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Writing Wednesdays

Writing Wednesdays

An Ask Too Far

By Steven Pressfield
Published: April 15, 2015

[The blog is hors de combat this week, as we prep for the launch of Shawn's wonderful new book, THE STORY GRID, coming in a couple of weeks. Here's one of my fave posts from a couple of years ago:]

In the past year or so I’ve become aware of the verb “ask” used as a noun. I simultaneously like it and am appalled by it.

An “ask” is a request for an action or a favor. I was reporting the contents of a long e-mail to a friend; she interrupted: “What’s the ask?” Meaning, “What does the e-mail writer want?”

“Ask” originated, I suspect, in the publicity biz. The difference between advertising and publicity is you pay for advertising but you try to get publicity for free. Hence “ask.” Schmooze schmooze schmooze ask.

Many moons ago I worked at Ted Bates Advertising in New York. One of Bates’ rules of copywriting was, “Always end with a call to action.” That’s the ask. “Buy now.” “Call this number.” “Log in to win.”

There are legitimate asks and not-so-legitimate asks. Have you read Josh Olson’s immortal “I Will Not Read Your F*%king Script!” That’s about an illegitimate ask.

I get a lot of asks. Write a blurb for my book. Write a foreword. Hype my stuff on your blog. Here’s where I come out on asks:

1. If it comes from a real friend or a legitimate colleague, I do it.

2. If it comes from someone who seems like a decent person (or virtually anyone in the serving military), I do it. The good news here is that quite a few real friends have entered my life this way. You can tell a good ask from a bad ask.

3. Everyone else, I pass.

There’s an ethic to the blogging world. It goes something like this. “For every ‘ask,’ you must first produce twenty ‘gives.’” (Some would say a hundred.) A give is the opposite of an ask. I suspect that the heavy give-to-ask ratio is because what I might call a give (say, this post), you might consider a waste of time, a pain in the ass, spam.

I take my own asks very seriously, in the sense that I cringe when I do them and I try to balance them by as many gives as possible. Recently when The Profession was published, I did a bunch of asks. Buy this book. Tell your friends. I hate doing that. The way I justify it to myself is by saying that a person who reads an ask from me on this blog at least had to voluntarily come to the blog in the first place. Still, asks suck.

There are outbound asks and inbound asks. The trick with inbound asks is learning to say no. For most of us, this is not easy. I’ve been trying for years and still don’t say no half as often as I should.

My problem is I like to think of myself as a nice guy. This is not good. I’m working on getting over that. There are people out there who are what I would call social sociopaths. They’re not actual murderers or criminals; they won’t hurt you. But, for whatever reasons of character or upbringing, they are utterly without empathy. They have no sense of the value of another person’s time or hard-won skill or hard-earned reputation. If you’ve got it and they can use it, they want it. They want it now. They want it free. And they want it again and again.
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ADDITIONAL READING » ON WRITING

Additional Reading: On Writing

Bambi versus Godzilla: On the Nature, Purpose and Practice of the Movie Business

by Mamet, David

Technically this isn’t a book about writing. It’s about Tinseltown and David Mamet’s love-hate relationship with it. But, along with Mamet’s witty and cantankerous evisceration of show biz, Bambi vs. Godzilla delivers masterly and extremely useful insights on getting movies made, surviving criticism, paying the rent and in general surviving Hollywood while retaining some scrap of sanity and integrity. Mamet is not just any writer. When he takes on a subject, you get it in context succeeding context—commercial, aesthetic, moral, ethical, legal, Talmudic, Tantric and Vedic. It’s like reading Thucydides if he’d loaded his stuff into a ‘65 Mustang and split for the Coast.

Ernest Hemingway on Writing

by Phillips, Larry W.

Papa never actually sat down and wrote a book about writing. Rather, editor Larry Phillips has compiled 140 pages of hard-core Hemingwayisms from the author’s books, stories, and letters. Great material, particularly the fragments of correspondence to Scott Fitzgerald.

First Five Pages, The

by Lukeman, Noah

As an agent and editor, Noah Lukeman read thousands of manuscripts from aspiring writers. He got to where he could tell in the first five pages if a submission was worth his time. In this gem of a book, he tells you the most common mistakes writers make—and how to eradicate them from your manuscript.

How To Be Inspired

by Williams, Nick

A no-nonsense how-to manual and psych-yourself-up kit, for those of us who sometimes need a swift kick in the butt to get us going.

Journal of a Novel

by Steinbeck, John

When he was writing East of Eden, Steinbeck kept a journal—just a few pages each morning, which he’d scribble as a kind of warm-up before turning to the actual manuscript. Fascinating insights into the writer’s life, inside and outside the covers of a book.

Robert McKee’s Story Seminar

by McKee, Robert

I always say that McKee is not only the best teacher of writing I’ve ever seen, but the best teacher of anything. I’ve taken this three-day intensive course twice—and I’ll take it again. Yes, McKee has been spoofed (in the movie Adaptation) and lionized (in a New Yorker profile.) But that’s because he’s the best. Full disclosure: McKee and I are friends. McKee wrote the foreword for The War of Art. McKee teaches this class in cities all over the U.S. and Europe, even as far away as Israel and Singapore.

Story

by McKee, Robert

This is the book that goes with Robert McKee’s Story Seminar. Terrific for writers in all media, but take the “live” McKee first. You’ll get more out of the book if you’ve heard the man deliver his stuff in-person.

Three Uses of the Knife

by Mamet, David

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