Bad Advice Wednesday: Do Something for Someone Else (30 Ideas for Writers)

categories: Bad Advice / Cocktail Hour


A little help?

How to get published, how to get an agent, how to be a better writer, these are all high on the list of common questions we get asked here at Bill and Dave’s.  Where there’s not a bit of desperation in the question there is often anger, and where the anger has faded there’s sometimes sadness, maybe a whiff of self-pity.  Or is that me, feeling all those things no matter where the writing takes me, often in equal measure with pleasure, even elation (but that comes most often in the making, sitting at my desk alone, lovely, soon to be dashed).  What I’m proposing today is forgetting about our own careers (or lack) and thinking about what we can do for others, what we can do to make the world a more hospitable place for art, and for artists, which is to say for writing and writers.  Doing for others may be your key to success, and is certainly the key to happiness.  Herewith, 30 suggestions for writers.  Karma, anyone?

1.  Write a fan letter when you read something good.  Every time.  Big or small.

2. Listen to that guy at your cousin’s wedding as he talks about his book idea, and take him seriously, take his name, make it a correspondence.

3.  Read a friend’s book when it’s published and write a long letter in reaction.  Or just a short letter.  Or just an email.  But something, and sincere, with details!

4.  Praise the sentence wherever you find it.

5.  Read a book you’d expect to hate, and think about why so many people love it, and see if you can’t love something about it, too.  (Those vampire books?  Really?)

6.  Start a writers group.

7.  Start a readers group.

8.  Offer to read work in manuscript.  Do this for kids, for World War II vets, for your gastroenterologist, for friends (especially for friends).

9.  Start a writing club for kids.  Slowly put the kids in charge.

10.  Promote the work of others.

11.  Start a reading series.

12.  Arrange a writers float for the Fourth of July parade.

13.  Say yes.  (I’ll write that blurb.  I’ll query my agent.  I’ll read your daughter’s poems.  I’ll contribute something to your new magazine.  I’ll let you use my name.)

14.  Steer talented young writers away from careers in law, in banking.

15.  Steer talented young writers away from grad school, at least till they’re 27.

16.  Steer talented young writers away from drink and drugs.

17.  Steer talented young writers toward drink and drugs.

18.  Steer talented young writers away from spouses who don’t get it.

19.  Steer talented young writers away from their parents.

20.  Unless you are the parents, and then be the ideal parent for a writer: praiseful, supportive, attentive, and maybe a little neglectful and neurotic, so the poor kid has something to write about.

21.  Babysit a writer friend’s kids.

22.  Help with the rent.

23.  Offer a strapped writer a room in your house for an office–you’re at work anyway and the place is empty, why not?

24.  Loan a writer your house in the mountains for a month.

25.  Loan me your house by the sea!

26.  Give your not-that-old computer to a young writer.  Or just a pencil.

27.  Subscribe to three literary magazines, or at least go to the library and scatter their collection of such mags around the tables.

28. Give away books.

29.  Buy more.

30.  Praise an obscure writer.

31.  Read to someone, anyone.

32.  Comment on Bill and Dave’s posts, and spread them far and wide.


Any more suggestions?  Can we get 100?

  1. Ela writes:

    Great, magnanimous advice from you!

    One of the things I love about being a writer is the scope for magnanimity and how it seems to go with the territory. Several of my MFA program colleagues recently got wonderful publication news and I just feel over the moon. I would like to think that I’ll still feel that same uplift from others’ successes when I’m as far along in the program as they are now, as opposed to having them be guiding lights. Seeing a colleague, or someone you admire, being successful, is a little spur to keep trying, keep submitting (or, ok, start submitting!), keep being your best…

    • Bill writes:

      I’m with you, Ela. Part of it is culture–your department must be pretty healthy! I mean, of course there’s envy when people around you do well, but it’s possible to feel inspiration, too, and to take a piece of happiness.

  2. Emily writes:

    Thanks for this post, it’s great! I am a young (at least semi-talented) writer with a few publications here and there and would probably die of joy if anyone did any of these things for me! Pass on the love.

  3. CarolynB writes:

    Great post. Your book ‘Writing Life Stories’ has helped me a lot, especially drawing maps and arcs, and reading the examples from the ‘composite’ students (Gow, Mindy, etc!).

    Have also heard great things about your mentoring and writing support services. One of my 2012-2013 writing goals is to complete a first draft (memoir – obviously, I guess!) so it’s in good enough shape to contact you and ‘apply’ to be a customer!

    Cheers for now and happy writing.

  4. Sam Snoek-Brown writes:

    Bill, if I ever do get around to expanding my “Fourteen Principles,” I’m going to have to quote you extensively. I’m just saying. You and are are like THIS. (What’s the emoticon for crossed-fingers-representing-same-wavelength?)

    Hell, I should just get you to write the thing for me. We should collaborate or something. We even both use Buddhist images on our posts! (Nice White Tara, by the way!)


  5. TSAndros writes:

    Great advice all around Bill! Check one off the list (dabbing my pencil to my tongue). Earlier this week I sent in my 4 yr. subscription to Georgia Review and felt great afterward. Check off another (dab). Now how do I make arrangements for the babysitting? Can you watch my little Lola while you watch Dave?

    • Bill writes:

      Bill and Dave’s daycare is opening soon in a city near you! You just find five writers, at least five kids among you, each parent taking a day, or afternoon if the kids’re school age. Actually, two writer/parents could pull this off, just toggling days. I’m afraid, however, that with Dave my hands are full. The bottles alone, my goodness, can’t wean him!

  6. Ann McCutchan writes:

    OK, I’ll join in!

    – Take a group of writers (any age or stage) out in nature. Write there, or somewhere else, later. Talk about it.
    – Take a group of writers to an art exhibit. Then take them out for a beer and talk about the relationships between art and writing, exhibits and publishing.

  7. Nancey writes:

    Love this post. I do many of these… As you know since you were the first ‘fan’ letter I wrote to a writer, and to get an actual written letter back from you, the joy! I keep it in an old copy of Summers with Juliet since I know that will be on my shelf for eternity. I think because of this post I will do more for writers, thank you so much. What a great post for some resolutions, which I usually don’t believe in anyway. I’ve always wanted to ask a writer if I could be a reader, one of the first, but maybe they are very private and only want seasoned writers to read their early work? Not sure. What do you think?

    • Bill writes:

      Thanks, Nancey. I have your letter, too! I do think writers look for good first readers. You’d have to promise to be gentle, thorough, and very honest, I bet. I have a lot of first readers by now, and kind of think through who’d be best for a given project. And, with Bill and Dave’s, whoa, everyone’s a first reader. That’s the fun of blogging, I guess…

  8. Benjamin Vogt writes:

    Say something, anything, in the comments of a blog post you really enjoyed, especially if it kept you from starting into the memoir writing that morning that you knew you must do, love to do, and will crave again after it’s over–like exercise or drinking Gatorade. Realize you wrote one helluva a long sentence and apologize.

  9. Shelley Burbank writes:

    Offer to take a group of young writers to a reading at a local college or coffeehouse or wherever.

    Buy them lattes afterward so they feel really grown-up and special.

    • Bill writes:

      Thanks, Shelley. The (free) group I run is 11-14 year olds, and most readings are definitely PG-13. And R. Plus violence, as they say. But still, you know? It’s not like kids don’t know this stuff from the Odyssey. I handed out Poetry Magazine copies, and they all immediately found all the swears, as they put it. And then when I went to buy them whiskeys after, the dangfangled bartender carded ’em all! Well, soon they’ll be driving, and I can teach ’em how to drag race.

      • Shelley Burbank writes:

        I’ve been taking a small group of 13-14 year old girls to the Telling Room for a writing/cartooning class. I get to hang out at the Portland Public Library and read The Writer while they are in class, so it isn’t just for the kids . . .haven’t tried to buy them any booze, but driving through downtown Portland at rush hour is more dangerous than drag racing.

  10. ella writes:

    i don’t know what is this you’re having here, like a home prairie garrison keillor noise making get together? i’d like to join. i am originally from transylvania, so i’d rather not hear more jokes about vampires

    • Bill writes:

      Welcome, Ella–It’s a conversation, that’s all, drink in hand. Very low vampire joke count, so you should be comfortable…

      • Garrison writes:

        Bill and Dave might be smarter, and the talk might be great at Bill and Dave’s, but the music’s better at Prairie Home Companion.

  11. John Jack writes:

    37.) Query fellow writers about publishing a collection of similarly themed short narratives: fiction, creative nonfiction, or both.. It doesn’t hurt to ask, does it?. So far, several serious and sincere offers of mine to publish writers within my community thereof have been flat rejected, ridiculed, or even villified, accusing me of ulterior profit motives, when the sole reward I seek is the satisfaction of introducing unpublished writers to the joys of publication.

    38.) Offer to publish poetry chapbooks for struggling poets. A couple have taken me up on that one.

    39.) Volunteer to produce whatever media, print, DVD, online for nonprofit organizations, Like the local crisis center’s 12 warning signs of child abuse DVD , the church seafood cookbook, the arts’ center monthly event pictorial calendar of past prize winning artware. I could go on.

    40.) Offer to design a typeface for a writer who absolutely must have those special characters that no other typeface has. Tthey’re the writer’s inventions. In my assessment, those celestial symbols and runes—chapter and section headers—contributed artfully to the novel last I heard was headed for self-publication.

    41.) Offer to coach, guide a writer how to self-publish, self-market, self-promote, self-advertise, self-publicize. Guerrilla Publishing anyone?

    42.) Offer whatever creative assistance a writer might want for traditional or self-publication: photography, graphic design, typography, etc.,

    43.) And a wise word or two about misguided expectations and emotional investments wouldn’t hurt at an opportue moment.

    44.) Offer anyone inclined, writer or not, an opportunity to produce memento publications for gift-giving occasions, for family and friends, for sale at the local bait shops and curio dealers and museums and park visitor center gift shops and mom-and-pop convenience stores.

    45.) Spread the love of the published word.

    • Bill writes:

      Love the bait shop idea. Richard Brautigan’s “Trout Fishing in America” owed part of its success to orders from tackle shops all over the country.

      • Eva writes:

        I liked ‘Trout Fishing in America,’ read most of the Brautigan I could get on the subway in the 1970’s but once went into a NYC bookstore and asked for “Confederate General from Big Sur” and the guy said, “We don’t carry any Richard Brautigan, because we think he’s a terrible writer.” I was probably 17. That was a big lesson in how subjective this whole racket really is. I wrote the sort of stuff that would get me an A from one teacher and a D from another. Probably still do.

  12. Pat Shipley writes:

    Bill, you wound me. #8? Gastroenterologists? You know that neurologists and neurosurgeons are more interesting. Oliver Sachs versus….? No Colin Powell does not count.

    36. Suggest one of Bill’s books to your husband’s ginormous reading group so they all have to buy the book. They like it and tell their friends who buy the book and so on. Check on your sales in Charlottesville dude.

    Gastroenterologists, seesh.

  13. Pat Shipley writes:

    Bill, you wound me to my core. #8? You are advising people to read their gastroenterologists manuscript? Hey, you have experience. You know that neurologists’ and neurosurgeons’ manuscripts would be more interesting. Oliver Sachs versus….who? No, Colin Powell does not count.

    #36 Recommend one of Bills books to your husband’s ginormous reading group so they all have to buy the book and then they tell other people how much they liked the book so they buy it, and so on. Check out your sales in Charlottesville, dude. They’re up.

    Gastroenterologists, seesh.

  14. Chelle G writes:

    Great advice. I particularly like the loan a writing buddy your house in the moutains or on the beach, #s 25 and 25. A change of scenery will often spark creativity and might be just what the writer needs. Plus, it doesn’t cost you anything. I also like #10. My writing buddy is shy. A great person and wonderful writer but she is terrible with self promotion. I’ve taken it upon myself to help with that, by name dropping on Facebook and She Writes, or anywhere else I can find to help her out. Not all writers are as outgoing as Bill and Dave, and they need a little hand now and then. Give unto others and it will come back to you in spades–it’s called karma. Thanks for the reminder.

    • Bill writes:

      I know–I was out on the coast the other day looking at all that handsome, empty housing stock, and I just thought, jeez. Would be a good way to get a book dedicated to you, too!

  15. Sonya Huber writes:

    I love this post, Bill. I thought for a second it was going to be in the key of, “All this being nice is taking time away from writing.” But you are so right… these small things also pull me out of my own writer-head (“It’s all about me and the alphabet”) and into the idea of communities of writers. I am a huge fan of the fan mail thing. I think I might have heard that from you in class once long ago and have since been spreading the word. A few more…

    33. Review a book you love on your blog, even if the book isn’t current.

    34. List the authors you love on your Facebook page.

    35. Browse the stacks of the library in a section you don’t normally frequent.

  16. daisy writes:

    Wait – so HOW do I get an agent?


    This is a great post. There: I accomplished #30.

    Also, how is a reading group different from a reading series? I think I’m missing something.

    • Bill writes:

      You are funny. Um, a reading group would be a book club, and a reading series would be a public reading by writers of any kind. Friends, locals, pros, major stars–it would all be about your purpose and funding, too, no doubt. I’ve seen terrific reading series in pubs and at churches and libraries, sponsored by book clubs and grad programs and just plain readers. Towns can be brought in, and literary societies, and funding agencies. A nice evening can be invented by anyone, local writers mixing with travelers, the famous with the humble.

  17. nina writes:

    Funny, because I was just about to ask you for a favor! (and in doing so here, am accomplishing #32)