The Writer’s Responsibility

When you decide to pursue writing as a career or even an avocation, you probably are unaware of the responsibility bestowed upon you by the decision. There is no official ceremony involved, but there should be.

This responsibility will change the way you interact with friends and relatives. It could even cause some friction between you and those close to you. Here’s the promise you make, which is part of being a serious writer:

“I do hereby promise not to encourage every person I meet to author a book. I promise to be kind and supportive of my friends and relatives, knowing most of them should not become writers.”

Once you know how much work is involved, when encouraging another writer, make certain you communicate the real world of writing to them. At least encourage them to visit a writer’s conference for new writers, giving them a glimpse into the marketplace of words and informing their perspective.

Why is this responsibility such a heavy burden? Because you might need to tell someone (in much kinder words than these):

You are not a good writer.

You don’t communicate with clarity or creativity.

You don’t have a compelling message readers will pay money to read.

You don’t have the credentials to write a book.

You haven’t yet put in the work.

In a creative world, the motto is often, “Where never is heard a discouraging word,” but if you follow my advice today, you will be the person others might avoid. (I hope I am wrong.)

Sometimes I feel bad writing tough things to readers of our agency blog, because you are not the problem. The simple fact you are reading about publishing, interacting with insightful comments, making every attempt to learn, improve and grow, means you are open to exploring the necessary sacrifice in order to become a writer people will spend time and money to read.

Anyone with a minute of experience in publishing knows there is much more to this writing “thing” than putting down your thoughts on a screen and printing it out.

But there are still some people out there telling everyone writing is easy, Microsoft Word spelling and grammar check replace the need for an editor and most important, anyone can make lots of money in publishing really fast.  After all, Amazon is a magic money-machine.

Encouraging someone to write who is not willing to put in the requisite work is not being kind and loving. This person is being set up for discouragement and the person handing out encouragement is not doing them a favor.

Mass encouragement without discernment can end up being a cruel joke, accomplishing the opposite of what was intended.

Once you have some knowledge of the work required to be a good writer and succeed in publishing, you have an obligation to communicate reality to those around you. There is some “fine print” in this vocation, draining some of the enjoyment, unless you are well prepared.

In high school I was an above-average musician who had fun playing an instrument in various music groups. Who wouldn’t want to keep having fun? I thought about music as a career.

In college, I met people who were serious about music as a career and I realized the fun from high school was pretty much over. Being professionally good at music required a level of commitment I was unwilling to undertake, and I was more interested in having fun than putting in the work. I chose another path instead where I was willing to put in the sacrifice and work.

Those who are committed to doing something really well know what is required and generally do not toss out encouragement to just anyone and everyone, unless they see the “spark” necessary to drive them to the next level.

Don’t become a serial discourager, but be wise in your encouragement about writing books. Genuine encouragement is much more powerful when those being encouraged know you don’t give it to everyone.


18 Responses to The Writer’s Responsibility

  1. Carol Ashby June 6, 2017 at 5:10 am #

    I’d add the warning that a book only succeeds commercially if you pour great energy into building an online presence and work on marketing to a potentially receptive audience.

    I wouldn’t discourage someone from writing for the sheer joy of it, but I do warn them commercial success require embracing the business aspects wholeheartedly.

    • Kim Childress June 12, 2017 at 3:56 am #

      Love this article! And so true!

  2. Kathy Gibson June 6, 2017 at 5:52 am #

    As a former artist and a “putting words to paper” writer all these years, I must say please don’t discourage anyone from attempting any art form. I think most of us know if we have written publishable material or that our art that would be seen beyond the refrigerator door. We know we will not get beyond that level of musical expertise! But we attempt and move on to learn/attempt something else. Besides, someone needs to write those family histories or anecdotes, read those poems to friends, play with words, sounds, paints. Being an amateur has its anxieties, but better not to stifle… Art for art’s sake, for the process, the pleasure.

  3. Barbara Ellin Fox June 6, 2017 at 6:08 am #

    There is a serious lack of passion in our generation partially due to the fast food , quick fix, level the playing field mind set that prevails, so I agree with this post that we should count the cost and should encourage others with honest information. Since you are writing about real world things, I would appreciate elaboration on your statement that we might need to tell someone “You don’t have the credentials to write a book.”. Would you mind sharing your definition of those particular credentials, please. Thanks

    • Dan Balow June 6, 2017 at 6:23 am #

      Since I work primarily with writers of non-fiction, the issue of author credibility is a major consideration. The presence of intense competition in the market means anyone who is writing on a certain topic needs to have some level of regional or national notoriety as an expert on whatever is being written.

      As an agent trying to find projects for publishers, I need to give them the high-credibility authors they desire to publish.

      Books on marriage need to be written by recognized marriage “experts” and books on nuclear power need to come from an author with a high degree of knowledge and reputation within that industry.

      Much of the credibility issue relates to promotion. The author needs to be an expert in the field in which they write.

      Writers can write whatever they want, but readers want to read experts.

      • Harold Thomas June 6, 2017 at 7:38 am #

        Well put. Industry rejection of my proposed book “Getting a Bit Political” (that you represented) had much to do with what you wrote here. I realized that I have neither the stamina nor the money to promote the concept online as well as it needs to be. (The proposal’s political neutrality in a polarized country didn’t help, either).

        In the last two years, I have had to think and pray about my purpose as a writer (or if I am really a writer). I have started a fiction project, but those doubts are still haunting me, and am now praying for guidance on whether I should continue or abandon it.

  4. Sarah Hamaker June 6, 2017 at 6:31 am #

    As a career writer (one who worked for national trade association publications and now has been successfully freelancing for more than a decade), I’m often asked to talk with young writers (in both years and experience) who want to freelance. I start off by telling them how hard it is–I don’t sugarcoat the difficulties in starting a freelance writing career. To make this your primary source of income (and it isn’t for me, as my husband has a full-time job with benefits), you will probably need a steady job in the beginning as you work your contacts and build your portfolio.

    Freelancing, like writing novels, sounds glamorous–sit at home in front of your computer in your jammies and write articles someone’s hired you to write for loads of money. But the truth is that it can be extremely difficult to make it as a freelancer and even then, you still might have to work at another place to pay the rent and put food on the table.

    So I tell it like it is to these young writers and also give them some practical steps to take to build their freelance business. And if some of them decide freelancing isn’t for them, then I’ve also done my job.

    Being a writer is definitely not for wimps.

    • Kim childress June 12, 2017 at 3:55 am #

      So so true! I say same to students I teach. Be warned! Get used to rejection!

  5. Andrew Budek-Schmeisser June 6, 2017 at 6:41 am #

    Writing a book is a lot like building an aeroplane (a real one) in your garage and living room. It’s either something you do, or not. (When Barbara first met me, I had a wing in the dining room. When we ‘first met for the second time’ after a divorce, there was a larger wing that totally dominated the living room, and to cross from one side to the other you had to crawl under it. I thought this was normal life. I still do.)

    Discouraging me would have been hard, as I had all of the thick skin and mental myopia of a seriously histrionic rhino. A woman I dated before meeting Barbara suggested after I nearly severed an arm in a woodworking accident that ‘we needed to find me a new hobby’.

    There was a change, but I continued on in the shop, bandages and all.

    The funny thing was that no one ever said, “Gee, I wish I could do that!” There was the majority who didn’t even remotely understand, and the minority who understood the drive but lacked the will. No one ever entered that avocation on my advice.

    In aeroplane construction I could give guidance on some things (“Do you call THIS a weld???”) but in other areas (like fibreglass work, I remained silent because I didn’t ‘know enough.

    It’ the same in writing. I could never tell someone that no-one would want to read their book, because I have a terrible track record, wondering why “The Life Of Pi” and “Water For Elephant” were even written, much less published, and ar less became best-sellers.

    And I’ve no idea why Cormac McCarthy is considered a great writer.

    But at the end of it all I don’t ever want to be the one who withheld water from the unlikeliest seed, because miracles-in-waiting need nurture.

  6. Damon J. Gray June 6, 2017 at 7:44 am #

    Years ago, a lady friend and fellow writer asked if I would be willing to read the first few chapters of something her husband had written. I sensed from the conversation that it was going to be a difficult read. Difficult? No. It was nightmarish. Some of the worst writing I’d ever encountered. What she was looking for was someone other than her to tell her husband, “This is bad – not marketable.” What I ended up telling him was to focus his efforts on turning it into a stage play, because that is exactly how it read. He was telling me what all the players in his story were doing, and littered it with dialog here and there. It was awful as a written story, but really might have worked from a stage.

  7. Beverly Brooks June 6, 2017 at 9:35 am #

    Sobering … thought provoking …

  8. Elizabeth June 6, 2017 at 9:46 am #

    Thanks for this post! I realize that not everyone can or should be a professional writer, but I sometimes still feel bad about not encouraging the people who tell me they’ve always wanted to write a book. I never dreamed I’d be a writer, but what started as a fun project with a friend about eight years ago turned into a passion that I’ve put years of work and study into. Oddly enough, the friend who wanted to be a writer and convinced me that anyone could be a writer, rarely writes anything.

  9. Lynne Hartke June 6, 2017 at 10:13 am #

    Thank you so much, Dan. I am only one month into this published author life and I already have people wanting to meet with me, read their stuff, and give them the recipe for the secret sauce.

  10. Kristen Joy Wilks June 6, 2017 at 10:34 am #

    Oh, my! This reminds me of the career day that I was asked to attend this spring. One of the questions put to me was “Is this a financially viable career?” I had to look out at a packed classroom of eager writers and tell them. “No, no it is not. But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t write.” They just stared back at me, horrified. I told them to have another job and to write in the quiet moments that they forced out of their day, because art is absolutely worth it, but not necessarily for one’s source of income.

  11. Edward Lane June 6, 2017 at 5:14 pm #

    This is great. One of the most creative blogs I have ever seen!

  12. Sheri Dean Parmelee, Ph.D June 21, 2017 at 1:08 pm #

    Dan, thanks for this good advice. I have a tendency to be a cheerleader, which is a nice personality trait but it doesn’t work so well in the world of publishing, I guess.

  13. texshelters October 18, 2019 at 10:30 am #

    Thank you. There are so many serial discouragers online that I have stopped going to most writing sites. I am not perfect as a writer; I learn everyday. Why attack others for not being perfect writers? It has more to do with the insecurity of the critic than your writing. Peace.

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