The Right Way to Ask for Professional Guidance, Mentorship, or Anything of Value

Enough people have encountered my work to make me: 1. Very lucky; and 2. Occasionally sought out for favors and advice on making it in the media and literary worlds. Because of point #1, I don’t mind point #2. However, I have gotten enough requests for favors and advice at this point that I can’t say yes to every little thing people ask of me. This transition did not come to me easily, as I am a classic people-pleaser, but I have finally gotten old and cranky enough to know which requests to consider and which to dismiss. Namely, I can now tell the difference between a reasonable, thoughtful request and one that’s just the wrong thing to ask and/or the wrong way to ask it. I recently got an email from a reader seeking my advice that turned into a wonderful, mutually beneficial assistant/mentor relationship. It was partially a matter of great timing — I was just entering “I need an assistant” mode on my next book — but also a matter of a helpful request, phrased perfectly, with an emphasis on what she could offer me, not just what she wanted from me. She agreed to let me share her initial note to me here. I’ve added my own notes on what makes it great in brackets.

 

Dear Jennifer,

First of all, I wanted to say that I love your book! I just read “Mary and Lou and Rhoda and Ted” and adored it. I laughed, I cried (mostly on the subway, which was embarrassing). And that Grant Tinker – what a classy guy! [This is cute! It’s complimentary, which makes me want to read more; and she offers just enough specifics to make me believe she really read and loved it.]
Second of all, I’m taking your Book Proposal class on Skillshare right now and am almost finished with my proposal. I was wondering if I could hire you to review it? I probably won’t be done until the end of February – I’m not sure if that timing is ok for you. [Great. She’s basically telling me, “I already paid a nominal fee for your expertise through your online class, and I’m willing to pay more if necessary.” Offering money for professional services is a huge plus. I realize this sounds obvious, but with services like editing and writing, people often forget this. Several students have asked me to read their work or meet with them to go over what they missed in class without offering compensation. This is what my job is; I expect to get paid for it. I’ll let you know if I’d like to offer it for free to you instead, like if you’re my lifelong best friend or my mom or something.]
My book is actually very similar to yours. It’s my dream project that I’ve been thinking about for the past ten years or so but only just got serious about. It’s the story behind the making of The Golden Girls (I was really excited to see that you mentioned Susan Harris a few times in your book, mostly in reference to Fay – awesome!). It’s a little sad to say, but I feel The Golden Girls show has been one of the biggest “constants” in my life for as long as I can remember, since it’s really never been out of syndication. I love everything Susan Harris did, particularly the abortion episode of Maude (classic!) and Soap. I’m also obsessed with Mitch Hurwitz, and GG was his first job out of college. And thanks to your book, I learned that Gail Parent also worked on GG! I just ordered her Sheila Levine book on ebay. I can’t wait to read it.
I live here in NYC, and I was wondering if you possibly wanted to barter assistant work for some guidance on my book? I’m totally prepared to pay you for the critique, but I was wondering if you’re working on anything now and wanted some free administrative labor (transcribing interviews, research, filing, getting your coffee!), in exchange for some occasional guidance on my project. Did I see somewhere that you’re working on a  Seinfeld book? I might have made that up, but I hope not. Seinfeld, and really anything involving Larry David, will always have a very special place in my heart. [She waits a long time to mention the barter idea, and she does it after offering to pay. Awesome. Turns out I desperately needed someone to start transcribing for me. She’s doing this for me now, and it is outrageously helpful. Because of this, I bought her drinks last night and will give her any advice she needs on her book project or career or whatever.]
But no worries if you aren’t interested in the bartering – I still want to pay for your services!
Just a little about me… I currently work on the Media team at the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA) and write pop culture-y things on the side for websites like The Hairpin and This Recording. I’m working on expanding my platform, with a website and bigger national clips. [Also important: Who the hell are you? Great. Now I know. I like to know I’m not possibly arranging to bring a lunatic — or even an unprofessional person — into my life and writing process.]
I guess that’s it. Hope to speak to you soon!
Thanks,
Kathryn
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