Eight Ways To Annoy People Whose Help You Want

Hello you!  Here are a few tough-love pointers about approaching people in the scriptwriting, TV, film, prose and generally creative industries.  Specifically, via e-mail.  I'm sure this won't apply to you, because you're lovely and you know better.  But it might.  And that being the case, you may find this useful.  Here then, are Eight Ways To Annoy People Whose Help You Want...

1) Appear in someone's inbox, out of the blue, and immediately ask if they'll read your project.
If you really must do this - although you shouldn't - at least put some effort into that e-mail and a little finesse.  A pro script-friend of mine recently described receiving a really abrupt e-mail from a complete stranger, asking if he would read their script.  The e-mail barely introduced the sender and didn't even end with a sign-off line.  That's a great way to make a terrible first impression.

When you've written and finished a thing that you like, it's easy to build up a head of zealous steam, to the point where you assume the world is waiting to read it.  Take a deep breath and calm yourself.  Approach your contact-to-be politely, lightly and in a personalised way which doesn't make them think they're Number 227 in your Xeroxed Introductory E-Mail campaign.  As I said, ideally don't ask them to read your project in this opening salvo.  You wouldn't do this during an opening exchange at a party, so why do it in Cyberworld?  And Good God...

2) Attach your project to your introductory e-mail
Don't do this, ever.  It's rude, even though it might not seem that way to you.  It's the equivalent of striding up to someone at a scriptwriters' festival, saying hello and shoving a hard-copy of your script into their bag.  Bear in mind that most writers - me included, sadly - can't read other writers' scripts, for two reasons: lack of time to read anyone else's work and legality (if a writer reads your script, then has a similar idea down the line, or is already working on a similar idea, you might turn out to be paranoid and insane and all, like, "You stole my idea!  I sue you!  I appear in your garden at 3am, harming myself and shrieking!").  So when you send someone a script right off the bat, that seemingly innocuous PDF of yours could well be violating the recipient's personal, professional and legal boundaries.  Once someone receives a PDF, I'm pretty sure it's impossible to prove they haven't read it, if things should turn all weird and litigious later on.  So don't put them in that position.

3) Attach your project to your introductory e-mail, because the recipient's colleague/boss/whoever has suggested you send it
This is still rude.  I know, because a good few years back, I did it myself.  A TV show's producer suggested I send a script to his script editor.  With a head full of zealous steam (beware, oh beware, the zealous steam), I rattled off an e-mail to the script editor and attached the script.  Never heard back from that script editor, and quite rightly so.  I still regularly wince at the very thought of it and groan at the fact that I'm possibly forever filed away in that guy's head under "Presumptuous Amateurs".  Even if someone else has recommended you send a script, still take that deep breath and write that polite, to-the-point introductory e-mail, explaining that X suggested you send them your script.  Do they have time to read?  That's much nicer, isn't it?

4) Play down the size of the favour
This is admittedly a relatively small pet niggle, and may be exclusive to me and my brain, but I doubt it.  Don't play down the size of the favour you're asking this stranger/new contact.  I'm talking specifically about saying "I wonder if you could do me a small favour...".  Oh, it's only small, is it?  I'll be the judge of that.  This is the kind of thing it's so very easy to write without thinking, but well worth a mention.

5) Chase them up on a read
If a relative stranger agrees to read your thing, for free, in their own time, don't chase them up on it within six months.  Seriously.  That's just wrong and will irritate the Christ out of them.  You have to be prepared to play the long game here.  I've waited literally a year for industry folk to read scripts, and personally wouldn't chase them before a year was up.

If that impatient demon in your brain - the one entirely composed of zealous steam - forces you to chase someone up, at least do it indirectly.  Message them about something else - ideally something which isn't asking for another favour.  Nine times out of 10, this will jog their memory and provide a subtle prompt.  It still runs the risk of annoying them, but it's a lot better than a "Did you get my e-mail?" e-mail, a week after the first.  While I'm at it, let's all agree never to write "Did you receive my e-mail?" e-mails any more.  It's 2011.  The vast majority of e-mails get through.  We know this, and yet still we persist with this irritatingly transparent tactic.

6) React badly to notes
So this stranger has read your thing for free and given you some thoughts.  You dislike and/or disagree with one or more these thoughts, so decide to fight your corner.  You passive-aggressively - or downright aggressively - inform the helpful stranger why they're wrong and/or why they've misunderstood your grand masterplan.  Congratulations!  They didn't particularly want any response to their notes (all those questions they asked in the notes were rhetorical, by the way, for your project-analysing use only) and now you're synonymous with two Twitter hashtags in their brain: #DifficultToWorkWith and #OverlyDefensive.  Tremendous.

7) Ask a huge question, the size of the MOON ITSELF
This one isn't exactly likely to enrage people, and is once again really easy to do without thinking, but it will assuredly make their life harder.  And if you've made their life  excessively harder, they won't thank you for that.  I'm talking about big, wide-ranging questions like "How can I go about getting into scriptwriting?".  That's big.  Whole books are written on that subject.  In fact, are you sure you shouldn't buy a tax-deductible General Script Advice book, rather than ask a pro to write several paragraphs of advice for free?  Then, by all means, you can ask more targeted, specific questions of this person.  This will serve a double-duty: it makes it a lot easier for them to answer the questions, and you seem more clued-up from the very beginning.  Everybody wins, nobody loses, hooray.

8) 'Forget' to thank them
Never forget to thank someone who has given you advice, help and especially notes.  This is possibly the most infuriating thing of all, and there seems to be an epidemic of this behaviour going around.  Almost every industry pro I talk to, shares the annoyance at not being thanked for helping people.  This now seems to be a 'thing'.  Strangers appear in your life, out of the clear blue sky (© Larry David), ask for help/advice/a script read, are given that valuable stuff for free, then fail to even thank the helper.  That's downright weird behaviour, which has certainly happened to me a few times now.  Why would anyone do that?  Besides being supremely irritating and ungracious, it pretty much guarantees that the person will get zero help or advice from me again.  Don't burn bridges.  Don't spread the epidemic.

Writers, producers, script editors: anything to add to this list?  Comment away!  I want stories of people who have contacted you, out of the blue, and proceeded to screw up their chances of you ever helping them.  I'd also like stories from people who have made mistakes while contacting new people.  Let's stockpile this stuff and get a little closer to establishing Best Practice when progressing in this industry and forging new professional relationships.

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Simon Dunn said...

I would add "proof read your initial approach email".

Jonny Morris said...

I wouldn't even bother chasing up after 6 months. If they've not read something after that long, they're never going to read it. And in TV, they've probably left the company by that point anyway.

I'd also add the big, obvious, but quite frequent mistake; sending an unfinished script in the hope that you'll be encouraged to finish it.

If the person writing the script wasn't sufficiently interested in the story to get to the end, then no reader will.

Jane Harrison said...

I once added an Executive Producer as a friend on Myspace after they gave me a writing opportunity. I was very green and, from the fact that Myspace was involved, it was clearly years ago but I always cringe when I think about it.

The lesson? Always. Remain. Professional. And don't be overly familiar. Dear lord. The horror.

Ellie Ann said...

I've edited for strangers for free and received a "this is how you're wrong about my writing" emails in return instead of a "thanks so much where can I send your trophy" emails--to which I always reply "no thanks" if they ever ask me for anything again.
However, on the flip side of this is the joy of getting to work with a new and talented writer who listens and learns. I like that.
Oh, and here's my embarrassing story: my dream agent requested my work, and I waited for about a grand total of two weeks before asking if my email had been captured by cyber pirates!! Hahahahaha *covers face in shame*

Anonymous said...

From previous columns I learned that tweeting @famouswriter wanting a handout was *bad*.

When I get to the point of being about to send stuff out I will follow all of your suggestions... and find new and creative ways to screw up.

Also, pictures of angry cats make everything better.

Germaine de Pibrac James said...

I would say please don't EVER say I have the script (property, concept etc.) that will make your career. If it were that great it would be making your career. It's been said to me, emailed to me and I've seen it in action with producers and A-listers (seriously!)

And it's bad enough to ask people you know to read your work, but please don't TELL people that they can be of value or help to you by reading and commenting on your work (This is called coverage, story notes, script consulting and it's usually paid work if you aren't a friend.) You're asking for a favor not granting one and think about not appearing like a narcissistic predator that no one will ever want to work with.

The rule of thumb with networking is give ten favors before you ask for one. Talk about other things than what someone can do for you. Take time to allow relationships to build. Wait for the magic words that tell you the relationship is at the right spot, "So what are you working on?"

And remember to network down as well as up. There is always someone less experienced than you or in need of help too. Don't ask for help if you're not willing to give it.

Last but not least: know who you're pitching, especially in person. And don't follow anyone to the bathroom. The PASS will arrive with the restraining order.

Hayley McKenzie said...

I get a LOT of emails from strangers, out of the blue, asking 'how do I get into scriptwriting'. Blunt like that. No softened edges, no 'thanks for all the brilliant free advice on Script Angel but I wondered if you could tell me... '. It's like someone coming up to you in a bar and assuming it's your job to spend your evening helping them, without so much as a smile or 'hello'!

Guy Lambert @SohoGuy said...

This is SO good and SO true. I often get people msging me on Facebook: "Can I be your assistant?" "Why, do you want to work in TV?" "Yes, can I have work experience?" I then explain what it takes to get into the business, quite a detailed reply with websites, Twitter accounts to follow etc. Then nothing. No thanks, no "ok, sod you", nothing. In fact, when I msged one lad to say "Oh and don't forget to say thanks to people" he responded: "Yeah ok." Honestly, it amazes me. Your tips resonate throughout the land! :-)

Anonymous said...

This may just be a personal bug bear but I don't really like it when very new writers email me asking if I want to collaborate on an idea they've got for a script.

Why would you ask someone you've never met or spoken to before to enter into a collaboration? Why not ask your own writer friends?

It comes across as very cynical - as if all they're really after is either (a) multiple sets of free notes, (b) access to your agent, or (c) access to any producer contacts you might have.

Or maybe I'm the cynical one and there really are just lots of new writers out there who don't know any other writers and hate working on their own...

Axelle said...

How about:

- Getting the name wrong: Most people who ask for my advice or my help address their message to "Dear Carolyn" (my last name), "dear Axel", or worst of all, "dear Neil" (my husband!)

- Contacting strangers through Facebook: why am I not surprised to see that your request is vague ("can you advise me on how to get that script made"), poorly written, and on the whole utterly unprofessional? Oh, yeah, because you sent it through Facebook.

Matt Cruse said...

I've had at least six of these happen to me. Even after I left the BBC people tracked me down and sent me stuff to "pass on" to someone.

The ones that made me laugh the most, for the wrong reasons, were people who just sent me "Lines of dialogue that could be used in scripts" completely out of the blue.

Jason said...

Not sure how true this story is, or would be. But still pretty funny/relevant/true.

A freshman screenwriter slaps a scrip on a producer's desk. "This script will put you and your company on the map!" says the screenwriter. The producer eyes the screenwriter suspiciously but politely. "Really? Is that so?" "Yes, absolutely!" Says the screenwriter with supreme confidence. "Care to make a wager?" asks the producer, amused. "If this script doesn't make a hundred million dollars, I will give you $20,000!" The screenwriter twitches with excitement. "Your sure you want to do this?" the producer asks evenly. "You bet!" The screenwriter offers his hand. The producer shakes it. "Very well then, we have a deal," the producer says and the screenwriter all but glows. The producer then takes the script and promptly plops it in the trash. "I'd prefer my twenty thousand in cashiers check if you don't mind."

Beware the zealous steam indeed!

James Moran said...

Say "please". And "thank you". Not a blunt "do you have any advice for me" (yes I've had that, several times). Don't often get a thanks either, like you've said - they don't even reply. I ignore anyone who doesn't say please, I just can't get past that.

Most annoying one is asking me things they could just Google - what is standard script format, what agencies are there, etc etc. Most of them, I'd have to Google it myself for a proper answer! Now I just send people to http://screenwriting.io/ which is really helpful, and explains things better than I usually can.

And asking me things I've told them not to ask, or that I've answered on my blog - and they've emailed me using the address on the page that tells them to read the FAQ first and not ask these specific things. Gah.

Oli said...

Just had a paranoid moment that I hadn't said thanks to James when I asked him for advice some four years ago. Turns out I had. So that's okay.

lipsticklori said...

I received an email from someone early last month, asking me to read her short story. I thought it was cheeky but I was flattered, so I made time to read the attachment and reply. This blog post has reminded me that I have yet to receive a thank you for that!

Sally A said...

Bad manners is always very very annoying and always switches me off people. Good manners and specificity fire me up every time.

Another thing that annoys me is when I've done a really really long answer to something (say spent over half an hour doing it) and get a one sentence reply "Thank you very much. very helpful". Probably with a smiley face... That's just a bit rude. And a bit like they've probably emailed lots of people with that question and that actually my answer wasn't even read properly. It goes back to being specific.

Good manners and specificity get you ahead every single time. Not in a *this is how you'll be a successful writer!!!*/here's the formula way... But in a decent normal human being way.

Writers, producers and script editors are people too.

Sal xxx

Lucy V said...

What drives me absolutely nuts:

"Oh you know *whoever* I notice from your Facebook/LinkedIn/whatever - can you introduce me, totally randomly, even though you've never read my stuff, met me or have any idea whether I'm a good writer OR stalker?"

I'm always polite when I say "no", so when that writer then says:


That writer is BLOCKED forever and ON A LIST.

Stephen Gallagher said...

From my intray, offered without comment:

I am totally unaware of you or your works.

However, I have an interesting idea for a plot of a movie, screenplay.

Would you entertain the idea of writing it if sufficiently intrigued by the idea?

I graduated in 1970 from Columbia High School with Hollywood movie producer Joel Silver (Silver Pictures - Die Hard, Consipiracy Theory, The Matrix...). Perhaps he could be of help if it got that far.

I look forward to hearing from you.

Seriously. I did not make this up.

david lemon said...

Like the other folk on here, I've offered advice to strangers who've e-mailed and had both the passive aggressive 'you're wrong because...' response or nothing at all. Then again, some nice folk have been very grateful. I'm sure I've sent the odd presumptious, over-reaching e-mail in the past, but always with a 'please' and 'thank you'. It's just basic good manners.

Clive (@filmutopia) said...

I don't disagree with anything written here... but, I never get "have you received my email" emails, simply because I always acknowledge that I've received scripts... and always I give the writer an honest estimate of when I may be able to read it. If I don't hit that deadline, I email them and let them know. You know, I keep a calendar, run a daily TO DO list and don't make promises I can't keep. In most businesses that's considered the bare minimum of professional practice.

Some of these issues are created by poor communication from the recipient and also a degree of snobbery. That being "I am too important and busy to reply to you, and you must be hopeless because I've never heard of you." There is also something deeply cruel about promising to read something, which is bound to build people's hopes up, and then failing to make time to do the actual work. It's actually kinder and more professional to say "Sorry, I'm too busy read people's spec scripts."

Yes, there is a great deal of truth in everything that is written here. Unknown screenwriters are ungrateful wretches and prone to wild acts of insanity... but, those of us a little further on in our careers aren't without sin.

I know that we exist in a industry where basic communication and humility is consider a sign of weakness, but that doesn't mean we have to pass this nonsense onto other people... and, as writers we're supposed to have a degree of empathy and understanding of people's behaviour. Maybe that's something we could apply to the way we treat newcomers to this dreadful industry. Or not.

On a purely pragmatic level, I know that newbie writers are going to make newbie writer mistakes. I'm powerless to alter their insanity. What I do have control over is how I behave. When receiving scripts I try to remember that I'm dealing with a fragile, vulnerable ego and treat the accordingly... when sending them out, I tend to assume that I'm dealing with an ill mannered, egotistic idiot. You'd be amazed how often I am right.

Jason Arnopp said...

God, I am loving these stories! Keep them coming.

Clive: It's probably worth establishing what kind of position you're in. Do you solicit people to send scripts to you? If so, that's a whole different kettle of ball-games. Just for absolute clarity, I'm talking about unsolicited, out-of-the-blue contact. Of course, I take your point that script-recipients (or anyone in this business, come to that) should be polite and professional. I just don't believe they should be taken for granted as some kind of service which they never claimed to offer.

Clive (@filmutopia) said...

You're right, I should have been clearer about my position.

I don't solicit script any longer, but I was a long term blogger on screenwriting and the industry, so I got a lot of "can you help?" emails... and a lot of unsolicited scripts.

I genuinely feel for newcomers. I remember just how frustrating it was to not know anyone in the industry or how to go about building bridges. Social networking has given people the impression that they can open those doors without having to traipse around the major European festivals, with a hot script and winning smile... and, by having a public profile online, we encourage the belief that we maybe able open doors for people.

For every "newbie" horror story, I can counter it with an industry horror story... like the agent who requested a script, then didn't contact me for six months. I chased it, his reply "Oh, damn, I lost the script, can you send it again... it'll have to go to the bottom of the pile I'm afraid." I'd like to say that I dealt with that politely, but actually I decided I really didn't want an agent who loses scripts.

I guess I find newbie horror stories understandable, they're mainly about ignorance of the industry. Producer/agent/commissioning editor rudeness, that's a different story. If we tackled that, I think a lot of the newbie insanity would subside. I don't care who you are... if your business is incapable of sending an acknowledgment email it's not being run efficiently. And, actually, the big commissioning agents and producers are very good about that sort of thing, once they know you.

About a year ago I found myself not replying to a couple of emails from a writer. I decided (without knowing him) that he was a nutter and replying to him would only encourage him. So, I guess even I have cases where silence is the right option... but, far too many of us use it as a default position.

Jason Arnopp said...

Thanks for raising these points, Clive. I don't think anyone here is saying that 'badly' behaving newcomers are remotely bad people, or that we don't sympathise with their situation. It's just that, if these kinds of conversations don't continue to be had, people will probably keep making the same mistakes, and that's bad for everyone.

In an ideal world, established writers, script editors, producers or whoever else would be able to help writers who needed them. And that does happen a lot, of course it does. It's just a good and courteous idea to remember that, unless explicitly stated otherwise, industry folk - particularly those who aren't running a "business" - aren't sitting behind a table with a little sign marked 'Script Help', waiting to serve people.

Nicola said...

I work in TV and also get approached a lot for advice via my website - often for advice that is easily found on the site or in one of the books I've written on the subject.

I used to reply to every email, but I've become more selective due to the number of people who failed to say thank you even though it was apparent that I'd spent a long time on the reply, recommended other resources and included links. Someone even went on to get a deal through a contact I suggested - and only found out when that contact thanked me! I now only respond to those who use my name, introduce themselves - and ideally have some prior relationship with me via one of my workshops or Twitter.

My pet hate is people isn't people who want me to read their proposal (everyone in TV is sufficiently paranoid to to do that) but instead say "send me a TV proposal for a TV show about..." i.e. they want ME to write the damn thing for them! I must say that these requests usually come in a one-line email with no greeting, introduction or even a name. I've yet to be tempted by such an opportunity.

Jason Arnopp said...

Hi Nicola, thanks for the great comment. Your last paragraph is truly astonishing. Never heard of that one before!

Paul French said...

Phew! Hopefully I didn't break any of those taboos. And a very public thanks again Jason, your advice is very much appreciated.

Anonymous said...

Hi, Jason, great article. I would add one other way: Not giving credit where its due.

If you were referred to someone by someone else, give them credit. For example, Maureen "Mo" Ryan, of the Huffington Post (formerly of AOL TV and the Chicago Tribune) tweeted a link to your excellent amusing article.

The fact you have written for Doctor Who and you apparently like cats was an unexpected bonus.

-- Ken from Chicago (who's too nervous to ask favors of the rich and famous)

P.S. Thank you for the article. I look forward to more of your work.

Ian Kingsley said...

I had a Twitter follower email me for advice on difficulties with her boyfriend last month. Hardly my forte. Why approach a novelist? She was upset so I did give her a very careful response. Guess what? I never heard from her again. Perhaps my advice was so successful I should try writing in this new direction.

JKing said...

Happened more than once: give notes for someone you know well enough (friend of friend, say) that you can't / don't brush off. They get extensive, considered, thoughtful, tactful notes (no 'thank you' of course) ... Disappear ... Then reappear some months later -- asking you to read another draft. That has ignored everything you suggested they needed to address in previous notes!!

Douglas Dougan said...

My personal favourite was a few months ago when I received a ridiculous email from a youngish woman who wanted to get experience of script reading and film. She asked to spend time shadowing me because - and I quote here - "this shit would be good for me". I immediately wrote back and told her that I thought my shit wouldn't be quite shitty enough for her... :)

Anonymous said...

Great post. I have had every experience imaginable and everyone you've mentioned here. I have been stalked by random submitters with the story of their lives laid out for me,send me another script on top of the one I didn't ask for and then harassed me to no end for an answer, telling me that polite people give answers. It's truly some amazing stuff. We should all pool together and write a book.

yvonne grace said...

Worst approaches via my Script Advice website;'this is a great story and it will make you laugh' no. it did not. 'You are experienced in television - any tips on how to get into the industry?' I am not going to help you. now or ever. There are writers out there who, having paid me to read their work then argue point for point, the actual merits of their work where I have commented otherwise and lastly, (The Biggy) a writer who asked me to read their work, and when I gave him my fee structure, he said 'God will help me be a better writer'. Now, I think I need a lie down....

Martin said...

Great article Jason. I do have to say that this not only applies to scriptwriters, but also for agents, producers, casting directors, or anyone in the business for that matter. I've made my fair share of unprofessional blunders and certainly have learned about when to be patient and when to give chase. It's also important to note that what works for one person may be annoying or arrogant to another. It's a steep learning curve, but having a bit of intuition, or what I like to call "people mojo", will certainly help. It took a while for me to develop it. Even still I find that, despite my best effotrts at politeness and professionalism, I stll get the one person who refuses to respond to my emails. Can't win 'em all I guess

Dave Scullion said...

Man, the "lack of thanks" thing is especially infuriating. I gave some total stranger I 'met' online 16 pages of script notes (for 41 pages of his rough-draft screenplay).

SIXTEEN pages! Of notes!

And he never responded.

Not even a "April fool! I actually hate you and your opinions! Ha, fooled you into doing hours of work! Hehe mega LOLZ"

Nope. Just silence.

Needless to say that person is now living in my imaginary pit of pointless maggoty scum.

Jack Bowman said...

Great blog! Lovely to see so much feedback too. If I may add a few more thoughts here...

I'm incredibly supportive of trying to support people who want help and advice. However, a lot of what Jason and others say above rings so true. Adding to that:

- Don't chase a follow-up - unless someone says that's okay from the outset.
- Don't send in a script that's unsuitable for the reader. I once got a bragging email (almost enough to put me off) sent to me with a script attached saying, 'you have to make this, it's genuis'. Turns out it was a motion picture screenplay. We make audio. Next step? Time to stop reading.
- Let's say you've got through all your P's and Q's on the email. Make sure your script looks and reads as if it's 'professional'. Working out smart formatting, sensible spacing, avoid typos; anything that makes it tough to read. If you want to be taken seriously, then treat your script presentation seriously.
- Listen to those notes. Let's say you've been gracious enough to accept my notes, with a view to encouraging me to get your script into production. Those notes are, therefore, absolutely vital. For example, copyrighted music is a no-no for us. People get told this, most listen. But don't then send the script back saying, 'but it has to have this music in it', after the reasons why it can't be there have been clearly explained. There are practical reasons as to why Britney Spears cannot be part of any actual production, so don't fight people on what isn't possible. In other words, understand the difference in feedback between what is my opinion and what is a vitally important, practical point.
- Be humble. As silly as it sounds, you put your work out there to be analysed, but don't do it with any bravado and gusto. Act gracious; a lot of people are very busy so if they are going to give you the time, then don't throw a generous helping of negelected, tortured genius into the pile at any point.

Just a few thoughts there. Thanks for reading. :)