Can politeness increase your success as a writer?

The writing community is shockingly gracious and helpful. Don't test its limits.
By Pete Croatto | Published: March 15, 2017


Mind your manners - politeness as a writer

Among the benefits of being a semi-successful professional writer – translation: your parents no longer employ air quotes when they discuss your profession – is that, occasionally, other writers seek your help. I respond to every message because I am touched. Not too long ago, I was learning how to make Frappuccinos. Now people ask me for writing and career advice, instead of extra chocolate syrup and directions to the bathroom.

I am also duty-bound. For years, I have asked smarter and far more talented colleagues for counsel on any number of subjects. Not once have I been ignored or rebuffed. Writers, I have learned, help writers.

Over the summer, I chose not to heed the call when I got this email.

 

Hi Pete,

My name is [redacted]. I am a published & experienced freelance writer. Wanted your advice on something. 

I did a Facebook post on my business FB page on [redacted] morning. And today, I find that the post has gone viral. 

On [redacted], my FB page only had 10 likes, today it has 42 likes.

Stats of my FB viral post, so far:

Post reach – 35000+

Post engagement – 6000+

Shares – 475

I want to do a blogpost tentatively titled [redacted]

Which place do you suggest I pitch it to, where I’ll get good exposure and decent money for my blogpost. 

Thanks,

[redacted]

This might be the most amazing email I have ever received, and I have corresponded with the San Diego Chicken. There is no indication as to how this writer knows me, a clear sign of a form letter. Nothing stating where he or she got my email address. No “if you have a moment.” No “please.” No “have a boss weekend, dude.” How I detest the use of “thanks” here. It lingers like a nose-crinkling smell in a rush-hour subway car. It has the haughty tone of an uppity homeowner asking the cleaning lady to drop the recycling at the curb on her way out. And can you put Sienna’s toys back in the crate? Thanks.

That email went right into my trash, retrieved only for the purposes of this essay. I do not feel the least bit bad about it.

Perhaps the “published & experienced” writer had had success with this “Oh, waiter!” approach before. The writing community is very chummy. Sympathy, I am convinced, is the glue. We’ve all been rejected. Dealt with uncertainty. Felt the frustration of adding another deadline to the juggling chainsaw routine that is having a job without a consistent paycheck. If you can navigate those twists, turns and nervous trips to the ATM, it is a wonderful, empowering way to make a living.

I wake up wanting to work. That is why I am eager to show others to the table – but not if your email has the pleasant tone of a subpoena. And not so much if your LinkedIn message to me starts with, “Dear Mr. Smith.” Even less so if your spouse’s first words upon meeting me are, “How about hooking us up?” Definitely not if you reach out for advice on breaking into the business and then wait two weeks to respond to my suggestion that we talk that day. I caved on the last one because it was a request from my brother-in-law, whom I consider a good friend. That favor executed, I have retired my benevolence.

Writing is an intensely personal act. These behaviors spit in the face of that spirit, wrestle it to the ground and put two bullets in its head. And that is not what really annoys me. As a writer friend once said of freelancing, “You don’t get paid for showing up.” You have to create your own infrastructure and urgency. You’re the boss, the accountant, the secretary and the marketing department. To do all that requires immense focus and discipline. A failure to master the small tasks – such as promptly responding to an email request you initiated – means you will write very little, save for grocery lists and emails to Mom.

Here’s why: Getting paid to write means getting published. That means dealing with editors. Who want to be called by their actual names. Who want to see the person behind a well-reasoned, polite plea before they offer money for a far more wordy commitment. Try replying to an editor’s email after a fortnight. Better yet, demand that she run your story. Enjoy becoming an anecdote preceded by a head shake and a heavy sigh. Ambition has to be cleaned up before you introduce it to friends and potential associates. Nobody wants to feel like a rung on your ladder.

Still, I am grateful for having my summer Sunday morning interrupted so spectacularly. It reminded me to practice courtesy and respect in asking for help, to make sure that I give as much as I take. It taught me to be judicious with asking favors, to use “please” and “thank you,” to be grateful that there is a community of writers who are gracious and helpful. My goal is to keep that precious environment clean of thoughtlessness and rudeness, so future generations can enjoy its benefits.

I also got an essay out of this experience, which I pitched by acting like a human being with an idea, not an almost spambot fueled by cash and clicks.

The best part? I have the perfect response if my “published & experienced” colleague ever returns with another offer I can easily refuse.

 

Pete Croatto’s work has appeared in The New York Times, Publishers Weekly and The Christian Science Monitor. He lives in Ithaca, NY.

 

 

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