What Not to Say – 5 Ways to Talk to Your Writer


As I read “Don’t Ask Me What I’m Writing” in the Sunday New York Times, I thought, “That is the worst question anyone can ask a writer.”

The question was, How is your novel going?

When someone asks me that question, I have the panicky feeling I used to get when I took a test and realized I didn’t study hard enough for it.

Slouka was writing specifically of what happens when a friend asks their writer this question within the first few months.

The novel is a new-born babe, a primitive and undeveloped idea in the writer’s mind. A well-intentioned friend might ask them, “How is the novel going?”

As Slouka points out this question is a double-edged sword that cuts both writer and well-meaning friend.

But no matter what the progress of the book, you can’t win with that kind of question.  I’ve been asked that question many, many times, and I’ve never figured out how to answer it.

As I read this article, I realized what the problem is: people are asking the wrong question.

What’s wrong with this question? Slouka explains that it opens up your writer to criticism at a point in the process when they’re really vulnerable. For the most part I agree with this.

When a writer hears this, s/he suddenly senses the pressures of the outside world. People expect things of you when you’re writing a book, and so many have already tried and failed before.

Here are 5 ways to talk to your writer about their book:

Ask them what they want to write about. A writer friend once asked me what my book was about. When I tried to answer, I fumbled my way through an awkward plot summary. But when she asked me what I wanted to write about, I answered without missing a beat. Summarizing the plot line was difficult, especially because I have to use words like “kingdom” and “goddess” and “tribe.” But when I tell people that I want to write about otherization and how people live in fear of what they don’t understand, I have the spark that made me start writing it in the first place. Asking your writer this question will give them a chance to talk about what inspired them to start.

Speak in technical terms. Ask your writer how far along they are or what they’re working on. They might say, “I’ve written the first two chapters and they seem okay,” or “I’m stuck on the part where he breaks out of prison,” or maybe something like, “Christ, my protagonist is a real jerkface.”  Rather than talk about the book, it’s much easier to talk about the process.

Ask them how they make time to write. Let me first put this out there. Your writer is a procrastinator. There is never going to be enough time to write, and when they do write, being alone with their creativity will terrify them. Your writer also has to contend with full-time jobs and a basic human desire for a social life. Unless they’re up before dawn or up all night, a couple hours a day is pretty damn good for most writers. But when you ask them how they find the time to write, you’re connecting with something that your writer struggles with. This will help you connect with your writer.

For the love of God, don’t judge, criticize, or offer suggestions. Even if your intentions are good. Your writer won’t hear it that way. Trust me, they just won’t, because there is a voice inside the mind of every writer that tells them they aren’t good enough. This voice never shuts up. Slouka calls it the “inner critic.” And when you judge, criticize, or offer suggestions it only empowers that voice and renders your writer impotent. So just listen and empthazie and understand, and that is enough.

Ask how you can support them.  Another way to phrase it would be, what do you need? Your writer might ask you to hold them accountable by getting chapters done by a certain deadline. Or they might ask to talk through some confusing plot points.  If you truly want to show support for your writer, this is the best question to ask them.  Nothing will put them more at ease than seeing how their needs can be met.

With these questions not only will you support your writer, but you’ll be their best ally.


24 Comments Add yours

  1. Dylan Hearn says:

    Reblogged this on Suffolk Scribblings and commented:
    This is quite wonderful. Dear friends and family, please take note….

  2. Thanks for articulating these points. #4 is the most difficult, I think, and the more we care about the writer, the harder is to NOT offer suggestions. As with any problem in life, sometimes we just need to talk it out, not have others solve our problems for us.

    1. wordsavant says:

      Good point Candace! Often our reaction is to try to fix the problem for someone else, when really they just need to talk it through. Thanks for reading!

  3. jennypellett says:

    Procrastination is in the air this week officially – Fight Procrastination Day happened in the States this past week. For me, it happens most days…

    1. wordsavant says:

      One day a year doesn’t feel like enough. I think most of us could use a weekly Fight Procrastination Day all year.

  4. Dave says:

    Great post, Jane. It’s comforting to know that number 3 is ubiquitous, seeming to affect most every writer. Makes me feel better that I’m not alone. I liked the first two ways to talk to your writer, and found the last one to be the best, at least for me 🙂

    1. wordsavant says:

      You are not alone Dave! Time to write is a constant struggle. By the time I take care of adult responsibilities, the day is nearly over. Often the choice is write or neglect something else, like cleaning my house or exercising. Suppose I have to be a lazy slob to be productive. Thanks for reading!

  5. Dave says:

    Reblogged this on According to Dave and commented:
    Good advice for those who have friends or family who write …

    1. Thanks for the reblog, Dave! “Rather than talk about the book, it’s much easier to talk about the process.” That is so much easier! I’m printing this post and passing it out to family and friends. 🙂

  6. A great post. And since rejection is sadly ubiquitous for writers, I’d add a few (non)questions meant simply to soothe the poor writer’s soul like “How’d you get to be so awesome?” and “Can I pre-purchase my copy of your work right now?”

    1. wordsavant says:

      Haha! Those are great questions! Writing is HARD, so when people recognize that, it’s very reassuring. Thanks for reading!

  7. julitownsend says:

    Reblogged on julitownsendwrites. I admit I most likely asked the worst questions before I became a writer.

    1. wordsavant says:

      Thanks for reblogging!

  8. julitownsend says:

    Reblogged this on Inspiration to Publication and commented:
    If I’d known many writers before I became a writer, I daresay I would have asked these questions if I’d summoned up the courage to ask a writer anything. 🙂

  9. 1WriteWay says:

    Great post! A friend asked me today how I find time to write, and it was a relief to admit that often times I don’t find the time 😉

  10. Jools says:

    Excellent post. I’ve been fending off the ‘how’s the book going’ question for months, as progress has been slower than I’d hoped. Most who’ve asked have received a clipped ‘fine, thanks’ and a watery smile in return. I think I might circulate a copy of your post!

    1. wordsavant says:

      You’re not alone Jools. I tend to stutter and mutter when asked that question. Thanks for reading!

  11. Katie Cross says:

    I always panic when people ask me what my book is about. I’d rather give them updates on my process (even if I know they don’t understand what an accomplishment 5-6k words in two days is) than summarize it into a sentence or two without it sounding retarded.

    1. wordsavant says:

      I agree. Telling people about your progress is definitely not as off-putting as telling people what it’s about. That can be a very difficult question to answer if you’re still writing the book.

  12. Sherri says:

    A great post for all us writers. I made the decision to write ‘that book’ (only took me 32 years!) and I do find it so difficult when people ask me ‘how is your novel going’? As Jenny said above, procrastination is a huge problem. I should be writing this morning but so far I’ve spent the entire morning reading other blogs and commenting! Thanks for this though Jane, I found you from ‘Suffolk Scribblings’ as Dylan reblogged this post. So glad he did! 🙂

    1. wordsavant says:

      Thanks for stopping by Sherri! I’m glad you found it helpful!

  13. Love this post. I feel like I need to call all up all of my writer friends and apologize for being a big jerk face.

    1. wordsavant says:

      Haha! It doesn’t make you a jerk. Think of it as improving communication between you and your writer.

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