12 things you should never say to a writer

By Caitlin Kelly

I know that many Broadside readers work in education — have you seen The 12 Things You Should Never Say to Teachers?

Here are 12 things you should never say to a writer:


How much money do you make?

I get it — you want to be a published writer, too — and are naturally curious about the rewards. Butย  most book advances are now paid out over as long as four years — minus 15 percent to our agent — and the average book advance is pitifully small to start with, far less than $50,000. Do the math, and weep.

And because journalism pays so badly you just can’t believe anyone would actually work for those wages. But we do.

There is also so little direct correlation between work we may value intellectually — and what the market rewards most handsomely. (See: the best-seller list.)

Wow, that’s not very much, is it?

See above. While a few fortunates are pulling in mega-bucks, the highest-paid print journalists usually earn less than a fresh graduate working for a major corporate law firm. Sad but true.

malled cover HIGH

Are your books best-sellers?

Long bitter laugh. Only a minute percentage of books, on any subject, will ever hit the best-seller list.

Can you introduce me to your agent?

No. Maybe. Probably not. The agent-author relationship is intimate and fraught with multiple perils. It’s also a question of chemistry — the person who’s a great fit for me may be a lousy choice for you.

I’ve never heard of you

Here’s a sad little essay by Roger Rosenblatt on how un-famous he feels, even after publishing a few books. (You’re thinking: Who’s that guy?) The only way to survive the publishing world is to assume that your book(s), even after all your years of hard work and promotion, will largely be ignored by the public and bookstore buyers. Anything beyond that is gravy.

Will you read my manuscript?

What’s your budget? Assuming we want to read your work, unpaid, is naive.

This is what we do.
This is what we do.

Can I see the article you’re writing before it’s published?

Nope. Journalists get asked this all the time and the only correct answer is “No.” If you’re in doubt about the accuracy of a quote or some data, call your source(s) back. But allowing someone to review your copy opens the door to their desire to rewrite it to their tastes.

If I don’t like what you’ve written, I can ask you to remove my quotes, right?

See: on the record.

When I stop (doing whatever you do professionally), I’m going to take up writing

Awesome. Now go away! No, further.

Nothing is more irritating (OK, deadbeat publishers are more irritating) than having people treat our profession as an amusing hobby, something you can pick up and put down at leisure, like macrame or scrapbooking. It looks soooooooooo easy, right?


Writing well is bloody hard work. It’s not something you just “pick up.”

Journalism is a dying industry.

Indeed. Imagine how I feel after 30 years in it…


I hate journalists! They never get anything right

Same with doctors, lawyers, teachers…fill in the blank.ย  It’s a big industry with some bad apples and some good ones. Don’t assume I’m unethical or inaccurate just because you’ve been burned by someone else.

You can’t make a living as a writer!

Define “living.” Your assumptions or prejudices may be inaccurate. Or your idea of “a living” means $300,000 a year before bonus. In which case, you’re right!

44 thoughts on “12 things you should never say to a writer

  1. Pingback: Twelve Things to Never Say to a Writer | The Radio Face Report

  2. Oh my, now I feel a little guilty, because I’d surely say some of those things if given the chance. I’ll change it as follows: I have more writing talent than the average non-writer, but I do not have the drive (or talent, maybe) to make it my profession or even paid hobby. So, however you earn money, I’ll remain impressed and grateful on the sidelines.

    Were I famous enough to be interviewed, I would want to see something pre-publication, though, not to edit, but to prepare. But that’d be a mere request and not a demand. So, if it happens … well, it won’t.

    1. Thanks for commenting — good to hear from you again!

      Not meant to make people feel guilty (Ok, maybe a bit) but to really make a little clearer that some innocent/ignorant remarks can cause a lot more offense to a pro writer than one realizes.

      The best way to prepare for an interview is to ask the reporter — before you start to speak — what the purpose of the interview is and how your remarks fit into the overall scheme. A good reporter should give you some sense of this, but I suspect many don’t — certainly on non-controversial stories. But it is absolutely verboten among most journalists (and their editors) to show sources material pre-pub.

  3. Yes, yes YES, and Yes!

    And you can add, “Wow, that must be so cool meeting all those bands. Why don’t you just write for Rolling Stone?” for the journalist in the entertainment industry.

    “Just write for Rolling Stone?” Sure. I’ll just fill out an application, send them my tearsheet, my first-born child, learn how to turn straw into gold, one of my limbs, some organic airplane snacks, and an 8 x 10 glossy of me so they’ll have a face to laugh at while the popular kids that made the roster lunch on the tour bus. In the meantime, I get to enjoy (genuinely, for the most part) meeting all those cool bands without getting paid. At all. Because meeting those bands is SO cool, people are willing to write for free.

    Nothing like voluntary slave labor to push the pros out. Thank you, groupies! See you at the welfare office…

  4. Great list! Thanks for speaking so articulately not only for writers but for other people in “creative” professions (music) as well. Lay people say similar things to us and often have no clue what it takes to produce high quality output consistently.

    Your columns are consistently excellent and interesting. You deserve the many readers you have.

    As a society, we need some mechanism for content producers to be better compensated for their contributions. Everyone wants to make big bucks selling computers and hardware, but without the content, who would even care?

    1. Hey, thanks! So good to hear from you again..I often wonder how you’re doing, as a fellow professional creative.

      I’m in awe of musicians and the talent and hard work it requires. I have NO illusions that your life is easy, at all.

  5. and i’m quite sure you’ve been asked most if not all of these in your time. i really wonder if people just don’t think before asking things or don’t understand?

    1. Yup!

      I’ve discussed this many times with fellow writers and we think that: 1) some of it is pure ignorance — they have no idea how our industry works; 2) there is a very deep disconnect between some writers’ high visiblity/putative “fame” and $$$$$; people (which is charming) assume I make a hell of a lot more money than I do, probably because of my clips and credentials. But the $$$$ just ain’t there; 3) envy — writing looks easy and fun, as does self-employment. I love the freedom but it comes with its own price as well. So I sometimes think people project their own fantasies.

      I have been asked for intro’s to my agents but I usually demur; very rarely will I make an intro. Those are valued relationships and hard-won, not to be given away lightly.

  6. “I’ve always thought that someday I will become a teacher….” or “I know what schools are like, I graduated from one.”

    Um, yeah. You’re the expert. These comments are so frustrating. Some may mean well, others are just being patronizing. But I get the feeling that, with the first sentiment, people think: After I am financially comfortable I will go out and save children. Well what about those of us who got into it knowing we were making a sacrifice, knowing were weren’t going to make the big bucks?

    The second sentiment is just wrong. Being an adolescent student does not make you an expert on schools, it makes you a participant, but no expert on the teaching profession, curriculum, pedagogy, etc.

    Ok, rant over. ๐Ÿ˜‰

    1. I bet you hear some doozies!

      Until or unless you’ve been a teacher, you have no idea how difficult and challenging (and satisfying) it is. It takes a lot of skill to inspire and motivate and be tough yet not mean…I will be teaching two college classes this fall and am excited but also very nervous, knowing that my mastery of the subject (writing) is no guarantee that I will be an effective teacher of it. ๐Ÿ™‚

  7. Caitlin, on the strength of one comment of mine some time ago you had me holed. Now, this pigeon wings it.

    We all have an Achilles heel. Yours? From what I can gather, again and again, it’s your being so very defensive of your “professionalism”. The pros vs the amateurs. A few months ago you made an awfully disparaging and angry comment (can’t remember where), viciously lashing out at newcomers, those innocent lambs. For a moment, there and then, I thought I am not going to revisit Caitlin’s blog any longer. Yes, that awful I thought it was. But I do [revisit your writing]. Why shoot myself in the foot? You write so well, you give impetus, and an insight into the workings of a Canadian in New York.

    As to: “How much do you make?” Where I come from (no, I am not British) that is a no no question. The height of discourtesy. Bad manners. But then, and you know this better than I do, Americans are not exactly backward in coming forward. I think they call it ‘brash’.

    What makes me smile is that question “Can I see the article before publication?” If an interviewee is so unsure of himself (and has little trust in the journalist) as to edit himself first, well, what can I say? I agree with you: Either you jump or you stay on dry land.

    Other than that: The day journalism dies is the day I’ll contemplate moving into the desert.


    1. I’m very clear of the line dividing professionals from amateurs — it’s the amateurs who fancy themselves Writers (with no training, experience or record of publication) — that annoy the shit out of many of us, not just me. I’ve been writing for a living for more than 30 years so have no fear of the newbies. But their lack of professionalism (ooooh, I’ll write unpaid!) is appalling and only contributes to publishers’ greed. Very different issue.

      When I interview a “civilian” (someone who has never before spoken to the press) that’s when they ask to see the copy; most people know it’s not going to happen and don’t even ask. Wrangling sources is becoming a much bigger job than writing and it might be a blog post soon…

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  9. Oh, those annoy me as well, along with “I’d love to be a writer, but I’m not much into reading”. Loving the latter is kind of a prerequisite to doing the former. Some people just don’t understand that.
    And “I could write stuff ten times better than what’s already out there.” Great, now pony up and wow me. Let us be the critics of whether your work is better than the stuff we usually read.

      1. Indeed! Oh, and another one I hate is when you tell someone you’re going to base a character on them, and they think they suddenly have the right to provide input on what should happen to said character. Shouldn’t they be happy there’s a character based on them at all?

      2. Oh there is. I have a novel planned based on my study abroad trip that involves a witch. I was wondering if I’d mentioned it somewhere or if you might be psychic somehow.

        And by the way, I do have a story where I plan to name a character Caitlin, but there’s no connection between you and her. In fact, knowing my work that’s something to be happy about.

  10. A wonderfully funny though ever-so depressing list. I also like* ‘Have you written anything that I might know?’ Surely the only answer to that is, ‘I don’t know.’

    * dislike, as in detest

  11. It’s amazing how many people look at writers and think they must be rich because they write! I saw a sobering tale the other day that got me thinking (again!) about authors and income. Ray Bradburyโ€™s house was up for sale at $1.39 million. Good by middle class standards, sure, but hardly Millionaires Row, and he hadnโ€™t paid that for it โ€“ heโ€™d been living there for decades. This is the guy who was an absolute icon not just of twentieth century SF but generally of the US literary field.

    And then, as the publishing industry gyrates and re-sets and weโ€™re all scurrying for whatever last dollars float out of the sinking ship, some out-of-nowhere noob with no apparent talent writes 50 shades of vampire erotica and shifts 80 million copies. Ouch.

    1. He was one of my idols — I wrote him a fan letter when I was 12 and he wrote back. I still have that postcard from him, and treasure it.

      The writers who pull in $$$$$$ are often producing real crap. Very depressing.

  12. Roger Rosenblatt was a teacher at my now defunct MFA program out in the Hamptons. He never finished a class without nudging us at least a little bit away from writing as a career. I think he saw it as his moral imperative. I don’t think it stuck with us. We all write and teach now.

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