The worst question you can ask a writer.

 

The worst question to ask a writer is not: “Where do you get your ideas?”

This is a clichéd question, yes. But precisely because it’s a cliché, we probably have a stock response. Even if we don’t, it’s fairly easy to come up with some kind of answer, whether flip or serious, about where our ideas come from. (“Overheard conversations, other books, music, art, strange objects seen on the street, the Internet.”)

The worst question to ask a writer is not: “How much money do you make?”

This is mostly an annoying question. If we’re not inclined to share our yearly profit-and-loss statements with the questioner, we can deflect it gracefully and with humor, e.g. “Not enough to quit my day job!” or “Wealth beyond the dreams of avarice.” Or, if we’re feeling feisty, with “How much money do you make?” But “How much money do you make?” is fundamentally an answerable question.

The worst question to ask a writer is not: “What are you working on?”

This can be a tricky question. We don’t always want to reveal too much about projects that don’t yet feel fully formed. We might have signed nondisclosure agreements. (Although if we have, we can give a very fancy, high-status-sounding answer: a slight smile, a shrug, and the acronym “NDA.”) We might worry that if we describe the project, the questioner won’t respond in a way that feels positive and we’ll start to doubt ourselves. But “What are you working on?” is also absolutely an answerable question.

The worst question to ask a writer is: “Are you still writing?”

It immediately gives the impression that the questioner thinks we might not be, that writing was a passing fancy for us, that perhaps we’ve decided instead to work on baking a perfect Victoria sponge, or squatting three hundred, or learning calligraphy — all of which, of course, are estimable and worthy activities, no shade to anyone engaging in any or all of the above.

But “Are you still writing?” is almost a “Have you stopped beating your wife?” question. It puts us immediately on the defensive. We could answer by listing off our most recent and forthcoming publications. But we might worry that we’ll come off sounding like we’re bragging, or that our most recent publications were too long ago, our forthcoming too far in the future, or that regardless, they somehow wouldn’t count in the eyes of the questioner (wrong genre, wrong audience, inadequate distribution, etc.) There’s also the point that the fact that the questioner is asking implies that they aren’t aware of said publications, which means that we haven’t done a good enough job getting the word out about them.

If we don’t have recent or upcoming publications, “Are you still writing?” adds insult to injury. We’re almost certainly already beating ourselves up about it, and now we feel like the questioner may actually be asking “You mean you haven’t given up the ridiculous idea that you’re a writer?”

We could answer by saying what we’re working on, but that’s not what the questioner asked. A simple “Yes!” feels too terse. We’d like to think the questioner means well, but again, if they are, why would they ask about our writing in a way that casts doubt on whether or not it’s still happening?

And if you’re reading this and thinking, “Geez, what’s the big deal? It’s a totally innocent question. Stop being so sensitive,” I might venture to wonder whether you’ve had many interactions with writers.