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11 Ways to Ask for Writing Advice (And 10 Major Mistakes to Avoid)

by | Aug 10, 2015

An aspiring writer I’ll call Bob recently sent me a random “I love your blog; please read my work!” email — and about two dozen other bloggers also received the exact same message.

I know this because he addressed it to us by regular carbon copy, which meant we could all clearly see we’d been hit by a copy-and-paste spammer.

Several of us run in the same writerly circles, and we wound up talking among ourselves about Bob in particular, and how much we hate cold emails in general. We debated whether the people who commit these faux pas are simply well-meaning but naive, or nothing but outright trolls. We discussed whether such emails warrant a response — and, if so, how patient or harsh that response should be.

Needless to say, none of us actually read Bob’s work, although Lauren Tharp of LittleZotz Writing (one of the writers CC’d on the grievous mass email) did offer him a response that was a delightful balance between constructive advice and BS-calling. She said it was OK to share with you:

Hi, Bob!

I was excited about your subject line at first (It’s always nice to get “fan mail”), but then I saw you were spam mailing me along with several other writers. Boo. That sucks. 🙁

If you decide to spam writers again with a message like this, you should probably use the BCC function on your e-mail so they don’t know that you did this and end up talking to each other about you.

Of course, it would be even better if you didn’t do that at all. It’s not a good way to treat a fellow writer: https://littlezotz.com/2014/02/how-not-to-treat-a-fellow-freelance-writer

I’m trying not to be TOO hard on you since I get a lot of messages from younger writers who are too “new” to the scene to know any better, but… come on, dude. You can do better than this.

As for advice (other than “Don’t ask writers who get PAID for mentoring — https://littlezotz.com/ — for free advice”), I would recommend you try submitting your poetry — or essays or articles or whatever else you feel you excel at! — to actual publications/editors rather than fellow writers. 🙂

Good luck! And have a great week.


The lesson? Don’t be like Bob.

Connecting with other writers — who are at your experience level or above it — is a great way to learn, grow and expand your career. Whether you’re just starting out or have some experience under your belt, a network of fellow writers in your corner is an invaluable asset. You can bounce ideas off each other, work through issues you’re both encountering, pass along job leads and offer introductions.

But to make these super-useful connections with other writers, you first need to get them to read your email — and want to respond to it positively.

If you don’t want to receive a message like poor old Bob received — or, worse yet, receive radio silence — we surveyed a number of writers for their biggest cold-emailer pet peeves and put together a list of some definite dos and don’ts to keep in mind when reaching out to writers you admire.

10 things that will guarantee your email gets marked as spam

1. Send an obvious cut-and-paste job

If you think writers can’t tell your email was also sent to a dozen other writers, think again.

Working with words is what writers do, remember. Even if you address it to them personally or use the “BCC” function properly, they can spot canned, generic language from a mile away, and it will turn them off instantly.

If you can’t take the time to craft a few personalized sentences when you write to someone, why would they feel inspired to take the time to respond?

2. Send without proofing

In addition to spotting spam a mile away, writers are also notoriously good at catching everything from small typos to massively glaring errors.

So take that extra minute to read over your message and double-check everything, including hyperlinks, to make sure you haven’t goofed up. Even a genuinely personal message can look cheap and spammy if it has too many mistakes.

Jessica Manuszak, blogger at The Brazen Bible, says, “Hands down, my favorite way to be pitched is to receive a form email that still has the last recipient’s name in the greeting: ‘Dear Angelique, I’m writing today…’ As much as I wish I had an exotic name like Angelique? Making me feel like one tiny insignificant person in a vast sea of inquiries is not the way to my heart.”

3. Use a vague subject line

Your subject line is your first (and sometimes last) chance to entice someone to read what you have to say. Blow this, and you can blow the whole outreach.

Subject lines I have actually received (and promptly ignored) include:

  • Hi!
  • hey there
  • Okay, so…
  • Help!
  • blogging
  • question
  • [no subject at all]

Imagine you’re sending a pitch to the editor of a site you want to write for. Would you dash it off with a subject line like “here” or “stuff I wrote?” (Please, please tell me you wouldn’t.) So take the time to craft something attention-grabbing — it could be the difference between your email getting read or immediately sent to the trash.

4. Spill your life story

Writers are not counselors, therapists or personal coaches — and if they do offer coaching as one of their services, they get paid good money for it. This person you admire isn’t likely to spend their free time wading through the origin story you’ve sent them in the hopes of forging a deep personal connection.

I once received an email from a reader that contained roughly 17 solid-brick paragraphs of what I can only describe as stream of unconscious rambling. It started out with a foray into her childhood dreams and demons, touched momentarily on writing and what she liked about my blog, took a detour into something she’d just discovered on Facebook that had distracted her attention momentarily (which she came back from by actually typing the words, “Sorry, I’m back now” as if it were a live IM conversation)… and then I stopped following along because it had ceased being a mildly amusing bunch of nonsense and simply become tedious.

A cold email is not a first interview, a first date or a monologue in a one-person play. Don’t try to sell yourself or explain your every interior motive for everything you’ve ever done. Ain’t no writer got time for that. Keep it simple.

5. Fail to explain who you are and what you want

On the flip side, too many cold emailers commit the sin not of TMI, but NEI (not enough information).

Maybe they think they’re keeping it simple by dashing off a couple quick lines like, “Hey, I dig your work! Here’s mine. Would love to hear your thoughts.” But all the recipient sees is someone who’s either terribly boring, terribly rude or wasn’t willing to put forth a minimal amount of effort. None of which result in a positive response.

Context is key,” says blogger and TWL contributor Marian Schembari. “I recently got an email from someone saying, ‘I have a great idea for a social media app and I love your blog. Can I send you the idea?’ What the hell does that even mean? Why does he think I have time for this?”

6. Ask to “pick their brain”

It’s like fingernails on a chalkboard to most writers, as more often than not, “pick your brain” is code for “I want to get as much advice from you as I can but I’m not willing to pay for like it like your other clients and customers do.”

Writers are business people, and their time is valuable.

If you have a specific question to ask that can be answered in a few lines, feel free to send it over. If you’re just fishing for free advice or your issue is too big to distill into a single, brief question, you’re in need of the sort of services that come with a price tag attached.

7. Ask them “take a look at” your work and “tell you what they think”

Your fellow writers, whether they’re on the same level as you or several rungs higher, are not advice-dispensing machines, writing teachers or personal editors. Expecting them to set aside a portion of their day to read and provide free feedback to a total stranger is both offensive and more than a little misguided.

If you want to know what a writer thinks of your work, see if they list coaching or review services on their “work with me” page — and be prepared to pay the rate they’re asking for. If they don’t, look for someone who does.

8. Ask them for job/project/client leads

Most writers are wonderfully generous when it comes to sharing job leads and making introductions among people in their network. When a project comes my way that I’m not the best fit for, or my calendar is booked, I make a point to refer the client to other writers I know personally who might be interested and whose skills would be a good match.

I’ve had the same done for me. The online writing and blogging community, on the whole, is pretty awesome about having each other’s backs.

But that’s only true when they know who on earth you are and whether you’re worth sending leads to in the first place. I can’t tell you the number of complete strangers who’ve asked me to “keep them in mind” if I hear of any opportunities or “send some leads their way” when I have no idea who this person is, what their skill level is or even what topics they normally write about.

Your fellow writers are not job placement agencies or recruiters. We’re not sitting on stacks of potentially lucrative gigs, waiting to dole them to whoever has the moxie to ask for them. We’re actually competing for the some of the same jobs you probably are, and if we’re going to share the good leads with anyone, it will be with people we already know, like and trust.

9. Get overly personal

I’m pretty open on my blog. I let my readers see the good, the bad and the ugly in my life, and I want them to feel like they know me on a somewhat personal level — at least as much as you can know a stranger whose thoughts you read online. Because of that, I’m totally cool if a reader sends me a note that’s a bit more familiar and casual. In fact, I prefer it.

But there is a world of difference between casual and just plain creepy.

I’ve had people open emails with lines like, “Hey lovely lady” and “I’m in Buffalo, too! Where exactly are you located?” If anything in your email sounds like it could be an excerpt from an online dating site message, nix it.

10. Think they own any site that shows their byline

So many people have sent me writing contests they sponsor hoping I’ll write a special feature on them since I wrote about free writing contests for The Write Life. Ditto for people who send me employment infographics or study findings they’re hoping will be featured on Brazen Careerist, another site I’ve contributed to.

If you admire a writer’s work on a certain site or in a certain publication, make sure to read their byline to see what role they play in that organization.

Guest writers, staff writers and contributors don’t control the content of the sites they write for, and they won’t be terribly flattered if you tell them what a great job you’ve done putting said sites together.

11 ways to get a response from writers you admire

1. Research the person you’re contacting

I’ve been cold-contacted to review people’s poetry, help them decide how to tell their parents they don’t want to become a doctor, and help a woman market the Downton Abbey-inspired Christmas novel she’d written but had no idea how to pitch to traditional publishers. Anyone who takes five minutes browsing my blog archives, “Start Here” page or LinkedIn profile would know I am not the person to hit up for advice on any of these topics.

Writers and bloggers specialize. Know what the person you’re reaching out to does and tailor your message accordingly. You would think this should go without saying, but I and plenty of other writers can attest that, sadly, it still needs to be said.

2. Toss them a (genuine) compliment or two

Flattery never hurts, especially when you’re reaching out to a basic stranger in the hopes of getting something (advice, networking, a virtual high-five) in return.

“I get a lot of ‘I really love your site!’ comments from people who have clearly never read anything on my blog in the slightest,” Tharp says. “It’s sleazy. Like when a guy tells you he thinks you’re smart and funny when all he really wants to do is touch your boobs… However, when someone comes to me with a sincere compliment — and they mention something very specific about a piece that I’ve done — and don’t ask for a favor right off the bat; that catches my attention. (Yeah, maybe deep down they still wanna grope me for free advice, but at least they’re willing to put in the time to get to know me first!)”

3. Create an awesome subject line

Half the battle is getting someone to simply open your email. Employ some standard marketing techniques by crafting a subject line that intrigues, creates urgency or otherwise grabs the recipient’s attention.

Some of my personal favorites from cold emails I’ve received include:

  • Here’s the windup… and the pitch!
  • You’re my hero
  • I agree: damn the man
  • Pandas forever!

Each of these subjects showed the person took the time to think of something creative, mention something they knew I liked or try to pique my interest. I could tell they’d made a real effort, and I was happy to see what they had to say.

4. Personalize your message

Let the writer know why you’re reaching out to them in particular. Did a certain piece of theirs move you? Are they in a niche you long to break into? Do you love the vibe of their site and want to know how they developed their voice?

Also let them know if you have anything noteworthy in common. Are you a friend of a friend? Did you graduate from their alma mater? Do you struggle with an issue they mentioned in a recent blog post?

These little touches are what create genuine connection points and make a writer more interested in responding to you.

“When [someone has] clearly taken the time to pinpoint what they like about my writing and maybe even link to their favorite blog post,” Manuszak says, “I’m writing back with way too many exclamation points faster than you can say, ‘HI! I LOVE YOU, TOO. LET’S JUST BE BEST FRIENDS, OKAY?!’”

5. Keep it short, sweet and to the point

Within the first few lines, the recipient should know 1) who you are, 2) why you’re reaching out to them and 3) why it’s worth their time to respond to you.

Imagine your first email to a writer as your first message to someone on a dating site. You want to drop a few pertinent pieces of information to get them interested and let them know you’re someone worth talking to (e.g. “I’m an aspiring personal finance writer who’s followed your blog for years”), then leave it at that.

If they’re interested and you strike up a dialogue, there will be plenty of time down the road to talk about how your mother never encouraged your dreams or your recent divorce was rocky but you’ve emerged from it a stronger and more spiritual person. But now is not that time.

6. Ask a specific question

“I want to be a writer; how do I get started?” is impossible to answer unless the person you’re asking knows the specifics of your personal situation (which they shouldn’t — see “Don’t” #4 above).

Even if they try to answer in general terms, a writer could spend hours scratching the surface, and they probably get paid mucho dinero for blog posts, books, courses and coaching to help people work through these things.

If you’re going to ask a question (which is totally okay), keep it super-specific and make it something that can be answered in no more than a few lines.

For instance: “Which sites do you recommend I follow to learn more about becoming a paid freelancer?” or “Where would you recommend a new writer in your niche submit their first few pitches?” Writers do like helping other writers out, if you keep your request within reason.

7. Set a time limit

While “pick your brain” requests are, by and large, a bad idea, there is one way you can couch them that gives you the best chance of receiving a positive response: be crystal-clear about what advice you’re looking for, and let the writer know you’ll respect their time if they’re willing to give it to you.

Bad request: I want to become a freelance writer. Can we hop on the phone for a quick chat?

Better request: As a new writer, I’d love to know what I can do to make my guest post proposals more effective. I would be grateful if you could spare 10 minutes on Skype to answer some specific questions I have about how to do this. If so, please let me know when is convenient for you; I am flexible and would really appreciate it.

There’s still a very real chance the writer you’re asking won’t have the time or inclination to offer you a free Q&A session, but your odds are much better if you phrase your request the second way.

8. Tell them what’s in it for them

While most writers like to try to “pay it forward” whenever they can — after all, kindness from others likely helped them on their own career path — that doesn’t mean they have the time or mental bandwidth to be everything to everyone. Let them know you’re not just reaching out for your own sake, but that you can bring something to table for them, too.

“Offer something in return,” says Schembari. When she reaches out to a writer she admires, she’ll says, she usually writes something like, “‘I loved your essay about x, y, z. I see you live in my area and I’d love to take you out for coffee. I really admire your work and while I’m not nearly as established as you are, I’ve worked in marketing for years and would be happy to impart any knowledge on book marketing, seeing as you have an upcoming novel release.’”

9. Acknowledge how busy they are

You’d be amazed how much it helps to include a simple statement like, “I’m sure you get umpteen million emails like this each day” or “I know you’re super busy, so I’ll keep this brief.”

In a sea of messages from strangers vying their attention, you earn definite brownie points by acknowledging that, although a writer doesn’t know you from Adam, you’d be grateful if they’d spare a few moments for you.

It’s a simple little thing, but it can make a big difference.

10. Inject some personality!

You’re not interviewing for a CEO position or issuing a statement to the United Nations, so loosen up a little and let your personality shine.

If you’re naturally snarky, be snarky. If you have a goofy sense of humor, crack a joke or two. People are more likely to respond to cold emails when they’re clearly written by living, breathing human beings.

J. Money of the hit site Budgets Are Sexy lists “boring” among his least-favorite sins committed by cold emailers. “Please, for the love of God, make it fun or funny,” he advises. “You get me to smile, and you’re already on my good list.”

11. Thank them

When a writer does take the time to respond to your email, know that you’re likely one of a very small percentage of people they’ve done this for, and let them know you appreciate it. It costs nothing to you and can make their day — and make them more likely to want to continue helping people in the future.

“I used to respond, thoroughly, every time I got an email from another blogger or a recent grad. And then nothing,” Schembari says. “They wouldn’t even say thank you. So that’s my biggest advice: if someone responds to you, you absolutely have to respond immediately with gushing thanks.”

Then, take your thanks a step further. “Bonus points if you can do something for them in return — be a beta reader for something they’re writing, leave them a book review on Amazon, leave a nice comment on their blog or social media,” Schembari says. “Even if you can’t offer the same level of support or advice that you want from them, you have value to offer in return. And you should.”

Writers, have you ever received a really good (or really bad) cold email? What dos and don’ts would you add to this list?