Monday, October 30, 2006

How to Approach a Mentor

As promised, I'm devoting this week to letting some fellow freelancers chime in with savvy advice on a variety of questions that I posed and that they were kind enough to answer. We're kicking off with a subject that I raised last week while discussion competitiveness: the right (and wrong) ways to go about asking an established writer for help. Many of my own sentiments are reflected in their answers, so I won't spout off here, but needless to say, these gals know of what they read on!

What's the best way to approach you for advice? What turns you off?

"I prefer being approached by e-mail. Phone calls interrupt the flow of whatever I’m doing, but I can put an e-mail aside and answer it more thoughtfully, link to resources, and generally be more helpful when I answer e-mail. I usually give a list of 'homework' to new writers – I’ll refer them to some books, web sites and resources that I’ve found particularly helpful, then tell them to come back and ask me anything they like after they’ve read those. I never hear from many of them again. However, those that do the home work and return with questions are those I know are serious about building careers as writers and I’m happy to help in whatever way I can. I had some very generous writers give me tips early on. To me, it’s just paying it forward.

Some don’ts: Don’t ask me for editor contact info right off the bat, especially when that information is just as easily found by calling the magazine or looking at the pub’s web site. Don’t use my name without my permission. Don’t expect me to do the homework for you – this business is about research and finding information. If someone can’t be bothered to read a book or visit a web site, how will that person be able to research a story? It’s hard work, but it’s the best thing I’ve ever done.

And, sure, I appreciate a “thank-you,” but it’s not something for which I sit around waiting. A simple “thanks” in an e-mail suffices. I don’t need engraved notes or flowers." - Gwen Moran,, contributor to Woman's Day, Family Circle and Entrepreneur, among others

"I'm peeved when people will ask me advice on someone's behalf, such as "my kid would love to do what you're doing. Would you talk to her?" If it really mattered to the kid, she would talk to me herself. Phone call or email works, and say thank you." - Jen A. Miller,

"I don't mind helping newbie writers. But I can't formulate someone's approach for them, or invent talent, or provide a made to order career for someone. I don't mind ONLY when the person has specific questions to ask, after some legwork has already been done. Asking for nonspecific advice would be like walking into Home Depot and saying, "I want to remodel my bathroom," and then clamming up and expecting the poor Home Depot worker to do it all. Instead, you should say, "I've started planning my bathroom remodel. ARe there books or magazines you guys have that could help me narrow down material choices? What aisle are the plumbing fixtures in?" My point is that newbies should be able to ask experienced writers for a push in a certain direction, but not FOR the direction itself." - Denise Schipani, author of the Mommy Confidential column in American Baby, and contributor to Parents, Parenting, Parent & Child, Women's Health, Woman's Day, and Redbook, among others.

"I like to be approached by aspiring freelancers because I love the business. However, my time is limited because I am busy with my own deadlines, marketing myself, and raising a household of children with endless wants and needs. There are books on the market that explain how to get started better than any info I have to share. When someone expresses an interest on getting started, I refer them to Ready, Aim, Specialize by Kelly James-Enger and The Renegade Writer by Diana Burrell and Linda Formichelli. Both books are excellent and are helpful to both new and experienced freelancers. These two books, along with my membership to Freelance Success ( are responsible for getting me where I am today. Once I send someone in the right direction to do their own research -- and after all, a writer needs to know how to reserach -- I welcome them to contact me if they have any questions or want some advice. I will always remember the people who put me on the right track to get started. " - Sharon Anne Waldrop, contributor to Parents, Parenting, Health, Women's Health, Glamour, Alternative Medicine, For Me, and All You

"I usually don't mind new writers asking me for advice. I do mind when they ask for specific contacts at publications and want to use my name. I've worked hard over the years to establish relationships, and that's what they will need to do too. I do get irritated when I've spent quite a bit of time helping someone, and then he/she doesn't even say thanks. You need to have good manners to get ahead. I don't need writers to throw rosepetals at my feel, but I thank-you e-mail would be nice.

And while I am okay with helping new writers, I do have work I'm doing. One thing that bugs me is when I can't get back with someone immediately, and I keep getting e-mails asking either if I got the first e-mail or when I will get back to him/her. I feel like screaming, "I WILL, BUT I'M ON DEADLINE!" Ahhhh...that feels better." -Michele Wojciechowski, Maryland-based freelance writer and humorist. To receive her weekly humor column, Wojo's World (tm), via e-mail, contact her at

"Probably the BEST way to get some free (well, almost free) advice is to attend a mentoring session at the ASJA conference, which is held each spring in New York. I’ve volunteered as a mentor in the past, and I’ve also run the entire program, helping to match would-be and beginner writers with established ones. In addition, paying for a subscription to Freelance Success allows you to establish relationships with professional writers (via the message boards) and gives you access to them for asking and answering questions." - Leah Ingram,

"I don't mind giving new writers advice, but I have found myself becoming more hesitant to hand it out to those I don't know because so few people even bother to say thank you (which is a pet peeve of mine--how hard is it to email those two little words?!).

Also, I'm so much more likely to open up to you about my experiences if I know you've done some legwork yourself. If you haven't even done a google search on freelancing, that tells me you're not serious about it, so why should I share information that took me years to learn?

Oh, and this sounds weird, but it happens all too often: if you want advice, don't insult me in the process of asking for it. For example, at an event a few months ago, an acquaintance of mine grilled me on freelancing for half an hour, only to announce, "Ultimately, I want to be a real writer, like Augusten Burroughs or James Frey--not what you do." (I couldn't make this up!!!). I was so taken aback that I walked away without saying another word. " - Camille Noe Pagan,
camillenoepagan, contributor to Glamour, Health and Prevention, among others

"I always enjoy hearing from new writers and dont mind helping them at all as long as they are ready to help themselves -- what I dont like is people who write to me and expect me to give them the keys to the magic kingdom! There are no keys. Writing, like any other profession, is hard work and requires dedication and commitment. I get a lot of emails asking me for editorial contacts, so I ask you -- if I (as a complete and total stranger) called you out of the blue and asked if I could use your name to apply for a job would you give it to me? Take the time to read up some basics and write for specific advice. I am always ready to help." Monica Bhide,, contributor to AARP-The Magazine, Health, Food & Wine, Cooking Light, Town& Country Travel, Departures, Washington Post and the New York Times

"I don't mind he or she approaching me at all. Sure, if that person has never even attempted to seek out a $5/story gig at their local newspaper and "wants to know how to do what I do," then I'll be thinking Ooookay. But my experience with this has been a writer who just moved to NYC (I knew her already) and who wanted to know what to expect in freelancing, resources, etc. I suggested us meeting at a nearby coffee shop because it was so much easier to just get it all out in an hour (before I went I also wrote down Web sites, books, etc. for her) than chatting about it via e-mail or phone. Bottom line: If you're a fledgling writer and want expert advise, do you homework beforehand and have specific questions prepared. Offer to meet this person for coffee or send an e-mail asking if the "expert" would mind telling you about a few things. That person may prefer e-mail." Lauren Ann Russell, contributor to Women's Health, Men's Health, Self, Fitness and YogaLife

"E-mail is usually best for first contact. I’m happy to help new writers and am usually very detailed in my responses. What drives me crazy though, is when I craft a very thoughtful (and long-winded) response and never hear a peep from the person again — not even a thank you." Amy Paturel, columnist for AOL and contributor to Health, Cooking Light and
Women's Health

"I hate it when there's an assumption that you have all the time in the world to help out someone new, especially if they know nothing about the business. Remember, as freelancers, we only make money when we're working for paying clients. I hate it when there's no "thank you." If advice or a tip I shared made a difference in someone's life, I'd really love to hear about it. Sometimes I'll hear years later ... it would have been nice to know." -Lisbeth Levine, Chicago-based freelance writer


Anonymous said...

Thank you, all of you seasoned writers, for working with Allison on this post. There is inspiration in these words from you all and I am grateful that you shared them with us.

And thank you, Allison, for posting this on their behalf.

Anonymous said...

Allison et al,

Wonderful post. It was so generous of each of you to share your advice.

As a freelancer myself, I love encouraging others, but do become discouraged when the person doesn't at least try to learn the fundamentals. As one of you stated, a huge part of this job is research.

Thanks again.

Larramie said...

How generous of you all to provide both your time and advice. Thank you...and Allison.

Lynne Reeves Griffin said...

Thank you to Allison and her colleagues. It speaks volumes about your passion for living a writing life that you would share your thoughts on mentoring. Like anything in life you have to give to receive. And I agree thank you notes are essential and undervalued!