No-thank you (Mistake #48)

Ingratitude is the theme of today’s post, and while I’ve deliberately waited until some months after my last professional experience of it in order to keep the emotion out of this, it’s possible some residual frustration will seep through. Excuse it, please.

I want to say upfront that most people in the business will thank you for a favour. I could fill up the rest of this post with nice things concerning nice people and their nice appreciation, but you’re busy and I want to dish the murky stuff.

I’ll keep it vague, but last year, I helped a colleague for the fourth time on a specific issue. The delivery of that help was – I admit – flavoured with impatience, due simply to the fact that the information I had three times taken the time to offer – without once receiving an acknowledgment, let alone thank you – had been apparently ignored and certainly not acted on. For my troubles, I was sworn at.

Most established writers occasionally receive unsolicited requests for help and advice, usually from new writers or students. One sticks in the mind from several years ago. I gave a considered, detailed response, which may or may not have been what the writer wanted to hear, but it was what I thought was right. No thank you came. ‘Did you get my email?’ I enquired. Yes, but the individual was ‘busy’, and would come back to me when they had time. That was the last I heard.

There are others, and all the writers and journalists I know have similar experiences – people not thanking them for contacts, for feedback. Some, so frustrated at what they perceive as the eye-burning ingratitude and breath-taking rudeness of the individuals concerned, instantly hit delete whenever a new hopeful arrives, and have a policy of no longer helping.

I think this is a shame, because the ‘good’ vastly outweighs the ‘bad’, in my experience, and also because there are wider benefits to helping and encouraging new talent. I was helped when I started out, so I help those who are in the position I was in years ago: this passes on knowledge and good practice, improves the business of publishing and our reputation within it, and seems to be the natural order of things – it’s just karmic fairness, to me.

But some disagree. Some are of the view that the very existence of blogs such as mine, which theoretically make it easier for people to get published, create competition which they could frankly do without. The hate mail hasn’t arrived here yet, but I have heard of mutterings and grumblings in the fiction community concerning online short story and novel advice which ‘gives too much away’, so perhaps it’s going on out of earshot…

Anyway, I don’t subscribe to this view, and will carry on. But I am interested in the reasons, besides sheer rudeness, why some people fail to mention those two words.

They forget? Possible – but how can you? Is it not simply automatic? Even if you’ve been given something so big it’ll take a while to digest, how can one not quickly reply? “Just a quick thanks – will read and respond properly later.” That’d do me, even without a follow-up.

They feel it’s unnecessary because they feel entitled? I won’t forget a quip of wisdom I first heard from writer and blogger Linda Jones: “Journalism doesn’t owe you a living.” I’d extend that to ‘publishing’ in general. Nobody is owed in this business. You work, you earn, you progress. People will help but nobody likes a freeloader.

They feel it’s unnecessary because it’s free? Linda also once said that people don’t always value what they get for nothing. Also true.

They’re too wrapped up in themselves? Perhaps. Could some be so focused on number one and what they need from you that as soon as they have it, they drop you like a sweet wrapper? Is it a failure to click out of that selfish and tunnel-vision mindset and give you what you need – a tiny expression of appreciation?

‘Need’ is the right word here. I don’t need to be thanked for this blog – I volunteer it. And I don’t need to be thanked for my tutoring or the critiques I offer – I’m paid for it all. But a request for help from a stranger? I do need to be thanked, thanks – it stops me from being grumpy, from losing faith in fellow man, from losing self-confidence about the advice I offer.

Here’s the thing. You need information from a library – that library needs your custom and support. You need publication of your work to make a living – the reader of that work needs information and/or entertainment. You need help from a writer – that writer needs a word of thanks. Etc.

For one’s every need there is a reciprocal need on the other side – bearing that in mind will stand us all well.

Comments 18

  • I think writers are a helpful bunch … because we've all been there: at the start of our writing life, or caught up in a tight deadline and need help quickly.

    Because we know that feeling, when asked for help we offer it. However, when we get our fingers burned, we remember it.

    I will always remember when, at the age of 14, I wrote to three famous writers and asked for their advice on how to become a writer. I believe that my helpfulness with other writers is because all three of those famous writers took the time and effort to write back to me. I was so surprised – their responses ranged from a couple of sentences to three sides of A4 paper.

    So I wholeheartedly agree – ask for some help and, if my workload allows it, I will try to help. If I get thanked for it, I will consider helping again in the future. If I'm not, then I won't.

    Thank you for this post 😉

  • I absolutely agree.

    I'm not a published writer, but I feel this subject can be applied to any field. The failure to say 'thank you' when someone takes the time to help you is unacceptable.

    I was undecided what to blog about today, but I think a long considered piece on bad manners is now due.

    Thank you!

    Neil

  • I also get this a lot. I would say I am thanked for my advice about one time in three, which I find pretty shocking.

    I think maybe it's to do with the anonymity of the Internet, plus the fact that we are all deluged with emails and messages now, and sometimes the basic courtesies get forgotten. Not saying that excuses this, of course, but it maybe goes some way to explaining it.

    Some of the requests I get amaze me too. I've had long lists of questions sent to me, and complex queries that would require hours of research to answer. In the latter case I explain that to answer the query, I will have to invoice them at my normal hourly rate. Needless to say, that's the last I ever hear from them!

  • @ Simon – do you think it was because you were a boy that they responded? (ie easier to ignore a fully-grown adult) Or do you think they were good souls anyway?

    @ Neil – glad to have inspired you!

    @ Nick – I can imagine how many you get, Nick! Those percentages have shocked me. Yes, the internet plays a large role, I agree. I have also played the 'get in touch and I'll let you know my rates' card – to deafening subsequent silence…

    Thanks all for such quick comments and thoughts.

  • Hi Alex

    To answer your question, I would say 'both'. They were probably more inclined to answer because of my age, but the advice they gave was because they were good souls!

    Cheers

    Simon

  • Alex
    Grrr, I can feel myself getting tense, just reading the first few lines of this (great!) post! You are sooo right! People don't say thank you! It is sooo rude. I recently replied, in detail, to email requests for a) feedback on 2 short stories (from a cheeky devil who came along twice to my class and never actually paid the college or joined); b) advice on 'how to get published' – from another chappie who attended one class and didn't come back and c) a request for advice on how to publicise literary events for an Irish festival in Birmingham, from a lady who attended one term of my class.
    I probably spent between 1-2 hours (when I could have been writing!) replying to those guys and not one of them thanked me for the emails they received.
    It's put me off doing it again and now I'm going to shame them all by emailing them and asking 'did you get my email?' I'll let you know if I get a response…!

  • I remember writing to several columnists and reporters when I was in my teens, just asking for general advice about the best steps to take towards a career as a journalist. I also still remember how it felt not to receive one single reply. I appeal to you all; please, please don't stop replying and giving tips to aspiring young writers. Sometimes it might make the difference between them pursuing their dream or not – I speak from experience as I just felt pretty worthless. I really would like to think that for every ungrateful sod that doesn't say 'thank you' there are at least one hundred others that would thank you a thousand times over for any tiny bit of advice you can offer.

  • @ Helen – yeah, do chase up! And do let us know!

    @ Jane – might you have been more sensitive to being ignored because you were a teen? In pre-email days it would have required sitting down to write a letter – a bigger ask than just bashing out (at least) a quick e-reply. That said, I could never ignore someone young – at all. Glum experience for you.. 🙁

  • I think sometimes when people ask for feedback, what they really mean is, "Tell me I'm great". I think as writers we have a duty to remember that anyone giving us feedback has given us time, attention and help. That's always deserving of a thank you.

  • I did respond to the last two posts but it was during the Blogger meltdown… they're still promising to reinstate comments, so will wait a bit longer…

  • I promised to report back on the responses I got to my ‘did you get the information I sent you?’ email to three people I helped with lots of (time-consuming) information. The first one replied almost instantly but misunderstood and thought I was asking him when he was coming back to the class. “I don’t have time for a class at the moment,” he said, “but I’m still trying to get my poetry published and haven’t got a clue how to do it!” Right, so all that information I sent you about getting published was a) useless or b) you didn’t read it? And he still hasn’t thanked me! I couldn’t be bothered to reply to him again, mainly because I was too annoyed. Grrr!
    The second person has not replied at all, so is either too embarrassed or has changed email address or died.
    The third one apologised for the delay – he’s been having problems with his computer – but did then thank me and said he was looking forward to joining my class in September (which I may or may not be running). So there you go – one satisfactory response out of three but again, it took valuable time to do it. I think perhaps the answer is to have a standard response that you send out. I have kept the emails I sent them all so I can regurgitate them. Then, if they don’t bother to thank you, you haven’t wasted much time!

  • Thanks so much for reporting back, Helen – really valuable and interesting to read about your experiences. Slightly OT, but I just read your letter in a back issue of WM about your experience of a short story treatment 'inspiring' (to put it mildly) a tutor to write and publish a similar story herself. Of the jawdrop things I've come across in 15 years in the business, that was definitely top ten…

  • Loved this post! I still reply and try to help…but I do my best not to befriend them.

  • Thanks Carole! Do you find it difficult, then, striking the right balance between offering friendly advice and offering friendship? Or, when you respond, are the writers so grateful and happy that they demand you to be their New Best Friend? 🙂

  • Alex – yes, I have to admit that my experience on that writing day was rather gob-smacking! The editor of Writing Magazine told me he'd never had as many responses to a reader's letter as mine and that he could have filled the next month's letter page with them all! I did write a follow-up about a year later (which they also published), explaining how my experience had done me some good and that, as a result of more concerted effort (in a kind of 'I'll show her!' way), I'd now been published 5 times in the magazine in question!! But it did raise all kinds of moral/ethical teacher v. student questions at the time! I probably should have written an article about it…?!

  • I think you should – would you drop me an email through my website if you can?

  • Alex – just wanted to let you know that, thanks to your encouragement back in July (and your ability to spot an idea for an article, which had been staring me in the face for about a year!), my article 'Stolen [intellectual] Property' (which I called 'Hey! That was my idea' but I can see why they changed it!) is in the January 2012 issue of Writing Magazine (page 36). Hurrah! I am chuffed.
    And I think I finally have 'closure' on that incident when a naughty tutor stole my idea! Two published letters on the subject – and now an article inspired by it – I think I've been well compensated!
    Thanks again – much appreciated. Helen

  • I'm really delighted about this, Helen – and thanks for digging out the post to come bring the story up to date here. Look forward to reading the piece over Christmas!

    (I think I prefer your title, by the way – and it seems more appropriate too…)

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