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January 23, 2007

What to Know Before You Ask Me to Read Your (Unpublished) Work

Another of those "posting here now so I can refer people to it later" posts:

Perhaps since I give out a whole bunch of largely unsolicited writing advice, I am often asked by readers if I would look at the unpublished story/novel/screenplay/poem they're working on and give them some feedback or advice. Indeed, perhaps you yourself have been thinking of asking me this very same thing. I have two things to say to this sort of request:

1. I'm really flattered that you would think of asking me to critique your work and would trust me to give you valuable feedback. Thank you.

2. No.

And now, all the reasons why I won't read your unpublished work, presented in no particular order.

Reason #1: I don't have the time. As of right this very moment, here are the things I am committed to writing: One novel, a second edition of a non-fiction book (which requires substantial revision and rewriting), a novella, a novelette, several short stories, five blog entries every day of the week, several informational pieces for a book on Ohio, a magazine article on Elvis Presley and other ongoing work for corporate clients. All of this work has to be done because I'm contractually obliged to do it and it pays my bills.

On top of this I write daily for this Web site, which does not pay bills but which over time has become incredibly important to my career (and to my sanity). On top of that, I need to read at least a couple of books a week for an interview series I do with authors, occasionally read one with an eye toward giving a blurb, and check out yet a few others to discuss here on the Whatever (pimping writers! Yay!). On top of that, I have a family which would like to see me from time to time, not to mention friends who I would also enjoy socializing with. On top of all of this, I'd like a little time for my own non-work-related recreation. And on top of that, I'd like to eat and sleep.

Now, over time the details of what I'm doing will change. What is unlikely to change is the volume of what I'm doing. That has remained constant pretty much for the last decade and seems unlikely to decrease any time soon, for which I am fantastically and appropriately grateful. But it means that I don't have time to read your work, because critically evaluating work in a way that's going to be useful to the author takes a fair amount of time, and it's time I don't have. I understand that from your point of view it may seem like it should be a trivial thing to slip in a little bit of reading and evaluation. But over on this side of things, there's no time. There's just not.

(How do I have time to write all this, then? Well, I'm writing it once. Saves me from having to write it over and over again.)

Related to the time thing:

Reason #2: I'd rather look like a dick by saying no than look like a dick by saying yes and then not following through. Several months ago and against my better judgment I agreed to look at someone's manuscript for them and offer them an opinion on it. And I still haven't gotten to it. Why not? Because ultimately it's the last priority in my day: I have paid work, I have to respond to clients and editors, I spend time with family, I write on this site, I sometimes travel on business, and so on and so forth. All of this fills up my days, and at the end of the day I'm tired and I just want to watch the goddamn Daily Show and then go to sleep. I don't want to give this fellow a half-assed evaluation, so I keep postponing getting to the manuscript until I have time to give it the time it deserves, and that time just never manages to get here. I'm being a total dick to this guy because he's been patiently waiting for me to deliver on what I said I would do and I'm just not doing it.

I'm telling you this for two reasons. The first is that a little self-induced public shaming is just the spur I need to actually get this manuscript read. But more relevant point here is that when I say "no" to you, at least you're not left dangling for months and months like I've made this poor fellow dangle, waiting to hear back from me. Your disappointment is brief and over, not long and lingering and continual. And of course, I'd also personally prefer not to disappoint people on a daily, continuing basis.

Reason #3: You're not paying me. This sounds like me being a snide jerk, but there's actual truth to this. Here's the thing: I get paid pretty well for what I do. When people ask me to read their work, they're usually not including a consulting fee; they're expecting I'll read the work for free. Thing is, giving people a useful critical evaluation is work; in effect they're asking me to work for free. And, well. Generally speaking, I don't do that. It makes my mortgage company nervous. And since my schedule is pretty packed (as noted above), any evaluation I do takes place in time I usually allot to paying work. So not only am I not making money doing this evaluation, there's also a reasonably good chance this evaluation is taking up time I could be using to make money. And there's the mortgage people getting nervous again.

Now, let's be clear, here: When people ask me to read their stuff, it's not like I fly into a rage at their insensitivity and appalling willingness to take food from the mouth of my darling child; that's just silly. No one who asks me to read their work is saying I ought to prioritize them over actual work; they know they're asking me for a favor. What I'm saying is that all things being equal, whenever possible I'm going to fill up work time with paid work. If someone wanted me to read their stuff and was also willing to pay my corporate consulting fee, I might be willing to make time, and bump something lesser-paying down the work ladder. But I don't suspect many people are willing to pay my consulting fee -- nor should they, as there are lots of wonderfully competent editors who would be delighted to give feedback at far more reasonable rates -- so generally it's going to be people asking me to do work for free. I'm not likely to do that.

Reason #4: Some people don't really want feedback, and if they do, they don't want feedback from me. This works on two levels. First, to be blunt, there are a lot of people who, when they say, "I'd love feedback," actually mean "I want a hug." Yes, most people say they really do want honest feedback, but you know what? A lot of them are lying (or, alternately, don't know themselves well enough). How do I know which of these you are? Well, in fact, I don't, unless I actually know you in real life, which in nearly every case I do not.

This matters because, to put it mildly, I'm not a hugger when it comes to critiquing work. I'm not intentionally rude, but I'm not going to bother sparing your feelings or sugar-coating what I think you're doing wrong. In my experience this is hard enough for people to take if they genuinely want criticism; when they don't actually want criticism -- when in fact what they want is some sort of bland positive affirmation of their work or ego validation -- it's like being whacked in the face with a shovel full of red-hot coals. I think a lot of folks ask me for critiques because generally speaking I present myself as a nice and reasonable guy, and so they feel safe asking me for feedback. For certain values of "safe," this is wildly incorrect; I don't think it's either nice or reasonable to tell people their work is good when it's not. This has surprised people in the past. Over time I've decided it's usually not worth the hassle.

Reason #5: I don't want to enable you not finishing your work. Lots of people ask me to read the first few chapters or a section of something and offer feedback on it. As a philosophical matter, I think offering critiques on incomplete work is a terrible thing to do to a writer, because what all-too-frequently happens is that writer goes back and keeps rubbing and buffing the same three chapters (or 10 pages, or scene, or whatever) for months and years, and what you end up with is a highly polished useless piece of writing -- useless because it's incomplete. Also, the critique is useless because it's only about a part of the work, and who knows how all that fits in with the rest? It's like giving someone a handful of cherries and asking them how they like your cherry pie.

For God's sake, if you're going to hand your work over for critique, finish the damn thing first. Even if it's broke, you can fix it. But you can't fix a fragment. All you can do is fiddle with it, and in fiddling avoid finishing it. I don't encourage this; even with friends, I don't read things that aren't finished.

Reason #6: I don't know you. Why does this matter? Well, simple. As noted in reason #4, I don't know if you really want feedback or just a pat on the head. I don't how you respond to criticism. I don't know if you're mentally balanced, and whether a less-than-stellar evaluation from me will turn you into a pet-stalking psychotic. I don't know whether, should I ever critique something of yours and then write something vaguely similar, you'll go and try to sue me for stealing your story idea (you'd lose the case, but it would still cost me time and court fees). There are so many things I don't know about you, they could fill a book.

Now, I'm absolutely sure that, in fact, you're an entirely sane, calm, reasonable person. Most everybody is. But you know what? I actually have had someone online go genuinely and certifiably crazy on me. They seemed nice and normal and sane, and then suddenly they weren't, and then there were police involved. Don't worry, it was a while ago, everything's fine, and it didn't involve a work critique in any event. However, strictly as a matter of prudence, it's best that I don't read your work.

Realize, of course, that the converse of this is also true: You don't know me, and while I'm sure I come across as reasonably sane and decent, you never do know, do you? Maybe I will steal your ideas. Maybe I will be needlessly cruel toward your work because I'm a little weasel of man who needs to feel big by dumping on you. Maybe I am just that big of a twit. You just don't know. Maybe this is my way of protecting you from me. Flee! Flee!

So, those are the reasons why I won't read your unpublished work. I sincerely hope you understand.

Posted by john at January 23, 2007 12:00 AM

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Carl V. | January 22, 2007 11:59 PM

This type of post begs the question, what authors DO say 'yes' to reading other people's stuff? I have seen the same 'no', though not always as entertaining as yours, from every author site I've ever been on. And yet people must still ask. Where does that unfounded optimism spring from? Do people troll the internet looking for that one author who hasn't read the 'author code' so they can spring their work on the poor sap?

Tolladay | January 23, 2007 12:08 AM

Dude, this is so totally professional. I figured out (through the help of a very good friend) that asking for free work from a professional is rude. One should NEVER do this to a friend. If my buddy has a business, and I need his abilities, I pay him top dollar, or hire someone else. Period. Nor do I ask for freebies of special favors. Again, this is rude.

Thanks for being up front on this.

Note that as a graphic artists I often get asked from friends to do things like business cards and such. Sometimes I volunteer, like for a CD cover of a musician I like. But always it's my choice. I believe it's important to do pro bono work, but only when the paid work is done. If I tried to do otherwise, my wife would kill me. And rightly so as I have no right to mess up our joint economy to fulfill my personal whims.

John Scalzi | January 23, 2007 12:08 AM

Carl V:

I don't think it's that. I think some people are simply hoping to get a little help or advice. It's not malicious. It's like how musicians with record deals are always being asked if they wouldn't mind listening to a demo, or screenwriters being asked if they wouldn't mind workshopping scenes or whatever.

Cassie | January 23, 2007 12:21 AM

Fine. Be that way. lol

So, answer me this. You've mentioned that you have a few (lucky) people who get to read your stuff first. How did you find them, I mean, other than marrying one of them?

John Scalzi | January 23, 2007 12:31 AM


I asked them. They're friends I trust, not people in the publishing industry. I didn't ask a published author to read my stuff before it got published.

(I would note, however, that at least one of my friends wouldn't read my novels before they were published, having been burned by too many other friend's dreadful unpublished novels. I totally understood.)

I think people should have people they trust read their stuff; I don't know that asking someone you don't know, simply because they're an author, is the way to go.

Jon | January 23, 2007 01:01 AM

"...I'm sure I come across as reasonably sane and decent..."

Except perhaps when putting bacon on cats or makeup on pigs.

cherie priest | January 23, 2007 01:02 AM

Tonight I heart you like a hearty thing that hearts for a steep hourly fee.

I once upon a time -- against my better judgment, and before I knew any better -- agreed to take a look at a chapter or two from an unpublished manuscript I received from someone I "knew" online. (Stikes one and two, simultaneously). I tried to be kind (strike three), then the asshole went online and mocked me at great and resounding length.

I'd made a couple of comparisons to work from which I gently suggested he seemed to be um, deriving his own material, and he turned out to be friends with one of the authors (did that make it better or something?), which I didn't know (not being psychic, or hip to his indie cred), and which PROVED CONCLUSIVELY what a moron I was.

So anyway, yeah. I learned the hard way. These days I just cop out by saying "there are legal reasons I can't look at your unpublished material," but I totally like your list better.

Tapetum | January 23, 2007 01:27 AM

I would be totally aghast at the idea of hitting up any author I don't know - let alone an obviously very busy one - for a free read. Except that obviously a lot of people do.

Do I have a currently unpublished novel? Oh, yes. And I torture my friends and relatives with it, the way a good aspiring author should.

Sue | January 23, 2007 02:31 AM

Like Tapetum, I tortue only those I know well in RL with my unpub'd novel. I figure if it's good enough, I may even get pimped by authors who do that sort of thing (know any? :>).

But I can't imagine asking someone I don't know. Hell, the one editor I know well enough to impose upon, I asked what his going rate was. it's what he does for a living, it only makes sense to pay the man.

PixelFish | January 23, 2007 02:36 AM

Heh, I totally understand. (Oh, Tolladay, like you I am a graphic artist, but I think I can no longer take on projects for free as favours to friends. They never get done. As the character Kareen in Lois Bujold's A Civil Campaign says, "Never... ever suggest they don't have to pay you. What they pay for, they'll value. What they get for free, they'll take for granted, and then demand as a right.")

Actually, I just canvassed friends of mine for a beta read on my latest short story, and my own brother. My friends were all enthusiastic, but my brother said, "Be nice, but i probably wouldnt get around to it. If you would like though you can send me a copy and I can skim it, and see if i get addicted." So evidently, he is the perfect test candidate for "Will somebody else read this who doesn't have time?" If it addicts him, then I guess it worked. :)

Bruce Cohen (SpeakerToManagers) | January 23, 2007 03:33 AM

What is it about professionals that makes people think we owe them free consultation? I get the same thing about computers, being a software engineer. If I like the person, I let them down gently by explaining that what they want would take a long time, and I'm just not free right now. If I don't like them, I just say "you wouldn't understand me if I explained it to you." This does not win friends, which is why I don't use it on them.

I like what you've done, writing it all down so you can point people at it, and not have to go through the same tired explanation time after time. Maybe printing it up as a pocket quick-reference card? Make it cheap enough, and I can just hand out copies and say "see Figure 1."

Rhiannon_S | January 23, 2007 06:13 AM

novella, a novelette, several short stories

Ok, so what is the difference between a novella, a novelette, and a short story? I'm assuming it's something to do with word count? Actually what word count consitutes a novel? I've seen some books advertised as novels that are barely thicker than a pamphlet.

Ray | January 23, 2007 06:20 AM

Being a nonwriter I am mainly hang around because I like the humor here and a lot of the commentary is intellectually sound. But I can fully appreciate your honesty to the people that are writers. I do fear though that if you do not find the time to provide topics to comment on, then the regulars who post at this site might find themselves wandering aimlessly and bumping in to walls....;)

G. Jules | January 23, 2007 07:11 AM

As a philosophical matter, I think offering critiques on incomplete work is a terrible thing to do to a writer, because what all-too-frequently happens is that writer goes back and keeps rubbing and buffing the same three chapters (or 10 pages, or scene, or whatever) for months and years, and what you end up with is a highly polished useless piece of writing -- useless because it's incomplete.

I love this opinion. This is actually why I stopped taking part in certain online workshops -- there was always someone who wanted us to workshop their novel, one damn chapter at a time, sometimes multiple times over the same chapter, until I just couldn't take it anymore.

Now my critting comes from an awesome group of people who I've gotten to know in other online writing contexts or at cons, who I've done crits for, and who I generally know well enough to crit effectively for. I enjoy critting much more when I've got a fairly good idea that my crit will be an asset for a writer.

On an entirely different note, I too have gotten calls at work from people (strangers! total strangers!) who want me to give them my professional opinion over the phone. Or in writing, for free. Fortunately, the fact that these people are strangers means I can say "Would you call up a lawyer and expect a free consulation? Well, I charge too."

Ray | January 23, 2007 07:30 AM

May I also add that for a small fee I will read and critique anything (In my spare time of course).

Percy | January 23, 2007 07:57 AM

I was going to FedEx you my idea for a novel, my plot outline, and my killer ending, but now it sits on my desk (in my head) mocking me. Can someone please stop this voice in my head?

On a less serious note, can we send you articles, blog posts, essays, and other non-fiction forms to read?

Seriously though, I think people have the idea that critiquing, editing is something that's (a) easy to do and (b) quick to finish.

I had to look at a one-page edit today (for free of course) that would've taken me at least two hours to fix, simply because the information was not presented well. I gave up after 15 minutes.

The cursory editing/critiquing may seem easy and sometimes it is, and this depends on the volume of what you're reading, but mostly it isn't.

Super post.

John Scalzi | January 23, 2007 08:07 AM


"On a less serious note, can we send you articles, blog posts, essays, and other non-fiction forms to read?"

Heh. You know, it's not the reading that's the problem, it's the people needing to have comments where I get in trouble.

Steve Buchheit | January 23, 2007 08:22 AM

There's this myth within the unpublished community that you need an "in" to get published. Sometimes these requests are people trying to get that "in."

I'm shocked, shocked I say, at how many designers are here. My experience with "free" work for friends (or friends of friends) is that it usually ends up being the "Quest for the Perfect Logo." Having hunted that beast too many times, I now follow Nancy Reagan's advice and just say no.

I just thank the Gods that I'm in a group that actually critiques (and are very good about it).

Greg | January 23, 2007 08:28 AM

Hey, I totally want a pat on the head. For one thing, I used my toddler's shampoo this morning, so my head smells like blueberries.

mark | January 23, 2007 08:33 AM

As a procrastitorial author (tm) I do not as yet have anything I'd pester John to read. If I did, I'd rather hear that it sucked (and specifically why) from someone who knows of that which he blogs. Rather than the bland "Sure, it's great, I love it really" you're likely to get from family and friends, even if they are in the business.

That said, my day job is interior decorating and I spend a lot of time telling friends "No, I won't fix that water damage, because it will NOT just take a weekend."

So I'd bribe John with pie first. Of course I still don't have anything written. Ooh! look shiny video games.

Tapetum | January 23, 2007 09:14 AM

Actually, worse than hitting up strange authors, to my mind, is the people who will hit up strange doctors. My dad will get hit up at social events (I get these weird headaches...), and it's bizarre as hell - do these people really want to be diagnosed by a stranger at a party? Make an appointment like a normal person.

Some people just have the strange idea that the rest of the world is there for their convenience.

Robert J. Sawyer | January 23, 2007 09:26 AM

Absolutely right, John. Well said.

Chang who gots flavor | January 23, 2007 09:37 AM

Robert J. Sawyer


Ahem. forgive me. Seriously, though, it rocks.

Jeremiah | January 23, 2007 09:43 AM

I work with computers, so I'm always asked computer questions, or asked to fix a computer problem. One friend from high school *only* calls me when he has a computer question.

I'm too soft and usually fix anything that will take 30 mins or less. But, to my credit, anything that sounds like it will take a while, I just tell them I don't have time.

Scalzi is wise. This is a cool list.

JC | January 23, 2007 09:49 AM

Oh, dear. I'm really sorry that you have to put up with people asking you to read their work. I think it's unprofessional to ask.

This may be a good time to point out that in the case of SF, there are at least two on-line writing groups: Critters and On-line Writing Workshop. (There may be others, but I only know of these two.) So if you can't find a local source of feedback, there are still alternatives that don't involve inappropriate behavior.

Nathan | January 23, 2007 09:52 AM

Well, I for one, remember sending Mr. Scalzi the first 2.5 chapters of my (still incomplete) opus several years ago. I never received any response (neither a pat on the head or a boot up the ass), but mysteriously, within six months of sending my manuscript, OMW hit the shelves.

Something's fishy here.

Mr. Scalzi, expect to hear from my lawyers.

BTW, I swear this happened. It's true, true, TRUE. (I'll be creating the evidence later today. Maybe tomorrow. Aw, heck, since nobody's paying me for it, I'll get around to it next week)

Leo Z | January 23, 2007 10:10 AM

This post reminded me of an anecdote:
Napoleon is in his tent - suddenly he calls his lieutenant into the tent asking:
"Why are the guns not firing?"
The lieutenant starts the answer:
"Well, there are many reasons: First of all, we are out of gunpowder. Secondly,"
At this point, Napoleon interrupts: "With such a first reason, I don't need to know any others".

It felt to me like this post could be read in the same vein: after the first reason, why bother with the rest :).

John Scalzi | January 23, 2007 10:27 AM

Leo Z:

Indeed, although some people still need convincing beyond that point. We are not all Napoleon.

Adam Lipkin | January 23, 2007 10:33 AM

Leo -- the problem is that few of the folks who are desperate to get their stuff read think like Napoleon. Given one reason, they'll attempt to find a loophole ("What if I wait until all your contracts are completed or dry up, and your family goes on a vacation to Tahiti?").

Kyle | January 23, 2007 10:47 AM

The posters in other professional fields are right on. In addition to the other excellent reasons John mentions, this is what he does for a living. Pay the mortgage, buy groceries, etc., etc. It's one thing to do a favor for a friend or family -- e.g. the computer tech who fixes his parents' computer because of the whole giving-birth-and-not-strangling-as-a-teenager thing -- but you wouldn't ask a doctor to do your annual physical for free, and I certainly don't do my security consulting for free, so... yeah. This should be clear.

Clearly, it's not, though, which just leaves me dizzy and confused.

Chang, father of pangolins | January 23, 2007 10:52 AM

This, as with many things you've posted on the art of writing, is spot on. It makes total sense that you would not want to take on reading unfinished work for all of these reasons.

I confess to having done this on occasion and regret it. It made me look like a dink and the other person felt like a dink when they didn't need to. I've even sent works to the wife of certain authors in the hopes they would read them. For shame, Chang, for shame.

I don't even ask my own sister-in-law who's a physical therapist about any injuries I have because when I see her she's off-duty. Same with people asking me about yoga poses when I'm not in my studio.

Personally, regarding feedback, the times I've gotten feedback that felt like a punch in the jaw was the best feedback I've gotten. I've learned from my yoga practice and learning to teach that it's not good feedback if it makes you fell all warm and fuzzy and or like you've got a massive big head. I beg, plead, and demand from people UNSWEETENED feedback and I get it and I am so thankful for it. Family and friends have done this for me, and the result shave been amazing;y beneficial. My god friend Mary told me I needed to rewrite my novel, and she was right. My brother told me a part of a short story was not just a soliloquy, it was s'alot'o'quy. Point well taken.

Funnily enough I just reconnected with someone from college who was an editor at one of the big SF publishing houses and she offered rather kindly to read a short story and give feedback. It was some of the best feedback I've gotten yet.

Off to go stare at my novel and wonder what happens next.

Nathan | January 23, 2007 11:01 AM

"Father of Pangolins"


JD | January 23, 2007 11:03 AM

I have a question regarding one of your statements in Reason #1. You mentioned how important this site is to your career even though it does not generate money (directly) Could we get you to elaborate on this? I know you have mentioned this point before in other posts. If you already answered it a link would be fine too. I am just curious.

John Scalzi | January 23, 2007 11:08 AM

Well, JD, I occasionally sell work that first appears here, so it's indirectly a source of income. But generally speaking it's important because it lets a large number of people (between 20k and 25k daily) know what I'm up to and when I have new books, stories, etc., out and about. So it's a good publicity vehicle. I don't think of it only in those terms, of course, but it's useful to my career in that way.

JD | January 23, 2007 11:14 AM


Mark | January 23, 2007 11:35 AM

You've now had Robert Sawyer drop by (even without the Internet invocation that brought Harlan's comments). It's time to go for the really big time. Start discussing marine biology, Sri Lanka, satellites, Olaf Stapledon and repeatedly mention Arthur C. Clarke.

Just an idea.

John Scalzi | January 23, 2007 11:40 AM

Well, you know. I actually know Robert Sawyer, and we both read each others' blogs, so having him drop a comment isn't that unusual. I'll occasionally drop a comment at his blog, too.

Jeff Mountjoy | January 23, 2007 11:42 AM

Yah, I used to fix houses. I'm amazed at how often I get calls from distant acquaintances -- often people I haven't seen or heard from in years -- asking me to check out their newest home catastrophe. It's actually gotten worse since I stopped doing it for a living. Apparently, people feel worse asking for you to volunteer your professional services than they do asking you to volunteer your non-professional skills.

On a related note, would you critique my entry in this year's Bulwer-Lytton contest? I haven't finished it yet. All I have so far is "He grinned like...". What do you think? :-)

Steve Buchheit | January 23, 2007 12:12 PM

JD, this blog also helps those of us stalking the Mighty Scalzi. Who wants to stand out in the freezing (now that it's Winter here in Ohio) weather in rural Ohio trying to grab glimpses of His Eminence from the treeline? Besides, it's really crowded there with all the furries in the trees, you just can't get a good observational spot unless you camp out.

Yes, the furries are waiting. Patiently. :)

John H | January 23, 2007 12:44 PM

Gives me an idea for a website - one where aspiring authors could upload their manuscripts for some anonymous group of editors to shred it to bits, er, critique...

Karen Burnham | January 23, 2007 01:37 PM

I've been running into similar problems as a nascent reviewer. When it comes to new/self-published/vanity-published authors, it seems like when they're asking for a review what they're really asking for is a GOOD review. If you try to tell them privately that there are problems they sometimes cover their ears and say "LALALALA I CAN'T HEAR YOU" and then they are completely shocked when your review is qualified-negative. Then they sometimes follow you around the InterTubes complaining. Bleah. I see now why big fish reviewers categorically turn down self-published authors, and if I ever institute that sort of policy I may also refer them to this post.

It's way more fun to review good, professionally published things like the oeuvre of Scalzi.

Miscellaneous Steve | January 23, 2007 02:37 PM

I stopped having my family review my stuff years ago because they were always nice and supportive about it. I understand their motivation, but it was useless criticism.

Now I belong to a writers group full of people who have no emotional stake whatsoever in my happiness and will tell me what is crap and what isn't. That's criticism I can use.

Dan Bailey | January 23, 2007 06:51 PM

These are all similar statements I'd have to make back when I was actively designing fonts as a side business.

As far as writing goes, I tend to think the same way Miscellaneous Steve does. And I've been jettisoned from a few critique groups in the past because I've stated that "I refuse to hand out flowers and blow sunshine up asses in order to make someone feel good about themselves."

Carl V. | January 23, 2007 07:37 PM

Slightly off topic, was reading about James Cameron's new project which involves people projecting their conscience onto genetically enhanced bodies...it sounded oddly familiar. ;)

Blaine | January 23, 2007 08:23 PM

OMG - Yes! I am also of the computer repair persuasion (actually all electron-using devices are in my purview) and once upon a time I was not a dick. I had many many friends who only ever called when their devices were behaving badly. Needless to say (but I will), I finally found myself working longer hours than my paying job - FOR FREE! Finally my lovely, intelligent, and talented bride beat me profusely upside the head. Why did it take so long to figure out? At any rate; very soon after I was discussing the situation with a good true friend and he gave me the final item I needed to solve my problems. The solution? A laminated photocopy of the definition of the word -NO- straight from the Oxford. I now carry this in my wallet at all times and if ever I need moral reinforcement, I simply reach into my pocket and hand said definition to the offending party.

Kaytie | January 23, 2007 09:27 PM

When I took workshops with TC Boyle I saw all kinds of people asking for his time for free, from students not in his class but who wanted free critique to representatives of fringe political groups who wanted his endorsement. Kind of frightening, actually.

I've noticed a lot of people assume that I have all kinds of time to deal with them since I'm a writer, and writing must be easy. I especially resent the people who think that I am automatically free to pet-sit, since I should be able to "write anywhere." So not true, at least not for me.

Since you've posted this with the intention of referring back to it when necessary, I'm pointing out a sentence missing a word near the beginning of in reason 6: "I don't how you respond to criticism."

Soni | January 23, 2007 09:34 PM

Of course, since you alluded to it more than once in hedged terms, I am now vulgarly and insatiably curious as to just how ginormous your commercial consulting rate is and what, specifically, folks ask you to consult on for that apparently wallet-scalding fee.

Of course, if that's too private or whatever, I understand. But I had to ask. It was making my brain hurt trying not to.

Anonymous | January 23, 2007 09:38 PM

Chang -

Family and friends have done this for me, and the result shave been amazing;y beneficial. My god friend Mary told me I needed to rewrite my novel, and she was right.

Dude. Serious typo-rama. Is the cat feeling "kneady" tonight?


John Scalzi | January 23, 2007 11:07 PM


"I am now vulgarly and insatiably curious as to just how ginormous your commercial consulting rate is and what, specifically, folks ask you to consult on for that apparently wallet-scalding fee."

My rate starts at $125 an hour. The folks who usually hire me are financial firms and technology companies.

Djscman | January 24, 2007 03:08 AM

Sir, I would like a hug.

It wouldn't cost you anything to give one to me (except travel expenses, but surely you can afford it) and would only take a minute or two (again, excluding travel time, but you can write on the plane.) Please give me a hug within the next two weeks. I promise not to wig out if I don't agree with how you hug me. Thank you in advance.

On another note, I'm a little surprised how many of you professionals limit your pro bonolities. Maybe it's 'cause I'm still technically an unprofessional, but I still get stoked when a friend wants me to proofread an essay, cover letter, wedding vows, whatever. Did you (that is, you all) have one bad experience with someone, or was it the mounting annoyance of many requests? How do you tell former beneficiaries that (unless it's for a worthy cause), you aren't giving away any more freebies?

John Scalzi | January 24, 2007 07:45 AM


"On another note, I'm a little surprised how many of you professionals limit your pro bonolities."

Well, everyone limits their pro bono work; the question is how. Also, of course, just because I choose not to accept random solicitations for free access to my skills, does not imply that I am (or anyone else is) opposed to doing work pro bono in other situations. For my own part, I've done a number of writing-oriented things for free in the last year, including participating in a mentorship program for aspiring writers via the Speculative Literature Foundation.

Pro bono work, like any other sort of work, needs be done effectively, both for the worker and the recipient. Naturally, I get to decide which things will be the best use of my time.

Steve Buchheit | January 24, 2007 09:18 AM

Djscman, "On another note, I'm a little surprised how many of you professionals limit your pro bonolities."

As a pro designer, last year I did over 50 hours pro bono for a combination of my local Ruritans (they're a service club, I left being a member 2 years ago because I didn't have time to attend meetings), the local Chamber of Commerce (I'm not a member), my local municipality (although, technically, I'm not allowed to bill them, I also didn't have to do the work either), and a friend of a client. That's almost equal to my billables (it's the second job, so I'm not all that heavy about sales).

As a not-yet-pro writer I had to turn down requests to edit stories, poetry, and books (this was work that would be outside of the writers groups I belong to and much more than critique and copy edit I do inside those groups).

Why? Well, I already run a sleep deficit of 5 to 15 hours a week from the paying jobs and the writing/reading. Weekends are for catching up on everything else.

Anne | January 24, 2007 10:20 AM

Reason #7: You will hate yourself in the morning! I once gave some guy who lived in Lower Flint a poem I had written in high school! What was I thinking?! Try to live your life w/o regrets.

DM | January 24, 2007 12:56 PM

Absolutely right on Reason #4. Even if I am willing to to read/comment on a friend's work for free, not knowing whether they really want feedback or just moral support makes it tricky. Most people fall into the latter category, they're used to receiving a lot of hugs from friends and family for whatever they create.

Suddenly coming into contact with actual constructive criticism can be a nasty shock and people end up taking it far too personally. I'd rather not be the one who finds out that I've delivered a concrit smackdown when what they really wanted was a pat on the head.

JerolJ | January 24, 2007 04:37 PM

It seems to me that in just about every writing guide I've read it is advised a.) do not offer your unpublished work to a working writer, they don't have the time or need to get accused of stealing your ideas and b.) if you're a working writer, don't accept unpublished work from the masses because you don't have the time and you don't need the unpublished accusing you of stealing their work.

The idea that an author can open the door to an agent or publisher shows an ignorance of the publishing industry. People should know that the way in is not through authors but agents and editors.

Laurie Mann | January 24, 2007 07:22 PM

Hell, I've had total strangers ask me to read their unpublished works, which I think is very odd.

Some guy asked me to read his novel about rappers today, and I wished him well but said I had no interest.

Soni | January 24, 2007 09:59 PM

Nice chunk of change, if you can get it. Thanks for satisfying my curiosity. Are they hiring you to critique or write, for that price?

Karen | January 25, 2007 12:52 AM

I think one of the factors in people asking for your time an expertise is that your online presence is so extensive and your online persona so personable that your readers come to believe that we know you personally. Perhaps we do know you, after a fashion, but the sense of a close personal relationship between an A-list blogger-novelist and a D-list blogger-wannabe is largely an illusion, the same illusion that makes fans believe they know their favorite actor, musician, etc. personally.

From time to time, friends have suggested that I ask you to do some writerly or blog-oriented favor for me. *Usually* I manage to resist the temptation, for all the reasons you list and more.

Karen | January 25, 2007 12:56 AM

Drat the typo! That should be "time and expertise."

esp | January 25, 2007 06:32 PM

An article about ELVIS???? That rocks!!!!

Okay, so I see the world differently than most. I'm not a half full OR half empty kind of guy, more like the, "Hey! I ordered a coke!" kinda guy!

Andrea >> Become a Consultant Blog | February 16, 2007 02:11 AM

Fantastic post. I run a site for people who want to become consultants and I get all sorts of requests for career advice. I also have my own marketing consulting site (for my consulting business) and I get tons of students, career changers and other people asking me for help, advice, resume reviews, etc. When people email me at my marketing business, I tell them I charge $300 an hour for coaching -- this scares off the people who were looking for free help. I'm much gentler to the people who come to the ConsultantJournal.com site, since it's more of an advice forum. But I still don't give out advice for free.

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