Monday, June 8, 2009

Asking For Advice? Do Your Research First

I get a lot of emails from people--sometimes people I know personally, sometimes people who've found me through this blog--asking for advice on starting a freelance writing career. Much of the time, the questions they ask are very general: "How can I get started? Do you have any advice for someone just starting out?" I used to write long, detailed responses to these emails. But lately that's been overwhelming--and I usually give very short responses nowadays.

I don't mean to be curt or unapproachable--and I certainly don't mean to dissuade anyone else from taking this path. But I do get tired of answering this question all the time. Here's why:

Because the answer is long. And it's always changing. "How to get started" isn't a few paragraphs. It's a page or more. People have written whole books on how to get started. And the answer I would have given a few years ago is different than the one I would give now, knowing a little more about the business. I also got my start on Elance, but the way Elance's structure has changed I wouldn't recommend anyone else doing that now. Writing out an entire dissertation on "how to start" every time I get these emails is something I just don't have time for anymore, unfortunately.

Because this question signifies you've done no research. There are so many resources out there for people who want to start freelance writing. Pick any one of the blogs in my blogroll and start reading. Heck, start reading all the posts on this blog--it's a pretty comprehensive account of the things I learned when I got started and as I grew my business. And for God's sake, buy Peter Bowerman's books--they give a great game plan to start with, and I credit them with getting me started. Whatever you do, don't use me as a shortcut.

Ask me something specific instead. If you ask me how to get started, I'll probably just point you in the direction of a few online resources. If you ask me a specific question, I'm likely to answer your question in better detail. I might even write a blog post about it. Show me you've done your research, have a good sense of the generalities of "how to start," and need more specific answers, and it's easier for me to get engaged.

When you're asking advice of anyone--me included--who gets a lot of questions like this, don't ask a general question. Ask something specific that you've wondered about that your past research hasn't taught you. That helps us narrow down your answer to something we can both manage.


Lillie Ammann said...

Someone too lazy to do their research won't be successful as a freelancer. It's a waste of your time and theirs for you to respond in detail to a generic question like "How do I get started?"

Jenn Escalona said...

Good post, Jenn. Because I was getting these questions quite a bit (I'm in a writing Master's program and a lot of my classmates are interested in getting freelancing), I now run a blog geared toward newer freelancers. Because my blog is for newbies this may sound callous but I totally agree with you - do a little research first, for pete's sake!

It's so much easier to answer "Is eLance right for me?" than it is to answer "How do I get started freelancing?"

Unknown said...

Bravo! Exactly how I feel. It's frustrating to want to help, but to have so many questions be so general that it would take a week and a book-length letter to respond. And frankly, it's lazy of the asker. If you say "What does a good query letter look like?" that will get a more detailed response than "How do I start?" That answer -start by reading blogs and making notes.

Their careers HAVE to be up to them to figure out to some degree. Help is here, but information leeches need not apply.

Jennifer Williamson said...

The frustrating thing is it's a book-length response--and there are SO many resources out there for people who really want to know. I generally tell people to do their research and to get back to me with specific questions if needed.

Yuwanda Black said...


Thank you, thank you, thank you for this post. It says EXACTLY how I feel when I get one of those generic, "How do I get started" questions.

This was what I call a perfect post.

@Lori: Love the phrase "information leeches". I might have to steal that sometime :-).


Jennifer Williamson said...

Thanks, Yuwanda!

I used to have an acting blog, and I would get this question a LOT more from actors--kids just out of school who would say, "I'm just getting started in Philadelphia--agh--what do I DOOO?" In my experience the young, just-out-of-college people tend to be the worst offenders, and I probably did it too. The difference is, the people I talked to pointed me in the direction of the right books, and I read a lot, then came back with more specific questions. That's the way you learn. Now I typically answer with "read," and give them book/blog suggestions.

Anonymous said...

This comes up a lot in one particular forum. I've answered the same question in depth at least a dozen times in the past year. So now, I say, "I've answered this in depth; resarch the archives."

You wouldn't believe how often I'm reamed for not repeating information by someone who can't be bothered to do any research. I'm not going to spend time on someone like that. That's the same type of person who asks you for advice, then,when you give it, argues with you.

Time is money. Don't waste my time.