How To Contact a Writer by Claire Hennessy
Recently Sarah Dessen talked about getting an obnoxious email from someone when she didn’t reply to someone to help with a book report. It didn’t surprise me. Sarah Dessen obviously gets bucketloads more fan mail than, well, most of us, but this happens. It does.
Recently I had a conversation with another writer about getting sent manuscripts to read (‘tell me if it’s any good!’) from people out of the blue, and how to deal with that. This happens too. And it’s tricky in all sorts of ways.
I think there’s a lot fuzziness out there in the world about what is okay, and what is not okay, to contact an author about. And the ease of communication – social media as well as email – means it’s so much easier to get in touch, and easier to have a sense that you’re owed a response. (‘She RTed me that time! Why has she not read my manuscript and sent it to her publisher yet?!’) I have… not necessarily the definitive guide, because every writer is different, but some things for people to consider, based a little on my own experience but also on paying attention to what many others have said about correspondence with readers. •Some writers respond to fan mail (and by this I mean communications that are just appreciative, rather than asking for something); some don’t. Of those that respond, some will do personal responses and some will do a generic reply. Whatever they do… it’s their choice. There is no ‘rule’ that says authors must reply to all fan mail personally. I have never heard or seen any writer declare that they hated getting fan mail (or that they didn’t read and appreciate it very much) – it is almost always about time. Personal responses take time, and time is something almost everyone is short of. Neil Gaiman once spoke about how he’d become someone who ‘answered emails professionally, and wrote on the side’ – I think most people would prefer authors keep writing books. •Fan mail tends not to be treated in a time-sensitive manner. If an author gets an email from their editor or agent with a big long list of things that need to be sorted out about their work-in-progress in the next fortnight, and one from Little Suzie wanting to know if they have any tips for her… well. (Snail mail also tends to go via a publisher, which means it can take longer to actually arrive in the author’s hands than you might expect.) Even if you do hope for a response, it is unlikely to be as super-speedy as you’d like. •If you have a question to ask a writer – whether it’s about their books or their writing career or you’re looking for advice – do your research first. Go to their website, do a Google search, find out as much as you can that way. (There is a reason many authors’ websites have things like Frequently Asked Questions or sections on writing advice – these are things that come up over and over again.) An awful lot of people don’t bother doing this, and it’s one of the reasons why many writers do auto-responses. •Find out what the author’s policy is on communication – some may note that it takes them X amount of time to get back, or say that it’s better to get them on Twitter, or Tumblr, or something like that. Everyone does things slightly differently. •It is never an author’s job to do your homework for you. If your teacher has said you need to get a response from a writer (whether this is a book report, an assignment on ‘becoming a writer’, etc), he/she is in the wrong. It is never anyone else’s job to do your homework for you. It is not the job of an author you’ve never met to make him or herself available for your often time-sensitive questions. (Laurie Halse Anderson has a policy on her website; Holly Lisle has a slightly snarkier page about it.) I suspect that teachers who assign things like this feel it shows students will go the extra mile if they get a response from an author – but the focus should be on what the student is doing, not how/when/what the author responds. •Even if you’re, say, Facebook ‘friends’ with an author, it’s better to err on the side of formality/professionalism when sending a message or email – avoid acronyms and internet shorthand and all that jazz. (If there’s ongoing correspondence, take your cue from them – some writers can OMG and !!! with the best of ‘em. Others will genuinely see your ‘by d way i tink ur awesome!!!’ as indicative of a lack of respect or clued-in-ness, because the level of written-word casualness that exists online is a relatively new phenomenon and is still best avoided in most messages that are not to someone you know well.) •Do not send email attachments – some email servers will block these immediately. If you have something that can’t be placed in the body of a text – like fan art – upload it somewhere else and include a link, or ask if you can send it on. •Do not send writers your manuscript (of a story, of a novel, of your poetry collection, whatever). More on that here. There are of course exceptions to this rule – some authors will run competitions on their blogs and invite submissions, and if you’ve been corresponding with someone for a while the rules can shift because this isn’t an initial-email-to-someone-in-their-professional-capacity situation anymore. •If you’re asking an author for advice on something personal – like maybe it’s something they’ve written about in their books – just be careful, okay? Protect yourself a little bit, just in case they are among the writers who don’t reply or maybe take ages – it doesn’t mean they don’t care or that there isn’t anyone else out there you can talk to. (Some writers love giving advice; others are very wary of it. I can see both sides of this one – it is a really, really tricky area.) •A lot of this applies across the board. If you’re asking someone you don’t know or barely-know for a favour, there’s a really good chance that they’ll say no. You increase the chances by being kind and respectful and understanding and doing your research, but they still might say no or not reply or not reply quickly. It’s almost certainly because they’re busy doing other things, work things or life things, and not because they’re selfish terrible awful people who must go on your List Of Mortal Enemies.
(This blog first appeared on Claire's website)