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How To Correspond With A Writer
Like many other writers on Tumblr and on the Internet in general, my inbox is full of messages like this:
“Hey can you look at my writing when you get a chance?”
“When are you going to respond to my email?”
“I write poems and it would be great if you could look at them when you have time!”
Many of these messages are phrased very kindly, and include wording like “when you have time,” or “if you want.” But messages like these, no matter how nicely they’re worded, are never going to get a response from me. And sometimes I start to feel guilty about that. I was feeling guilty about that this morning, for example. So I started to really think about why these messages are never going to get a response from me.
Writing is a weird thing. And for generations—for CENTURIES—the way writers who are just starting out have gained momentum and confidence and insight into their fledgling work is by finding older/more experienced writers who can take an interest in shaping their voices. In helping them find the way. There are countless examples of now-famous writers who once wrote impassioned letters to other famous writers asking for advice, for insight on their work. And I actually love that the Internet has made it so much easier for young writers to reach out to other writers—only good things can come of more communication. As a teacher, I think it’s incredibly important to take young writers seriously, to respond to people who are actively reaching out, actively trying to take the next step.
But there’s an etiquette to that communication that I fear is being lost.
I’ve responded to many emails and Tumblr messages over the past years. I’ve also deleted many emails and Tumblr messages without ever responding. What’s the difference between those I respond to and those I don’t?
Well, anyone who writes with a specific thought or request or dilemma will have my attention. I recently exchanged emails with a young writer from Nepal who was concerned about the way his society judged people who wanted to devote themselves to poetry and other arts. That’s something worth talking about. I’ve also responded to writers who have enclosed one or two specific poems they want feedback on—it’s obvious these writers have thought about their work, have chosen a few things they’re proud of, and are making the leap to open a part of themselves up to a stranger. Which is a huge step to take, and as someone who was a young, floundering writer not very long ago, I take that seriously.
I have several writer friends with whom I exchange work, and we always respect the one-or-two-poem rule; if we’re really going to give feedback on each other’s work, we know that such feedback is a real commitment on the part of a writer. Responding to one or two poems with a real desire to enter into a conversation about that person’s work takes time. Even with people I know and love, we’ll sometimes give each other a few weeks to respond to such requests. Because, like I said, it’s a commitment—and we have pretty busy lives.
So it’s tough for me to respond to messages that simply say “Please look at my writing.” How much of your writing? Where is it? I don’t want to have to go to someone’s Tumblr, scroll through 10 pages of selfies/memes/gifs to get to the poems—and even at that point, be left with the burden of potentially having to look at a lot of this writer’s poems, as they’ve given me no guidance as to what pieces need feedback.
And I guess that’s the real issue here. Just messaging a writer on Tumblr and saying “Look at my writing” shows a lack of respect for that writer. A lack of respect for what it means to actually respond to work in a thoughtful way. A lack of respect for what it means to actually BE a writer.
I have the suspicion that a lot of the people who ask me (and other writers) to simply “take a look at” their writing are actually looking for affirmation, not real feedback. And that’s fine. Affirmation is important, and writers, of all people, need that A LOT. I know that! I’m married to another writer and we drive each other crazy with the affirmation neediness! But that’s a different conversation to have, and ought to be framed in a different way.
Listen, here’s what I’m trying to say: I want to help you. I want to have a conversation with you. I want to read your work. But you have to HELP ME HELP YOU. Help me. Help you. This goes for any and all writers you might want to reach out to. And just because the Internet loves lists, here are a few guidelines for just how to start a meaningful correspondence with another writer:
- Only email or message a writer if you have a specific question or thought for that writer.
- If you want feedback on your writing, enclose one or two pieces (and no more than that!) in your email or message.
- Be sure you actually want feedback. Remember that, for any young writer, helpful feedback will never be completely affirmative. Your work is not perfect or possibly even that great yet (and that’s normal! my early poems were awful! my work STILL needs work!) - so only ask for feedback if you know that, and you really want to hear about possible weaknesses in your work. Possible areas where you could work harder.
- Respect the writer’s life outside of Tumblr/email. If the writer has not responded to you within two or three days, do not email the writer back and say “when are you going to respond?” Writers have lives. Sometimes it may take as much as a month for a thoughtful response. Understand that if you haven’t received a reply to a well-motivated, specific email or message, it’s probably because the writer is waiting until they have the time to properly respond to you.
It’s that easy! Help us writers help you. I love you guys, you’re great, PLEASE keep writing and keep reading and keep thinking.
Just take a second before sending that next Tumblr message.