It doesn’t matter if it’s your sister or your co-worker’s cousin: When you interact with a writer, don’t be dumb. Don’t put the person down. Don’t say writing doesn’t matter.
You would think these etiquette tips would be obvious, but for many people, they’re not. To help you avoid some common blunders people make when talking with writers, here are eight comments to shun:
“It must be nice to get to hang out in coffee shops all the time.” This one is a close cousin to “When will you get a real job?” It implies that writing isn’t work. Listen, nobody wants to have his or her vocation belittled, whether that vocation is writing or office managing or treating patients in an E.R.
Before you put your foot in your mouth, consider this: writers often have journalism or writing degrees. They hone their craft through regular practice and refinement. What’s more, whether they write in coffee shops or at home in their pajamas, writers work for companies and publishers that pay them for their skills.
“Anybody can write.” Sure they can—just as anybody can take a picture or design a website—but there’s a difference between doing something and doing something well. When you tell a writer that anyone can write, you are ignoring the fact that writing is a talent, one that takes effort to cultivate and use.
“Write about me!” This one only works if you’re terribly interesting—and, sure, we all find ourselves fascinating, but writers need topics that will be interesting to other people, too.
Before you suggest yourself as a topic idea, think about the writer’s area of expertise (Does he write about restaurants? Is her specialty local business?) and only suggest an idea when it fits within that niche.
“Will you babysit for me while you’re writing?” Just because a writer is at home doesn’t mean he or she is doing nothing. Writing takes energy and concentration—and it’s a rare writer who can pen paragraphs while entertaining a toddler.
“How much money do you make?” Unless you are extremely close to a person, you don’t have the right to ask them about their income. “Everyone knows you should never divulge your income unless you’re talking with a headhunter or spouse,” says Stacey Bradford at CBS News. It’s not any more appropriate to ask a writer about his or her salary than it is to ask a dentist or a business owner or a schoolteacher. Don’t do it.
“Will you do some free work for me?” You know how it goes. You’re redesigning your company website or trying to write a few press releases for your startup when you find out your buddy’s friend is a writer. You think maybe he can knock these little projects out for you, since, you know, he probably has the time. That’s harmless, right? Wrong.
It’s not OK to ask a professional to work for free: You wouldn’t ask your kid’s teacher to go without a salary this year. You wouldn’t expect an electrician to rewire your house in his free time. In the best-case scenario here, the writer is gracious and does you a favor. In the worst case, you alienate him for good.
“You’re a terrible writer.” Unless you are someone’s editor—actually, even then—it’s not constructive to tell a writer he or she is bad.
In the first place, it’s subjective. Your opinion is not the only opinion. Second, your opinion might not be wanted. Unless you’ve been asked for feedback, you don’t need to provide it. Last, on the rare occasion when you must provide feedback, do it constructively—point out something the writer did well first, for example, and then offer suggestions for improvement without demeaning the person as you do so.
“You know artists—they’re all so sensitive!” Last but not least, don’t say something offensive (i.e., any of the above comments) and then follow it up with, “Oh, you’re so sensitive.” You’d be sensitive, too, if someone attacked your craft or passion. Don’t blame the writer. Instead, practice a little empathy. If you say something rude, apologize and move on.