Tuesday, July 11, 2006


Ask not what writers can do for you...

A couple of things happened today that inspired this post. First, someone posted on a forum for professional writers asking for tips on how to get started as a freelancer. This, of course, caused many pro writers to become PO'd. (Why expect professionals to spend hours giving you advice that you can find in countless books and websites?)

Second, someone e-mailed me today asking for a list I compiled of magazines that assign health articles, which I mentioned on a different forum (the list was part of a handout for Diana's and my Canyon Ranch presentation). When I sent her the list, which included about 30 magazines with their snail mail addresses, URLs, phone numbers, and e-mail formats, she wrote back lamenting that the list didn't include editor names. (Oh, I'm sorry that the free information that I provided was not up to your exacting standards.)

Most of the people who write to me asking for help and advice are professional and polite. I don't mind answering a brief question or two, and the asker often writes back later to let me know how he fared using my advice (which is gratifying). Everybody wins! But based on these two situations today, I think some writers need a lesson in how to ask for advice.

1. Let the writer know that you respect her time.

A little groveling never hurt anyone. Some aspiring writers start their e-mails by saying, "I know you're busy, but I was wondering if you had a minute to answer my question." Others launch into a list of questions without acknowledging that they're asking the writer to spend her otherwise billable time helping out a stranger. Guess which ones get answered?

2. Keep it short.

Try to distill your question down to just a few sentences. This is good practice for all kinds of writing, and is also more likely to generate a response than a rambling recounting of your life as a writer.

3. Be specific.

A question like "How do I write a query?" would take the writer hours to answer; after all, there are entire books on the subject. Keep your questions as specific as possible.

4. Don't poach.

Many professional writers have writing books or e-books or offer writing e-courses. Don't ask a bunch of questions that the writer answers in her book or course. For example, don't write to Jenna Glatzer, author of The Street Smart Writer, asking "How can I avoid writing scams?" Don't write to Kelly James-Enger, author of Six Figure Freelancing, to ask how to boost your writing income. Most writers hate to say "Buy my book" but -- buy their books! (I'm using Jenna and Kelly as hypothetical examples here; they haven't expressed any grievances to me about writers asking for advice, and this tip applies to all authors.)

5. Do your research.

If you post on a forum (or e-mail a writer) to ask "How do I get started?" you might as well wear a flashing sign that says, "Flame Me!" Read the forum archives, do a Google search, pick up some writing books at the bookstore or library, and read magazines like Writer's Digest and The Writer. Lurk on forums until you have a good idea of what kinds of posts are and aren't acceptable.

6. Remember that you get what you pay for.

When you're asking for free advice or information, don't get upset if the writer doesn't spend hours pondering and answering your questions, or if the information isn't everything you had hoped for. If your question is broad or the writer is swamped with work, she may reply with a quick list of resources for you to check out or books for you to read. Instead of pitching a hissy because the writer didn't carefully answer each of your questions herself, appreciate the fact that she took the time to compile a list for you...then go and read the resources she recommended.

7. Say thanks.

Be sure to thank the writer for her advice; I can't tell you how many times I've written long, thoughtful answers to writers' questions and never received a thank-you. Professional writers also love to know how you fared with their advice, so do write back later to let her know. For example, I got an e-mail yesterday from a writer who said that she followed my advice and landed her first national assignment. That's nice to hear!

8. Return the favor.

Many writers I help return the favor by alerting me of new magazines and sites they think I'd be interested in, recommending my e-course to others, or sharing editor names with me when they break into a new pub. Sharing with others generates good writer karma.

9. Pay it forward.

When you're a famous, wealthy writer, remember the help you got from professional writers when you were starting out and "pay it forward" by helping others land their big break.

Couldn't have said it better myself!

I once had a friend of a friend email me out of the blue asking how to break into humour writing. She thought she might like to "give it a try." I'm sure she had visions of landing her own syndicated column despite the fact she'd never written anything before. When I emailed her a detailed response, she seemed shocked that writing actually required work. I haven't seen her name appear in print yet, so I assume she decided to pursue other hobbies.

Thanks for defending your fellow writers. I'm going to follow your advice in step 8 and return the favour by adding your link to my blog.

Keep writing!
#7 is the one that has always put a burr in my side. I've spent years helping so many, between writers and teen parents -- even sending packages -- and maybe 2% actually say THANK YOU. I can forgive the very young teens, perhaps, but the adults?

Or, there was the time I decided to move on from a group I headed, and it was FREE!, and you wouldn't believe how many people sent me ugly e-mails, saying I owed them. For? Anyway, I hear ya in so many ways...
Even though I've never written you an email, I'll say thank you.

That's thank you for The Renegade Writer. I received it for Christmas a year and a half ago, hint, hint to my husband. Using your advice, in particular to just go ahead and email queries, within the month I nailed my first $1/word assignment. Around the same time I queried another national magazine and at the end of my email I asked about any unassigned articles. I didn't get a nibble on my queries but I was assigned 4 articles they needed written.

But I would never think of bugging another writer for contact information or advice on breaking into a market.

So here's my thanks for writing your book, and I'm looking forward to buying your query letters rock when its available. And you never have to look in your inbox for an email from me!
Thanks, guys!

Anonymous, your post made our day. And we're happy to answer questions and hear from people via e-mail (especially with stories like yours!)...as long as the writers are courteous and don't chuck us like yesterday's banana peel once we've answered their questions!

Thanks again,

As usual, y'all are "right on". As a moderator of a free writing site, I haven't experienced all of the negative things you have, but have seen several of them first hand.

I would add to your list: Don't expect to have a professional writer take the time to read/critique/proofread your mss--expecially if you haven't done everything you can to make it as professional and polished as it can be! The professional writer already has a full plate and shouldn't be expected to turn your rough draft into manna from heaven for you.

Linda J. Hutchinson
Freelance Writer/Copywriter
Moderator, The Writer's Chatroom

And BTW, Linda and Diana will be our featured guests at The Writer's Chatroom on Wednesday July 26th!
Wonderful post, thank you. I often wonder if people in other professions would expect their more established peers to pass on the lessons learned from years of experience. It is lovely to help but when you come to it with a heavy heart, due to the number of "yes but"s you know it could be time to call it a day. Someone once told me 'people don't value what they get for free" and I've since discovered it's true. Sadly.
Too many Lindas posting here...
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