Every industry has a complex, baffling series of cues that serve to distinguish insiders from outsiders. This could be a function of vocabulary, conversational choices, social perspectives, or modes of address.
One consequence of this is that clever amateurs can give the impression that they’re accomplished professionals, like a harmless king snake passing itself off as a venomous coral snake. On the other hand there’s always the risk of a smart, competent person having doors shut in his face simply because he didn’t know how to play the game.
These cues are almost never expressed explicitly and rarely even discussed indirectly. There’s a reason for this. Every creative industry is quite small and insular. As a result, few feel comfortable chastising other people. The transgressor (so to speak) might take offense and hold a grudge. The prevailing strategy is to stop taking their calls instead of explaining what’s wrong (and running the risk of sounding petty).
The best essay I have seen to address this sort of thing is here. Note well the rage-fueled comments, validating the delete-and-ignore approach. The minority of people who have meltdowns when rebuffed ruin it for the majority who accept a “no” with decency and grace.
If all of this sounds annoying and pretentious, it is. But that’s how the creative fields work, and hating the system while acknowledging its ubiquity is a major step toward being a creative professional. If you think the rules don’t apply to you, that’s perfectly fine and valid. The other party, however, might have a different perspective. And since they’re the ones doing you a favor, you’re not really in a position to dictate their terms of exchange. Here are a few things you can do to seem like a colleague and not an outsider:
1. Acknowledge their expertise.
Every creative professional has been involved in the production of a product, and every such production can fall apart for infinite reasons. Learning an industry’s vagaries is just as important as developing one’s skill. Take the publishing industry, for example. How long does it take for the publishing process to go from manuscript to bookstore? What are the steps in between? When do you contact your agent, and when do you contact your editor—and when do you call or email? These are all questions with arbitrary but real answers that a professional understands and the amateur can’t. Recognize that talent is still only half of the puzzle.
2. Don’t treat them as both a professional and a peer.
If you want their friendship, treat them as a friend. If you want them to treat you as a professional, treat them in the same manner. When someone does you a favor, it should be made as painless for them as possible. Don’t speak with someone in their professional capacity in an overly familiar tone. Speak with them in the same way that you’d you imagine that they’re spoken to in their office. If that’s hard to visualize, talk to them like you’d talk to your dentist. Yes, you can joke around and be funny. But you wouldn’t argue with your dentist. Nor would you question his judgment. You’d ask for clarifications, not start a debate.
3. Learn to take “no” for an answer.
You meet someone at a party and they agree to get you in touch with their agent. I understand that the fortune cookies say to never give up, but the fortune cookie is a liar. If they don’t respond, that usually means no. Don’t send them an article you think they might like as a pretense to reconnect—that’s transparent. Wait a week, follow up, and that’s that. Every creative professional on Earth has become used to not getting emails and calls returned. It never feels good. You’ll need to get used to it as well.
4. Respect their costs, including their time.
Every chef I know constantly gets asked to cook for their friends’ parties. Obviously chefs enjoy cooking, or else they wouldn’t be chefs. But far fewer enjoy cooking for free—and even fewer enjoy catering for free. Ask them what they would usually charge for such a service. Then ask them what they would charge you. Same goes for a person in any field. At the very least, you’ll understand just how much money they’re giving up by doing you this favor for free.
5. Defer to their schedules.
Very often writers will agree to look over a proposal, essay, or article that an aspiring author has produced—only to be given some deadline. Worse, this deadline is usually far shorter than one that they’d get in a professional context. “Do you think you can have this by tomorrow?” will get doors closed in your face, whereas “When can I check in with you?” will get you accommodated. If you have a legit deadline, that is not the other person’s problem. Make them aware of it if you must, but do not expect them to agree to it.
6. Make it bite-size.
The smaller the morsel, the easier it is to get a bite. Aspirants usually send the whole work and often do it unprompted. Don’t be that person. If you meet a novelist, ask if you can send a sample chapter for feedback. Or ask a screenwriter if you can send 30 pages of a script. By asking the question in a different way than everyone else, you’re establishing that you’re not just another wannabe. People want to pay it forward and give back. They don’t want to commit to reading a manuscript if by page 10 they can see that it’s a mess.
7. Pay them anyway.
Very few of us would refuse to tip a waiter even if the service was simply satisfactory. If a professional takes time out of their life to help you, it’s important to concretely demonstrate your appreciation. The word for someone who takes without giving in return is “thief.” Buy them dinner. Ask a mutual friend to find out what book they would like and surprise them with it. Get them movie passes. All these things have a negligible cost for the value you’ve been given.
Most industries are roller-coaster rides, and there will come a time where a given professional will be feeling low and hopeless. Do you want them to look back on helping you as having been taken advantage of, or as a bright spot where they used their skills to make someone else’s life better? Leave them feeling admired, not used. Then feel free to lean on them again in the future.