Tuesday, March 21, 2017

May I have several hours of your time?

Would you mind reading this poem and letting me know what you think?

What about this essay? This chapbook? This epic? This novel trilogy?

Writers often get hit up for advice. Writers who teach are especially targeted for this. We know the look—the hopeful smile when a student approaches us with a sheaf of papers and a request.

I used to sport that same smile. I remember asking every professor I had to read my work. They didn’t even have to be English professors. As an undergraduate, I was looking for praise. As a grad student, I wanted affirmation and further challenges. A lot of good people gave me a lot of good time—time they could have spent doing many other things.

And that’s really the issue. When we ask fellow writers to devote time to our work, we are tacitly asking them to devote a little less time to their own. This is something that instructors have to come up with strategies to deal with, or the demands can be overwhelming. But this is also something that all practicing writers need to think about—how to contribute to their community without taking too much time away from our own creative production.

When writers receive a request for feedback, refusing can make them appear unkind. What a requestor may not realize is how many people make the same ask, and how much time it takes to really do justice to a piece of writing—to read, to comment, to discuss. And obviously, quiet time is precious, particularly to writers who work or have families. 

Time spent with another writer’s early drafts is time a writer is not writing her own. It is also lost reading time, and by this I mean time devoted to reading finished, polished, published work—something that is impossible to stay on top of, although this is a task that every writer must try to do.

When the requestor is a good friend, we almost always make time. When the person is a friendly acquaintance, we usually find time for them, too. But often, the people who are asking for our effort—sometimes hours of it—are near strangers to us. As we progress in our writing careers, these people may be actual strangers, people who know us only from the page. 

We often hear stories of literary figures from the past who wrote to their idols for support. Major writers nurtured their protege pen pals, sometimes for a whole lifetime. There is precedent for the request, precedent for the generosity offered in return—in fact, many of our best-loved writers are people we know because a volunteer mentor held their hand in the early going.

I recently taught an introductory writing class with an aspiring fantasy novelist on the roster. The guy was prolific and dealt in every genre. Every week included a new request for feedback—a new story or novel chapter, a new essay or poem.

I am not a professor at this student’s university; I am an adjunct English instructor, the lowest-ranking and lowest-paid instructional staff member at the institution. I get about $2,800 before taxes to teach that student’s class, a cohort of twenty-four who write up to three drafts of five essays. I read and comment on their work, and I also plan for classes, have meetings, spend time on e-mailing and record-keeping, and more. I figured out that I make about $15 per hour before taxes, with no benefits, for the work I do. The student probably doesn’t understand that I’m not in one of those cushy professorships that conservative lawmakers always deride. I’m the working poor—like many adjunct instructors, undercompensated for my expertise.

I think it’s fair to say that I have more than the average amount of affection for my students, and I have unusually strong zeal for my subject matter. I don’t refuse a Composition I student who comes to me with evidence of his similar passion in his hand. So many of the goals of the class can be addressed through their creative work—matters like audience awareness, grammar and mechanics, development. 

What I have noticed throughout my teaching career is that students consider this kind of feedback to be part of an instructor’s job description. They don’t hesitate to ask, and they see it as evidence of their commitment to the subject they teach.

And they are right. A writing student who goes the extra mile—the extra marathon—to draft a novel is a very special person who has earned some extra attention.

As writers, I think we should be cautious about asking each other for time and feedback. I also think we should exercise a few strategies to protect our time when people we don’t know well ask for our assistance with their work. Here are some ideas we can do to keep other people’s writing from interfering with our own:

Set a target. A good community member gives back, and helping other writers in this way is an exercise in literary citizenship. So we might decide that we’re going to work with a certain number of writers—one a month, one a year, six over the summer, etc. Any ask received after that should be encouraged to try getting on our schedule the following year.

Set a price. If writers value our input, they may be willing to pay for it. We might try setting a price for our services as a way of safeguarding our time. If a mentoring relationship develops, we can rethink the money part.

Set a schedule. Can we afford to give the first Monday of every month to other writers? Let the requestor wait until then, and stick to that plan; don’t let the project carry over or linger, but instead do what you can in the time you allocate.

Schedule ourselves first. This is not what we learned in church, but it’s important to be a little selfish with our writing time. For a request that comes while we’re working on a project, we can simply say that we’re focused on that project, and that the writer should ask again in a few weeks or months. If we do say this and the writer remembers to follow through, we should think about making time for them.

Find a faster way. If a writer hands us a novel, there is nothing that says we have to read a whole novel. We can give feedback on the opening few pages instead. When we’re handed a poetry collection, we don’t need to give close readings to all of the poems; we can instead look at something like the way form operates over the course of the book.

Recommend other outlets. It’s good to have at hand a list of favorite coaches, local workshops, or online services that you can suggest to give the writer the help they need.

Say yes—mindfully. Although strangers and acquaintances are hard to accommodate, I actually love reading the work of my writing friends. Occasionally, I find that I’m so busy with my work and family life that this kind of extra project can fall by the wayside, even though I have the will to do it. Lately I have started to set deadlines for myself for those writers I agree to work with. I put deadlines for feedback on my calendar, and I ask each friend to give me a nudge if I forget. 

Say no. Some of us struggle with this, but it’s OK to refuse requests of our time and attention, and we don’t even have to give a reason. As writers, we need to protect our creative time, and it’s very poor form to miss a standing appointment with our muse. If we are serious about what it is we do, we have to put our writing first.



  1. A wonderful, and thoughtful piece. Thank you.

  2. Some helpful ideas here. Thank you.

  3. This was so helpful and very necessary. My pet peeve . . . don't ask me if I "have a few minutes" to read something that is 10 pages long.