Miss Manners for Writers
How to get ahead by getting along.
1. Congratulations on Good News
If someone you know tells you that they have just had a novel or poem accepted, or have won an award, or have achieved any of the goals you share—say “Congratulations!”
Add some other nice words if you can think of them. Words such as “Great story!” and “I’m so excited for you!”
You might want to say some of the following things, but please stifle the urge; you might not realize it in the heat of the moment, but these responses are rude and even hurtful, because they take away from your friend’s achievement:
• “Oh, I need to send things out more.”
This response implies that the only reason you aren’t publishing books and stories with that entity is that you haven’t thought of sending them some of your work.
• “I almost had something accepted there once/twice/every week of my life.”
• “Oh, I should send them something!”
Yup, this one too.
• “How much money did you get?”
Good heavens, do you disclose your annual income to acquaintances at parties and in airports? Well, if you do, that’s probably considered rude too.) The amount writers earn varies wildly but is rarely huge; asking this question makes the person feel awkward—and foregrounds your own insecurity.
• “Who do you have to know to get published there / win that award?”
This question—even uttered jokingly—says the person didn’t succeed on her or his own merits. Who could blame them for not wanting to help you now?
• “Will you get them to publish something by me?”
While networking is necessary and can lead to good things, this question puts pressure on what might be a fragile relationship. If someone is freelancing for the New York Times, for example, the competition is huge, and a writer who asks for a lot of favors will strain her editor’s patience.
Also, in many cases, you’re asking that person to create competition for herself—will you want to grant the same favor to all and sundry once you succeed in that market?
And finally, your writer chum most likely can do very little to help. Introductions, sure, but unless they edit the magazine or the publisher's books--no, it doesn't always work.
In sum: The appropriate response to a friend’s good news is “Congratulations!” And “I’m looking forward to reading that when it comes out!”
2. Writing Notes to Writers You Admire
Say you've read something that got you super-excited—made your blood sing, made you feel free, made you feel sad, made you laugh when you needed to. If so, write to the author!
As you know, the writing life can be a lonely one, and praise and treats come rarely, especially when someone’s writing a long piece. Your note about what you loved might arrive at just the right time to help the author continue or finish something else you’ll want to read. And you might even make a friend.
• Almost every published writer on earth has a website somewhere, with an email address handily prominent. Find it. Use it.
• Writers really do love to hear from people who have appreciated their work.
I’m not going to comment on writing notes to people whose work you did NOT like. Well, I guess I am.
• Such notes are obviously much less welcome, and the writers of negative notes are so passionate that they often seem crazy. If you feel you simply must write such a note, be sure not to let your emotions overcome you. Write as soberly as you can. Tell the author you love them "anyway."
3. Responding to a Reader’s Note Without Trying to Sell More
If a reader favors you with an appreciative note, say, “Thanks!” Add a personal touch if you can.
• But: This is not the moment to plug your latest book. If the reader has found you, s/he/they have probably gone to your website and already know about the latest. Yes, you want to get more enthusiastic notes—and to sell more books—but try not to make this into a commercial transaction.
• Bond. Be gracious. The note's writer will keep reading you even without a sales pitch.
4. Keeping the Relationship by Keeping Boundaries
Yes, you can keep corresponding with the writer whose work you love!
• Remember that email might give you a false sense of intimacy with this person. Be careful not to pry too much into the writer’s personal life, unless you’re invited in.
• Same goes for your own life. Maybe you will become the writer’s friend, but such a relationship needs to develop over time.
• Try not to write when drunk or high, angry or belligerent, even if your emotion is aimed at some other person. Other people do know something’s off.
5. Waiting to Ask for Favors
Try not to ask for favors till you’re truly friends. You may be aching to get the writer’s opinion on your own poems and essays—but remember that a writer’s time is limited and often divided between a day job, a family, and the Muse.
6. Answering Your Own Questions When You Can
You may also be utterly dying to know how you can catapult your career to the next level and how your fellow-writer managed it. Writers get questions about this every day, including during interviews with magazines, blogs, etc. Chances are good that the person’s answers are already posted on their website, usually under a heading such as “Press.”
Spare your friend or hero from the awkwardness of declining to answer or the tedium of supplying the same answers as before: Look on the website first, then ask any follow-up questions you have. And don’t be offended or hurt if the person says she doesn’t have time to answer. She’s telling the truth.
Your relationship with the writer will actually be better, and you’ll get more out of it! Once you sidestep the “repeat question” pitfall, you and your friend have time and space for unique conversations.
For example: The appropriate response to a friend’s good news is “Congratulations!” And “I’m looking forward to reading that when it comes out!”