2015 was one wild beast of a year for my career and I could not be more grateful to have spent it writing essays and articles that I’m proud of, a book that I care about, and meeting a lot of talented and kind people who work in the same industry. It was also the year in which I went from being a writer sending a lot of pitches and asks for small favors to a writer who gets asked for a lot of advice and help from strangers, acquaintances, and friends.
So pitches and favors are different animals and should be approached differently. A pitch goes to a professional editor whose job it is to read it. You want to be courteous to them and not waste their time or yours but in some sense, they’re expecting it. Asking for favors is different because it typically requires that people go out of their way to help you, to labor on your behalf, and to not be compensated for it. That means you should be even more gracious when you ask for them and even more grateful when you’re given them. So without further ado, here are some favors I asked and why I think they worked:
Favor 1: Advice on Writing About My Past
Recipient: Charlotte Shane, freelance writer and notorious hot mean bitch, no prior engagement or introduction
What I Wanted: I had not yet “come out” as a sex worker and I wondered if it would hurt or hinder my career and had Charlotte recommended to me by journalist Melissa Gira Grant who knows Charlotte.
Results: Charlotte and I emailed quite a bit about the ups and downs about writing about sex work online, resulting in me eventually choosing to out some of my past in the sex industry which has been really rewarding because I was able to write about labor more broadly in a way that was important to me. We also became very good friends who walk into parties looking like The Two Meanest Girls at Sweet Valley High.
Why It Worked: I had a pre-existing referral from a friend, we had something fairly unique in common, it was complimentary but not gushing, and we had a shared experienced in media that she was willing to help me navigate.
What I Didn’t Do: I didn’t ask direct, invasive questions about her decisions and left it open-ended to give her space to share what she wanted to. I didn’t do a bunch of the weird shit that people do when they write to sex workers either like pretend I had any idea what her life was like or ask about how to get even better at it.
Favor 2: General information on writing for TV
Recipient: Cord Jefferson, TV writer and former Gawker staff writer and freelancer, no prior engagement
What I Wanted: To get a basic idea of how transitioning to TV writing from digital media would go, what I should know, what I should write, who I should be trying to get to know.
Results: Cord responded that he’d be happy to answer my questions and so we met for drinks and he told me about his experience in TV writing and listened to me talk about my show concept and gave constructive feedback. I used that feedback and am now in the process of talking to producers and other TV executives about buying the show.
Why It Worked: The most important thing I did was I asked if I could ask questions before I asked them so he absolutely had an out that didn’t require him to feel impolite. I can’t stress this enough. I found Cord because there was an essay of his called “On Kindness” making the rounds and in looking for more of his writing, I came across the fact that he had gone to LA to write for TV after his digital media career. I made clear that I wasn’t clueless about his present career by mentioning it to show I had done my research.
What I Didn’t Do: Ask 20 questions from the get-go that would just be disrespectful of anyone’s time, I didn’t ask for his agent’s contact info or any other favors I hadn’t earned. I pitched it as an informational meeting and I kept it an informational meeting.
Favor 3: Inside knowledge of hiring at The Racket, a then promising website under the First Look Media umbrella
Recipient: Michael Pielocik, writer and comedian had been hired there, we had no previous contact but a mutual friend told him I would be writing to him about the roles
What I Wanted: An interview at The Racket (to know my chances of getting one)
Results: Michael told me what kind of clips to put together for an application and an email address I could send them. The website never launched but Michael and I remained in touch and it was good practice for asking for things when I don’t feel entirely comfortable doing so.
Why It Worked: Based on his humorous web presence, I didn’t take a formal route in asking for this information and because he knew I was coming through a friend, I was able to state my intentions more clearly. That I clearly read up on him showed that I respected his position enough to be worth engaging with.
What I Didn’t Do: Ask him to read my resume directly, ask for a direct email for where to apply without first establishing a rapport with him and demonstrating that I might be a good fit, or email him without first looking at his website, background, and interests.
Favor 4: Pre-blurb for my book proposal
Recipient: Leslie Jamison, author and columnist, we were friends in graduate school at Yale in 2011 and 2012 but our relationship had gone mostly to email after leaving grad school
What I Wanted: When writing a book proposal, it is often suggested that you get other writers who are familiar with your work to write a pre-blurb that gives you credibility and demonstrates that established authors vouch for you and have the potential to blurb your book or review it when it actually comes out.
Results: Leslie wrote an exceptionally thoughtful and specific pre-blurb about my work that I put in my proposal and that I have every confidence was one of the reasons that it sold well to a major publisher.
Why It Worked: The primary reason it worked was that Leslie is a generous spirit and we already knew each other, I don’t deny that this did some of the heavy-lifting. But I was also earnest and noted my respect for her time at a time when her career was absolutely on fire and I appreciated her work without being over-the-top in my praise of it. I was also every bit as awkward as I was as a graduate student in real life because while I didn’t want feign more familiarity than we actually had, it would have been weird if I showed up really formally in her inbox.
What I Didn’t Do: I didn’t pretend that there hadn’t been a seismic shift in her life in the time between knowing her in graduate school and her becoming a best-selling author but also tried not to dwell on it. I also didn’t overload her with information in the body of the email but put the book proposal material below the signature for her to peruse if she wanted to.
These are just four of several favors I’ve asked over the past few years. I have very similar ones that resulted in no responses but that at least made the effort to respect people’s time and show that I wasn’t just firing nonsense into the ether. The thing is, most people want to be helpful. Sometimes they are too busy to do favors or they can’t actually give you what you need but when you contact people with respectful, appropriate asks and opportunities for them to decline, you’d be surprised by how much you can get out of them.
Also, as Charlotte noted when I asked if I could write about our first email exchange in this post, people might very well be seeking a favor from you at some other point: