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

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

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:

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 — — 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 a 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?

Filed Under: Craft
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  • Ian Anderson says:

    Curses to the internet for popularising the “everything is FREE!” mentality!

    Love the web like I do, but for sure there are many businesses (over lots of disciplines) that are struggling to modify their revenue model to cope with this ‘reluctance to pay’ in the shift away from tradition.

    What’s your opinion on going ‘old school’ and using the telephone to reach out? Or even, *Tim Ferriss style* doorstepping!?!?

    • Sorry, Ian, but doorstepping can be creepy in this day and age, and even under “old school” etiquette, cold calling via telephone was acceptable only for very limited purposes.

      There’s perhaps something to be said, though, for occasional snail mail. You’re a writer, so no one cares if you know how to talk; show that you can write! I don’t recommend sending an unsolicited package with your entire manuscript, but a simple letter with the same respectful request that would have been in an email might be a nice change of pace.

      On the other hand, that’s taking a risk as more and more people shift to exclusively electronic communication. Many people make clear what type of communication they prefer, whether explicitly (“Contact me at this address …”) or simply by what contact information they make readily available. If you have to dig too hard to find a physical address, then chances are good the person does not want snail mail.

      Personally, I do not advertise my physical address. I prefer initial contact to be through my website, and thereafter by email. But everyone is different.

      Hope that helps!

      Trish O’Connor
      Epiclesis Consulting LLC

      • Ian Anderson says:

        Gosh yes, I agree. I certainly wouldn’t have the brass to approach someone face to face, must be the Englishman in me!

        I think that a handwritten letter these days would be quite novel, and not as easy to ignore as an email.

  • Thank you for this article. I personally am drowning in Social media madness. I have just barely started writing and knowing how to ask is very important. I look forward to linking up with other writers. It is not easy to do this by myself. I shall endeavor to read more blogs and learn about my audience. Thanks for the wonderful advice. I’d even read not to offer my work until after I’ve been contacted. Like that advice too.

  • Thanks for the tips, Kelly. I used to be leery of contacting name authors and asking questions, but I finally worked up the courage to do it. I’ve emailed four well-known fiction writers, and every one got back to me with a timely, personal reply. One even gave me the name of his agent, and I didn’t even ask for it. 🙂

    I unconsciously used several of the points you brought out, but mainly just tried to be courteous, respectful, and mindful of their time. It was nice to find out the big guys are just like us (sort of)!

    Take care!

  • Daniel Rose says:

    Hi Kelly,
    Thanks for the advice. I’d like to think I’ve not done anything too Bob-ish but always good to have a reminder to hand (and I could probably work on my subject lines if I’m being honest). The golden rule is to treat everyone how you’d like to be treated. That immediately rules out the mass spam email blasts.

    Pandas forever

  • This list is full of common sense stuff to those of us who have been writing for a while, so it serves as a great reminder that a lot of newer writers may not yet know the “common sense stuff.” Even a nobody like gets the occasional person wanting a critique of their novel, short story, or outline. I think next time my kind response will include a link to this post 🙂

    • I often have to remind myself as well that what’s “common sense” to me may not be common sense to others. Sometimes a gentle “hey, you’re doing this wrong” could help a newbie writer more than anything.

  • Bob Cohn says:

    Hi Kelly,

    What a terrific piece. I probably wouldn’t do most of the don’ts, but the do’s are most helpful. What I need to do is more online activity, and this is great guidance.

    Thank you.

  • Hey Kelly

    Thank you for penning an insightful article – bookmarked!

    I think I made a faux pas couple days ago, although I hope the repercussions aren’t too bad. My excitement often gets the better of me! 😉


  • Indrani Talukdar says:

    I have been following your posts diligently and am responding to one for the first time. Believe me, this is really helpful. I work as an editor and I too get umpteen people emailing me to “see their stuff”. It is galling.
    Thanks for sharing.

  • Bj Wood says:

    You’re dating analogies cracked me up! Thanks for an informative and fun article. I am so sharing this.

  • Sharealldoll says:

    Kind of a snobby way of answering, when all she had to say was, “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. :)”

    Btw, the smiley at the end doesn’t take away from the snobbishness, it just adds to it. 🙂

    See! 😛

    • If Bob was familiar with Lauren’s work and writing style (see #1 under “11 ways to get a response”), he’d have known that she likes to inject humor, poke well-meaning fun and isn’t one to pull punches. If Bob had done any research into the people he was contacting, he’d have read her response as Lauren writing the way Lauren does rather than being snobby. If he hadn’t done any research into the people he was contacting… he should have.

  • Lisbeth Tanz says:


    I love your site! 🙂 I chuckled at a number of points in your post because I’ve seen pretty much all of them. I began my freelancing career as a writer, eventually moving to the editing side of things because I find that more fun. Plus, I wasn’t writing MY stuff. Editing frees my brain.

    Just because I’m an editor doesn’t mean people don’t attempt to solicit free advice. As Trish O’Connor noted above, editors can also be the target of writers. I’ve had authors shove published books into my hands asking if I’ll read them and give them some insights on what they could do better. My response usually correlates to how late it is and how snarky I’m feeling. Bottom line – I give the books back. Years ago, I had a writer invite me to breakfast to “pick my brain.” Hey, I need to eat, so cool. Information imparted, breakfast eaten and she asks for separate checks!!!! WTF?

    I loved your 11 points to get a response – spot on! I’m happy to help if I can fit someone in for 5 or 10 minutes. But please don’t share your life story. I have enough drama in my own life.

    • Editors definitely receive equally awful cold requests. I’m always amazed at the presumptuousness behind most “pick your brain” requests or requests for strangers to read and review your work for free. Writers and editors are paid professionals, just like any other paid professionals. Would you ask a lawyer or doctor (who isn’t a friend of family member, mind you, but some random person whose office you just show up at one day) to evaluate your case or give you a check-up for free?

      The internet is likely party to blame for making anyone reachable at the click of a mouse; it’s certainly a lot easier to shoot off a request for help to a total stranger via email than it would be to show up at their place of business and ask for their services for free. But that doesn’t change the fact that, at heart, that’s basically what you’re doing.

  • I turn off when the tone or style of letter doesn’t make me comfortable, or match my own. Call me a stiff, call me arrogant, but anyone who uses excessive “hip” lingo, the word “awesome”, or starts sentences with “so” a lot, loses me.

    If you want someone to “hear” you, approach them with language that shows you’ve read their work and are sympathetic to the way they use words.

    • I agree with this idea completely. If you’re going to cold-email someone, take the time to compose your message in a “common language.”

      If you approach someone that is rather colloquial or informal in their writing, opening with a “Dear Sir or Madam” would not quite fit the bill.

      And in the same vein, someone that writes with a very professional slant wouldn’t appreciate any capslock-ridden “OMG UR SO GREAT ALKSJDFLKSDJF” types of emails.

    • Wholeheartedly agreed. If you’re reaching out to a writer, it should be because you know and like their work, and an easy way to show that is to try to match their level of formality. You don’t need to carbon-copy their voice and style (that can come across as trying TOO hard), but at least be on the same plane. Otherwise it’s a dead giveaway that you’re just hitting up anyone you can find in the hopes of getting someone to bite.

  • Deb Palmer says:

    The other day, I caught myself in sabotage mode… stalling, whining away my writing time. Could it be that as I near the completion of my first book, I’m petrified of what comes next?

    Thank you for a really helpful post. Not knowing the “dos and don’ts,” I tend to hide away in my reclusive writer disguise. Many articles make publishers, editors and successful writers sound like the “untouchables.”
    This post calmed me down… a little.

    • As an editor and a moderately successful writer, I can reassure you we’re all people too. We’re stressed, anxious, fearful and uncertain (we’ve just learned to hide it). 🙂

  • Thanks for the insight on this, Kelly. As a “newly-freed” freelancer escaping from the 9-5 world, I do know that I will have to send out the occasional cold email or (gulp!) do some cold-calling in order to drum up business and build my network.

    Having this info up-front will be a great help! Bookmarking for future reference. 🙂

  • Kate says:

    Dear Author,

    I really, really love your work. I have read everything you have ever written, and am anxiously awaiting the release of your new novel.

    Since we write in the same genre, I am sending you all 832 pages of the novel that I just completed for your reading pleasure. Since you will be reading it anyway, I hope that you won’t mind proofing and editing it as you go. I was so excited to get it to you that I didn’t take the time to do it myself.


    If I get a reply, I’ll bet it’s a doozy!

  • I couldn’t have agreed more Kelly,
    This is really amazing indeed. I’ve also gotten such emails before like someone just saying “Hey, check this out, I’m sure youll like it”. Seriously, I’ve never opened such email let alone reading it.

    Another thing that pisses me of is someone using “Hey dude, what’s up” as a subject line.

    Kelly, I can very well relate to everything you said here because I’ve usually experience something similar. Before an influencer will spend his time to respond to you, you must give him a good reason to do so.

    What’s in it for me? I believe the saying that “There’s nothing as free launch even in free town” it does not necessary mean that you will have to pay him but at least, do him a little Favour and you’ll have his attention.

    I just wish every upcoming writer will have the opportunity to read this excellent post of yours.

    Will share it right away.

    Thanks for sharing Kelly.

  • Lauren Tharp says:

    Thanks for letting me be a part of this, Kelly! 😀

    Great advice!

  • Neil Larkins says:

    Wow. I can’t believe those salutations. I’m still old school. In high school (1959-1963) we learned to write professional letters beginning with “Dear Sir” or “Dear Madam” (never “To whom it may concern”) if you didn’t know the name of the person being written to. If you did know the name, unless you’d been instructed otherwise, it was proper to use the surname, such as “Dear Mr. Jones” or whatever the person’s title was. I still like to do it that way, whether email or traditional letters despite the chance I might be called stuffy or old-fashioned. If the addressee prefers to be addressed otherwise, he or she will likely tell me. My bottom line is that everyone wants to be given professional respect and I will provide that because that’s what I want.

    • I am all in favor of erring on the side of professionalism.

    • What if you don’t know if they are a sir or a madam? Do you just guess?

      • Lisa Rowan says:

        If you’re sending an email to a writer, you probably know their first name, right? Or their initials? Simply addressing them by their name is probably the best way to avoid any uncomfortable slip-ups!

        TWL Editor

        • Remember, though Lisa, that using a person’s first name alone is a decision to embrace the exact informality and familiarity that Neil is trying to avoid. Even though I personally am fine with being addressed as “Trish” (assuming the other person does not expect to be addressed by title and last name), I realize that there are still some people who prefer a higher level of formality in professional interactions. There can be good reasons for starting formal, and going familiar only when invited to do so.

          It can also turn out that the first name given in the signature is not actually the familiar name they use. In legal contexts, I use my legal name, “Patricia.” I dislike it when someone sees a signature of “Patricia O’Connor” and decides to be friendly by replying “Dear Patricia …” although I try to remind myself they are doing their best with what I gave them. (To avoid putting people into that awkward situation, I try to use “Trish” as much as I can in communications with clients.)

          Of course, Teddy’s name brings up the important point that it is not always possible to tell if a person is male or female, and unless their title is “Doctor,” that makes a formal salutation risky. May I suggest that anyone whose name could easily be either male or female might want to include their preferred title in their signature? This would spare formal correspondents the embarrassment of discovering later that they have used the wrong one, and would spare the addressee of the frustration of being repeatedly addressed incorrectly by people who really have no way of knowing.

          Trish (aka Patricia) O’Connor
          Epiclesis Consulting LLC
          Freelance Editorial Services

  • Dustin says:

    Heyyy, I recognize one of those lines in there… and it’s a positive one!

    Awesome job, Kelly. I’ve been eager to read this since you mentioned it and was happy to see it pop up in the ol’ email today. 🙂

  • Great list!

    As you can imagine, freelance editors see the occasional “faux pas” in a writer’s first contact, as well.

    Don’t get me wrong; I love my work, and I genuinely enjoy interacting with writers and helping them make their work the best it can be, but people need to remember that I do this for a living. If you’re self-publishing your first book and you’ve only budgeted a couple hundred dollars for editing, it’s probably not worth contacting a professional. Just doing a close reading of a book-length manuscript takes hours, correcting errors several times as long, and not one of those hours is in my “spare time.”

    Every project is different, and as long as a book is in my general area of expertise and interest, I am very happy to prepare a careful estimate, free of charge. After I have invested time and effort in doing so, I would very much appreciate a response, even if it is, “I decided to go with someone else” or “This is beyond my budget; what could you do for me for $X?”

    Sometimes, I think it’s easy to forget that even though literature is an art, it is also a business, and we all need to observe basic business etiquette in interacting with each other for business purposes.

    Thanks for this excellent article!

    Trish O’Connor
    Epiclesis Consulting LLC
    Freelance Editorial Services:
    Writing exercises and basic critiques:

    • “Sometimes, I think it’s easy to forget that even though literature is an art, it is also a business, and we all need to observe basic business etiquette in interacting with each other for business purposes.”

      Amen! Couldn’t have said it better myself.

  • I’d add one thing that many people probably won’t necessarily experience: don’t presume a nickname! I get cold pitches from writers who start their emails off with “Hey, Ash” — and while maybe it’s intended to build warmth and familiarity, my only reaction is “and who are YOU?” I don’t go by Ash, never have, and probably never will.

    • Excellent point. If the writer calls themselves by that name on their site (i.e. Ashley Ambirge has called herself “Ash”), then it’s OK. Otherwise? Stick to the script they’ve given you. You’re not BFFs yet. 😉

    • I have a similar problem. People wanting to work with me mistakenly address me as Mr. I sign my letters as Teddy. I wish people would just refer to me how I sign the letter.

  • Eugene Sudi says:

    Thank You so much for this advise Kelly. Its like I have committed all the mistakes listed. At so point my hands were shaking wondering if you were talking about me! hahaha!

    I have learnt a lot.

    • Knowing is half the battle! You are not alone in committing these errors by any means; that’s one of the reasons I wanted to do this post. So many people don’t realize they’re doing things that hurt them more than they help them. Now you know, and you can do better. 🙂

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