I am a mid-career journalist. I was a teacher for several years before I jumped ship and tried to craft a career as a writer.
Because I did not have a journalism degree or many contacts in the field, I felt like I was starting at the bottom of a ladder with missing rungs and splintering wood.
I harassed everyone I knew for help. Tips. Phone numbers. Email addresses.
I hand wrote notes to writers I admired. I left voice mails after hours for editors I hoped to write for one day. (Too afraid to call during the day when they might actually pick up).
Getting on is a hustle.
Now, I’ve made my way a bit. And surprisingly, I’ve become one of those people that new writers want to know.
[Sidebar: this is very bizarre to me. Inside, I still feel like the editorial assistant at Billboard who lives in her cubicle and writes music reviews for Blackspot at XXL in the middle of the night. I don’t feel like a published author and freelance writer. I don’t feel like I am the sort of person one should look up to in this game.]
But occasionally, I do have writers who email me with general questions about the game.
Before starting this blog, I got about 3-4 emails a month from new writers who needed advice. In fact, my first ever post addressed an email I received from a would-be writer named Jenny.
Today, I’m averaging five emails per day. A kid from UCLA looking for an internship. A teenager who just got his first national magazine clip who is serious about his business, (I swear I’m gonna email you back. You’re dope.) A young lady torn between two jobs. A college senior in New York at an internship for the summer who just wants to meet for coffee one day to talk. A colleague with a potential book deal on the table who needs top secret help on coming up with a price.
I take this things seriously. When I was starting out, it meant SO much to me when people took time out of their day to help me, even a little tiny bit.
So, I do my best. I am slow on the email. (Real slow). But I manage. And when I do get back, I try to deliver more than just a one line generic comment. I take my time and think about what I really feel your next course of action should be. And I give you my honest opinion on what you should do. If I have names of people you should talk to, I give ’em. If I think you’re ready for an agent, I’ll give you some names. Shout out to [name redacted] who just signed on with my agent. YOU GO GIRL.
472 words in and I haven’t made my point.
My point is this. My email address is firstname.lastname@example.org
If you need me, hit me up. Seriously. I’ll do my best. And I mean it.
What not to do?
Well, here’s the thing.
I got this very sweet email recently from a college student in NYC for the summer.
She told me I was a dope writer. (*blushing*)
She said my writing is one of things that keeps her going at school. (Awww!)
She said she’s been following my career for years. (Little old me?!)
She called my writing authentic and honest. Made her feel like she was talking to her best friend. (*wipes tear)
Writers are a neurotic bunch. Blow some smoke up our asses and we’ll melt before you and move heaven and earth to help you.
I was IM-ing with my friend “Anna” later on that day. And she told me about a wonderful email she got from a writer in NYC for the summer.
You guessed it. Anna’s writing was also authentic and honest. Anna’s writing was also getting her through school. Anna’s writing also made her feel like she was talking to her best friend. Something extra for Anna though. One of her profiles was the best music profile she’d ever read. like, ever.
I’m not saying she can’t respect and admire us both. I love Karen Good and Danyel Smith and Valerie Wilson Wesley and Clover Hope and Miles Marshall Lewis and Michael Gonzales and Tannarive Due and a host of others.
But you have to walk a fine line when you decide to communicate with writers.
I won’t front. I felt duped when Anna told me about the email she got. The young writer’s sentiments were so over the top that I thought they were reserved for me. I was embarassed that I even got gassed like that.
I’m not special!
And I know I’m not special.
And I am so okay with that.
When you reach out to folks, dial it down a bit. Definitely be honest. Throw some compliments out there. But don’t go to hard. And for heaven’s sake, wait a few weeks before you send out a similar email to another writer.
We ALL know each other. ALL of us. We’ve all dated each other. We’ve been roommates when we first started out. We all went to the same parties back in the day, freelanced for the same editors. And we talk. A lot.
I’m still going to stay in this touch with this young lady. It was a minor misstep on her part. Not the end of the world at all.
If you’re reading this, don’t freak out. We’re still cool.
And to my up-and-comers, when you email me at email@example.com, I am officially absolving you of any need to gas me up before asking me for help.
Start your email off like this:
I read your post on What NOT To Do. So I will not tell you anything about how much I love you work.
Now, on to my advice. Can you please help me with….
Are we all on the same page? Awesome!
Dear readers: Have you sent out an email that may have been a little bit more fawning than it needed to be? Do you think I’m just too sensitive and it was no big deal for homegirl to send out similar emails to me and my friend? How do you normally approach someone you don’t know for advice or guidance?
I’d love to hear from you…