advice to aspiring writers…

… of a sort.

Since I started writing professionally, plenty of complete strangers have contacted me to ask how they can get my job.

It’s never quite as frank as that, but it’s often unpleasantly audacious. The aspiring writer, someone who’s never contacted me before, will send me an email or a tweet — sometimes opening with a perfunctory compliment on my work, sometimes not — often larded with invasive questions. “How much money do you make annually?” “Do you have a secure, salaried job?”

Then they tell me the specifics, and I do mean specifics, of their lives, expecting me to tailor advice to their particular life situation, though I know from comparing with colleagues that their messages are often cut-and-pasted boilerplate sent out willy-nilly to several of us, changing only the name.

I don’t claim to have fantastic advice for aspiring writers. But if you think I’m knowledgeable enough to harvest advice from, you should think I’m worth cultivating a relationship with, or at least reading regularly.

Pro-tip: If the first time you contact a stranger, it’s to ask for a highly specific favor, that is… sub-optimal.

So here’s my advice to aspiring writers who seek me out:

Write. Write frequently, write for yourself, hone your style and speed.

Learn to pitch. Learn to write a tight, concise paragraph that captures your thesis.

When you contact a stranger looking for help, that is a pitch. Be brief, be courteous, be professional, and remember you might not get the answer you like — or any answer at all.

Better yet, don’t contact strangers. If you hope to get help, including advice, identify writers whose style and work you enjoy. Comment on their articles, share their work, follow them on Twitter or Tumblr, and know who they are. Cultivate relationships and conversations with them before you hit them up for help…

… but only if that develops organically. Anyone with a wide audience gets emails, friend requests, and @s from lots of readers. Taking time to answer them all would leave no time for the job of writing. If they never get back to you, don’t take it personally.

“Don’t take it personally” is a good lodestar for a writer. When an editor rejects a piece, you don’t know why. It might be about quality; it’s more likely about fit: how the writer’s voice fits with the publication, how the proposed piece fits in the calendar, how every little thing fits with every other thing. Find places where you fit, and expect regular rejection.

Finally, every single aspiring writer who’s cold-contacted me for advice, including a series of prying questions about my finances and a detailed personal history so I can really dig in and craft a personalized response, has presented as a man.

The women who’ve asked me for advice have done so after long acquaintance. Their requests for advice are a natural outgrowth of our ongoing conversations on Twitter and elsewhere, and I’m happy to have those conversations!

Strangers, so far all of them men, routinely drop six paragraphs of biography and qualifications into my email* and wait for me to wade through it and respond. Aspiring writers, don’t do that. Aside from the presumption, that is too long for a pitch.

To sum up: If we already have occasional conversations, I’ll be happy to have one about writing. If we don’t, I probably won’t.

*To find my email, they’re likely clicking through my byline to my Twitter, from my Twitter to this blog, from my blog to my about me page, and finding the email. And at no point do they stop on those pages to engage with me first.

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