Ghostwriters: Should You Ever Let Someone “Pick Your Brain?”

Ghostwriters: Should You Ever Let Someone “Pick Your Brain?”

Should you be willing to give away your brainpower, your expertise, for free?


The email in my inbox this morning from a complete stranger asked for some of my time “to learn more about your process” and “to pick your brain about ghostwriting.” 

I have to admit I was a bit shocked by the question. Sure, I receive requests to network or to answer a few questions about ghostwriting from time-to-time, but rarely does someone I don’t know at all ask me to give away my hard-earned expertise at no cost to them.

Why in the world would I ever do that?

In this case, I wouldn’t. There is no reason for me to put aside billable work to spill all my secrets to a stranger. I declined.

However, there are situations where it may be in your best interest to say yes. Some of those scenarios include:

Being invited to speak. If you are asked to speak or to present to an audience about your work, your process, or your business and there is the chance that you could come in contact with prospective clients, sharing your expertise might be worth your time. Or if you are asked to speak to students or to fellow writers who are attending a conference, you might also consider the request, as a way to support the community of writers. The pay-off is helping others – who have demonstrated they recognize the value of your advice by investing in the class or the conference – become successful. At some point those colleagues might also return the favor and refer work your way; that has certainly happened for me.

Being asked to help a friend or colleague. When a friend, friend-of-a-friend, colleague, or fourth cousin once removed asks for my advice, I gladly give it. Chances are very good that somewhere along the way, I benefited from someone else’s friend’s counsel and advice and I’m happy to return the favor. I also enjoy helping my friends. But there needs to be a personal connection for me to give up my free time.

Being interviewed for an article, book, or blog post. Since publicity is one of the best ways to establish yourself as an expert, it’s generally a good idea to speak with journalists and writers about what you do when given the opportunity. The media coverage that results is often very beneficial. So when a reporter asks for your time, I strongly suggest you consider giving them as much as they need, as long as the story they’re writing will paint you in a positive light.

Being asked to consult with a potential client. I often get calls from experts, executives, and entrepreneurs who are considering writing a book and want to chat with me about its viability – is it worth their time and energy to produce it, they want to know. Because such calls can often lead to projects for me or for colleagues in the Association of Ghostwriters, if the topic isn’t up my alley, I am generally willing to set aside 15-30 minutes for a discussion. I actually enjoy these calls, when I can learn something new and share information that may prove useful to them. In this case, I consider the time a marketing expense – there is the possibility of future work. I’d recommend that you also be willing to give prospects your time when they ask for it.

Having a referral source ask for your time. If you receive leads from people like attorneys, accountants, PR professionals, graphic designers, editors, or agents and they ask you to spend a few minutes speaking with one of their clients, it would behoove you to say yes. Show why the individual refers work your way, by demonstrating your professionalism and industry knowledge to their client or contact. It’s also a way to show appreciation for the trust your referral source has shown you and the business they’ve sent your way.

Generally, I need to know who you are, what you need from me, and how your request is going to benefit me more than continuing to complete the billable client work I already have on my desk. I don’t mean for that to sound harsh but I try hard not to give away time that I’ve asked them to pay for. It’s just not fair to them.

What are some situations in which you’ve been willing to let someone “pick your brain?” 

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Marcia Layton Turner


  1. Karen Cioffi on October 19, 2017 at 11:53 pm

    Marcia, great article. Probably most of us ghostwriters have had potential clients ask about our process. I just had one today. What’s interesting is I can usually now tell if they’re just picking my brain or actually interested in hiring me. The one today was a definite brain picker. But, I guess it goes with the territory.

    • Marcia Layton Turner on October 19, 2017 at 11:55 pm

      Thanks so much, Karen. And you’re right, sometimes it’s hard to tell whether it will be worth your time to schedule a conversation or not.

  2. Evelyn Puerto on October 25, 2017 at 9:28 pm

    This was a very timely article for me, Marcia. I’m always glad to spend time with potential clients, telling them enough so they feel comfortable with my expertise. But that’s so different from the people that just want to “pick your brain.” Thanks for affirming that I’m right to say no to them.

    • Marcia Layton Turner on October 25, 2017 at 9:37 pm

      I’m so glad it was helpful, Evelyn, and I completely agree that it’s worth investing time in learning more about a potential client’s project. I think that’s the perfect opportunity to demonstrate your expertise and experience and offer suggestions for how to approach their project. But when a stranger, or someone you have only a tenuous connection to, asks you to spill all your professional know-how, I see no reason to. Would Steve Jobs have agreed to share all of his intellectual property with execs at Sony or Nokia or IBM? Highly doubtful. I think you’re smart to say no as often as possible.

  3. Graham Strong on October 26, 2017 at 3:38 pm

    Funny enough, I came across this blog post while looking for ghostwriters who might be willing for me to “pick their brains”… Because of that, I assumed this post was referring to other writers asking for advice, but after reading the comments, perhaps you meant non-writers who are trying to avoid hiring a ghostwriter and do it themselves…?

    Either way, you raise a great point. Why should you give away information for free, when you’ve worked so hard to learn that knowledge — and when consultancy is a big part of what a ghostwriter does?

    For me, I see it as a “professional courtesy” (in terms of helping writers). I have been a marketing writer and journalist for many years now, and from time to time I’ve had up-and-comers ask for advice. If I have the time to do it, I’m happy to impart some of my wisdom only because I remember how hard it was for me breaking in. I can see though how some would have good reason not to do that.

    In terms of potential clients — I think I’d be willing to help there a little bit as well. Part of the reason I get hired as a copywriter is because people *hate* writing. Perhaps it’s an outside chance, but for 10 minutes of advice out of the blue, it might be a loss-leader to a major book project or other work when they get frustrated and give up. That’s been my experience, in any case (albeit my experience is exclusively for smaller copywriting projects — larger book writing projects could be different, and you’ve got to distinguish from the tire-kickers too).

    So, where’s the line when you’re giving “a little bit of help”? Ha — not sure there. At some point though, I imagine you put together a proposal for coaching fees…


    • Marcia Layton Turner on October 26, 2017 at 3:54 pm

      You raise an interesting point with respect to “professional courtesy,” Graham. I think those requests, when they come from someone you are somehow connected to – perhaps you’re both members of a professional organization, for example – are much more reasonable than a request out of the blue from someone you’ve never heard of to give up your precious time. But, yes, I was referring to fellow writers who want career advice from fellow writers.

      And I think there are many ways to ask for advice. That is, the telephone is not the only way to share expertise. When writers post questions on the Association of Ghostwriters website, I’m happy to respond and share thoughts. Or when they email me with a quick question, I always answer. But when I receive an email from a stranger asking for a chunk of my time by phone or in person, I think that has crossed a line from reasonable to unreasonable.

      But this is all different from a potential client asking for advice. Those requests I’m happy to accept if the book is a good fit for me. And if it’s not, I’ll suggest several colleagues.

  4. Bobbi Linkemer on November 1, 2017 at 12:49 am

    Where was this advice all those many years ago when I started letting people “pick my brain” and never really stopped? My philosophy has always been that I knew so much, giving away a little bit would hardly scratch the surface. Looking back, I think having a mentor with a strong business sense would have disabused me of that idea very quickly. But, alas, I had no such mentor and formed some pretty bad habits.

  5. sahil on December 21, 2017 at 9:59 am

    i think noo…….never

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