What to Know Before You Ask Me to Read Your (Unpublished) Work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I give out a whole bunch of largely unsolicited writing advice, I am often asked by readers if I would look at the unpublished story/novel/screenplay/poem they’re working on and give them some feedback or advice.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And now, all the reasons why I won’t read your unpublished work, presented in no particular order.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 (promoting 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.

(Update, 3/3/23: As someone just asked me what my consulting fee is, the answer is: waaaaay more than you probably have as an individual, and I don’t have time these days anyway. Seriously, there are actual editors who will do a better job and will be happy to do the work. Go use them.)

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.

94 Comments on “What to Know Before You Ask Me to Read Your (Unpublished) Work”

  1. 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?

  2. 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.

  3. 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.

  4. 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?

  5. Cassie:

    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.

  6. “…I’m sure I come across as reasonably sane and decent…”
    Except perhaps when putting bacon on cats or makeup on pigs.

  7. 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.

  8. 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.

  9. 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.

  10. 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. :)

  11. 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.”

  12. 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.

  13. 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….;)

  14. 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.”

  15. 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.

  16. Percy:

    “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.

  17. 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).

  18. 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.

  19. As a procrastitorial author ™ 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.

  20. 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.

  21. 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.

  22. 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.

  23. 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)

  24. 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 :).

  25. Leo Z:

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

  26. 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?”).

  27. 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.

  28. 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.

  29. 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.

  30. 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.

  31. 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.

  32. 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.

  33. 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? :-)

  34. 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. :)

  35. 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…

  36. 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.

  37. 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.

  38. 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.”

  39. 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. ;)

  40. 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.

  41. 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.”

  42. 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.

  43. 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?


  44. Soni:

    “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.

  45. 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?

  46. Djscman:

    “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.

  47. 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.

  48. 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.

  49. 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.

  50. 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.

  51. 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.

  52. 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?

  53. 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.

  54. 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!

  55. 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.

  56. Well shucks, there goes that plan. Do you think that you could offer a loose guide to aspiring writers if you haven’t already? Maybe something more expansive than: join a writing group, get an agent, publish. I know mostly how your career went but we can’t all be you with thousands of people visiting our blogs everyday. Thanks for your time. Really. Your devotion to your fans is very cool.

  57. I totally agree with your rules. I draw & paint (and write) and it annoys the crap out of me when someone asks me to critique their drawing or sketch. When I do, and inform them their porportions are off or they need to work on foreshortening or really study a good book on human anatomy. The looks I get…oh, boy. Seriously, a friend of a friend drew a picture of woman lying down with her breasts as perky and high as Mt. Everest. Breasts don’t do that. What? Gravity doesn’t exist? Wait. It was drawn in a zero gravity enviroment. Even then, I have my doubts they’d look like helium filled balloons.

    I get even more annoyed when someone expects me to draw something for them WITHOUT paying for my time.
    Like the guy at work, “Can you sketch out this idea I have for a tattoo?”
    “You gonna pay me?” I ask.
    “Uh…c’mon dude! Just draw it out. I see you sketching all the time during your lunch hour.”
    “You’re gonna pay the tattoo artist? Right?”
    “Well, yeah. Duh!”
    “Uh-huh. Then get him to sketch it out for you.”
    “That’s wrong, man. That’s just wrong.”

    Huh? Did I miss something?

    Most people have no idea how much time it takes to create a piece and the thought that goes into it. I got so pissed at a friend constantly bugging me to illustrate her childrens’ book that I bought and gave her a book entitled “Drawing for Dummies” Her husband thought it was funny as hell. She didn’t bug me after that.

  58. I’m not a professional or anything, but I fixedsome really easy computer problem fo someone in my college dorm once, and then I started getting people asking me to fix their stuff. I said “yes” once. Took me over two hours and I missed dinner. Never again.

    Great post, Mr. Scalzi.

  59. Hypothetically speaking, would you be open to someone offering to pay you to review their work if it was A) finished and B) you had an actual contract?

  60. No, I meant “What if someone wanted to hire you to give your professional opinion on a piece of their work and were willing to offer you a contract to do so?”

  61. Ah, ok. Thank you.

    *nod* I saw that and was interested in it. Are you always at that workshop or is it like Clarion where the author line-up changes yearly?

  62. Pingback: A walk on the dark side » Blog Archive » About writing

  63. Pingback: More tough love – get a workshop : I Should Be Writing

  64. Pingback: Why I Will NOT Read Your Stuff « Under An Outlaw Moon

  65. Pingback: timboerger.net » Favors for Nothing, Chicks for Free

  66. Scalzi, this is inspiring to me — and I’ll file your well-meaning, punchy reasons along with Josh Olson’s similar treatise on the matter, which I note is linked above, but I didn’t see yours until now. (How did I get here? Finding out you’re doing Creative Consulting for SG:U!)

    Now, how many of us can relate to getting letters which begin: “I know you’re a busy person, but this will only take…”?

    Also, John, have you seen Don Knuth’s stance on email? http://www-cs-faculty.stanford.edu/~knuth/email.html

  67. So ideally I would send you
    1) My printed well-edited completed novel, ready for publication
    2) $500 (or more) in crisp unmarked bills
    3) A Post-it note with two checkboxes, labeled “Sucks” and “Doesn’t Suck”
    4) A self-addressed stamped pre-gummed envelope

    And you might, just possibly, be able to take a look at it, right? :)

  68. I would like to send you a couple of poems I wrote about the series that yes, are unpublished. However, I didn’t want to get them published. I was just wondering if it was something you’d like to look at, since the answer on FAQ’s was seemed for people who wanted it published/advice on it. I understand if you don’t, I was just curious.

  69. Being both a victim of heinously overindulged friends who fancy themselves writers, and a writer in desperate need of some heinous overindulgence, this post was, for lack of better words, a very effective wake up call.

    I can understand both sides of this, in that yes, it does take a long time to read manuscripts (especially when they aren’t exactly good…), and there’s nothing quite like the look on peoples’ faces when you have to tactfully explain where they went wrong. I also understand that if one wishes to bypass the kind, sweet, and inescapably biased comments of friends and family, it takes some looking elsewhere.

    So, with this in mind, I will continue my search for a reader, and, newly armed with six very good reasons, hopefully escape the fate of another round of well-intended proofreading. ^^

  70. Not much to add but the fact that you actually helped me with this article. =)

    I’ve read it for sheer amusement, but you dropped a piece of wisdom when you said: “do not hand over unfinished pieces and ask for advice”, which is precisely what I’ve been doing with close friends of mine, and the reason why I stopped at chapter 3 and rewrote most of the story.

    Guess we all need to see our flaws depicted somewhere else to actually perceive them as such. Thanks!

    I will now write.

  71. Maybe you could have a raffle entitled “The Simon Cowell book review” where each person pays like $5 for a chance to have you review their work, knowing full well you’re gonna give a “harsh” review (hence the title “The Simon Cowell book review). The winner gets your review of their book which they can then choose to have published as a blog on your site (if it’s mostly good). Or they can cry under the bed like a baby in anonimity (if they choose).

  72. Much the same thing goes for Graphic Design in terms of people not realising they’re actually asking you to work for free. Or they do but they don’t care.

    Would you expect your hairdresser to cut your hair for free, and you can check if the husband likes it, and if he DOES…… THEN you will come back and pay for it?

    Or your barista to make your morning coffee for free?

    Or your doctor to fix you for free?

    Unless you’re an idiot.

    This is what I do for a living. If I do it for you for free, it’s unfair to those people I do charge to do work for. It’s unfair to my partner who doesn’t get to see me for those extra few days it takes me to do your work, but there’s no payoff in that it doesn’t actually enable me to be able to buy FOOD for us this week. You’re also more inclined to ask for infinite revisions because you’re not paying for it. Even though it’s still actually costing ME.


  73. Howdy!
    I may have missed it, but there is also the issue of a writer claiming that you, a the “reader” of their magnum opus, albeit unpublished, or perhaps even rejected, “stole” his or her work after reading it and claiming it was bad. A number of prominent, and possibly less prominent, authors have had that happen in one form or another.

    And wow, I agree with Network Geek … Dreams with Sharp Teeth is so good, my wife and I ordered the DVD. It is Ellison at his most … Ellison.And that’s worth his weight in literary gold to any aspiring writer…or established writer as well.

    Richard Bruns

  74. Pingback: Guest Post: Writing Advice

  75. This reminded me of the time a former semi-professional golf player told me why he charges his friends for golf lessons. He used to do it for free since they were his friends, but he eventually realized that when you give somebody something for free, they do not value it. It’s frustrating to spend your time and energy divulging your expertise to someone while they pretend to listen and then do everything other than what you told them to.

  76. Pingback: “I’d love to quit my job and write all the time” : I Should Be Writing

  77. I think this is GREAT! Love the reasons — they make so much sense. So many people think that just because you have some success/fame/etc. and have a public presence on social networking services and a blog they can ask you to help them with their own work — as if you don’t have so many better things to do with your limited free time. Bravo!

    But I’m willing to bet people still write and ask you to do this for them. After all, you don’t honestly expect them to READ what you’ve written here, do you?

    I’m in a similar (but far smaller) boat. They just don’t get it.

  78. Pingback: Website

  79. I was at a reading John gave at Schuler Books in Lansing, Michigan, Monday night 6/18/12. Having recently finished writing my first Science Fiction novel, I know the value of having a blurb/testimonial from someone like John on the back (or front) cover of my book. But as I waited to talk to him about how that all works, I began to realize the enormous favor that I would be asking. It’s no small thing to take the hours required to read a book and then put your reputation on the line to say “Why, yes! It’s amazing!”

    To give a little scope, and to repeat some of what John writes in the “What to Know…” piece above, I recently critiqued a 12,000-word piece by a friend of mine. It was extremely painful, because it was far, far from ready to present to any publication. If he had asked me to write a blurb for him, I would have had to refuse. I let him know the problems with the story, which I don’t think he appreciated. He wanted the hug John so eloquently noted in Reason #4. It made me wonder what I might be putting my early readers through (although I hope my tome is better written than my friend’s short). I began to wonder if the reason I hadn’t seen some of them for a while was because they were avoiding me. (Sheesh!)

    To go back to meeting John last Monday, he couldn’t have been nicer. He gave me the short version of what he’s written on this webpage and an understanding smile. Thank you, John! Many other authors wouldn’t have been so kind.

    BTW, as a former award-winning full-time performer, John’s presentation was very entertaining, showing a clearly brilliant mind with a full grasp of what’s going on around him—including the need to get a movie made from one of his books so he can get his daughter a horse!

    See you at Chicon!

  80. Pingback: John Scalzi on Book Feedback

  81. Suppose I actually want feedback rather than a hug (not that I don’t like hugs) – is there a venue you would recommend to get that honest editorial feedback (I am assuming that such a service would cost *something* – how much would be reasonable? $1 per page? $100? $0.01?)? While friends may be a source of both inspiration and encouragement, I have found that they are rarely a good (as in useful) source of criticism.