Written by A Guest Author June 29th, 2023

Dealing With “Backseat Writers” 

by Ellen Levitt

Have you ever been at the wheel of your car, and one of the passengers starts telling you what to do, griping about your driving, and otherwise trying to do your job? Then you’ve dealt with a backseat driver, and it can be wearisome.

Have you ever found yourself in the kitchen or at the barbecue pit, cooking or baking or prepping the food and drinks, and other folks tell you how to season and cut the ingredients, suggest over and over again which steps to take, and tell you that “When I cook/bake/grill, I do this and that”? Then you’ve dealt with a backseat chef, and it can be annoying.

Don’t get me wrong: suggestions and critiques can be great and helpful. But there are times when you really do know what you’re doing, or want to experiment and learn something along the way, yet someone else just has to put in their way-more-than-two-cents-worth. And it’s not pleasant. You put up with it….or maybe you seethe.

This can happen with writing too. I’ve experienced this regarding my non-fiction writing, memoir pieces, even some fiction, and speeches I’ve labored on.

Have you ever dealt with someone, who was not your employer, who tells you what to write? Or offers you way too many suggestions such as names to use in your short stories, or plot twists that you really don’t want to use? And when you mention to this person that you already planned out much of the story, they get miffed or roll their eyes or say something condescending such as “Of course you have, but you might consider…”

I’ve experienced this at times over the years. Sometimes it’s funny but often it is annoying. For instance, a longtime friend of mine had asked me to include certain things in a nonfiction book I wrote, but they were barely germaine. I told her so and she acted stung.

A friend of mine from high school would tell me I should write certain types of articles and just send them to particular magazines. I told her that I didn’t specialize in those fields, and also didn’t want to write full articles for magazines without first querying the editors. She scolded me for this!

Believe me, there are times that I have asked family and friends for comments and advice for articles and opinion pieces. On several occasions I have turned to social media and asked for pertinent ideas for writing, and even for people to interview for particular written works. I am appreciative of these efforts; I thank and credit those who help me.

But there are some people who have told me what I should write, and to be polite I’ve turned to them and said “That’s not what the editor wants me to write about.” Or I’ve said “Maybe some other time I’ll write about that, but not for this piece.”

There are a few issues at play here: people who think they know better than you, the writer. SIGH, as I am wont to say. Or maybe they would like to be the actual writer and they are getting some vicarious thrill from “helping out” with my writing.

There have been times where I think the friend just had no idea what I was trying to write and wanted to have a hand in the production values. It becomes a delicate dance of being polite and diplomatic, yet standing firm and telling them that I don’t want to write what THEY want.

A few times I merely ignored the person with the “great idea” offered. I wrote what I wanted, and assumed they might forget about the whole thing. (Usually they do.) But occasionally someone came back to me, mentioned that they read my story/article/opinion piece, and asked (even demanded) to know why I didn’t follow their directives. “Why didn’t you write about that place I told you about?” for example. I have blamed it on the editor (chuckle), or have been upfront and told the person “I didn’t write that because it didn’t fit the article.”

Most of the time people hear that I’m writing such-and-such assignment and they don’t make suggestions. More often they will say “Oh” or “That sounds interesting” or “Huh? Okay.” Some people will joke around with me about my assignments. Usually that is okay as well. And I’ve learned that there are a few people I just cannot talk to in depth about my writing, because they will come up with “helpful ideas” that aren’t.

Sometimes I’ve told these backseat writers “That’s a wonderful idea! I think you should write that. Go ahead.” Honestly, I would like to see these folks write something and experience the thrill, along with the financial/professional plusses.

I’ve wondered if fiction writers deal with this as much as nonfiction and memoir writers. Or not? Do poets get this too? Do people approach them and say “Hey, why don’t you write a poem about [Subject B].”

I’ve been approached by people I know who said quite earnestly “Ellen, you should write a book about [Subject A].” I’m flattered that someone ranks my skills this highly, but they don’t realize how difficult and time-consuming it is to write a book, how tough it is to find a publisher or go the self-publishing route, and related tasks. This has been said to me at least twenty times throughout the years. At times it’s been more like nagging.

Articles or short stories or speeches are obviously somewhat easier when it comes to handling someone else’s advice and ideas, but still, unsolicited advice to writers is not easy to shoulder.

So what do we do? Smile, say thanks, and move onto a different topic? If we roll our eyes and tell people to hush up, that’s rude. There is a delicate, or at least diplomatic, road that is probably best to tread. Backseat writers are a thing, and at best, they might be worth writing about.

Another tack could be asking the person why they’ve offered their advice. Or maybe, once in a while, the person is offering you some genuinely worthy advice! Take it case by case. And remember that you would like people to read your published work, even champion it, so you don’t want to alienate them (at least not most of the time).

Bio: Ellen Levitt is a writer and teacher, and a lifelong resident of Brooklyn, New York. She is the author of The Lost Synagogues of Brooklyn, The Lost Synagogues of the Bronx and Queens, and The Lost Synagogues of Manhattan (www.avotaynu.com) and Walking Manhattan (www.wildernesspress.com). She has also written many freelance articles and essays for online and in-print publications.


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