"But can't you just take a look at it?": What You're Really Saying When You Ask An Author To Read Your Unpublished Manuscript

I teach fiction writing. I am revising a novel. I have an MFA. It amazes me that even though I am an unpublished novelist myself, the combination of those three things alone brings all the writers out of the woodwork. In fact, as soon as I tell people any one of these things, somehow they think this qualifies me to read everything from the most experimental literary fiction to their spec script for Cold Case (yes, it's happened). But most importantly, they think I want to, and that I'll do it for free.

Now don't get me wrong; I am all about helping people with their writing, whether that's teaching them to establish a schedule for it, helping them figure out their psychological blocks, or giving feedback to my students and workshop partners. And I don't even mind reading short snippets of things for close friends who aren't in my genre. But when someone I barely know hits me up with their two unfinished screenplays and their 450-paged fantasy novel, I tend to blanche. In fact, I get nauseated. And it's not because I don't want to help another writer, because my heart goes out to any writer who is hungry for community and feedback. It's just that I can't help every writer.

"But can't you just take a look at it? A quick look? All of 20 minutes?" You'd be surprised how many people ask this. For a poem or a flash fiction piece, maybe that's realistic. But it is not realistic to ask that of someone when you are dealing with a larger body of work. It's also not even advisable. Reading someone's work thoroughly and with a critical eye takes time--lots of time. When my fiction students submit between 10 and 30 pages apiece for their graduate workshop, I block out an hour per student, per week. That's how long it takes to read the work, think about it, and offer a valuable critique. Maybe some people can do it faster, but not me. When one of my graduate students gave me her 250-paged manuscript last fall, I spent 15-20 hours reading and critiquing it, and then an additional 8-10 hours reviewing her revision later on. When I teach first-year composition, it takes me 10-20 minutes per student per essay, again, because I'm thorough and diligent. And I would not want to read and critique any other way.

That's the kind of workload writing teachers have, and we have to balance that with our own writing. A full-time author has to balance their writing with their marketing and other professional commitments, whether social networking, speaking engagements, book-club visits or signings. They, too, may critique full manuscripts occasionally, but not often and not for free, not unless you're their critique partners.

So when we say we can't do it, it isn't that we don't care about you or your work or that we don't want you to succeed; it's that we, like everyone else, have to carve out time for our writing (and blogging and families and any other personal pursuits) and there's just so much time and mental energy to go around. We also might turn you down because your work is not in our genre, not in our medium, or just not our aesthetic. You don't want someone reading your work who has a diametrically opposed sensibility. Sometimes that might work, but you really want to find critique partners who are more similar to you or have similar goals.

Finally, there are so many places now on the web for aspiring writers, so many forums where you can have your work critiqued. Go to those places first. Find two or three like-minded individuals who give you both encouraging and constructive feedback. Use that feedback to write multiple drafts. Put in what Colleen calls "the sweat equity."

Then read someone else's 250-paged manuscript and see if you can do it in 20 minutes.


Mylène said…
To this great post I can only add: Like many writers I don't relish saying no to reading others' manuscripts. I like to be able to say yes. I wish I could say yes more often. I LIKE reading. I LIKE helping others. But Kat is right: there are limits. And no matter where we are in our careers, we must be aware of the magnitude of what we are asking when we ask someone to read our work. Minutes, hours are so precious to a writer. Writing proceeds slowly for many of us. Life is short, and already so full of text.
Suzan Harden said…
I'm hitting the same thing you are, which is why I don't tell many people beyond RWA members that I write.

Unfortunately, part of the problem is what some of these folks really want is not feedback, but a desire for someone to reinforce the concept of greatness that exists in their own minds.
"Unfortunately, part of the problem is what some of these folks really want is not feedback, but a desire for someone to reinforce the concept of greatness that exists in their own minds."

Absolutely. I was about to get into that and realized the post was long enough. So often I have noticed that the writers who are reluctant to show their work (both in class and outside of it) are the very ones who can and do use the feedback, and who are already writing at a high level. On the other hand, the ones who stick their manuscripts in my face (and it has happened, many times) with that silly, eager smile, are too regularly the ones who need A LOT of work, more than one person can possibly give. And often those manuscripts are just "learning manuscripts" too, and it's probably going to take the writer some more time to develop. But that's so hard to say and really too hard to know. Which is another reason all this is so complicated.

I'll never forget the student who came in and sat down in front of me, cornered me, really, and asked point blank "Do I have talent?" She did, so I could say "yes" and genuinely, but then I also said that "talent alone doesn't mean much." She wanted someone to recognize her genius and set her up with an agent right then and there, when she hadn't even yet WRITTEN a novel. She wanted validation, praise, advice, reinforcement--but not real criticism, because in her own mind, she had arrived and was ready.

I tried to tell her that we don't come to the work when we are ready, that the work itself MAKES us ready, but she was too convinced in her own mind that she was brilliant. And she IS brilliant, but brilliance means nothing if you don't do the work.
Ack, that was a whole other post! (As you can see, I have a LOT to say on this subject)
I'm pretty sure most of the peeps Kathryn and Suzan are describing (those seeking only confirmation of their genius) are now appearing on Slushpile Hell! LOL! http://slushpilehell.tumblr.com/

More seriously, most aspiring authors don't realize the potential legal issues a published writer risks in reading their work. All it takes is one disgruntled critique seeker to recognize what they believe is a similarity between their work in progress (and similarities happen between totally unrelated products all the time; it's a law of the universe) and your next novel, and wha-bam! You've got a lawsuit to defend against. Which will cost you time, money, and untold angst to deal with, even when it's totally frivolous. (Right, J.K. Rowling?)

For that reason alone, I am very, very careful about whose pages I offer to read. Unfortunately, because of time considerations and my obligations to critique partners, I only do this on the rarest of occasions.

Unless you want to pay me copious amounts of filthy lucre to cover my time and expertise. Then, my friend, we'll talk. :)
Meant to say terrific post, by the by!
Joy said…
That is such an awesome post...I can relate, not because I am a PhD with an MFA writer but because I am a stay at home mother trying to work on a (second) first novel. I'm surprised when people who know I can write and type relatively quickly believe that I may have the time to work on other projects. I have the inclination but not the time!

I also think that Coleen made a good point about the legal ramifications. I also write songs and I did a little reading about how to approach people with your unpublished music. The best thing I heard was when the minister of music at a church I used to attend said this: "Nobody here is going to steal your work, but I don't want to hear it until it's copyrighted."
That's very interesting about the legal ramifications, because I've never even considered that side of it. Most of the people who ask me are either students or long time friends, or complete strangers who I almost always say an automatic no to.

The exceptions I make to some of this: my prison students. I do occasionally review short manuscripts for them, or a small chunk of a novel. With them it's more like a ministry; I know that they don't have the opportunity for feedback that most of us have, so it's my way of giving something back.

That said, even those guys I have to say "no" to. It's sad, but I just can't read everything I want to, not even everything that's PUBLISHED that I want to. As Mylene says, "life is short, and already so full of text."
Andrea Hoxie said…
I enjoyed the post and the comments! As I read my thoughts leaned toward how appropriate Kathryn's points are for so many other endeavors. Musicians get huge doses of "it's just one song" or "it won't take long" or "don't you know that?" Even in my paralegal practice I've had similar experiences: "could you just look over this motion and tell me what it means; I don't want to 'bother' my lawyer (meaning, "if I cal my lawyer he will bill me").

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