No, I can't edit your manuscript for free

I write about books for a living, so people think I\'d love to critique their prose

By Cary Tennis
Published October 14, 2011 12:00AM (EDT)
                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                       (Zach Trenholm/Salon)
(Zach Trenholm/Salon)

Dear Cary,

I'm writing to you because you're very nice and have a great deal of empathy, and I'm hoping you can tell me how to respond with empathy in a situation that's causing me distress.

I write about books for a living. I have been working with, around and in books for over a decade. Hooray for my job; I feel very lucky. In the last six months, four people I know have approached me and asked for help with books they are writing. They want me to read and evaluate and edit their manuscripts. They want me to tell them where to send their manuscripts after I have made them publishable.

To which I say: No way! First of all, I have two jobs and am often so busy I feel breathless. Second, I write about books; I'm not a literary agent or an acquisitions editor at a major publishing house. I haven't even published a book of my own (though I hope to, someday).

But, even if I had the knowledge they seek, why should I use it to benefit them? Reading and editing a manuscript would take a helluva long time. What's more, it's work, work that other people get paid for.

All these requests have come from men. None of these men are professional writers. I am not in regular contact with any of them; they are once-removed from my daily life: the brother of a friend, the husband of a friend, and  the father of a friend. They don't ask how I am. They don't stop to consider if I'm busy. They don't seem to read my (published!) writing, since their manuscripts are in genres I don't write about.

When I get these requests, I feel incredibly stingy. I get angry and anxious and think uncharitable thoughts about them.  It seems to me that they are all entitled jerks who have no respect for me or my career. Sure, they might think I can steer them on a path toward publication, but also seem to think I have nothing better than sit around and read their stupid manuscripts. They're so out of line I can hardly think straight.

I blew off the first request. I flat-out refused the second two. I still haven't responded to the fourth one, which I received this morning. This last request seems very problematic, since it comes from someone I've known since childhood and who's sick.

So, Cary, what do I do? Am I right in refusing these people? If so, what's the best way to tell them that I can't do it? And how do channel some generosity of spirit toward them? How do I stop getting so upset? Right now, I feel like a mean-spirited jerk.


Angry Books Writer

Dear Angry Books Writer,

You are absolutely right that such work is not to be expected casually or for free. It is very demanding work.

So here is what I suggest: Think of an hourly rate that would make you happy. Don't think of the "correct" rate or the "going" rate. Think of a number that makes you smile. Think of a number that is high enough to discourage most casual requests.

This is what a person -- whom I was paying to advise me -- advised me to do when I received such requests. It seemed weird at first. I thought, well, I should just charge what is the correct rate. She said no, forget correct. How much do you want? What would make you happy? And what would discourage casual requests? You don't really want to do this work all that much anyway, right? So, OK, a number came to me. It seemed high. It seemed almost silly it was so high. But it felt good to me! So I said it out loud. And the person advising me said, OK, when people ask you for this kind of work, quote that number. And I did.

I ended up accepting some work at that price. Surprisingly, I enjoyed doing the work. The person desiring my services was happy to pay that rate. Neither one of us felt cheated. We were both pleased.

It turns out that stuff is worth exactly what someone is willing to pay for it. It turns out -- surprise, surprise! -- that you can make an agreement with one individual based on what each of you wants and it will work out fine. Amazing.

That one piece of advice was worth all the money I paid this person for her advice, and more. It solved the problem. It made me happy. I'm grateful to the person who gave me that advice. And now I am giving that advice to you. It makes me happy to be able to give it to you. Really, it does. Because I have benefited greatly from it.

As to your desire to respond with empathy, how can you not have empathy for someone who wants to publish a manuscript? Poor bastard. How can you not have empathy for the person? That doesn't mean you have to become their servant.

When somebody asks you if you would do this kind of work for them, tell the person that you do occasionally take on such projects, in a selective way, and here is your hourly rate. And see what happens.

Cary Tennis

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