What to say to an author while they’re writing

We authors need support from others. It can be a lonely job, and one that’s subject to occasional self-doubt. If your friend is an author, here’s what you can say and do to help during the writing process.

Providing emotional support

Asking an author how things are going can sometimes feel like asking a friend how their marriage is doing. Sometimes authors want to talk about what they’re working on. Sometimes, they really don’t.

If an author mentions that they’re working on a book, that is your signal to interact. Here are some ways you can be supportive:

  • Ask an open-ended question, like “Can you tell me about the book? I’d like to hear more.” Other appropriate questions include “Who is the audience?” and “How are you enjoying the experience?”
  • If you can make a connection that will be helpful, offer that. “Oh, your book is on marketing and advertising? My cousin is the CEO of a large advertising agency, and I think she’s very smart. Would you like to interview her?”
  • If the author complains, sympathy is always appropriate. “You’ve rewritten the chapter five times? That sounds rough. Where do you get the stamina?”

Here are some actions that would be less helpful.

  • Asking “How’s the writing going?” Often the progress authors are making at any given time doesn’t include writing.
  • Asking “Who is your publisher?” If the author doesn’t have a publisher yet, or is using a hybrid publisher or self-publishing, they may not want to explain the details of that to you. If they do have a publishing deal, they’ll probably share that without prompting.
  • Sharing your own experience. “You’re writing a book on leadership? Wow. You know, I wrote a novel about dragons — well, I never actually finished it, let me tell you about that.”
  • Saying “Don’t quit your day job.” It’s a cliché and not very helpful. And sometime, being an author is our day job.

Reviewing work in progress

Should you offer to review content? If you are an experienced editor or an expert on the topic (for example, if you are a CIO when the book is about technology), you can offer to provide feedback — provided that the author has indicated that the book is far enough that a review might be helpful. Sometimes, the author is uninterested in feedback at a given stage. But if they ask for a review, here are some suggestions:

  • Try to find some positives to share along with any criticisms you have. “The stories about real-life data breaches were shocking and fascinating.”
  • Identify problems and share them as personal opinions. “I found chapter 3 sort of slow going, but it may just be that hardware engineering doesn’t interest me as much.”
  • Suggest possible solutions. “You referred to future chapters a lot. I wonder if moving chapter 5 earlier in the book might make it easier for people to follow your arguments.”

An experienced author knows enough to accept editorial comments without taking them personally. But comments from a friend may feel a little different.

Authors help each other

I’m a member of an authors’ group online. Authors there often complain of feeling blocked, struggling with titles and subtitles, getting insensitive comments from readers in reviews, or being abused and disappointed by publishers. (There are always complaints about publishers.)

We share and react to these comments out of sympathy. It feels very different when a fellow author complains or offers their own experience than when a random friend does — because we’ve been there.

Are we too sensitive?

Yes. We are.

Being an author is like delivering a musical recital or a dance performance, except that most of the creation happens in private. Having someone critique your creativity is always brutal. But it’s uniquely challenging when you’re engaged in an activity that’s mostly conducted in your own head and at your own workspace.

I may sound like I’m asking for special treatment. I am. The writers I known are passionate, lyrical, and profound — and, at any given moment, perhaps a bit insecure.

Please try to love and nurture us. We’ll provide you with beautiful things in return.

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