Please, Don’t Ask a Writer to…

don't ask writers to...
Plenty of people ask writers for all kinds of favors and connections. While it’s sometimes flattering to be asked, the constant deluge of requests creates problems for writers. Even lesser-known writers receive many requests to do things they just don’t have the time or inclination to do. There are a lot of people out there who think writers are fair game for all kinds of crazy requests.

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)

  • I hate that people think writers have all the time in the world to read their writing. I don’t mind doing it if I have the free time, but I usually don’t. I’m busy writing my own stuff, promoting it and trying to get more writing done. I think it’s the expectation that many people have that you will just do it.

    • This is some great advice. Writing takes so much time and effort and I don’t think others appreciate this. Your time isn’t free and if others think it should be, then they don’t understand what it takes to be a successful writer.

  • I think this list should be given to every person who “thinks” they want to be a writer. I’m more than happy to help and support those who are interested in becoming writers, but it’s a two way street. It’s not all “help me! help me!” that some seem to feel is an appropriate way to be when they want help with their writing.

    • It amazes me how inconsiderate want-a-be writers can be at times. If someone asks me for an inappropriate amount of help, I write them off as not really wanting to be a writer.

  • Why do most people think it’s OK to ask a writer to help them for free? It’s as if most people believe writing isn’t a “real job” so it’s OK to ask writers to spend a lot of time to help them without any compensation. Is there any other career where that’s the norm? I can’t think of anywhere it’s OK to ask someone to spend a lot of time without paying them anything.

  • If you need help getting a book finished or published, this post is definitely worth reading so you don’t step on toes. You will want others to respect you and what you’ve done, so make sure you do the same.

  • As the writer, I get asked a lot to help want to be writers. Often these requests are to help them out without getting paid for it. When I first started, I used to do this, but I don’t anymore. As a writer, my time is valuable. If I’m doing other things in writing, then that means I have less time to write.

    My solution, and the solution that I think every writer should do, is to put a price on an hour of their time. That’s what you charge. If a person isn’t willing to pay that, then they really don’t value your expertise. Writing is a business and if you’re giving your time away for free to help others, you’re not being a businessperson.

    • Yes! Not just writers, but for any profession where people may ask for your help. It’s important to value your time and to not give it away for free or people will take advantage of you time and time again. This often happens to me with computers and my wife with writing.

  • Am I the only one that doesn’t mind helping out new writers? I have no problem going over their work and helping them find contacts. I was once in their position and I wish there was somebody who would have helped me out, so I just don’t have an issue with any of these things. Writing isn’t all about “you” — it’s something to be shared and nurtured.

    • I think there is a difference between helping writers and them asking you to do the work for them. I see a big difference between the two.

  • Is someone asks you to help them and you don’t want to, don’t. There is nothing that says you have to say yes. If you want to help, go ahead, and if you don’t, say no. It’s really not that difficult.

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