Bad questions and bad advice: The top freelance time saps

Apart from Twitter (well, obviously), the two greatest drains on my time as a freelance writer can be divided into broadly two opposite camps: One, Pick Your Brain-ers. Two, Trying To Help-ers. The first, as the name suggests, typically begin an approach with “Could I pick your brains?”, which is polite for “Ask you to do your job for free” or “Ask you advice on something you’re not qualified to give it about.” Sometimes, I could easily spend an entire day advising people for nothing. A while ago, someone I’d met for coffee once for an hour, if that, emailed me his entire unsolicited job application several pages long asking me to proofread and feed back. To top it off, he also unapologetically wanted me to help him sound more qualified than he was. Lovely (I said no, as politely as I could muster).

The second camp, Trying To Help-ers, are well-meaning people who’ve heard from you or your nearest and dearest that you’re broke and want to help you find more work but very rarely actually can. If I had a pound for every time someone’s told me about their great-cousin in New Zealand who’s a journalist or that their wife works in publishing and “might know something going“, the brilliant new opening at Brillo Plc which I don’t have the right qualifications for, or about this great new site with lots of jobs for freelancers which actually means bidding for 5p-a-word copywriting against someone from Palau, I’d be a rich lady. For my time and health’s sake, please bear the following in mind:

For the Pick Your Brains crowd 

1. I’m very flattered you should ask me for advice or input, but please tell me exactly what you want and exactly by when. Don’t just jabber at me

2. Do not tell me something unpaid would “look great on my CV”. I’ve checked with Mr Tesco, and apparently he doesn’t accept great-looking CVs as currency. He also pointed out that I’m 29 years old, could be someone’s mama and should be getting paid for my work

3. I can’t promote or help you fund a vague idea. The media is only going to be interested in your project if it’s actually happening (ie written/completed, funded, scheduled) and funders are only going to be interested in funding you if you actually have funding credentials and know what you want funding for. Similarly, I can’t give career advice other than generalities you’ve probably already heard

4. Aggressive emails if I don’t respond as speedily as you’d like are unlikely to endear you

5. If you’re in imminent distress from work problems – or for any other reason – I can offer you all the empathy in the world but please, please contact the Samaritans (08457 90 90 90 or email I will always give this out where appropriate

For the Trying to Help crowd

1. Can you/the person you’re referring me to actually help? I know it’s a human instinct to want to please, but as I’ve explained, you’re actually hindering if I invest hope and energy in you for nothing. (NB: “Actually help” means actually offer paid work)

2. If you’re offering or recommending mentoring/advice, is it really specific, targeted advice? Not just “Do lots of pitching”, “Give editors what they want” (the latter was from a mentor some time ago I actually paid for. Yes, really)

3. If you’re trailing a job, to me or anyone else, preferably know as much as you can about what it involves beforehand. Finding out 3 emails down the line that you don’t fit the requirements is a waste of everyone’s time

4. “You should move to [country/city], they want writers/English speakers.” Yes, but if they also want you to be numerate and speak fluent Madarin (and they often do) that’s going to be just as much of a problem there as it is here

5.  PLEASE PLEASE PLEASE IF YOU DON’T KNOW ANYTHING ABOUT MY INDUSTRY AND HOW IT WORKS, DON’T GIVE ME PLATITUDES OR ADVICE. It’s lovely that you think I should work at X but unless you’re the editor of X that doesn’t help me. I know you’re trying to be nice when I tell you about a writing or speaking commission and you say: “Ooh, that’s good isn’t it. Maybe they’ll give you a full-time job there” but no, they probably won’t, because there probably isn’t one, and I’m really REALLY tired of having to explain that to people time and time again. I know you think you’re being encouraging, but what you’re saying is “I won’t consider you a worthwhile human being until you have what I consider to be a proper job”, which doesn’t help when you don’t know my industry and what you consider to be a proper job isn’t realistic.

If you’ve thought about all these things and still think I can help you/you can help me, do get in touch. But please don’t be offended if I don’t immediately sound as thrilled as you think I should. I don’t want to seem ungrateful, but I get this a lot, and the only thing it changes for anyone is my frustration levels to above-the-roof.


One thought on “Bad questions and bad advice: The top freelance time saps

  1. I don’t know about the brain pickings but I think the helpers try to help anyone who is in a difficult situation. There are some people that aren’t happy unless they’re actively suggesting things, and never mind whether they actually have anything useful to suggest or not. My mum used to suggest I submitted unsolicited works to the Guardian on a weekly basis.

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