The Value of a Writer’s Time

The time that I spend involved in writing is some of the most valuable time of day, and I’m not just referring to how much it is worth monetarily, but what it means to me personally in terms of my spiritual and mental health.  Unfortunately, not everyone views this the same way. 

When I first started writing, my friends and family thought nothing of calling me up in the middle of my day and asking me to help them out, asking if I could go out for lunch, or just wanting to chat on the phone.  After all, it wasn’t like I was really working or anything.  Over time I learned to tell them I was busy, but initially I felt – obligated? – to talk with them.  It wasn’t like I was making millions off my writing back then.  Of course, I’m not making millions off it now, but that’s not really the point.

The point is that my writing time is my job time, just the same as my teaching job.  I can’t afford to treat it any differently, and I think I’ve finally trained my family to understand this.  That took a little effort and years of ignoring their demands that I respond immediately to a request for a peanut butter and jelly sandwich.  My family is very respectful of my writing time now, and my husband even helps out with dinner, or taking the kids out to eat when he knows I’m under deadline or I’m trying to finish a book.  He is wonderful about that sort of thing . . . now.  I like to occasionally remind him (usually when he’s bragging to someone about all he does to value my writing time) that he once told me this “hobby” of mine was getting expensive.  That statement embarrasses him now, and I only use it teasingly.  He is truly fantastic about supporting me. 

For as much as I can train my family, there are still people out there who don’t seem to make the connection that writing is my job, my livelihood.  A few months ago, a student at one of the colleges where I taught learned that I was a writer.  I’d never had her in class before, and I knew her only through another instructor.  Near the end of the quarter, she asked if I might have time to look over a fantasy novel that she had written.  Typically I charge for critiquing manuscripts, but this girl was a special case for reasons I won’t elaborate on, and I told her I would do it.  I also warned her that it might take me a bit to get to, being that it was finals week and I had a two-foot-high stack of papers to grade.  She agreed to be patient.

Then I got her manuscript.  It is over 800 pages long, typed in single spacing on both sides of the paper.

 Just to read this epic tale would take me months; not to mention trying to evaluate and provide comments!  I told the student that I would do the best I could, and she seemed pleased with that. It took a few weeks before I could get started, and when I did, it became obvious to me that this was a very well-intentioned book, but that the writer was a novice.  All kinds of mistakes, from passive verbs to too much telling to lack of dialog, bog this piece down, and I’d only made it through the first 25 pages. It is a chaotic symphony of characters, events, situations, and details that may or may not be important to the story.

I put it down.  My husband asked one night what I was doing with this mammoth binder on my lap. I explained the situation to him.

“What are you charging her for that?” he said.

“Nothing.”

He looked at me with eyes as big as basketballs.  “Say wha?”

“Nothing,” I repeated.

He hefted the binder from my lap, then said, “You should charge by the pound for this.” Then he counted the number of pages I had read to that point (18).  “Aren’t these supposed to be double-spaced?” he commented. 

I was momentarily thrilled that I had gotten at least that much through to him. “It should also be one-sided.”

He grabbed a pen and calculated. “That’s 72 pages.” He did a little more calculating.  “At $5 a page, that’s $360 you’re not making.”

“Yeah, but I don’t charge certain people.”

“Yeah, but it’s your time and it’s worth something.”

Interestingly enough, I already knew this.  I was tickled that he knew it, too, but it didn’t solve the issue at hand.  What was I going to do with the rest of this monster manuscript?

 I considered what it would take me to finish reading the whole manuscript, to add the critique and line edits, and to write up something that would provide an evaluation and offer suggestions.  Then I considered my own writing time that would have to be sacrificed in order to make this happen.

“I’m done reading,” I said.  “I’ll evaluate what I have so far, and then I’ll write a summary, but I can’t spend this much of my writing time on someone else’s work.”

He didn’t say anything – just smiled, like it had been his idea.  That made me smile.

I completed the line edits and critique portion yesterday.  Tomorrow I’ll write the evaluation summary.  Today, I’m working on my own stuff for an agent who requested it.  My writing time is some of my most valuable time, and occasionally I need to be reminded of that, too.

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