Want to Be a Professional Writer? Act Like One.

James Scott Bell

I’ve been teaching at writers conferences for over fifteen years, and I’ve seen a ton of aspiring writers in various stages of disequilibrium. Everyone wants to get a book contract, and everyone’s a little scared they never will. They hear stories about the odds and it sends shivers to the tips of their typing fingers.
Those who persevere have a chance.
In the course of these conference years I’ve seen a number of writers who have gotten that contract and gone on to be published by major houses. I’ve even helped a few get there, which is nice. And while it’s nearly impossible to judge why one manuscript makes it and another, which is comparable or even better, does not, I have made note of one item. The overwhelming majority of writers I’ve seen make it are those who look and act like a professional.
When you meet unpublished writers who act like pros, you form the immediate impression that it’s only a matter of time before they make it. This impression is not lost on agents and editors.
So what are the marks of a professional?
1. Grooming. Successful writers-in-waiting look professional. They do not come off as slobs or slackers. They dress sharply though unpretentiously. They say you can’t judge a book by its cover, but we do it all the time with people. Don’t shoot down your first impression by looking unkempt or having stink-breath that can kill low flying birds.
2. Industry knowledge. Professionals know something about their profession. They spend time reading blogs and books and the trades, though not to the exclusion of their writing.
3. To the point. A pro has the ability to focus on what the other person (e.g., an agent) will find valuable and, most important, can deliver that in a concise and persuasive manner. You should be able to tell someone, in 30 seconds or less, what your book is about, in such a way that the person can immediately see its potential.
4. Courtesy. Common courtesy goes a long way. If you have an appointment with an agent, be there two minutes early. When you’re done, thank them. Follow up with a short and appropriate e-mail.  Don’t call them unless you’ve been invited to. Don’t get angry or petulant, even if there’s a reason for it. Burning bridges is never a good career move.
5. Take action every day. Over the long haul, a successful professional in any field is always in a growth mode. Always looking for ways to improve, studying, doing, taking action toward goals. When you do this, day after day, you begin to build momentum. That, in turn, will fuel your confidence and keep you going. And there is nothing an unpublished writer needs more than motivation to keep going.
So . . . keep writing. Keep learning. And act like a pro. 
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32 thoughts on “Want to Be a Professional Writer? Act Like One.

  1. And even when you get published, it doesn’t mean that you can make a living of writing, something most aspiring writers dream of.
    It took me 20 years, 12 novels and immigrating to the other side of the world before I got that first book-deal. Interestingly, the publisher found me. I used to tell people that I was an office manager. A spiritual friend told me: If you want to be a published writer, don’t tell people that you work in an office. Tell people that you are a writer. I made it my mission to become a writer. I left the office, sold everything, moved to the Himalayas to live next-door to the Dalai Lama and…. waited. After a year, a publisher asked me to write a book about that major change. So when people ask me what it takes to become a published writer, I tell them that I sold my house and all my belongings, moved to India, and lived like a Tibetan nun to get that book-deal. But this major change got me a lot more….

  2. Jim,how did you get that picture of me???

    All great advice. I’ve found that the area with the most problems is your #3, To The Point. The ability to summarize the wannabe author’s story in a short, focused pitch is tough. Many authors don’t prepare that portion of their overall appearance well enough. Agents have told me that one of the most important things they’re looking for in a new story is “what makes it different”. There are a zillion mysteries and thrillers and romances out there. And even more vampire stories. What makes this one different? Why will it stand out from the noise of the crowd? Most important: why would someone want to buy it? That one hardly ever seems to come up in a wannabe pitch.

  3. You mean giving the Bella Lugosi eye while trying to hypnotize agents and publishers in the hallways at a conference is not a good thing?


    must find new tactic….mind ray…yeah, that’s more more subtle

  4. As usual, another valuable post. I particularly like number 5: take action every day. I work at that. And I agree with you. The writers who do, pre-published or published, are the pros.

  5. Another thing is to never tell an agent or publisher that you have a certain best seller for them. A book that will make them a fortune––the opportunity of a lifetime. Also don’t exude bitterness that you’ve never been published, because publishers are printing unreadable shite, and ignoring truly great works of literature like yours. Also authors who will “not” alter their work for any agent or publisher will be left to their genius.

    And the few who are fortunate enough to make a good living from writing have always been as rare as human babies born with a full set of teeth.

  6. Pantau, that is one unique path to publication, and just shows there really is no one way. But there are principles, and actions. And yes, there is more to life than a book deal…

  7. Joe, I snapped that picture at ThrillerFest a couple of years ago. I was behind a fern at the time.

    And you are so right. It’s not enough to emulate what’s come before. What can you add to your idea? The key is the Lead, IMO. Concentrate on the originality you can form there.

  8. Basil, the Bela works just fine if you’re wearing a cape. Otherwise, be able to pitch a great story.

    Rebbie, thanks for the good word. In any undertaking, it’s action that counts. Not whining or wishing.

  9. John, it’s true. And don’t say your book will turn you into “another” James Patterson, John Grisham, etc. etc.

    Yes, Dana. And the Woodman also said he didn’t mind death, he just didn’t want to be there when it happened. I guess he would rather be off writing another movie.

  10. I know an agent that received a query that began: “Please bear with me, I have a hard time putting my thoughts into words.”

    It was Mr. J.S. Bell or perhaps Joe Moore who suggested reading the story descriptions on book jackets for an example of building interest by getting to the meat of your matter.

  11. Great advice, every bit of it, and I trust that knowledge was gained by observation, not by experience.
    Thanks again, Jim, for sharing your wisdom with us.

  12. This is brilliant advice. It’s not that I haven’t heard it, or read it somewhere before. But it’s funny how it is easy to forget the importance of being sharp with the answer to a question as simple as, “So what is your book about?”

    Thank you for the reminder.

  13. Hey Jimmy,
    Love the post. This will have to be my blog pick of the week on Friday. 🙂 Loved the picture of Joe too. Glad you guys have a sense of humor.

    I finished my fist big revisions for my editor last night. Whew! What I love about this profession is that you can never know everything. You can never stop learning and there’s a challenge there that keeps me wanting to improve.

    It’s sad when writers forget all about #4. I’ve seen some of that bridge burning and it’s not pretty.

    And you are so right about perseverance, Jim. It’s easy to quit but then you’d never know what might have been. I’m so glad for your teachings and so glad I kept writing. Have a great day Kill Zoners!

  14. Good post, Jim. Alway good for writers to remember the basics in this path towards publication. The U.S. Marines teach that winning a battle hinges on learning the basics. In the midst of combat,these tools became second nature. I think this applies to writing as well. Thanks for the reminder.

  15. Grayquill, absolutely right. Yet many writers think they are in the “artistic” realm and can flout the disciplines.

    Hey Mark, maybe we should open a Boot Camp.

  16. Spot-on advice, Jim. Unpublished writers should be confident without hubris, and they should be humble without negativity.

    As an extension of number 5, another success indicator is that the authors who make it don’t show up at agent pitch sessions three years in a row with the same book. They know that writers who have careers must produce books on a regular basis and nurture the ability to write that next story.

  17. This is great advice, applicable for writers at almost any stage. I recall someone describing “professional” as being prepared, purposeful and personable. Presentable could be shoehorned in there as well, but really, that should go without saying.

  18. Ha, knowing how to market yourself – it’s so fundamental to whatever profession we choose to engage in.

    I had that experience recently. This poet in the audience was pulling his hair out when he heard that publishers don’t always particularly welcome poetry. This isn’t to say that his poetry won’t be published, it’s just he needs to work toward presenting something people want to read. Not what he wants to write.

    So yeah, always good to keep an eye on the profession and its trends I think.

    Again, great post.

  19. For God’s sake, don’t go up to a preeminent critic at a party, wrap your arm around his neck and say that you’re the best writer in this ‘gottdamn’ country, that your new book is coming out soon and ‘you got a treat coming … and don’t you boys make no mistake about that.’

    Because in this true story, the critic told his friend about the incident and said, ‘Of all the idiots I’ve ever laid eyes on, that fellow is the worst.’

    Then he read the book, and wrote:

    Dear George:

    Grab hold of the bar-rail, steady yourself, and prepare yourself for a terrible shock! I’ve just read the book of that Lump we met at Schmidt’s and, by God, he has done the job! It’s a genuinely excellent piece of work. Get it as soon as you can and take a look. I begin to believe that perhaps there isn’t a God after all. There is no justice in the world.”

    And that was how H.L. Mencken was introduced to Sinclair Lewis and his “Main Street.”

  20. Thanks for the words! Those are some helpful and encouraging thoughts as I’m setting out at the beginning of this process.

    Much appreciated!

  21. Thanks for the post and very revealing pix. (What not to wear)

    Number 5 is first for me, for daily practice strengthens skills and story. Then #1 and #5. Look the professional when you go out to meet with agents and other writerly folk and be polite. Good manners always count.

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