Partly this over-familiarity is because writers seem so accessible. Their pictures and names are on their books, often with a little blurb about their life. They have a website where they may talk about some personal things or invite fans to comment. There’s also an element of “He made it, he should help me get a leg up in this business.” While many writers do want to be accessible and pay their success forward, they do so through carefully chosen opportunities, not by responding to demands and requests from random strangers who may or may not be insane. So, please, don’t ask a writer the following:
Read your book or screenplay
There are several reasons we don’t want to do this. First, it just takes a lot of time. If we read everything we’re asked to read, we’d never get our own work (which pays the bills) done. Second, if we criticize your work you’re going to hate us and then feel free to tell everyone on the internet what a complete asshat we were for criticizing you. If we tell you it’s great, you’re going to demand numbers 2, 4, and 8, below, taking even more of our time. Third, there may be legal reasons why we can’t read your work. We don’t want you suing us when something we write is ever so vaguely similar to your magnum opus. There are plenty of writer’s groups and workshops where you can find people to read your work.
Give you the name and number of our agent or publisher
If we do this without reading your work or knowing anything about you, then we risk angering our agents and publishers by having people submit crummy work under our referral. This is not a way to further our own career and is, in fact, a quick path to getting dumped by an agent or editor. To put you in contact with our agent/publisher would involve reading your work to make sure it’s not crap and you can see in number one, above, why you shouldn’t ask that, either.
Teach you how to write
There are plenty of classes and books to teach you how to write and most will do a far better job of it. What works for one writer may not work for you so you might as well learn on a “neutral field,” so to speak, rather than getting the specifics of what works for one person.
Ask for reviews or book blurbs
Some writing advice books trot this one out as a way to get “name brand” reviews for your work. You should just send your work to random writers and see if they’ll review it! Please don’t. Most of us don’t have the time, inclination, or legal freedom to read your work. There are only two exceptions to this rule: First, you can ask if you have some personal relationship to the writer. (For example, he was in your writing group, you took a class together, met at a conference, or your agent(s) introduced you.) Second, if the writer invites submissions on their website. Some writers are also reviewers and will invite other writers to submit items for potential review. Most won’t promise that yours will be chosen, though.
Ask us to work for free
It probably seems like writing isn’t much of a job so you probably feel no shame in asking us to write the copy for your brother’s website, or that article for the alumni magazine, and not offering us any compensation. It’s even worse if another professional or a corporation asks for a freebie. “Hey, if you could just write a few lines for our catalog we’ll give you credit in the back of the book!” The thing is, writing is work. It is a skill that should be compensated, just like any other skill. There are times when writers may work for free, but those are carefully chosen volunteer opportunities or chances to advance our careers. No matter how little time you think the job will require, trust us, it will take a lot longer and that’s more of our time down the drain. If you ask a writer to do something for you, at least offer to pay. If the writer says, “No problem, I’ll do it for free or just for the credit,” then great. But at least offer.
Ask us to help with a school assignment
Teachers often send kids out to find and interview a writer. These requests usually come under the guise of “Find someone who has the job you want,” or “Find an expert on something and interview them.” Since most writers are on the internet, we’re crazy easy to pester. While we hate to say no to little kids, if we spent time answering every kid’s questions we’d never finish anything. There are plenty of books and websites devoted to the craft of writing, specific writing types, employment opportunities for writers, and so on. There’s no need to find a specific writer to answer these questions. Any website can provide the same generalities that you’d get in response to an assignment. Now, if you’re friends with the writer you might be able to get away with this, but just blindly emailing every writer with a web presence is annoying.
Ask us to help you get a job
If we’ve worked with you before we might be willing to act as a personal reference should you survive the initial screening process for an advertised job. Most of us are not willing to call our publisher and ask if you can have an internship, or to ask our editor at the newspaper to give you your own column. We don’t know what kind of employee you are and we’re not willing to risk getting fired because you turn out to be a bonehead.
Ask us how to get published
There are plenty of books and websites dedicated to just this subject. You’re better off reading these and following industry standards than asking a writer how they did it. They may have “known someone” or done something unconventional that worked for them but which would fail miserably for you.
Ask us to edit or “polish” your work
Along with the pitfalls that come along with reading your work (see number 1, above), editing is it’s own special form of hell. Most of us don’t even like to edit our own work, let alone that of others. If you need an editor, by all means hire one, but don’t ask a writer to edit your work. You might as well be asking us to endure a root canal.
When a writer says, “No,” to these requests, people say they’re mean or cruel or just want to keep newbies out of the field. Nothing is further from the truth. The truth is simple: Writers need to write (and occasionally promote their own work) to make a living. They cannot do that if they are reading unsolicited manuscripts, looking for jobs for their cousin’s kids, or writing the neighborhood newsletter. Most writers have adopted a policy of saying, “No,” out of necessity. We don’t enjoy being the bad guy, but it’s fairer to say no to everyone than to pick and choose and then be accused of favoritism.
Writers are professionals and deserve to be treated as such. Just as you wouldn’t ask your doctor for a freebie or ask your own boss for a job for your shiftless brother-in-law, you shouldn’t ask writers (especially writers that you don’t even know) for freebies and favors.
(Photo courtesy of Nic McPhee)