3 Things to Never Say to a Writer

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I’ve been writing professionally now for more than 16 years. So trust me when I say you do need to hear some constructive criticism if you want to improve and be successful in this craft.

The key word, though, is constructive. If you want people to take you seriously, then you need to set them straight when specific hurtful things come out of their mouths. And if you want to support authors, journalists, etc., then you need to know what to refrain from saying and why those things are so offensive.

1. “Yeah, but what’s your real job?”

This comment is the #1 thing to never say to a writer for a reason. It implies a host of nastiness, including that writing cannot bring in a living wage, that writing requires less work than other types of jobs simply because it’s creative and thus shouldn’t be treated seriously, and that there’s no place for writers among “real” professionals.

The reality is, many people don’t make tons of money writing. And that’s because, quite frankly, either they aren’t good enough to or just don’t have the business savvy or situational support to approach the job in a lucrative way. Even if they don’t make 6+ digits a year, as many people in other positions (e.g., teacher, cashier, home health aide) can testify, that doesn’t mean they aren’t putting in full time hours trying to make it all work, or that they’re not spending real time agonizing over how to improve and connect with the right people. Income by itself doesn’t mean people aren’t working.

But today’s writing situation also isn’t what Grandma had. We can tap affiliate marketing on blogs and websites. We can use third party sites to find and connect with clients all over the world. Businesses need excellent copywriters for technical documents, marketing, social media posts and much, much more.

So please. Look at my time tracked, hours billed and paychecks cashed. Then you can tell me I don’t have a real job. And while you’re at it, you can take note of every news article you read, every business letter you hold, every Kindle book you read, and for that matter, every scripted movie you watch as you down Cheetos on your couch. Because none of those writers have real jobs either, apparently, right?

2. Self-publishing isn’t real publishing/you’re not a writer if you self-publish.

Let’s highlight some statistics on self-publishing, shall we?

  • In 2016, self-publishing represented 300 million units and $1.25 billion in sales out of the entire $6 billion U.S. publishing industry.
  • Digital self-publishing accounted for more than 30 percent of American sales in 2014, just 5 years after mainstream digital publishing became widely accessible.
  • A typical traditionally published, unagented writer earns just 7.5 percent of their book’s cover price. Self-published authors earn between 70 and 96 percent, depending on whether they sell on their own websites or use platforms like Apple Books and Amazon.
  • Experts expect the global book printing market to be worth about $49 billion by 2024, with a compound annual growth rate of more than 1% during 2018-2024, Self-publishing is the fastest-growing segment within this market–its CAGR stands at roughly 17%.

So not only do self-published authors represent a big chunk of the overall industry, they also earn more than traditional authors and are a driving force behind the growth for the entire publishing world. These figures demonstrate that the idea that writers must go through a traditional publisher to be successful is woefully outdated. Although not everyone who puts out a self-published title will get good sales, serious writers no longer have to depend on traditional publishing houses to connect with readers. This is fantastic news, as overwhelmed, traditional publishing houses have been incredibly exclusive, preventing many great writers from getting into the market and allowing previous sale trends to determine which writers to work with.

3. You’re only a writer if you’re selling books.

See point 1 above. But that aside, many revered authors sold just a handful of their manuscripts, if any at all. Many were discovered or became famous only after they died. Among them include Emily Dickinson, John Kennedy Toole and William Faulkner. Other authors, like Anna Sewell, wrote just one book. Still others, such as Franz Kafka, kept their writing private as they made a living from other jobs.

And the heart of the thing is this: Most writers, like Herman Melville, admittedly do want some fame and financial security. That’s the dream. But ultimately, we write not to sell, but because the story demands that we put pen to paper (or these days, fingertips to keyboard). This is what makes one a genuine writer–an insatiable drive simply to deliver the tale, to bring readers to another world while at the same time somehow connecting with them and conveying a part of who we are. We feel at home in that task and obligated to it. To deny that someone has that sense of accountability to the job, solely because they cannot quantify it according to a biased norm, is ridiculous.

Writers deal with quite a bit. We learn how to say “Meh” to rejection letters, write with kids demanding snacks or screen codes or cuddles, and spend countless hours debating single sentences. Goodness knows we have our share of Internet trolls and broken editorial links/emails, too.

So non-writers, cut us some slack. Think before you talk. And writers, be proud. You have a right to stand up for yourself. Burn the arguments above into your memory and regurgitate them. Tell people how it is. Because none of us deserve to be told, either implicitly or explicitly, that we are less than anyone else.

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