Carolyn Hax’s tips for solving other people’s problems and entering the @Work Advice Contest

September 7, 2011

Shortly after I started my column in 1997, I received the following welcome-to-the-job comment from a reader, “Matt”:

“It appears that the only qualities one must possess to secure a column of one’s own at The Washington Post are a dull sense of self-satisfied humor, poor language skills, little or no experience in the relevant field and a fierce misandry.”

Would you, too, like to hear what others think of you and your opinions? Then it’s your lucky day.

The Washington Post Magazine is launching a contest to find the person with the smartest, liveliest advice on navigating workplace culture. If you can advise readers on how to deal with a bothersome coworker and what to do when your boss “friends” you on Facebook, among other issues, as well as impress even Matt the Reader with your sharp sense of self-deprecating humor, deft language skills, experience in the relevant field and fierce humanity, then show us, please, by entering the @Work Advice Contest. Finalists will participate in four rounds of face-offs, with winners selected by readers and a panel of judges, including me. The winner could get a four-week column published in The Washington Post Magazine and on washingtonpost.com Just fill out the application and read the complete contest rules. The deadline for entries is Sept. 18.

Before you start, here’s some advice on giving advice:


●Find a way to incorporate into your answer your initial, gut response to the question. Chances are readers will have a similar reaction, and a nod to that will give your answer more credibility.

●Use your natural voice. Also a matter of credibility.

●Don’t just put yourself in the writer’s shoes; imagine you’re each of the other people in the writer’s story. How would you regard the writer and the situation then?

●Scan the letters carefully for signs that the writer’s judgment is clouded by self-interest. In advice columns, self-interest is Zelig, blending into the picture as if it belongs there when it usually doesn’t. When you’re through checking the letter for it, check your answer for it, too. Be tougher on your answer than you were with the question. Know, too, that you’ll still be biased sometimes, and wrong.

●Where possible, offer answers that will apply even if the writer’s description of the situation is incomplete or inaccurate, because the writers are human, i.e., notoriously incomplete and inaccurate.

●After you finish writing, go over your answers several times for angles you may have missed. If you don’t find them, readers will, and they’ll gleefully spell them all out in the Comments section (hello, Comments section!). Having thought of these other angles first won’t keep people from picking apart your advice, but you’ll feel much better about being picked apart if you don’t see any surprises in people’s criticism.

●Finally, imagine delivering your advice to the writer in person. If you’d feel rude doing that, then take the edge off your delivery. Don’t change your advice though, if you believe in it; integrity will demand that you say some unpopular things, but you’ll survive that. Your credibility as a columnist won’t survive pandering, though, or the other extreme, snark for the sake of snark.

If you think you’ve got what it takes, check out the official rules and enter the @Work Advice Contest before Sept. 18 at 11:59 p.m.

Carolyn Hax started her advice column in 1997, after five years as a copy editor and news editor in Style and none as a therapist. The column includes cartoons by "relationship cartoonist" Nick Galifianakis -- Carolyn's ex-husband -- and appears in over 200 newspapers.
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