Monday, 21 November 2011

How to be professional

I often exhort aspiring writers to "be professional" and someone recently pointed out that I have never actually explained what that means. Which is not very professional of me as a professional advice-giver.

Writing may be a passion, but if we want to be published it is also a job. We must intend to earn money from it and we must therefore enter our profession and our industry with certain behaviours in mind.

So, when people like me ask writers to be professional in their approach, here's what we want you to think about.
  • Take steps to become informed - we don't have exams, but there is a great deal of knowledge to acquire. So, get clued up. Read blogs and books, make friends with people in the writing world, attend conferences, anything to ensure that you have the best level of knowledge possible before you submit your work. That way, you won't accidentally reveal horrible ignorance.
  • Present your work with decorum. The submission should be presented properly, neatly, carefully, with enormous attention to detail. Otherwise, it's like arriving at an interview in your scruffiest clothes and with egg on your t-shirt.
  • Don't make any of the newbie submission errors - if you did, this would only show that you haven't obeyed my first point. There's masses of advice about submissions in Write to be Published.

  • Show respect to those who know more than you - other published writers, agents and editors who know what they are doing. You're unpublished - this doesn't mean I'm a better writer than you but it does mean you know less than I do about being published, and being published is what you're trying to be.
  • Don't slag off the industry or any individuals in it. Yes, you can have an opinion and yes, you could be right, but be very cautious of who might see your vituperativeness and, more importantly, what this might say about you. You might be wrong, you see, or your newness to the business might mean you've missed an important point.
  • Be prepared to work very hard at making your book as good as it can be - and all the future books you are going to write. Show that you fully understand the work ahead.

  • Be prepared to accept guidance, criticism and editorial direction.

  • When relaxing on Twitter, be aware that you are still in public. You are allowed to have fun - in fact, who wants to work with someone who can't have fun? - but if you behave like a nasty or foolish person, you reveal yourself as a nasty or foolish person, and no one wants to work with a nasty or foolish person. Instead, behave decently to others, offering praise, joining conversations and not being a total divot.
  • Do what you say you're going to do, when you say you're going to do it. If you've said you'll deliver something by December 1st, do it. If you feel you're not going to make it, give lots of warning and explain very simply that you would like to deliver it by [insert date when you are sure you can do it.] Be efficient and strategic, showing that you value deadlines and can manage your working life.
  • Don't be over-friendly too soon. In email or phone conversations with potential agents or publishers, be friendly, of course, but don't over-do it. They are busy. Take your cue from them. Don't gush or flutter or go overboard with the LOLs (in fact, please don't use LOL at all). Read their body language. You are not their new best friend. Wait until you actually are their friend before you get too chatty.
  • Seem in control of your life. Writers can, like anyone, be very disorganised and can have enormously distracting things happening in their lives. The art is to give the impression - always - that despite any of this you can still do your work. Writers often need to continue writing when children are ill or elderly parents being demanding or many domestic crises are going on. No one else can do your writing for you and you have to look as though you know this and can rise above everything. You need to show this in your off-duty behaviour on Twitter, Facebook or your blog, as well.

  • Always wear a suit when preparing your submission. If you wear pyjamas, they will see. :)
You may wonder how exactly you are supposed to demonstrate all these things. Professionalism is something which you don't always have to show explicitly - if you believe all these points, you will follow them implicitly and your professionalism will shine through your behaviour, the calm smile on your face, and the strength of your handshake.

The two most likely places for you to demonstrate professionalism are a) in your submission and b) on your blog, if you have one. Don't ask an agent or editor to go and look at your blog but do include the address subtly in your letter/email. Then they can visit if they wish and they most likely will if they are interested in you. There, they need to see you behaving like a real writer-in-the-making, someone who is all set to be a wonderful, professional author.That doesn't mean you have to be po-faced or that you can't let your hair down occasionally, but it does mean that your blog must be well-written and worth reading for all the right reasons.

Once you've made your mark, you can cross some lines and mess around if you wish. because it is possible to be professional AND fun-loving and highly creative. Professionalism is just a suit we wear.


catdownunder said...

Serious question, what if your blog is not about books, writing or a topic related to these things?
Would a potential publisher/agent still be interested in looking at it (however briefly) or are they likely to think "Why is this person wasting my time on something irrelevant or (in my case) a blog which is not about any one subject in particular?"

Nicola Morgan said...

Cat - this is one reason why you/we should *never* ask an agent or publisher (or anyone, really!) to go and read our blog. If they want to, they will, and since they have then chosen to, we haven't wasted their time.

Writers must understand that good agents and publishers are not trawling the internet looking for writers. They will look at your blog if they want to, as a very small part of their assessment of you. But they'd only need or want or have time to do that if they already really like you submission sample and idea.

Therefore, once they arrive at your blog, it doesn't (usually) matter what it's about or whether it's about lots of things. Your blog doesn't have to be about your book topic (unless you're writing non-fiction) or your fiction writing - it just has to show that you can write and that you are professional about your work life.

Your (I don't mean yours, but in general!) blog could either a) turn them right off you b) confirm their assessment that you are a good writer with a good attitude etc c) tell them something really fabulous about you that they didn't know from the letter etc.

Does that help?

Dan Holloway said...

Hmm, yes, your last point. Whenever I'm doing the final draft of a paper, or doing my final rehearsals for a reading, I wear my BA gown because it gets me in a mindset.

On the having of opinions and blog behaviour bit, I'm not sure how to frame this because it's sortof obvious what professionalism looks like, but guidelines are helpful. Is there a difference in the kind of opinions, and the robustness of them, that one should express if one is a non-iction as opposed to a fiction writer. As we're always being told about platform, my understanding about platform is that, as with a manuscript, one of teh key elements is "voice", and that sometimes requires a particular flavour of opinion - "Oh, *you're* the one who thinks the Vikings landed on the moon!" for example. I guess the actual example that springs to mind is Ben Goldacre, though as a Dr he - like published authors writing about being published authors - could claim some kind of entitlement. What about opinion-as-entertainment? Does that make any sense?

catdownunder said...

Yes, thankyou. I thought that might be your answer but I wondered if there was something else I had not thought of!

Stu Ayris said...

Great stuff Nicola. Really helpful to people like myself who are really trying to work out how to make a go of all this writing lark!

(I have just sensed that the above sentance may make me sound a little amateurish - and I thought I was getting somewhere!!)

What I mean to say is that your article really helps focus my mind on what it is I am trying to achieve and how I can give myself the best possible chance.

Thank you as always!


JO said...

Great post, Nicola - and much of this is common sense.

Couldn't help wondering if it has been sparked by someone behaving very unprofessionally in your orbit? This is a reasoned, professional response, and I'm sure you wouldn't dream of telling . . .

No, thought you wouldn't.

Rebecca Bradley said...

I think this post is a great reminder about professionalism. The majority of it is common sense but I think sometimes we lose that when, as you say, we're relaxing on twitter. I have regularly typed out a tweet but had second thoughts and deleted it before sending. If we want writing to be our profession, then we jolly well should behave professionally.

Katalin Havasi said...

Thank you so much, Nicola. An excellent account. Very professional.

I especially love the last sentence. Professionalism is a business suit we wear. What a great metaphor! I will remember this image.

Thanks again for answering my question.

(Oh, does it show that I'm wearing my pyjamas?)

Margaret Morton Kirk said...

Always wear a suit when preparing your submission. If you wear pyjamas, they will see.

So that's where I've been going wrong! I suppose fluffy bunny slippers are out of the question?

Vanessa Gebbie said...

Oh I love love love your last point (and all of them, of course, but that one in particular.)

I'm often to be found wafting about the place in my night attire well after sun up. Even until sundown when I am away writing and nothing else. But many is the time that an important call is scheduled for say 9.00am, when under normal circumstances I'd be eating toast, reading the paper, or thinking about getting up. (Mentally, alert as a sausage of course, but who is to know that?)

I always always, if there is a conversation to be had with anyone to do with the work of writing, being published, teaching, or any variable, get up early, and by the time the call comes, I am showered, dressed, made up, hair looking less like a haystack than normal.

I am not in 'relaxed mode'. My brain as well as my body knows I am not in relaxed mode. I take the call at my desk, not in bed or stretched out on the settee, and if I look down at my feet, I am NOT wearing slippers.

I feel sharper. I think better. I talk differently.

An I can always get back into jimjams when the business talk is over...!


Neal... said...

I'd just like to add at this late stage that I wouldn't dream of sitting down to read this blog without wearing a formal business suit.

Of course, it's my wife's formal business suit, but it's a good one. Designers at Debenhams I think.

Helen said...

As always a great post! Having only just entered the scary world of social media, it's a good reminder of applying common sense - think twice, think blog!

Nicola Morgan said...

Dan - I'm not sure I *quite* understand the question! But I don't believe there's a compulsory difference - the voice on your blog shoudl (and would) be your "natural" voice anyway, and I think you're entitled on your blog to talk about whatever you want however you want (bearing in mind my other guidelines.) It really depends what your blog is *for*.

Stu - the only amaterish thing was your spelling of the word "sentence"! Lol

Rebecca - indeed, so have I!

Jo - no, it genuinely was sparked by a question on this blog! I think it was Katalin's question, from memory.

Katalin, Margaret, Neal - ;)

Vanessa - you're right, seriously. Although I obviously wasn't being entirely serious, you've made me see that there was a serious point behind it. Similarly, I always used to put make-up on while watching Bergerac, because I'd have hated John Nettles to see me not looking my best!

Helen - good luck!

Stu Ayris said...

I hereby declare that the comments section of this blog requires a spell chek...

KarenG said...

Wonderful list! I especially like the last three LOL.

Katalin Havasi said...

Yes, it was my question, Nicola. Thanks for answering it.

I've recently seen the movie 'Memoirs of a Geisha'. When a Japanese woman wears a hand-painted silk kimono, she walks, talks and behaves quite differently than before. Similarly, I truly believe that what we wear influences our overall behaviour immensely but for the most part unconsciously.

Here comes an idea:
What if we put on the clothes of our fictitious characters when we write about them? The way we imagine their clothing, of course. Will that make our writing better, more vivid?

Neil Ansell said...

One useful tip that I find makes me look far more professional than I really am is that when negotiating a delivery date for a manuscript I always ask for 50% more time than I think I need. This should be enough time to allow for illness, family crises, going on a bender or whatever. Publishers are always impressed when you deliver ahead of schedule and it helps foster the illusion that you are reliable.