To quote one of my favorite movies: “You are violating my territorial bubble!”
I’m always telling writers that one of the best things about “going freelance” is getting to be a part of the freelance writing community. In fact, in my monthly column over on A Writer’s Bucket List, I even went so far as to say that it’s a big mistake not to connect with fellow writers. And I meant it.
For the most part, you couldn’t imagine a better group to be in. However, as my business continues to grow in popularity, I’ve also noticed a growth in another area: Off-putting interactions.
Thankfully, very few of the writers who have contacted me have been “crazy” or cruel. Most of the inappropriateness has been well meaning (I think!). But there have been several times recently when I’ve wondered how someone could be so oblivious… And then I realized that maybe it’s because no one has ever officially set the “ground rules” for interacting with fellow writers.
So that’s what I’m going to do now.
Rule #1: Respect Their Time
If you’re new to freelance writing, you’re probably filled with an overflowing bathtub’s worth of emotions — you’re excited about leaving your 9-5 behind, you’re happy to be following your dream, you’re anxious about finding your first clients, you’re unsure whether everything will work out… I get it. I do.
It’s only natural that you’d want to seek out someone whose been there before. Someone who made it out the other side relatively unscathed. Because books and blogs can only go so far, right? You can’t ask books and blogs questions.
And most writers won’t mind answering your questions! Getting a simple question or two from a fresh-faced newbie is delightful. To a point.
If you’re asking a couple of questions, that’s fine. However, if you’re sending over PAGES AND PAGES of questions… please, oh my God, please stop. That’s so not cool.
And if you’re sending over your articles and essays (all very rough drafts, of course) expecting to get free critiques/editing advice/rewrites/anything in addition to your barrage of questions? Well, then you’re pretty much begging the other writer to hate you.
My father-in-law firmly believes that “if a little is good, a lot is better.” I know he’s not alone in this mentality. It’s my guess that it’s this general belief that’s behind new writers sending “experienced” writers so many questions. They figure: “If they welcome a couple questions, they’ll be more than happy to answer all of my questions!”
But here’s the thing: Answering questions takes time. And time is money.
When you’re a freelancer, a day that you don’t work is a day that you don’t get paid. With that in mind, most professional freelance writers want to spend their time, you know, writing. And performing the multitude of other tasks needed to run a successful business.
By sending an endless stream of questions to a fellow writer, you’re basically saying “I’m more important than you. Only my time/business matters.” You’re disrespecting them. Which isn’t a great way to build a solid relationship with a fellow professional in your industry!
What to do Instead:
The first step toward becoming a respected professional yourself is respecting the professionals around you. Treat others as you’d like to be treated, and all that jazz. There are plenty of ways to get the information you need:
- Instead of badgering ONE writer for information, try talking to a group. Rather than risk annoying the heck out of a potentially valuable connection by exhausting them with all of your questions, try asking those same questions in a forum setting.
- Instead of expecting an un-drying well of free information, try showing you respect them as a fellow professional and pay them. Many professional writers offer paid advice/mentoring. I’ve invested in said mentoring myself! Here are just a few of my favorites:
- Instead of pretending to be their friend to further your own career, actually be their friend. Sometimes I’ll get a “friendly” e-mail from a fellow writer that tries to hide their attempt to pump me for information with a thin layer of chit-chat. Nice try. If you’re going to try to use me, at least be honest about it. Or, if you’d actually like to become a fellow writer’s friend…be sincere with that too! Pay attention and strike up a real conversation with them. Williesha Morris and I bonded over our interracial relationships. And Wayne Clingman first approached me by swapping stories about our cats.
Rule #2: Don’t Rush It
I understand that you’re eager… But over-eagerness and inappropriate nicknames/comments are not appreciated.
I have a bad habit of blurting out whatever I think/feel. I can rein it in a little better online (in writing) than I can in person, but every once in a while it slips through. Like the time I told Megan Dougherty she has my “dream hair.” [insert facepalm here]. Obviously she’s gorgeous and has amazing hair — but I should have kept that comment to myself. Especially since that was my first ever interaction with her!
Thing is, I apologized immediately. I realized that my compliment may have been unwelcome and potentially made me seem a bit serial killer-esque. (“I love your *heavy breathing* hair, Megan *sniiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiif* Please send me some in the mail… @_@”).
Fortunately, she laughed it off and we proceeded normally from there. One weird comment can be overlooked. Your fellow writers are human beings too — they know what it’s like to get nervous and say something dumb.
However, last month, I received the following comments from a writer looking for advice:
“Not to seem like I’m hitting on you, but where can I find more of your work?”
Okay. That’s a strange thing to say, but whatever. Nerves, I guess. He had written to me asking if I knew of any articles that could help him with his writer website. I sent him a few links to articles, some of which were written by me. I gave him the benefit of the doubt and figured he was in earnest about wanting to read more of my work, but didn’t want to come off as flirty.
“I hope your husband knows how lucky he is.”
Getting into creepy territory… But maybe it was just an awkward compliment? I had just given him some killer tips. Maybe he was just expressing his appreciation…
All right. Nevermind. That’s crossing the line. The e-mails as a whole were a bit off-putting, but giving me a petname? That’s a level of intimacy I’m not comfortable sharing with a complete stranger. Even my significant other calls me “Lauren” and we’ve been together for years!
Result? I stopped answering this guy’s e-mails. And I told my S.O. and a couple close friends what had happened. You know, in case I was suddenly abducted or something. Dude sufficiently creeped me out!
What to do Instead:
If I’ve never met you, you’re a stranger. And, in an e-mail, you’re a faceless stranger! That can be a little scary. Here are a couple tips to make your interactions less fright-inducing:
- Act professionally. You can still maintain your professionalism while writing in a conversational tone. Don’t get overly familiar, especially on first contact. You’re trying to gain information and make connections to grow as a business professional, right? Then start acting the part!
- Wouldn’t say it in person? Don’t say it online. I understand that people feel bolder online. They’re protected both by a certain amount of anonymity and several miles between themselves and their contact. If that “boldness” is what gives you the nerve to reach out to a writer you admire, great; but if it’s making you scare them with inappropriate comments, that’s not so great. Try asking yourself “Would I say this to them if we were speaking in person?” If the answer is “no” then you should probably hold back.
Rule #3: Keep in Mind That We’re People Too
If you’re used to getting your freelance writing information from inanimate objects (blogs and books), it can be hard to “switch gears” and remember that you’re suddenly talking to a fellow human being, not just a fellow writer. Unlike other sources of information, your fellow writers have feelings and personal lives.
Last July I got an e-mail from a fellow writer who was miffed that I hadn’t replied to her as quickly as she would have liked. She had written to me 72 hours previously and how dare I not respond!
I had been in mourning due to the loss of someone close to me. And then attending said person’s funeral.
Even if that hadn’t been the case, so what? Three days isn’t that long. Most editors take a week or more to reply to query letters, and that’s a professional interaction. This was just some stranger getting uppity that I wasn’t giving her free advice!
The people who’re paying me come first. Everyone else can wait.
It might sound harsh, but that’s the way it is. And I know I’m not the only writer who feels that way. After all, we’re running businesses, not charities. Want us to reply to you more quickly? Pay us.
Plus, some of us get plain old exhausted from interacting with others — even if we enjoy it! I practically cheered when Linda Formichelli spoke up and wrote:
“It may be difficult to believe, but I’m an introvert. I play an extrovert on the Internet, but really I’m an introvert. I prefer to keep my socializing one-on-one, and I hate crowds — my worst recent experience was going to the state fair on the weekend day. After a day of interacting with people — online or off — I need to lie down in a quiet room to decompress.”
I’m a pretty friendly gal, but, ultimately, socializing drains me. I love my best friend (an extrovert) dearly, but after one day with her in person — even if we’re just loafing around! — I need a week or more of recovery time. I have to plan any time I spend with her carefully.
Likewise, I plan out my social interactions online. I allot a certain amount of time to answering e-mails, replying to comments, creating social media updates, and responding to forum questions. So it can be very upsetting to have fellow writers suddenly bombard me with e-mails, especially if they expect me to go “off schedule” to reply to them. As Linda wrote:
“You see, as an introvert, every interaction takes a little bit of my energy. An hour of e-mailing leaves me drained for the rest of the day, and takes energy away from what I need to be doing to serve the most people — not to mention keep my bills paid.”
Even if you’ve never felt that way yourself, try get outside of your own head long enough to sympathize. Just because you can reply to 50 e-mails in a row and still feel refreshed doesn’t mean everyone can.
What to do Instead:
- Be patient. Just because you’re not busy and have plenty of time on your hands doesn’t mean that your fellow writer isn’t busy. Your schedule is not their schedule. If you respect them enough to contact them, they’re probably a professional — and professionals have a ton of work to do! Also…they’re fellow human beings. Those crazy things that happen in your life — like sick pets/children, plumbing problems, or toothaches — are happening in their lives too.
- Be grateful. No matter what stage a fellow writer is in their career, they’re not obligated to reply to you. Whether they’re the industry veteran or the “I just got my first article published!” newbie: if they wrote back to you, be grateful.
If you were nodding along as you read this article, please feel free to share it. Or refer fellow writers back to it when you feel they need a crash course on the “ground rules” of proper writer-on-writer interactions.
I only listed three “rules” because three is an awesome number. Plus I didn’t want to overwhelm anyone.
However, if you feel like I missed an important “rule,” feel free to add it to the comments section!
And good luck out there!
Like I said at the beginning, the freelance writing community is a wonderful one. There are a few rule breakers out there that make things uncomfortable from time to time, but I have high hopes that we’ll soon be setting them straight. 😉
Lauren Spear (née Tharp) is the owner and creator of the multiple award-winning LittleZotz Writing. She’s written hundreds of bylined posts helping freelance writers to become BETTER freelance writers. Thousands if you count all the articles she’s ghostwritten (but she’s not allowed to talk about most of those).