Seven Bad Ways to Help a Fellow Writer

writeitI think most writers agree that it is a good idea to help other writers out. Christian writers, following the teachings of Jesus Christ, would even want to help out those curmudgeonly writers who never help out other writers, following the Golden Rule: ‘Do to others whatever you would have them do to you.’ (Matthew 7:12 — NAB-RE translation)

But not all ways of helping other writers are, well, helpful. Some are not doing the person you help much good. Here are some ways that don’t help at all, and should be avoided.

Bad Help Type 1 — When asked for an honest opinion of a work, you give only flowery compliments— even though the work is filled with things that are clearly errors such as misspellings, misuse of apostrophes, grammar errors, incomprehensible sentences, and minor characters that are called by different names in different scenes. These sort of errors are not a matter of opinion and taste— they are things that the writer is asking you to tell him, by asking your opinion of the work. The right thing to do is to let the author know that there are problems in his work.

Bad Help Type 2 — When asked for an honest opinion of a work, you blast them with every blessed thing you think might be wrong with it, usually with more than a little sarcasm. No matter how many clear errors a writer has made, no matter how hopeless you think it is that this person ever write something publishable, you are not appointed by God to crush his dreams. Point out the problems in the work gently. Don’t let your own tastes in writing get in the way— if a writer writes an Amish romance and you personally can’t abide Amish romances, don’t take the genre and its conventions as a writing error! Tell the writer at least one positive thing about his novel, and suggest something he might do to improve his work.

Bad Help Type 3 — Imagine that a 13-year-old writer has finished a novel and is wondering about self-publishing, and asks your opinion. Even if the novel is pretty good, and not just pretty good for a 13-year-old, if that 13-year-old persists in writing, he will get good enough that by age 21 he will be embarrassed by that first publication. Young writers such as this should probably be submitting to ‘real’ publishers for a few years before venturing into the self-publishing world. Because the problem with self-publishing is that the first few things you publish are how the reading public is going to judge your work. You don’t want to be dragged down by a first publication that may seem pretty immature a few years down the line. The same holds, of course, for writers of any age who are taking their first ‘baby steps’ as a writer.

Bad Help Type 4 — ‘Doing for’ the other writer instead of doing it for himself. For example, your writer friend has a completed and edited version of his novel and after being turned down by the one publisher that would even consider conservative Catholic science fiction, wants to self-publish. But he doesn’t know how to format the manuscript for e-book. But instead of walking him through it, you snatch the manuscript, saying ‘here, I’ll do it.’ This is a different situation than if your granny wrote a memoir and needs help getting it into self-publication. This writer friend intends to be a professional. He needs to have a way to format his work for e-book by himself. (I’d recommend buying the writing software Scrivener. It formats your manuscript for e-book for you.)

Bad Help Type 5 — Writing a review of a fellow writer’s book without reading the book first. The writer in question needs reviews from people who are willing to actually read the book. Phony reviews— perhaps especially if they are 5 star reviews— tend to stand out. They don’t help your writer friend. And they don’t help your reputation as a reviewer either.

Bad Help Type 6 — Reviewing erotica or ‘erotic romance’.  People who insist on writing pornography are doing a wrong thing. They are throwing away their chance to be considered a real writer. I mean, even in our sex-mad corrupted culture, when have you heard of a book like ‘Trailer Park Trollops’ or ‘Fifty Shades of Grey’ getting a National Book Award? Even if the person who wrote the book is a friend, you should not feel an obligation to read something offensive in order to review it.

Bad Help Type 7 — Passing on bad book promotion advice. I read once of a self-published book on how to write, self-publish, and promote a novel. It evidently suggested participating in the book forums on, writing 5 posts a day plugging your book. A reviewer of that book pointed out that self-promotion of books is not permitted on the forums. There is a lot of bad book-promoting advice out there generated by desperate self-published authors who know little about book promotion. Don’t spread the bad advice around.

I believe it is an important thing for writers to network with other writers. Even writers with Asperger’s Syndrome, like myself, who often don’t have the social skills that make networking easier for neurotypical writers. And we need to help other writers out. But only when the help given is actually helpful.