I once read that the best method for growing a sustainable writing career was to build an audience of dedicated readers.
I also read that the best way to build an audience of dedicated readers, was to start by gathering readers from another writer’s existing audience through a guest post.
I read that guest posting on a famous person’s blog was like getting a stamp of approval from that person. It was as if that person called all his most trusted friends to a dinner party, and then just before desert, held your writing up to them and said, “This is something you must read.” Knowing instinctually that such and endorsement would bring me instant glory and fame, I combed the internet, searching for the perfect blog for that could launch me toward my destiny of literary immortality.
It took me less than an afternoon to find him, the perfect blogger to set me on my course to stardom. He was someone I had followed for a while. I enjoyed his books, and he wrote in the genera I imagined I would someday dominate. I admired his punchy, irreverent style, and felt I could emulate it with great success. Best of all, he had a large following of readers who hung on his every word.
Even though I hadn’t finished writing a book yet, I was certain that being featured on this one particular blogger’s site was the next step in my career. I’d guest post, and then, the next day readers would bang on my door demanding more of my work, publishing companies would court me with flowers and candy, and other writers would seethe with envy. The only problem was, I needed to get permission to write for his blog. I decided that the best approach would be to email him directly, reveal my greatness to him, and explain how badly he should want to have me on his site.
I set out composing an email in his punchy, irreverent style. I imagined that style was a language he spoke all the time. “If I were to go to France, I would speak French,” I told myself. The email was a page-and-a-half in which I shared my personal narrative with him, I let him in on the secret of my undiscovered greatness, and I told jokes. There were lots of jokes.
I’ll spare you the suspense. My email did not go well.
My attempt to replicate his plucky irreverence, came off as pretentious and immature. My personal narrative sounded like the ramblings of a megalomaniac in a straight-jacket ranting over his breakfast about how he would conquer the world if only someone would give him a spoon. And my jokes were not funny.
To make things worse, I misspelled his name.
In all of my furry and bravado, I misspelled to the famous writer’s name.
What came back to me was a complete surprise. He replied. His reply was short. The plucky irreverence was absent. In plain words, he encouraged me to keep writing, thanked me for my interest in his work, and politely denied my request to guest post. In contrast to the disaster I had sent him, his note to me was kind, short, and professional. It wasn’t until the the last sentence that he explained how to spell his name.
I was mortified, beyond embarrassed at my failure. I considered diving into a hole and never coming out. But while my fumble was painful, it helped me remember a lesson my father had taught me when I was a twelve-years-old.
I was playing basketball in my family’s driveway. My father came home from the office with five African dignitaries. They were working together to build a medical school system for a country on the west side of the continent. My father introduced me to the men. I offered a limp handshake and said, “What’s up?”
My father took the men inside our house and then came back out to deal with me. Standing in front of me, he demanded I look him in the eye. He then took my hand in his, and demonstrated for me a firm and meaningful handshake. He then said to me with a harsh compassion only a loving father can achieve, “If you want people to treat you with respect, give them respect. Look them in the eye. Shake their hand in a way that shows them it is your honor to meet them. Stand up straight, and speak clearly.” In other words:
“If you want people to treat you like a professional, then act like a professional.”
We can be cute, irreverent, and entertaining in our work, but we must be earnest and disciplined in our correspondence. When we send emails, submissions, queries, or inquiries we must do so respectfully, as someone deserving and expecting similar respect in return.
In my correspondence I now try to stand up straight, look the recipient in the eye, and shake their hand in a way that shows them it is my honor to meet them. In return, I expect the same treatment from them.