Cave Creek,  Challenge,  On Writing

Herding Cats (Writers)

Totally Insane…

I have learned this lesson now over 15 years of trying to help writers with workshops and other projects. And I learned the lesson way before that, back in the late 1980s as an editor.

The lesson? Writers as a class are pathologically incapable of following even the simplest instruction.

When it comes to writers, I do try to be clear as much as I can. The other day I talked here about manuscript format and just a surface reason for it in fiction. I even went so far as to give a link. Made little to no difference even on manuscripts I am getting for classes since that post.

Well, like an idiot, I also put out one of my short novels as a basis for a Shared Worlds Class. (Seemed like a good idea at the time.) I was scary clear about how I wanted no comments on the novel in any way. None!!!

I said very clearly that I didn’t give a F**k what any of them thought. (Yup, I swear sometimes. I was trying to be clear.)

But beginning writers can’t seem to understand even the most blunt instructions.

And beginning writers think typos are important instead of reading for story.

Beginning writers (as I talk about in Stage of a Fiction Writer) only focus on words. I know that, but I tried to be clear that I wanted none of that. And no comments, even if they liked the book, I didn’t care what their opinion was.

(To be honest, I didn’t become a 40 year professional writer by listening to a bunch of beginning writers or by worrying about typos. That’s why in any workshop we do, we never allow critiques from anyone but long-time professionals or major editors.)

Remember, my instructions to writers for decades now is never read reviews, good or bad. That is one of the most deadly things a writer can do to their creative voice. And unknown to many of you, positive comments can be more damaging than negative ones. I just won’t allow them in, positive or negative.

Thus the reason for my clear instruction.

But for some reason, writers feel the need to comment. And point out typos. And just ignore instructions that don’t suit them in the moment.

And without once thinking that I am the editor who is going to buy their story…  Yup, that’s right. The Shared World class has three professional-paying anthologies with it that I buy stories.

So you do exactly what I was very, very clear to not do, and you still expect me to buy a story from you????????????

Why in the hell would I do that?

You all who have already gone against my instruction better be very, very hopeful that my memory sucks as bad as it does. (And don’t help my memory by apologizing.) And the rest of you in the Shared Worlds class, just follow the instructions and worry about your story.

And stop commenting on mine. I honestly don’t care that you liked it.

(Note: That will make no difference to anyone in the class. Back to the lesson I learned a long time ago.)

Yeah, yeah, I know, best of intentions and all that bull. They just wanted to be nice. But maybe some of you would be a lot better storytellers if you stopped worrying about the words and started caring more about the story you are telling. Just saying.

And maybe if you didn’t read another author for their words, but instead for the feel of the story, the pacing, the depth, the themes, the characters, you might also improve your own writing.

Again, just saying.



  • Philip

    Honestly, Dean, in my (non-writing) professional experience, I’ve found very few people follow directions. A shocking number of people treat instructions as optional.

    I swear most of my A’s in college were because my term papers were double-spaced, had 1″ margins, and followed the other instructions on the Syllabus. Not even joking.

  • Cora

    Sadly, this is true in a lot of industries. I used to do the hiring for a communications/tech company in the bad old days when there was nothing but paper and landlines. You could spot the complete amateurs quite easily. I once received a resume where the perforations had not been removed yet nor had the pages been separated. That one did not go into the ‘read this’ pile.

    My husband is currently reading your post over my shoulder and ranting. He worked in the science/laboratory field and found the same thing.

  • JM6

    Breathe, Dean. Just breathe.

    You have cats. You know that kittens need some gentle correction to get them to poop in the litter box and that, no matter how well trained a cat is, it’s still going to poop outside the litter box once in a while. But you made the choice to invite that cat into your home and deal with the consequences.


    As an ex-college teacher, getting my students to metaphorically poop in the box was always a challenge. Some got it right away. Others needed correction.


    If nothing else, your comments are providing an object lesson to the rest of us on the importance of following the submission guidelines when we submit stories. How many possibly wonderful stories got tossed by editors, unread, because the writer never followed the submission guidelines?


    And thanks for sharing this with us. I think writers forget, sometimes, that editors can have bad days, too, when baby writers keep pooping outside the litter box.

    Oh. And breathe.

    • dwsmith

      Oh, breathing just fine. And I wasn’t and am not having a bad day. You do realize I am a professional writer and am in control of my words. Thus I felt maybe, just maybe a few might listen if I sounded annoyed. Seems I might be right. At least maybe it will stop the unwanted comments on the book and we can actually get to the class.

      Most beginning writers who crave response like a heroin addict craves a shot don’t realize that 99% of all long-term professional writers don’t write for response or reader reaction and don’t actually want it. We write because our addiction is telling stories. It is what we do. And try to contain response to certain moments like a book signing or such event that we can then file away and go back to our lives. So working with beginning writers I knew this was going to be an issue, which was why I was so clear in the instructions. Now is simply me backing up the instructions.

  • Mark Kuhn

    Years ago, before I found your workshops and blog, I took a writing seminar run by an English professor out of his large, finished basement. The first night of classes he absolutely drummed into us fiction’s format. Assignments had to be handed in following this same format or they would not be read or even looked at. His mantra was “pretend I’m an editor and you want me to buy what you have written.”
    The rest of the seminar went south real quick when I handed in two short stories the following week. They were perfectly formatted, and he read them both, but he took exception to the fact that I had written two short stories in seven days. So I asked him if he liked them and he said they were good. Then he told me I just got lucky. “No one should expect to write a sallable story in one week.” Then I thought he was going to grab his chest and hit the floor when I told him I didn’t follow an outline.
    Needless to say his “advice” bludgeoned my creative voice and left him for dead in a ditch beside the Palisades Interstate Parkway.
    To this day, though, I always follow proper formatting.

    • dwsmith

      Yup, had a professor like that, said on the first day we were going to spend the entire semester writing one short story. I raised my hand and asked if I could do it that night and just be done with the class for the rest of the semester. He did not like that, so I laughed, stood up and walked out.

      But at least you learned something from the guy.