How do you encourage a writer?

This has come up a few times lately, in different settings. One was a discussion with a mother of young kids who wanted to know how, exactly, I got to like writing so much. One was a question in an online forum about whether or not they should tell their friend about all the errors in a story the friend and shared. And one was on Father’s Day. They all kind of mush together in my answer.

The experience I can really point to as being That Moment comes from when I was 15 and writing my first long original fiction. I’d been doing some fanfic, but I had this idea for a character and a plot that just didn’t fit within any of my fandoms. So, not really knowing what I was doing (which was probably helpful in and of itself), I started writing my own story.

I don’t entirely remember how this next part started, or who suggested it, but it turned into me reading that day’s output to my dad each night. And he just … listened. He didn’t gush over it, and he didn’t critique it. He was simply consistently available to listen to me read my story. And the next one. And the next one. To the point where, when I went off to college and couldn’t read to him every night, I recorded myself reading my new one. Somewhere he has 6 CDs of a Rebecca Frost original audiobook.

It evolved from there to printed “zero editions” in binders and now it’s emailed files. He got a kindle so I could email him my stories as soon as I was done with them (rough plots and typos have never been an issue for him) and now reads them on his iPhone. Come November and NaNoWriMo, he starts asking me mid-month if I’m done yet.

We’ll talk a little bit about them, but nothing at length. No real critique. I’ve made him cry with character deaths (sorry …) and we’ve got a running joke about how poorly I treated my first male main character before I let him get his happy ending. We’re talking two decades of Rebecca writing her little stories (some of them not so little – I maxed out one fantasy epic at over 250,000 words) and sharing them with her dad when they’re done.

That’s been such a big thing: somebody who wants to read the next one. And if you’ve got a writing friend or kid, take notice: all it takes is the time for you to read it and say that you did. That’s it. Maybe point out a cool line or particularly emotional scene as proof.

That’s where the “Do I tell my friend her story is illogical or lacks depth or …?” question comes in. If someone hands you their writing and sort of awkwardly says they want you to read it, then that’s your job. Read it. Let them know when you did. If you like the person at all, let them know you’d like to read the next one, too. (Seriously it’s scary sharing your writing with someone. If I get anything less than “Let me know when you’re done with the next one,” you’re not getting the next one. And I’ll be shutting up about my writing around you in the future.)

The only time you should give feedback on someone else’s writing is when feedback is specifically asked for. “Hey, can you tell me if this plot is off?” Respond to the plot. “Can you proofread this for me?” Clarify that they just want typos and such and then only look at typos and such. “I wrote a novel about dragons. Would you want to read it?” Read it and let them know you did it. Maybe tell them what you liked about the dragons.

I’ve been a writing instructor. I’ve taught my share of college composition. I know you want to argue with me and say grammar and punctuation matter – and yes, sometimes misuses make things a lot harder to read. But, unless this is taking place in a classroom or as an agreed-upon exchange and critique, it’s not your job to teach your friend about the genitive case or they really need to research x. If they go to publish and keep getting things kicked back and ask you why you think this might be, then you’re being invited to critique. Otherwise you’re being asked to encourage.

We learn to write by writing. If we get quashed when we’re young, we’re not going to learn. We’re just going to stop.

It doesn’t take much to encourage a writer. Just a little bit of your time to show that you don’t think their stories are frivolous and stupid. And then, once they’ve written more and have been able to grow (and look back on that first story and wince and thing “You let me read you that and you still came back for more?”) you can have good things to say about what they write.

How about you in your own writing journey? Who’s been your biggest source of encouragement and support?

4 thoughts on “How do you encourage a writer?”

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