Asking for too much help from writers (Mistake #129)

Like any writing advisor, and like (I expect) most writers, I receive my fair share of requests for help from budding writers.

As an aside: they’re usually far more polite via Twitter and email than they are via Facebook. Why is that?

Anyway, I vaguely recall a very polite one from someone who, to give them their credit, had looked into my work sufficiently to be well aware that I did not write or advise on fiction.

Nevertheless, they were hoping I could recommend someone who might help with their problems.

Fair enough.

They explained that they had lots of issues with their novel, and listed a series of troubles, the details of which are now hazy, but which were numerous. I think there was lack of confidence concerning the authenticity of the dialogue between the two main protagonists and doubts over one of the storyline’s twists. There were uncertainties about the book’s setting, I seem to recall, and some other issues too.

“Who do you think can help with some quick advice on all of this?” came the hopeful question at the end.

Quick? I had to explain that there was no ‘quick’ advice that could take care of all that …

Most writers and writing advisors I know will help someone without expectation of anything but a thanks in return if the help required is indeed ‘quick’.

But for the help to be quick, the matter needs to be brief and specific. It cannot involve, for instance, reading a large volume of text before a question can be answered. It cannot require the writing advisor to ask further questions of you before they can respond properly. And it certainly can’t be so large a question as to theoretically require a whole book to answer it. And yes, I’ve regularly been asked “How do I make a living in freelance journalism?” or “How do I get a book published?” in the past. Proper responses to those questions take thousands of words, and hours of time.

Are you asking for too much?

It’s a common mistake among new writers, especially those active on social media. When you’re just starting out, you’re less likely to be aware of the value of what you’re asking for, and the time commitment involved, and the knowledge and experience you’re looking to tap into. And there’s no shame in that.

When you’re new to this game, there’s so much to learn, so many questions to ask, that you sometimes feel you can’t progress to the next level — whatever that level may be — unless you get answers to all of them.

And that’s another common problem — asking a series of questions that just overwhelm the writer you’ve approached, and which are, unfortunately, tiring to read.

Like other people, you included, writers are exhausted, on the whole. We’re all knackered. We don’t mind being asked a question, but we might start groaning and reaching for the delete or mute button if you ask us half a dozen or more.

If you are completely new, then get yourself a beginners’ guide book. There are dozens of books out there, including my own 50 Mistakes Beginner Writers Make (right), which is aimed at those wanting to break into writing articles and features for magazines, newspapers and websites. And there are so many aimed at writers of fiction too. The books vary in quality, and it is often a matter of trial and error before you find the right one for you. That said, even the poorer ones will answer dozens of your questions. (There are some good ones listed here.)

If you have a little more money to invest, you could try a beginners’ writing course, either a local class, or by correspondence, or online. There are lots of those too. Some are here.

So what I’m saying is do some homework first, before you ask individuals for a lot of ‘beginner’ help.

It’s easy to ask for too much, even when (especially when, perhaps) you don’t realise you’re doing it.

I think these days a good rule of thumb is to not ask more than can be fitted into a single tweet — and which can be answered in a single tweet. I see a lot of generous writers and writing advisors answer questions on Twitter, and I’ve done it too. A specific brief question is just fine. Few will begrudge you that.

And if you want to ask me a quick one now, you can do so here in the comments, or via my ‘Writers Mistakes’ Twitter account right here! I’d be happy to help, if I can.

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