Reading Manuscripts

Under MAIL in this website, I have been posting the following paragraph:

"I will not give you advice on how to plan, write, rewrite, market, or sell your book. I cannot refer you to an agent. I will not read the material you send me or tell you my opinion of it. What you're asking me to do gratis is a paid, skilled job performed by professional writing consultants, manuscript doctors, and literary agents. Don't ask a working writer to do it unless you're friends.

"This notice doesn't apply to people I know personally or had as students — but even from you I'd much rather get a letter of inquiry than a big old manuscript."

I got an angry letter recently from a man who said this shows a selfish, snobbish attitude, and proves that I consider myself better than unpublished writers. From my position of success, he said, I should be glad to offer help and be a mentor to struggling younger writers.

I phrased my request very bluntly. It didn't occur to me that it might well be read as a pre-rejection — a brush-off — that it might hurt.

Getting used to that kind of hurt, to rejection, very blunt rejection, is part of every aspiring writer's Basic Training. But that's not much help. I don't like to see myself as a boot camp sergeant, humiliating recruits in order to "toughen" them. There are plenty of agents and editors and critics out there just waiting to thicken our skins. I spend ten years practicing how to be a rhinoceros before I ever published a story.

But I didn't send my stuff to other writers. I sent it to editors at magazines and publishing houses. It never occurred to me that established writers could or should do anything for me and my manuscripts. If I'd known anybody famous personally, would I have asked them to read my stuff? Well, I did meet a few. James Thurber fell over me at a cocktail party, and sat down where he fell, and talked, and was very charming and funny. John Steinbeck was my best friend's uncle. The three of us drank champagne under a bush once at a huge fancy wedding in Cleveland Heights. But it literally never entered my head that James Thurber or John Steinbeck ought to feel that they owed it to me to read my stories and be my mentor. Why should they?

I wasn't lacking ambition. I had a lot of ambition. I just didn't see them as responsible for my ambition. I knew I owed the writers I admired a great deal, but I didn't see that they owed me anything.

Maybe I misunderstand all this. I certainly feel for the unpublished writer, having been one so long myself, but I don't feel that I can be useful to all of them at once. The concept of "mentoring" makes sense to me only within a structure such as a workshop — a relationship which has certain rules, and which is a genuinely personal and mutual relationship.

I thought hard about all this today, while I was writing a woman who asked me to read her manuscript. I told her that I know very well that it takes both generosity and courage to offer a manuscript to a stranger to read. And so, when I reject that offer, I feel ungenerous and uncourageous. Mean and selfish, as the man said. I regret having to refuse. If only I were younger — If only there were not so many people with manuscripts crying to be read — If only criticizing a manuscript were not such a hugely time-consuming, psychologically dangerous job — If only a writer could actually do anything for a manuscript she does like!

I think people imagine that a published writer has a magic key to how to get published, or a magic clout with publishers. All I can say is: They don't.

I think people also imagine that this magic will somehow rub off on their MS if the published writer reads it. It won't, because there isn't any magic.

There is just work, and luck.

Well, thinking it all over today, what I came up with is this: To read a stranger's MS is kind of like picking up a stray kitten. From the moment you pick it up you are responsible for the kitten. You have to respond to its demands and do what it needs done. Of course you can do that for a kitten or two. Many professional writers have picked up quite a few stray kittens in their day. But when the street is full of kittens, when there are six kittens meowing on your front porch, when stray kittens come bursting out of your mailbox daily, at last you have to say: Look, cats, I'm sorry, but I can't handle this!

So I did all I can do. I changed the statement under "MAIL" a bit to try to make it less snarky. Now it reads:

I regret that I am unable to to give you advice on how to plan, write, rewrite, market, or sell your book. I am sorry that I do not have the knowledge or connections to enable me to refer you to an agent. Although I know I might enjoy it very much it if I could do it, the limited hours of the day and the limited span of my life do not permit me to read the material you send me, or tell you my opinion of it.

Reading a manuscript and giving advice about it is a paid, skilled job performed by professional writing consultants, manuscript doctors, and literary agents. May I advise you not to ask a working writer to do this job, unless you're friends, or have been their student or colleague?

14 January 2007
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Updated Tuesday, 18-Jun-2019 10:14:40 EDT