I turn down all clueless asks.
What exactly is a clueless ask?
- Anyone who sends me their manuscript unsolicited.
- Anyone who asks me to meet them for lunch.
- Anyone who sends me an e-mail headed “Hi” or “Hello there” (or with no salutation at all.)
- Anyone who asks me how to get an agent.
- Anyone who asks me to introduce them to my agent.
These are not malicious asks.
The writers who send them are nice people, motivated by good intentions.
They’re just clueless.
They have committed one of two misdemeanors (or both).
First, they have demonstrated that they have no respect for my time—and no concept of the value of what they’re asking me for.
Do I have two hours to meet somebody for lunch? In the middle of the working day? Why? To shoot the shit about scene construction and character development?
Or maybe the asker “admires my work” and would like to “pick my brain.”
Send me a check for $10,000 and when it clears I still won’t meet you for lunch.
Or maybe the asker wants me to blurb their new book.
Why would I do that?
Do I know them? Did we go to school together? Did we serve in the same battalion? Am I married to their sister?
The real ask in these cases is “Can I have your reputation?” In other words, “Will you give me, for free, the single most valuable commodity you own, that you’ve worked your entire life to acquire?”
The second crime these clueless askers commit is they have not done their due diligence.
Don’t ask a writer how to get an agent. Find out yourself. There are ten thousand sources online and a hundred books in the Writing section of a book store.
Don’t send a writer an e-mail with an attachment that contains your novel. What if I’m writing my own novel on that same subject? When mine comes out, you’ll sue me for plagiarism and tell the judge, “See, I sent him my book. He ripped me off!”
My lawyer won’t let me read anything that comes in unsolicited, for just this reason.
Do your research.
Learn good manners.
Find out how the business works.
My book Gates of Fire gets assigned sometimes to high school English classes. I get asks from kids to explain the theme, the structure, and the relationship of Character X to Character Y. You can see that the student (one wrote, “Please respond. Money is no object.”) has simply typed the teacher’s assignment verbatim into the e-mail.
These, I suppose, are not technically clueless asks.
They’re more like, “Hey, Stupid, lemme see if I can take advantage of you” asks.
You are an ass.
For those who’ve felt insulted by the post, I suggest you spare about 10 minutes and listen to this classic Ask Me Anything podcast.
Telling Friends You don’t Work for free
If you don’t have ten minutes, then skim the transcript read the paragraph starting with the sentence: “Here’s another thing I wanted to say on this…”
You’ll see there’s consequences for a professional giving “free” advice to people who haven’t done their basic homework beforehand and who just don’t listen anyway.
In the end everybody ends up frustrated and having their time wasted.
Or, and this is key, you could learn basic social skills and not advertise your podcast on an old man’s salty complaints about people who don’t know better. Weird.
I’m curious to know if you promptly delete the emails or if you spend even 30 seconds writing back “sorry, I can’t.” I suspect by “turn down” you mean delete.
Why bother then to read any of your stuff? That would be clueless as you have nothing to share… but an over inflated ego!
Be well and do well will unsubscribe once this is posted!
I don’t think this belongs to ‘Writing Wednesdays’. More like ‘I’m-tired-and-feel-like-ranting-for-a-bit Mondays’, this or I’m missing something.
thank you for everything that you have done for we who write, and, for all of the wisdom and knowledge that you have offered us, ah, gratis.
you owe we subscribers nothing more.
I don’t understand why some people see this as a negative post. I think it’s an important one, and one which is very much in alignment with turning Pro.
I’ve allowed myself to help, assist, and even mentor others when they have made a ‘clueless ask’. I mean, we’ve been taught that giving a helping hand has to be good, right?
I’ve come to realise that the answer in the clueless ask scenario (not in every situations, of course) is a definite no. I may feel good, it may give me an ego boost, and I may allow myself to think that I’ve ‘done the right thing’, but in reality, I’ve just given away my time. Time that would’ve been better spent doing the work.
Deep, deep down, I’ve intuitively known all along that responding to a clueless ask is just another form of Resistance and that no dragons will be slayed that day! And I really, really need to start fighting the dragon instead of throwing down my sword every time someone asks a question or a favour when they haven’t done the necessary work themselves.
Thanks, as always, for the reminder, Steve.
i think the same, listen!
I enjoyed a good laugh as I read this post and would add “Hey” to the list of annoying salutations. Thanks Steve!
lol “Hey baby, what’s your sign?” came to mind!
Damn and I was gonna ask ya to lunch SP> guess that’s a big fat no. I’ll have to do my OWN work instead? Dammit!
I agree wholeheartedly with what Steve has stated in his dialogue today. When I started to write three years ago, that is “seriously write” I joined a couple of writing groups for a short period and I mean a very short period of time and found that the people in the groups feed off each other negatively.
It’s more or less like a a group of vampires all getting together and sucking on each other. Don’t be a vampire and ask for another writers lifeblood. Almost to a person they were all sitting around wasting each others time; Some romanticizing about writing, others looking for shortcuts, all different reasons but none were seriously writing and just doing the work. I agree no one wants to read your shit and no one wants to do your work for you. So write your own stuff, do your own research on how to get it published and I’m sure it will pay off and eventually Steve might respond with praise and congratulations that you overcame the resistance!
Thanks and don’t get all pissy about my writing above that I dictated from my iphone and just go write!
I was just thinking Trump’s budget proposals and executive actions get the same response as an unsolicited manuscript.
Wow, as an advocate of your writing, Shawn C., and BlackIrish, I’m taken aback by this post. I’m looking at a stack of your The War of Art book that I always give to high school graduates. Those kids with the fire in their belly but need a boot on the backside, because, I have always thought . . . Well, nevermind. Thanks for all you do and have done for the craft of writing. Sincerely, from a hack of a clueless writer who shows up every day says a quick prayer to the aether for guidance and writes. Back to it.
I appreciate this post. Didn’t realize those same salutations bother me. “Learn good manners” is the best line. Thank you.
I think what has happened culturally is that many people have come to believe that success in creative undertakings is 100% about who you know- networking and marketing.
So people over allocate time to connecting and under allocate time to working on excellence in what they do.
Great post. It brings to mind Josh Olsen’s now classic ” I will Not Read Your Fucking Script’ http://www.villagevoice.com/2009/09/09/i-will-not-read-your-fucking-script/ I doubt Pressfield is saying we ought not be generous. More likely that we are under no obligation to respond to an unending stream of requests. The lack of awareness on the part of the asker that the ask is merely part of that stream is what make it so clueless.
Mike…That was also a really great read, and very well written. Thanks for sharing it. I feel like I should bookmark it somewhere.
Steve… I get where you are coming from, and I can only hope that one day I can play on the same level as you do and have earned the respect that you deserve.
Btw, that rant by Josh Olson made him even more widely disliked in LA than he was already. Everyone starts off needing someone to read their scripts. If Josh doesn’t want to do reads anymore, fine, but he didn’t have to be such a jerk about it.
If you read that screechy screed of his, you’ll see he went way out of his way to do an excessive amount of work for someone who didn’t appreciate it.
He was so resentful about that tragic event that he decided to take it up with — no he decided to take out his frustrations on all the unread writers and their “fucking scripts”. Because, you see, Josh is basically a pussy who wants to be a bully.
Now for one thing, Josh should have spent less time working on the script, and for another, he shouldn’t have done the work at all without first having a conversation about what the mutual expectations were.
Who, to his credit, later sort of apologized for having published the letter.
PS Josh Olsen spent years never shutting up about his Oscar Nomination, which was for a script he adapted from a Graphic Novel. Good work and all, but not exactly the same as coming up with “Pirates of the Caribbean” when given a Disneyland Ride as your source material.
Know how many movies he’s written since “History of Violence” in 2005?
I can’t help but wonder if that’s because people don’t like hiring jerks.
I get what you’re saying, although I also get why some people are put off by the tone. I’d suggest a third option though, which is that “It never hurts to ask.” While you may be ultra-offended by items on this list (some of which I can fully sympathize with), that isn’t necessarily a universal sentiment. I have personally gotten some extremely good sit down sessions with some very highly placed people by doing “clueless asks”. I recently sat down with an eight-figure CEO for lunch to talk about his career, a connection that came about by having a cold-call lunch with someone he knew. When that meal was over I asked for the CEO’s contact info. If it was a clueless ask, then ignorance is bliss.
I can relate. I work for a large publisher and occasionally get messages on LinkedIn from people asking me to put them in touch with someone who can help them get published. OR, they want to know what qualities my employer is looking for in people.
These are questions you can find the answer to if you look. Please don’t ask me to do the work for you.
Just wanted to chime in and say that what the wisdom and guidance in your blogs and books is, in my experience, way beyond what most successful writers or filmmakers openly or freely share. Your post demonstrates, once again, what it means to be a Professional and take responsibility for our dreams. Thank you.
Instead of taking offense, realize Steven is just bluntly stating what all serious professionals in any line of work would tell you if they were willing to stick their necks out. This is useful information. There are more and less helpful ways to initiate an “ask”. I would guess that all of us would like to appear to be professional and courteous, so why be offended?
You read my mind, Beth! Steve is doing us a favor by telling us how a pro thinks. I’ve been guilty of ALL of the things he mentioned above, but now I know a little better.
The High School student situation is a touchy one, but I think Steve’s lack of response would lead the kid to find SparkNotes–a much better resource for the task at hand. Again, tough love that works!
I, too, am baffled by those who are offended by this post, but since the point of the post is cluelessness I suppose I shouldn’t be.
I wish I’d read this 45 years ago. And about once a year ever since. It’s the kind of post that makes me want to ask you to lunch . . .
Am I married to your sister? Oh my giddy aunt that’s funny.
I love this piece, Steve! I love it because it’s so spot on, I love it because you’re saying it out loud in writing, and I love it b/c you let it rip.
Love from here,
I have a brother who’s in the construction trades. His name also happens to be “Steve.” He gets incessant requests for his time and expertise:
** “Hey Steve, can you help me hang some drywall?”
** “Yo, Steve! I need to replace my water heater. Do you know how to do that?”
** “Stever? Have you installed hardwood floors before? Are you busy this weekend? And maybe next weekend?”
I tell him, “Hey Steve… you should be glad you’re not a proctologist.”
Great thoughts, as always. I do think that there is another paradigm that’s worth considering, in which authors and other artists who have experienced success see it as part of their calling to lend a hand to people who are up and coming.
When my first book was being published I contacted a few well known figures and explained why their endorsement for this project could be a big help. Quite a few said yes, and seemed genuinely happy to be able to assist a nobody like me, just as others had done for them when they were up-and-coming authors.
Certainly there are ways that people can overstep with these kinds of requests, and *many* people do. But I also think it’s the duty of a successful artist to be on the lookout for opportunities to use his or her success to build up others who are just getting started.
Another terrific reminder to ‘do the work’, even if that is in preparation before I insert my beak into someone else’s already swamped life.
To all the naysayers on this post, I would like to say that I sent you an email five years ago asking if it was appropriate to use King Leonidas’ quote about how he selected the 300 for a military spouse event I organized.
The truth in that line of prose still makes me cry, as I think of what my wife shouldered while I was off ‘playing ball with my buddies’ in Afghanistan.
You response was thoughtful, generous, kind, and funny. I showed it to numerous people. You even apologized for a delay because your iPhone was not sending.
Totally authentic, totally cool, and I still treasure the time you took to reply.
The last thing you need is to be defended by me, but I guess I wanted to add more more piece of evidence about who you are for those of us that continue to read this blog, your books, and deeply appreciate your wisdom and candor.
My own example of a clueless ask:
One of my LinkedIn connections sent me this message a couple of weeks ago:
“My wife and I personally invite you to our home Sunday May 21st from 3-4 pm. I have something to share with you. You may or may not be interested. It’ll take about 50 minutes. More will be shared when you arrive….”
Made me realize how little due diligence I’ve applied to accepting connection requests.
Totally smells like Amway or some other network marketing business.
I replied, sorry but I am busy. Also, this smells like a network marketing business and I am not interested in anything like this.
His response? Crickets.
Thanks again for this reminder.
Thank you Steven. Fantastic post. Perfectly expressed and I greatly appreciated it. Wishing you an excellent week!
Ahhh, but there’s a piece missing from the post. What would be a “clueful” (clued-in?) ask?
Great question, Larry. The start would be to actually KNOW the writer/artist/musician whom we were going to hit with an “ask.” Second would be to have established by our past actions, known to the writer/artist/musician, that we are serious in our creative aspirations end not just wasting his or her time. Third would be to demonstrate our respect for the writer/artist/musician’s time. Make our “ask” something that’s doable within his or her schedule. Fourth, though this isn’t really necessary (because we’re hoping the askee will help us out of generosity and the idea of “giving back,”) but it would be helpful if we had actually “created value” for that askee somehow in the past or the present. In other words, if we had helped him or her in some way.
Bottom line: good manners.
Hope that helps!
HELPED “the askee” who is not an author, artist or a musician in more ways than could ever be imagined or known and created a value that no doubt will be worth more in the future than what is experienced in the present.
Growing up on a ranch in the mountains of Montana I learned a simple code when dealing with people. Be polite, be professional, and above all else be respectful of their time. It has as much, if not more, value as yours so don’t waste it.
As a fledgling writer this post is a good reminder of that old lesson from my youth. Too often we want a fast and easy path to success. A sad byproduct of our culture where instant gratification is the demanded norm.
If you want success, earn it. Don’t pester someone who has in the hopes they will help you cheat a little.
On some writer’s blog once, of a fellow who was getting clueless asks and remarks, many from young people, I commented to the young people that the place to start was the information desk at the local library.
Secondly because the librarians would know of clueless-busting writing books, and firstly because they would know of writing resources such as clubs and centres and conventions and other local real people. To me it’s sad when young people are in a vacuum, not knowing there are others around.
For adults, in my neck of the woods, resources include a farm wives writing club, a farm wives erotica club, and a romance writers club where membership includes non-romance writers.
Only a person who is going through what you are will understand how important this post is. Thanks for saying it aloud.
I think this parallels some of what Steve said in other posts–it’s a good reminder, as well, to place the same value on your own time as he does on his. How does he write books that people buy?
By not spending the rest of his days rehashing the books people already bought and writing new ones.
Steve, You already give back to the writing community with this blog and your books way above and beyond the call of duty. And I only hope you can understand what a lifeline you are to those of us in the trenches, doing the work. So ignore the clueless asks, don’t let the ignorance get you down, and keep on rockin’ in the free world, brother!
You are absolutely correct! Why form an ask when all Steve has done is give on this blog for years?! You want something from Steve? READ this blog cover to cover! Treasures are here as well as kicks in the seat when needed.
Totally agree with you Mr. Steve!!
What they have(or don’t have) in their head!! ☺☺
That post reminds me the last book I read, “Nobody wants to read your sh*t”
Have a good night!!!
In my previous life as a marketing agency owner, I used to hear a slightly different version of cluelessness from people who wanted to become writers (i.e., get paid for it).
I’d ask, what are you writing now? It was astonishing how often the answer was nothing.
It is important that we understand where our own boundaries are and then let others know. Each of us is an individual with different tolerances that shift diurnally. It’s ok to feel tired and annoyed with having to over and over and over defend your personal space from people stumbling over your boundaries. It saps one’s creative energy. Thank you Steve for your generosity to the creative (and wannabe creative) community. And thank you for the reminder that we each need to protect our valuable time
Hilarious blog. I was totally “Clueless” mentioning that my Resistance was physical and throwing in “ataxia” to catch your attention . By adding my ridiculous joke ” what’s your GOLFING CHALLENGE ? was just the icing on the cake. Thanks for the smile!
[…] Pressfield is brash and wise, a combination that invites attack. This post yesterday, on why he bins “clueless asks,” namely requests for help out of the blue, elicited mostly favorable comments but also some vitriol. […]
You have an online presence, you sell self-help books,
you want your readers and listeners to buy your books
and listen to your advices. We’ll, sir, it’s CLUELESS of you
to write such an angry, nasty post.
You certainly don’t owe your readers a lunch meeting
or a personal advice, but you do owe them respect.
It is they, not your publisher or editor who buy your
books and allow you to have a nice lifestyle.
I suspect that these strong negative reactions are coming from people who are guilty of posing the “clueless ask” to Mr. Pressfield in exactly the manner described – probably recently, and possibly more than once.
I am amazed that grown men would solicit a professional so shamelessly and yet can imagine the type that do. Men’s Warehouse sport coat with no tie, homicidal homo smile, extensive collection of self-help books, eponymous website with no content.
I disagree with Mr. Pressfield on one point. I don’t believe it is good manners that restrain us from posing the clueless ask. I think it’s self-respect.
The scene has been used in many movies and books….
The younger, future apprentice sits on the doorstep of the master, in the cold rain
for many days, only to be rebuffed time and time again….
Finally the master relents, and lets the young apprentice speak…the master sees
a younger image of himself and decides,
before he releases his time and effort with the young one….
he will allow the apprentice to do much and meaningless work for him…….
The negative reactions on here simply prove Steven’s point about some people’s unrealistic (and rather childish) expectations re. the extent of a busy professional’s obligation to them.
Dude – you have shaken me to my core time and time again. I charge into battle with your weekly posts and books at the ready. What you do is enough. Thank you.
I wonder if the folks angry at Steven would put their actions where their mouth is? If say, their day job is accounting, or they are enrolled in the local community college learning to balance books…
and downtown is an executive who’s time is so valuable the company gives him a reserved parking spot, a key to the executive washroom, and access to an admin assistant pool because it’s a misuse of time to do his own typing…
Then would you go ask him for a two hour lunch? Because, you say, you are an eager accounting student who hopes to be a VP Finance one day?
I doubt that he or his stockholders would approve of such a use of his time. But you go ask, and then report back to me.
Hi Steve! Hi there!
Steve tells it like it is, and we love him for it. Some may not have skin thick enough to take it, but the reality of the matter is we all need be reminded of proper manners from time to time (especially in this familiarity-inducing internet age).
I know this because I was clueless once, and yet Steve gently, and patiently, pointed me in the right direction.
Thanks again, Sir.
I look forward to the day that I become overwhelmed with others seeking my opinion and revering my advice.
True story: after not years but decades never doing forewords or blurbs so I could honestly say I never do forewords or blurbs, a publisher I know asked me to do the foreword for a book by a guy whose work I’m known to admire. (Note: THE AUTHOR HIMSELF DIDN’T APPROACH ME, WHICH SHOULD HAVE BEEN MY WARNING.) Wrote the foreword with a glad heart, got a perfectly nice note from the author. Waited for my signed copy. And I’m still waiting. When I brought this up to the publisher, he disclosed that the author was — and presumably still is — a psychotic tightwad. I WILL NEVER DO A FUCKING FOREWORD/BLURB AGAIN. (Except for you, kemo sabe, should you ever ask.) Everyone who had a shitfit over your post should (expletive deleted).
Our time is valuable, especially as we age, so yes, protect it by all means.
But the one thing I don’t get in that post is:
You call everyone who asks or wants to ask you out to lunch Clueless.
Really? Why would you say that? Makes no sense to me.
Asking someone out to lunch is a nice traditional way to meet someone.
They are Clueless about Steve which is the pertinent Cluelessness in that case.
He has posted here eleventyleven times about his busy schedule and how he uses his time and energy, two seriously valuable commodities. Asking him for a couple hours of his time in exchange for a $20 lunch is Clueless. Would they make the same ask of, say, Sean Connery or Stephen King or the governor of their state?
Those of us who work for ourselves often consider time to be our most precious asset, time and the choice of how to spend it. If you ask me to lunch, you’re asking for my most precious commodity. Before you do that, you’d best have done your homework and made sure I’m going to be thrilled that you asked, and not groping for a way to politely refuse.
Come to think of it, “Or maybe the asker wants me to blurb their new book” is not the rudest or most clueless request in the world, either.
Plenty of new writers have gotten a better-known writer to blurb their book upon reading it. In fact, that’s WHY I read “Shantaram” — because the great novelist Pat Conroy blurbed it. If he hadn’t blurbed it, I probably wouldn’t have read it.
And it’s a really good novel.
Food for thought, perhaps.
Wow, this post hit a nerve. I ran across this copy of a form letter RAH used and thought of this post immediately.
I think this is spot-on. And I understand why you wrote it, Steven – especially, “Will you give me, for free, the single most valuable commodity you own, that you’ve worked your entire life to acquire?”
I’ve only recently begun writing with intent, but I’ve been a web designer for over 20 years and often field similar requests from friends of friends. About a year ago, I decided my most precious commodity was time, and that I would be ruthless with who I gave it to (paid or not).
A lot of it comes down to expectations. If someone clearly respects my time and the years of 14-hour days I put in to gather my knowledge, it’ll come through in their language. But anyone who thinks it’ll benefit my ego to give them my time for free can go and get fu*ked.
I’m still a minnow in this racket, but Steven is an icon who’s earned the right to dispense his time, his reputation and his accumulated wisdom to those who’ve demonstrated they deserve to receive it.
People who draw professionally get the clueless ask all the time. For some reason, we get asked to illustrate books by writers who just happened to have finished a children’s book all the time.
I just read Jeff Goins most popular post in which he champions the “audacious ask.”
It is a testimonial of how his career was boosted by sending out emails to seemingly out of reach influencers. Most replied positively, including the likes of Seth Godin and yes, Steven Pressfield.
The central argument of Jeff’s post is the polar opposite of Steve’s.
Jeff argues that not enough people audaciously ask…or cluelessly ask.
And apparently, Jeff asked Steve….”People sometimes ask me how I’ve been able to do interviews with in-demand “celebrities” like Steven Pressfield…”
So, I guess Jeff’s ask wasn’t “clueless”…I wonder what made it so?
Steven nailed it. I appreciate your candor and clarity. You don’t exist to serve random strangers. We really should do our homework, and bother strangers if there is value to share.
Our time is our most valuable resource yet is freely given every day. Anyone who wastes that time really is an enemy and should be treated that way.
Thanks for this clarity Steven.
[…] week, I read a post by Steven Pressfield: Clueless Asks. Pressfield is the author of The War of Art, as well as the more recent Turning Pro—some of the […]
My father used to say “No matter how much money you make, you can’t buy a day of your life.”
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