9 Questions Writers Hate to be Asked
I’m pretty sure every occupation comes with questions that make the askee roll his/her eyes. No, nurses don’t want to look at that rash. Well duh teachers enjoy having the summers ‘off,’ but they probably don’t appreciate the implication that they have it easy. And yes – sigh – your local band will begrudgingly play at your wedding with no pay, but only because they love you, Sis.
Writers are no different. Of course one writer can never speak for all, but there are some common complaints I hear (and feel) over and over again. And hey, who doesn’t enjoy a good venting session now and again? I give you: 9 questions writer hate to be asked.
1) How much money do you make?
Would you ask a lawyer how much money she makes? No, of course you wouldn’t. (And if you would; you might need to work on your social boundaries.) So why would you ask a writer how much money he makes, or how he can afford to do what he does? It’s just as tactless and rude to ask us as it is to ask any other professional. (Unless, of course, you’re intimate enough with the writer to talk about money matters, which is a whole different story.)
2) What do you do all day?
It’s an honest question. Writing is often a profession shrouded in mystery, and non-writers are just curious. But you wouldn’t ask a lawyer this, either, and the reason it’s insulting to ask a writer what you wouldn’t ask a lawyer is that it implies our profession is less serious or worthy than more traditional 9-5 jobs. Not to mention that this question can come across as a presumption that we don’t have anything to do.
Trust me, we have plenty to do. Drafting is only a fraction of what writers do all day. We have revisions, editing, research, submissions, record-keeping, contests, judging, social networking, conferences, marketing, teaching gigs, readings…
This whole writing thing is really, really hard. It’s scary, emotional, and tiring. We hate it when people think it’s easy just because we’re creative. Even if the writing comes fairly naturally – which is no guarantee – the rest of the business is relentless. Please don’t underplay what we do.
3) Will you handle ____ since you’re home all day anyway?
Lots of writers – especially full-time writers – get involved in organizations, which is great. But inevitably, when volunteer hours come up, we get slammed. Working from home is hard enough as it is; please don’t assume that since we’re there we’re available to do whatever you need. Most writers work with the metaphorical door shut, meaning they don’t want to be disturbed any more than you do when you’re at work. Just because many writers are their own boss doesn’t mean their work time is less valuable than yours. Arguably, we need it even more than those with traditional jobs. While you might get paid even if you secretly watch YouTube for two hours on a rough day, we only get paid if we produce and sell our work, piece by piece.
4) Have you had anything published that I might have read?
This, like most of these questions, is usually well-intended. But the problem is the phrasing. “That I might have read” implies that A) you don’t want to hear about anything that you wouldn’t have read, and B) if you haven’t read it, it doesn’t count. Think of this question in terms of actors and movies, and it's easier to understand where I'm coming from. I mean, obviously we’re probably not super famous yet or you wouldn’t be asking, right? A better way to phrase this is, “Is there somewhere I can read your work?” Shows the same interest without the implication of a fame limit we have to reach to be worthy of your time.
5) When is your book coming out?
This question is perfectly fine, fantastic, even, if you actually know that the writer has a book coming out. But if they don’t, and you ask it, this can be so dismaying. Many non-writers simply don’t know how slow and difficult the process of getting a first book published usually is. Five years is a great time frame. Ten is perfectly normal. Twenty is more common than anyone wants to admit. So if we’re not there yet and you ask when our book is coming out, it forces us to say, “Uh… it's not.” Awkward. The interest inherent in this question (you’re interested in our work and want to support us) is sweet, but, again, “Is there somewhere I can read your work?” is a kinder way to phrase it, as it allows us to gracefully answer no matter what stage we’re at in our career.
6) Have you considered getting a real job?
What I hear when I face this question is: “So, have you considered giving up playing pretend artist and joining a profession that actually makes money?” Anything that involves the phrase “real job” is on the bad list. We know what you mean, but it’s horribly offensive phrasing. If you really must specify, try “traditional job.” But really, you probably shouldn’t be questioning anyone’s career choices. Would you ask a lawyer, “So, have you considered switching from being a soul-sucking corporate drone to do something truly artistic with your life?” No. So why is the opposite acceptable? (My apologies to all lawyers for becoming the anti-writer in this post.)
7) Where do you get your ideas?
This is asked so often, and it’s a valid question. It isn’t rude at all. But… damn, yo. I don’t know! No one does. Ideas come from the ether, the muse, our subconscious, a troll under the bridge. All of the answers you’ll hear are wishy-washy because no one freaking knows how we get ideas. Sorry.
8) Why do you write about ____ (vampires, cheating spouses, flying monkeys)?
Again, not rude, but most of us don’t know. I can think of a lot of different reasons that I write horror or poetry or whatever, but I’ll probably never really pin down exactly why I’m drawn to what I’m drawn to, and there are probably at least a dozen true answers regardless. I don’t necessarily “hate” this question, but it does make me sigh. My answer is usually a pretty lame, “Well, I’ve just always loved ____.” I think for most writers, that’s as good as it gets. And if it gets better, chances are pretty good that answer is a lot longer than the one you were looking for.
9) I hear ___ (erotic comic books, YA novels, horse insemination manuals) are making lots of money right now; why don’t you write that instead?
There are a couple of problems with this question. The first is that it implies we haven’t thought of this. We’re in the industry; we (hopefully) know better than most what’s selling right now. The second is that it implies we’re doing this to make money. Yes, we’d like to make money, but if that were our primary goal, we probably wouldn’t have chosen such a difficult industry. Most writers do it because we love the craft. And third, we don’t write about flying monkeys because they’re trendy; we write about them because something about winged simians calls to our artsy little souls. Implying that we can just switch to horse insemination manuals all willy-nilly undercuts our art, subtly insults our professional knowledge, and just plain rubs us the wrong way.
Okay, after such a list, you might think all writers expect people to walk on eggshells around us. That isn’t the case. What it really boils down to is respect. Everyone makes faux pas; that’s not the end of the world. If you phrase something tactlessly but clearly have kind intentions, I’m not going to add you to my hit list when I get home. (I might write you into a part of my story that will be cut later, though, because it probably isn’t relevant to the actual theme.)
I just thought these were worth sharing for those who would like to know. And for all my writing buds. You know we love to vent. ;)
So what’d I miss, writers? What questions make you cringe every time?
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