Josh Olson in Village Voice has successfully polarised opinion between new writers who feel that professional writers shouldn’t pull the ladder up behind them but help them on to the next rung of their writing career and professionals who recognised the wannabe demanding a professional reading on a manuscript he knew wanted re-drafting.
Whilst all new writers would love it if a professional writer would look over their manuscript, here are a few things to bear in mind:-
• Writers are busy: very few writers earn enough to live on by writing alone so are already writing around secondary jobs that pay the bills. Finding time to look at a manuscript, particularly if time is unpaid, is going to be hard.
• Approaching a busy writer at a festival or one of their own readings, signing or workshop is like approaching an actor who is in character and on set: the writer’s attention is on the task in hand and distractions are likely to be greeted abruptly.
• Being a successful writer won’t necessarily translate into being a successful teacher.
• Most writers have been approached by someone who thinks they’ve got a great idea. But great ideas are only ideas. A concept is worthless unless it’s written out on paper. Writers are too busy writing to bother talking about writing (unless they’re getting paid to do so). Set yourself a timetable, join a class and write. Otherwise the writer may take your concept and write their version of it (remember there’s no copyright on ideas).
• Most writers have experience of someone thrusting a wodge of paper in their direction and demanding an opinion on where to get it published. But writers need time to consider and respond otherwise you’ll get a deserved knee-jerk reaction that won’t be what you want to hear.
So how do you approach a writer?
• Research – check their blog/website and if it say they don’t read manuscripts, don’t bother them. You are not owed a living, you are not owed a reading.
• If you can’t find out whether or not they read manuscripts, track down some contact details.
• Query first: tell the writer why you like their work and are approaching them, ask if they can spare some time and include a couple of sample poems or the first 500 words of a story/novel and enclose a stamped, self-addressed envelope if using the post. Writers like to be read: it’s the whole point of their existence after all. Writers also like proof you read because if you don’t, you’re not a writer and they are wasting their time.
• Wait. Understand you’re not a priority.
• Don’t send your manuscript unless asked. Meanwhile, work on it. Triple check spelling and grammar and present it professionally. Then start work on a new project.
• Remember to thank the writer for their time. You may need to ask them for a blurb later.
Personally I don’t think writers should pull the ladder up after them, but neither do I think newbies should assume they are owed a reading. Getting help from published writers – like getting published – is not a right.
Not all established writers got help when starting. Some did it the hard way: read, wrote, read more, joined a writers’ group, read, kept writing, submitted manuscripts to editors or literary agents, read, kept writing, collected rejection slips, kept writing, submitted new manuscripts, kept writing and worked their way up.