Cruel Encouragement

What is one to say to an aspiring writer who is truly bad? Today on one of the Facebook writers’ groups where I hang out, a fellow posted what he described as a pitch and a synopsis. They were among the worst pieces of writing I’ve ever read. His ideas were bad, his approach to describing his ideas was bad, and his control of punctuation and capitalization was appalling.

From his use of the word “pitch,” one could reasonably imagine that he intends to submit his work to agents. He will be ignored (no response at all) or summarily rejected — and that’s bound to be painful for him. Wouldn’t it be a kindness to say, “Look here: You really ought to take up ballroom dancing or stamp collecting, or just pop open a beer and watch some TV. You’ll never be a writer — it’s hopeless.” Isn’t it actively cruel to respond to his hideous efforts by saying, “Keep writing! Do what you love!”

Even those of us who already write at a professional level can learn and improve. As Joe E. Lewis says at the end of Some Like It Hot, nobody’s perfect. If something in one of my stories isn’t working, or if I’ve made a word usage error, I want to be told! But what good will it do to tell someone, “Even a professional editor couldn’t help you turn this into a publishable story. Throw it out — it’s a dead loss.”

Is it cruel to tell someone they’ll never be a writer? Or is it more cruel to let them persist, perhaps for years, in their folly? If you’re truly writing for your own enjoyment, then fine — write whatever you like, and then put it away in a drawer and forget about it. But if you intend to go public, even to the extent of posting a pitch and a synopsis on Facebook and asking for feedback, you’re clearly writing not just for your own enjoyment but in hopes of something beyond that. Possibly you hope to be praised, or possibly your goal is to provide readers with an enjoyable experience. (Those are quite different goals, by the way.) In either case, isn’t honest feedback warranted, even at the risk of causing pain?

When does honesty turn to sadism? I wish I knew.

There’s a sidebar to this question. It’s quite normal in a Facebook writers’ group for someone whom I know to be a bad writer to offer advice to someone else — either to someone who might have real promise, or to someone who is even worse. Should I respond by saying, “No, that’s not right”? Or should I let the halt lead the blind, as the saying goes?

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