What’s a writer worth?

The real cost of picking my brain — for both of us

5 minute read
Here I am, mentoring aspiring writers in the wild: a session with journalism majors at Temple University. (Photo by Howard Shapiro.)
Here I am, mentoring aspiring writers in the wild: a session with journalism majors at Temple University. (Photo by Howard Shapiro.)

Many years ago, I had my first run-in with someone who wanted to pick my brain. A writing colleague with more experience in the business than I had asked me to lunch. But things did not go as I expected.

My companion urged me to speak first. She had a lot of questions. I shared the stories I was working on, the editors I knew who were looking for writers, and what kind of pitches I had succeeded with. Then I invited my colleague to share about her work. What were her tips for markets I was missing?

A true inspiration

“I’m not telling you anything,” she answered matter-of-factly. “You’re my competition.”

I was so surprised and dismayed that I have no memory of the rest of the lunch. Later, that writer would approach an editor I had recommended and got new bylines in a major local outlet.

Her calculated selfishness strikes me to this day, and my feeling in that moment, after I had shared freely with the understanding that we were in it to help each other, powers my commitment to a generous and cooperative approach within the industry now. That includes using my network to help colleagues, consulting and commiserating with folks who also have my back when I need it, obliging frequent requests for career references, and mentoring many emerging writers as BSR’s editor-in-chief.

Two emails

But generosity and cooperation do not mean catering to entitlement and misunderstanding, or tolerating the depletion and disrespect of my energy and expertise. I thought about this when I got two very different emails last month. One was from a longtime journalist colleague inviting me to guest-teach a class about arts journalism at Temple University for a modest fee. The other was from the brother of a high-school classmate who had gotten ahold of my non-public email.

“I'd love to pick your brain to learn more about how you make freelance writing a full-time thing!” he announced. “What are your main sources of income? Who are you working with to make it happen? How often are you pitching vs having steady established work?” He said I could give him the answers by phone or email, whenever I had time.

I accepted the invitation at Temple and had a great session with undergraduate journalism majors. And I politely told the aspiring writer my fee for a consultation. He declined to book one.

Staggering questions

I shared my frustration about this “pick your brain” exchange in a recent BSR newsletter, which quickly garnered some responses.

“Interesting rant,” one reader told me. “It is very important to keep secret all the important stuff about becoming a writer,” the person continued sarcastically. “Never share. Never mentor … I am sure you came full flower into your position and your writing finesse without the help or guidance of anyone.” I was advised to “lighten up” and share with whoever asks “instead of having a fit.”

A fellow writer emailed me as well. “I totally got what you were saying,” she said. She called the intrusive questions about my income streams “staggering.”

Meanwhile, on social media, more of my colleagues weighed in.

“I seriously get messages like this multiple times a week … I’m still trying to figure out how to handle it,” said one writer with many bylines in outlets like the New York Times and the Washington Post. That request for advice is “a lot of labor for someone who doesn’t make much working ALL OF THE TIME and needed to hustle to get that work too,” she added.

“Everybody thinks there is a magic formula that will hand them deep professional relationships without the actual work that goes into building them,” another writer chimed in.

“Hey, can I pick your brain?”

Professionals of all stripes get these queries, from strangers or tangential connections who think that years of hard-earned expertise in competitive industries can be distilled, for free, on demand. (Read Alex Hillman’s kind and spritely nugget of genius on dealing with people who say “Hey, can I pick your brain?”)

But I posit that 21st-century writers are both particularly vulnerable to a high volume of this inappropriate outreach, and more likely than people in other professions to experience painful feelings about it.

When people with whom I have no relationship (even if they imagine one) ask to “pick my brain” so they can start their own writing career, with no compensation for my time and knowledge, this is what I hear: “Hey, your job seems easy. Fill me in. For free.” And I’ll be honest with you. That hurts.

Yes, it’s a bracing privilege to write (and edit) for a living. But the sensitive piece here, for me, is how grueling the modern freelance journalist’s life can be: long hours for shrinking pay, the systemic instability of today’s media industry, no benefits or paid time off, the scramble not only to do the work but to find it in the first place. It takes years of crafting a fierce skill-set, unflagging motivation, and a nonstop networking circuit to sustain this job—not to mention, for many writers, life on a small budget.

Glamor and struggle

Today’s writers live at the weird intersection of a career that is both highly romanticized in people’s minds and wildly undervalued in practice. Think of the writer’s mythos in iconic stories from Little Women to The Shining, and compare that to everyone who says we ought to be happy to work for “the exposure.” That’s how I feel when people mistake me for their own free career counseling center. These folks don’t comprehend what I do, even though they want to do it too, and their actual estimation of my skills’ worth is clear as soon as they decline to pay me.

So thinking critically about this and honoring my frustration—and offering my expertise for a fair price to folks who are not my colleagues—is the opposite of a rant or a fit. It’s respect. It’s knowing my boundaries. It’s standing up for my own worth. And it’s a practice of prioritizing mutual benefits, which I feel sharply, thanks in part to that embarrassing lunch many years ago. Value others; value yourself—and you’ll be on track, no matter what your career.

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