The Art of Asking for Advice (or Why Should I Care if You Want to Be a Writer?)

If there’s one thing I hate about the requests I constantly get for free career advice, it’s when the people making them haven’t bothered to read anything I’ve written. 

This already demonstrates two serious failings in anyone who wants to make their fortune as a writer; one, you’re not a curious person, and two, you have no understanding of the part ego plays in a typical writer’s life.

It also annoys me when strangers send me vague, one-or-two-line emails that say things like, “can you help me get started with writing?” or “I want to be a writer, what should I do next?”

I always feel like these people honestly believe I’ve got a magic writing wand that I can wave in their direction, and – hey presto! – they’ve got a sparkly new career!

It might sound harsh, but I tend to give requests like these short shrift.  I haven’t got enough time to spend on interpreting hazy questions, or trying to help people who won’t spend a few minutes of their own doing some basic background research.

(So there.)

What’s in it for me?

This might come as a shock, given my stated attitude to unsolicited and ill-thought-out requests, but I’m no stranger to asking strangers for advice myself. 

It’s just that I always approach said strangers with an important question at the back of my mind: what’s in it for them? 

Going by the law of averages, a busy person who doesn’t know me probably isn’t going to care much about my career aspirations and creative dreams.  What have they got to gain from taking time out of their day, just to give me some free advice?

You could say it’s the warm, fuzzy feeling of knowing you’ve helped someone out, or that you’ve given something back.  But when you’re swamped with work, and you keep getting requests from people who don’t really know what they’re asking for, or why they’re asking you, all that can start wearing pretty thin.

Poets’ Corner

As an example, last year I won a poetry competition… though I genuinely suspect that mine was the only entry.  But the experience gave me a thirst for writing some more poetry… a thirst exacerbated by the intense contemplation forced on me by lockdown.

The only problem was, I had no idea what I was doing.  How do you know when a poem is any good?  Should you follow a structure, or just take a subject, wing it, and see what flies? 

So, I sought out someone who writes poems for a living.  I then bought (and read) one of his poetry books, browsed his website, and prepared a few questions to ask him, if he could spare any time to talk to me.

This meant that, by the time I wrote him a message, I already knew and could talk about the kind of poetry he writes.  Because I also knew exactly what I wanted to ask him, and how it would help me, he could feel reassured that I wasn’t going to waste his precious time.

I also noticed that the ‘About’ page on his website was blank, so I offered to write something for him, in exchange for any time he could spare.  We ended up chatting for over an hour, in a fun and uplifting conversation from which I came away with some fantastic advice. 

(I’d say “watch this space” for the resulting poetry, but I think 2020 has been trying enough for most people.)

You Get the Best Answers When You Dig Deeper

It’s not (just) about stroking the ego of the person you want advice from.  Research and preparation will help you get the best out of an exploratory conversation.

Bear in mind that a lot of creative careers don’t follow a set route, and in a lot of cases people may not be able to explain exactly how they started, or why they’ve been so successful. 

The American writer Cal Newport talks about a “colo(u)red folder fallacy” that arose when he was doing research for his book, ‘How to Become a Straight-A Student’.  He interviewed lots of top-performing students, trying to understand what was separating them from the students who struggled. 

In asking the top-performing students about things they did differently, he found that he got lots of “colored folder answers.”  The students didn’t know why they were performing better than the others, so they’d latch on to an easily visible habit, like organising all their notes in different coloured folders.  But lots of the students who struggled also used the same systems.

So, Cal had to probe further, finding that what actually made the top-performing students better were core skills that are harder to describe, like practising active recall.

This example shows why it can help enormously to prepare for and understand what you’re really looking for from a conversation, because you might have to dig deeper to find the answers you need.

Anyway.  If you landed here in search of advice, then I hope you’re leaving with something useful.  Even if it’s only never, ever to send me a vague email asking for career or writing advice.

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