In my role as an author and editor, I am often asked, what do I consider to be the hallmarks of a professional writer? How do you tell the pros from the amateurs? And most importantly, how do you become a pro?
So, I’ve compiled this non-exhaustive-but-pretty-darn-close list based on my personal experiences and interactions on both sides of the publishing industry—author side and editor side.
Being a professional writer means:
- Being creative when you’re down or sick or hungover or having a bad day.
- Pushing words onto the page even when they suck. A pro writer knows you can’t edit a blank page.
- Setting daily goals. Butt + chair = productivity
- Meeting daily goals. Pros create a habit of writing, and the notion that pro writers spend all their time surfing the internet is largely inaccurate.
- Writing in the small spaces– in the checkout line, in the bathroom, at an Idina Menzel concert, any time an idea strikes you.
- Not really understanding those memes like “If you make me mad I’ll put you in a book and kill you.” Good writing is not about petty grudges.
- Working a job to support your writing career. If you’re writing to “make money,” you’re going about it all wrong.
- Getting up early and staying up late to make your daily word count.
- Never getting to level 80 in World of Warcraft.
- Realizing that “perfect” is the enemy of “good.” You can only obsess over a single word or phrase for so long before the ratio of impact vs. decline in productivity shifts out of your favor.
- Reading, reading, reading. How can you write in your genre when you don’t read in your genre?
- Accepting that you’ll be months, if not years, behind in watching the latest TV shows.
- Being able to take and implement criticism. Treat your book like your baby, but let it get skinned knees, let it play in the dirt. It’ll be stronger for it.
- Always seeking to hone your craft.
- Being respectful of other writers and celebrating their successes. One writer’s success does not take away from yours. Leave your jealousy at the door.
- Accepting that you can’t predict the market. Boy wizard? Sparkly vampires? Who knew? Answer: no one. So write what you’re passionate about.
- Accepting that house-cleaning will probably have to wait.
- Plotting, plotting, plotting. Plotting some more.
- Pantsing at least a little. Even the most strict plotline needs wiggle room for magic to happen.
- Revision, revision, revision.
- Being humble and gracious. Without the agents, editors, readers, crit partners, bloggers, reviewers, etc, you wouldn’t be where you are.
- Realizing there’s no one path to success. You can take every single step JK Rowling did and still not end up at Hogwarts. Own your path. Take whatever it brings and make the most of it.
- Knowing when to take a break and step back. Writing at the cost of friendships or family isn’t healthy. Know when to unplug.
- Giving back to the writing community. At some point, someone probably gave you a chance, an opportunity, a critique, a kind word, a good review, an “in.” When it’s your turn, give one back.
- Making informed choices about your writing. Pro writers know when they’re breaking the rules and why.
- Realizing you are your reputation and much of that comes from how you portray yourself on the internet. Maintain your integrity in your dealings with everyone.
- Putting your writing over your hobbies. Do you write once/week but spend 40 hours playing video games or binge-watching Netflix? Maybe it’s time for a change.
- Not needing a member of the Avengers or Neil Gaiman or anyone to tell you “You should be writing.” Memes are cute, but discipline is key.
- Hustling and making your own opportunities. (see: there’s no one path to success).
- Understanding it’s a marathon not a sprint. NaNoWriMo is EvRyDayO.
- Practicing to condense your book’s plot into 1-2 sentences so you can intelligently answer the dreaded question, “What do you write?”
- Getting used to disappointment. No matter how good, how thoughtful or engaging your writing is, some people will simply not like it. It’s okay. Let it go.
- Forging on despite a bad review, a bad cover, or a missed opportunity.
- Believing in yourself and the worth of your writing. If you don’t, no one else will.
- Not waiting around for the muse to strike. Want inspiration? Go find it. Hunt the muse down and tie it to the desk.
- De-ritualizing the act of writing. You don’t need special pens or a special notebook. The magic is inside you.
- Not waiting for a special place or a special time. The place is wherever you are. The time is now.
As always, with any writing advice, opinions differ and mileage varies. Writing is one of those odd careers where there is no one decisive path to success. I hope some of this advice helps you find your path!
Until next time, slán go fóill!