Professionalism: 10 basics for writers

A beginning writer asked me what professionalism means. After a bit of thought, I came up with this list of 10 basics, not necessarily in any particular order.

1. Do learn to write professional, concise, and interesting query letters as first contact with an unknown editor or agent.

2. Do refrain from emailing or calling an editor or agent unless (a) personally invited to do so or (b) you read in a current market directory that phone calls and/or emails are welcomed.

3. Do address a query letter to a specific person with the correct title next to their name. Employees of publishing houses work hard to earn their titles. Use them. Never ever send a letter to Dear Editor. If you don't know the name of an editor, call the publishing house and ask the receptionist for the name and title of a person who handles the specific kind of book you are writing.

4. Do refrain from taking out your hurt feelings because of rejections on editors and agents. Always be courteous in any dealings with editors and agents. Professionals in publishing move around a lot. The editor at XYZ Publishers (whom you called a sub-literate bozo on the phone yesterday) may be at ABC Publishers next week, the house where you sent your new manuscript. Just as you remember rudeness, so do they. Never burn bridges.

5. Do mail letter-perfect, clean, typewritten letters printed on good quality, standard color (white, ivory, gray, pale blue) paper. Never send handwritten letters, or letters on pink, purple, fluorescent, or other obtrusively colored paper. Professionalism should be your watchword. Avoid anything that smacks of the amateur. If in doubt, ask other authors for an opinion.

6. Do remember that editors and agents want to deal with professionals so learn that being a professional means never begging, pleading, threatening, or bribing. Publishing is a business. Editors and agents don't care if you are about to be evicted for not paying your rent. They do care if you can write a great book or article. They care if you can take editorial direction.

7. Do take classes if you need to perfect your command of the language and/or grammar. Never think that your brilliantly creative writing will make an editor overlook misplaced modifiers, subjects and verbs that do not agree, incorrect word usage, misspellings, etc. This is a tough, competitive business. You don't want the editor to toss your submission away because of a misspelled word in the first paragraph.

8. Do realize that thinking your writing is "good enough" is an invitation for rejection. Write and revise, always trying to improve your skill level. Master fiction techniques.

9. Do remember that it is not the easiest thing in the world to get a book published, but it is not the most difficult either. Never make excuses for why you haven't sold; no one really believes the rationalizations - not even you. Just write and rewrite and improve and keep writing.

10. Do remember why you write - not to make a gazillion bucks or to get famous - but because you love putting words together, telling stories.

Find the joy in the simple act of putting words together and getting them on paper. Hold that joy close because it is what drives you and keeps you writing when doors are slammed in your face. If you are writing for any reason other than the sheer love of translating your vision so that others can see it and feel it by reading your words, then you are in the wrong business.

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