6 Annoying Things Writers Are Asked To Do And How To Ask Anyway


"Hey, you're a writer, right?"

Whenever I hear that, it's not because someone recognizes my name or photo (although I have been mistaken for Stephen King. Whether or not the Stephen King I was mistaken for is the one from before or after his accident, I refuse to say). When people say "Hey, you're a writer," it's because they're about to ask me to do something for them.

Writers are asked to help with a shocking number and variety of things. I'm not even kidding, in the last two weeks I've been asked to edit a letter, edit a memoir, and write a short bio for someone. All for friends and family, all for free. 

Are you thinking about asking a writer for help with something? Read this first. We'll go through the most common requests, why they're problematic, and how you can ask anyway.

Hey, will you help me edit my book?

The Problem: Let's think about this request in terms of another, similar request: Will you help me move?

Asking someone to edit an entire book, that's not like asking for help carrying a couple boxes. That's asking for help finding a new place, packing, renting the truck, negotiating the number of cats with the landlord, and arranging a time for the landlord to "meet" the cats (this is a thing for everyone, right? My cat isn't just an exceptional jerk?).

When you ask a writer to pump the shit out of your pages, consider it work, and consider paying them.

It's a big, big ask that involves A TON of work and a U-Haul-load of time on the part of the person being asked, and all too often, like moving, the offer for compensation is something like, "I'll buy you a beer." 

How To Ask Nicely: Let's stick with the theme of moving. Rather than asking for open-ended moving help, asking someone to help you with the big, heavy shit is a way to get the help you need without forcing someone to help you move all your junk.

When it comes to your book, ask for edits on a short portion. Rather than asking someone to edit your entire book or essay or whatever, ask if they might read a section. Especially if there's a chapter that you're struggling with that can be read as a standalone. That's a lot less time commitment and a lot less pressure.

Or, you know, you could always offer to pay.

Also, just a heads-up, the answer is an automatic, 100% NO if your book involves a wizarding school, sexy vampires, a dystopia where teens become the stewards of society and also shoot each other with arrows...basically anything that is your version of the new hot whatever.

Hey, will you help me with this letter?

The Problem: Letters, open or otherwise, almost always involve a stance on an issue, and they almost always come from a very personal place. As a writer, I might not share your opinion on or passion for an issue. In fact, I assure you that I don't share your passion unless your letter is about greenlighting Beetlejuice 2: Beetlejuice Goes Hawaiian. 

How To Ask Nicely: Polish, polish, polish. And that's "polish" as in "polishing silver" not as in "relating to Poland." Do all the polishing you can before you hand something like an open letter over to a writer. It doesn't have to be perfect. But if you're asking me for copy edits as opposed to asking me to come up with arguments or stances, that's a little easier, even if I don't totally agree.

And, you know, you can always offer to pay.

Hey, will you help me with this assignment?

The Problem: Whenever a writer signs up to help out with an assignment, they're in over their head immediately. If I don't already know much about your topic or thesis or area of expertise, I'm not going to be a lot of help. Sorry, but I'm not going to study Viking audiology to help you with a paper. And frankly, papers are really, really boring to write. 

How To Ask Nicely: People pay good money to cheat on assignments. Why not pay someone a little cash to help you do an assignment legitimately? Consider payment. Think about it like this: If you lived in a house where the plumbing was screwed up, and if your buddy was a plumber and came to pump the shit out of your basement, you'd offer to pay this person, yes?

When you ask a writer to pump the shit out of your pages, consider it work, and consider paying them.

Hey, will you help me with my resume/cover letter?

The Problem: Applying for jobs is just about the worst thing ever, I know. It's like dating except you have to keep it very professional and there's a very low probability that your cover letter will be good enough that the interview ends with sex. However, if you DO have sex as a result of your great cover letter, keep that job forever. Or maybe run away. Not sure. See, this is what I'm talking about. I know nothing about employment. Or sex.

Writing a resume or cover letter is different from most types of creative writing. It's like asking someone who rides a bike to teach you how to ride a motorcycle. It's like asking me a question about sex.

How To Ask Nicely: The way to ask nicely is to not ask at all on this one. Find someone who is good at this specific thing. There are people who are good at writing resumes and cover letters, and you should seek them out. 

And, you know, offer to pay.

Hey, will you help me with this speech?

The Problem: Almost every time I've helped someone with a speech, I regretted it. I really believe that the thing that separates writers from non-writers isn't talent or artistry as much as it is the willingness to sit down and write. And when someone who doesn't write has to write, it seems they ask writers for help, but what they really need is someone to motivate them to sit down and do the damn work. I have enough trouble motivating myself. I was supposed to work on this column the other night, and instead I sat in front of the computer, screen blank, and ate an entire box of Mike & Ike. I don't even like Mike & Ike. 

How To Ask Nicely: When you ask for someone's help, make good use of this person's time. When you meet, be on time. Ask good questions. Have your ideas ready. Write a draft first. Don't force your writer friend to motivate you. Be a goddamn adult and drive this thing. 

Or, you know, offer to pay.

Hey, will you write a little thing for my new web site (that doesn't exist yet)?

The Problem: There is an entire imaginary internet comprised of web sites that exist only in the minds of people with good intentions. Many, many writers get this request very frequently.

How To Ask Nicely: Don't ask until you know what your site is going to look like, in detail. And keep the writer in the loop. Tell them exactly when their work will show up. Tell them how you're going to spread the word about it. Show them that it's worth their time to do this. 

Or, you know, pay them.

A Few More Tips On Asking For Writing Help

Provide A Workable Format

I was shocked at one time to see how many publishers and agents specify "Please do not send us the only copy of your manuscript." Who would do that?

TONS of people, it turns out. 

Don't give someone your only copy. And honestly, if you can ask about their preferred format, all the better. If they prefer print, you really should go to the trouble of getting it printed. If they prefer digital, it's nice to send the digital file in an editable format.

Respect the Timetable

Give the writer some time. Don't hound your writer when they've had your work for a day. And don't pass something off to an editor when you need it tomorrow.

Don't Offer Your Friend's Services To Others

If you think your writer friend might be of help to someone, do your writer friend a favor, tell THEM about it first, give them the chance to turn it down, and THEN tell the original asker, "Hey, I was thinking about what you said the other day, and I might know someone who can help."

Consider Payment

Seriously. Offer it up front. Say you'd like to pay, and say how much you can manage. I know I hammered this one over and over, and I'll boil it down simply: Either you need this writer's help, in which case their help is valuable enough to pay for. Or you don't need their help, in which case you can skip the help entirely and skip paying for it.

Take The No

Sometimes, someone will tell you No. Don't make them defend this. Don't haggle. Even if you offer payment, the writer has every right to turn you down.

Asking someone to help you with a writing project, consider it like asking someone on a date. If you ask once, nicely, and the person says No, then that's it. You don't have to know why, they don't owe you a reason. The answer is No, and asking someone to justify that answer isn't going to change anything.

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postpomo's picture
postpomo from Canada is reading words words words September 21, 2016 - 10:45am

I've been asked to do all of the above at some point or other. What you say holds true. Someone offering to pay would have been nice. 

I edited a novel for someone as a favour. When they brought it to me for a third go over I refused. They hadn't implemented most of my previous suggestions, so, really, they just wanted a cheering section or something. I never found out.

Often, I find that the same folks who made fun of me for studying English are the same who come to me for help with writing. I offer them to trade professions. As many hours as it takes me to write/edit/proofread/review/re-read/etc. then I get that much back from the accountant/engineer/administrator/etc. Amazingly, not one person has taken me up on it.

Our skills are valued, just not seen as valuable for some reason.

Stephan Mathieu's picture
Stephan Mathieu September 24, 2016 - 4:19am


Plain and simple. 

I'm not a writer (maybe i can become one) but i wouldn't even dare to ask for assistance if i didn't had at least something readable in the first place. That column had some serious emotional weight on it (i think that my reading could have helped in "vaporizing" that weight - somehow).

Keep up with those.