want to read my writing. There are plenty of reasons to say no. I won’t hold it against you, but be honest about it. Don’t try to shut me up by saying you’ll read it eventually, because I’m persistent enough to ask again and again.

I have been on both ends of this exchange, so this is as much an admission as an admonishment. I have this dilemma any time I’m asked to proofread something. If you want me to read your work, I will. I’m a copy editor; I don’t pull punches and I don’t guarantee niceness. On the other hand, I know there are two kinds of writers: the ones who want honest feedback, and the ones who only want to hear nice things. It’s the difference between improvement and encouragement, but why encourage someone who doesn’t want to improve? Art is risk. I can’t tell you what will happen if you share your work with the world, but I can tell you what will happen if you don’t: absolutely nothing.

When someone asks you to read something, take a second and think about all of the things you read today, at home, at work, on your phone, on the internet, on TV. You probably spent a lot of time reading. Was any of it important? Did you always know what to expect? Did you enjoy it? If not, you might as well try reading something completely new.

And what else did you read today? You read this, and that was nice of you. If you have nice things to say, I’ll appreciate them. I’ll appreciate the mean things just as much.

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