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Lessons from the Self-Addressed, Stamped Envelope

The self-addressed, stamped envelope (SASE) is an important life skill.

If you’ve never submitted a piece of writing to a publisher before the entire world was electronic, you may never have had to include a self-addressed, stamped envelope. Here’s how it worked:

  1. You, a poor writer, want to convince some editor to review your work
  2. The editor is very busy, and has no time for you or your work
  3. So you mail the editor your work in a nice, clean, readable hard copy, and include in the packet a SASE for them use to reply.
  4. Now, when the editor is digging through a pile of terrible manuscripts, they can at least answer yours, because the SASE is right there, so all they have to do is write, “thank you but this is not any good” on any scrap of paper they can find, seal it in your SASE, and drop it in the outbox.
  5. Now you, the poor writer, stand a fighting chance of getting actual feedback from a real live editor, instead of just getting ghosted.

When I was in college, among the many things I did besides my school work, I submitted some truly terrible poetry to some fairly serious literary magazines. In a couple of instances, I got back a hand-written note that basically said, “I know this seems like good poetry to you, but it’s not. Please get good before resubmitting.” Now, these did not feel good to get. But they were real feedback from a busy, overworked, under-thanked professional in a field I was trying to break into, and in that sense they were very valuable. And the reason I got them is that I included the SASE.

The lesson from including a SASE is this: If you’re asking someone to do you a favor, you can’t also ask them to do work in order to accomplish the favor. Don’t make people do work to follow your instructions. You include the SASE because you mailed someone a letter, and you want an answer, so you know that if they decide to answer, they’ll need to track down an envelope, and your address, and a stamp, so you do that for them: you include a self-addressed, stamped envelope; now they can do you the favor of answering without having to do the work of finding a stamp.

I don’t write much poetry any more, and I haven’t done a snail mail submission in a long time, but I keep this lesson from that time: I try always to include a SASE in any communication I send. In other words, if I’m asking someone to do something for me, I try to make it as easy as humanly possible for them to do it. Want someone to come to an event? Include the time, date, complete physical address (well enough formatted that they can paste it straight into their maps app), dress code, whether there will be food, etc. Now if they want to do you the favor of attending your event, they don’t need to do the work of emailing you and asking you whether they should eat dinner ahead of time. Want your customer to answer a survey? There should be a zero friction link to the survey in the request. If there isn’t, the customer will think, “Where’s my SASE? GTFO,” and the customer will be right.

Here are a few modern examples where people forgot the SASE:

  1. The README for an open source project says, “See crate documentation for simulation setup instructions,” but this sentence is not a link to the crate documentation. This leaves me shaking my fist at them! I already Googled and found your README, and now you want me to go to different website, but you won’t even tell me which one!
  2. You’re on your OSS project’s Discord instance, and you’re telling someone to please open an issue, but your request doesn’t include a link to the new issue form. Why not? You’re asking them to do you the favor of re-typing the complaint from one text field into another, and you won’t even tell them where the second text field is!
  3. You slack a coworker and say, “hey, did you get a chance to review that PR?” and the message does not include a link to the PR! Where’s my SASE? You’re asking me for a favor, and then adding extra steps to it!
  4. You forward an email with a comment like “Thoughts?” at the top. Where’s my SASE? You read the entire email, decided you needed my input on it, presumably for some specific reason, but now you won’t tell me what that reason is. Where’s my SASE? Don’t ask me for the favor of answering a question about that email, and then ask me to guess what the question is!

So I challenge you, dear reader, next time you’re asking anything of anyone, don’t make them also do work to figure out how to do the favor. Include a SASE!

Till next time, happy learning!
– Will


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