The Cost of Kindness

October 3, 2019 § 24 Comments

“I’m so excited about your new draft,” I say to my dear writer friend.

“Could you just look over my pages?” she asks.

I am delighted to help. She’s a good writer, I like reading her work, she’s read my work and she’ll read it again. I dive into the document and realize there’s a problem—not with her writing, which is solid, but with the dramatic structure. The book starts in the wrong place. I work through the first couple chapters, commenting as I go, editing a few errant sentences along the way, then think through ideas and questions and put them in an order I think will best help her. Everything gets typed up and emailed back.

In my inbox are four people who need information or a connection. I like them all, they all deserve my time. Send-send-send-send.

My husband asks if I’ll tape a voiceover for his company’s training video. No pay. The company has an office in a co-working space, and they have generously invited me to use the co-working space any time I want for free, so this is a no-brainer. I’m grateful to be able to return a favor.

And then it’s 1PM. Still on my list: the due-today manuscript for a paying client, the due-yesterday pages for a paying client, the due-tomorrow pages for a paying client. A workshop to plan. My own book to write. Kindness has cost me the entire morning.

Literary citizenship is important. It’s also time-consuming. If I work from home, I have 7 hours of working day, and I usually do laundry or vacuum in there somewhere (running up and down the stairs is also good for my terrible writing posture). If I’m in the co-working space, I lose another hour to the commute. Roughly half my workday is spent on my wonderful clients’ manuscripts and another quarter on the business of being a writer: website maintenance, social media, blog posts. The last couple hours are the time I have for my own work, which I habitually (unwisely!) put last unless I’m on a deadline. If the deadline is for a client, I don’t do my own writing at all.

I’m not quite at the stage of No I Don’t Want to Read Your Manuscript, but I did add a category to my time tracker: “Kindness.” I’ve started hitting the button to see how long I’m actually “just looking something over for a friend.”

I believe in literary citizenship, and I believe in generosity (I’m a Friday’s Child). I also believe in making deposits into the Bank of Good Will against the day I’ll need to make a withdrawal. But I’ve also started thinking about how to keep doing the kindnesses I value without sacrificing too much of my own time.

  1. Do Less Stuff. I’m an overachiever. But when my writer friend asks for a beta read, they probably don’t want line editing. In fact, too much critique can be worse than too little. Ask before committing: “What kind of feedback are you looking for? Where are you in the process?”
  2. Do Stuff Faster. Which for me is also, do it more confidently. They wouldn’t ask me if they didn’t trust my skill/opinion/voice-over ability, so I don’t need to check every step of the way if I’m doing it right. Stop second-guessing every comment. Trust my friends are grown-ups and they know my brand is “Unkind Editor,” so if some of my sentences are phrased less elegantly than I would for a paying client, they’re gonna be OK.
  3. Don’t Do All The Stuff. Just because I’d be good at teaching that class/responding to those pages/critiquing that website doesn’t mean it has to be my job. When someone asks if I have time, it’s OK to say “No, I’m in the middle of another project.” It’s not even my job to direct them to someone else. They have agency, too. I’m not their only friend.
  4. Ask For Stuff. Remember that Bank of Good Will? It’s not an immediate quid pro quo. Literary favors have a long lifespan. When I needed beta readers for my last novel, some of them were people whose book I read 10 years ago. When I needed someone with good social media to promote my writing retreat, I was glad I’d promoted that person’s work for years.

Literary citizenship runs in cycles. We spend a long time helping our friends, then one day the book deal comes and it’s our turn to ask for their eyes, their email lists or their presence at our launch party. Do favors when you have time, say you can’t when you don’t. Your writing friends will understand—just as you would for them.


Allison K Williams is Brevity’s Social Media Editor and the author of Seven Drafts: Self-Edit Like a Pro from Blank Page to Book. Want writing news, events, and upcoming webinars? Join the A-List!

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§ 24 Responses to The Cost of Kindness

  • Kristen Paulson-Nguyen says:

    Awesome piece! I’m learning to say no. Last night when I said yes I did just what you do. They didn’t need line by line edits. I made a few comments to set them in the right direction.

  • ktolli says:

    Amazing article. I love it.

    Kerri Tollinger


  • Yes. Brilliant. You have managed to nail down every aspect, both of continuing good will and how to respond effectively to another’s requests for critique without destroying any hope of getting your own work done. Thank you. Truly.

  • Cristian Mihai says:

    It’s all a balancing act. It feels like walking on tightrope.

  • equipsblog says:

    You make several excellent points. I’m not there yet, but with continued writing, I may get there. When I do, I hope to still have a copy of this post to refer to.

  • Melanie says:

    Reblogged this on Melanie Jayne Ashford.

  • jeskybera says:

    It’s people like you that make me want to be successful so that someday I’ll get asked for the favors. I’m really looking forward to paying it all back! We never forget those people who make a difference for us. Throughout this process of being published for the first time, I’ve been taking all sorts of little mental notes, things like, “Someday read a strangers book. It’s a really big deal.”

  • gonyun (工人) says:

    Kudos to you! As an educator I have faced this everyday for years. Young people always need help. These days it is mostly with writing, resumes, cover letters, and essays. I teach math, but most years I find myself proof-reading nearly 20-30 essays a month to help my students out. I’ve been asking Santa Clause for more hours in the day for decades. I’m still waiting. Good luck on your book and keep being awesome.

    • Allison K Williams says:

      Thanks 🙂 Yeah, and with teachers, that scope creep of reading outside their classwork and writing reference letters etc can really engulf you!

  • […] From Allison K. Williams: additional thoughts on literary citizenship. […]

  • Modwyn says:

    I love this post! I have learned that it’s better to turn down a project, even one I’ve already committed to, than to do a poor job. Many of us are working at several small jobs instead of one consistent 9-5 job, so deadlines can shift and other time-sensitive things can come up. I think we all have to be realistic about how much we can do.

  • MFP711 says:

    Thank for for “thinking” this through. We are all so busy these days, and often with such a variety of tasks and responsibilities. I used to try for balance but now I know that sometimes I have to put something down to be able to balance the rest. Big stones in the jar first, and kindness is a big one. Including kindness to yourself.

  • Hi, I don’t usually read other blogs, but you blog heading for my attention as I feel like I’m too kind for me own good sometimes. I enjoyed your post. Hopefully in your kindness to others, you remember that you deserve kindness as well. God bless.

    • There is no edit button, I meant to say, your blog heading got my attention. Errors like this is probably why I should not comment on things. 😊Anyway keep being, as it seems, an awesome person.

  • […] Many of us are not  there yet–where we are well established enough to have people seek us out for help.  If that day ever arrvies, this column lays out the how to factor in the  Cost of Kindness. via The Cost of Kindness […]

  • JeanMarie says:

    Wow. This is a keeper article (already bookmarked). Great advice and just what I need to hear. So you know, I’m not the sought after expert, but when I do get asked for help, I do too much. Also, this advice applies to other areas of my life. Thanks!

  • […] a chapbook. The need for artistic ‘selfishness’ has become obvious, as this article on the dangers of kindness points […]

  • Digital Khan says:

    Kindness is a virtue

  • […] for everyone to see until a buyer walks in. Donate our time and information to groups who need it, as we can afford to give it. Establish our skills and knowledge and ethos so clearly that when we do (finally!) announce a […]

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