It’s a bright, sunny day. Your horse or lottery ticket just came in. Your significant other is happy and loving. You had a great breakfast and you’re feeling fine. Of course you’re in the zone where you can crank out a great story, possibly in record time, and feel just wonderful not only while you’re doing it, but also afterward.
But that’s not such an amazing triumph. Millions of people can do that.
It’s when the weather is crappy, your horse or lottery ticket came in last, your significant other is feeling difficult and dissatisfied, you burned your eggs and dropped your toast on the floor (butter side down!), and you ache all over that it takes true professionalism to crank out that same great story and feel proud of yourself for having done it, though perhaps not in record time.
Professionalism isn’t always about overcoming a mountain of obstacles, of course, but it does tend to distinguish the best writers from the rest of the pack. It also promotes a high level of self-confidence and satisfaction with your efforts and your results.
Here are some hallmarks of professional writers and how to move closer, if not all the way in, to their ranks.
Setting Up an Office
I’ve written on my NAIWE blog about this subject. Lots of other people have written on the same topic. Through all of these writings, the basic guidelines encourage you to do the following:
- Assemble the right tools
- Put them into an environment that’s comfortable for you
- Spend a lot of time there.
Until someone comes up with a robot that does your writing for you (and does it as well as you), there simply is no substitute for putting in many hours of concentrated time. And that’s far easier to do in an environment conducive to your work. This shows why establishing a great working space brings a tremendous boost to your professionalism.
Choosing Specialization vs. General Writing
Professional writers can go either way on this one: choosing to be a specialist or a generalist. Some people find their writing more valuable because they have become experts in some particular field of information that’s valuable to the audiences of a certain set of publishers. Others find their work more valuable because they have special points of view or insights (think George Carlin or Rebecca Solnit) they can apply to a wide range of subjects.
Construct and manage your professional writing trajectory to capitalize on your native talents and gifts. This way, what you tend to do naturally produces the output you can sell most easily.
But don’t feel pressured to go just one way or the other. Some people can succeed on both paths for a long while and may never need to relinquish one for the other.
Building Relationships with Editors
By “editors,” in this context, we mean anyone with the power (and/or money) to buy some of your work, or anyone with the responsibility to improve your work after someone else has bought it.
These are the key people you want to cultivate, befriend, and welcome into your professional world. Treat these relationships almost like you would a dating relationship with someone you think is really great. You’re looking for a close working relationship that can last a long time.
Getting More Writing Assignments
As you become more successful and well known, it’s easier to develop your own audience and have them transfer some of their money to you for nearly everything you write. But until you get there, professional writing involves finding publishers to pay you for completing assignments.
To simplify and speed up the process of finding publishers and winning paid assignments from them, you want to establish a system that helps you do the following:
- Identify publishers who are already interested in the kind of writing you want to do. You can find them through your own reading, through research into the literary marketplace, by word of mouth from friends and colleagues, even randomly by noticing who is publishing what people around you are reading.
- Make yourself known to such publishers, and encourage them to dialog with you. This begins with developing and regularly updating an introductory package about yourself that includes a brief rundown of your skills, professional experience, and qualifications, plus samples of your work. Have this ready in appropriate formats, and fire it off whenever you identify a publisher who might be interested in your work.
- Keep track of your professional contacts, including everyone you meet who might be interested in your work, everyone you’re currently working with, everyone with whom you’re dialoguing about work, and everyone you’ve pitched for new work. It should include the date of your last contact with each one, the nature and content of that contact, and a projected date when you want to contact them again (if they don’t contact you first). Regularly review this list and keep it current.
Re-Writing Your Text
Good writing requires re-writing. The more you go over your text to re-read it, re-think it, and re-write it as necessary, the better it will become. At a minimum, putting in extra time to revisit your work will improve your chances of finding typos, misspellings, bad punctuation, and other errors.
Beyond that, the more often you re-write, the better your chances of finding just the right thought, just the right phrase, even just the right word to elevate your writing to the highest level of which you are capable.
According to Mark Twain: “The difference between the almost right word and the right word is really a large matter—it’s the difference between the lightning bug and the lightning.”
In each piece you create, take time to include as much lightning as you can. Your writing will be more professional for it.
Planning for Retirement
Making money is one matter. Retaining the maximum amount of that money for when you’re done working requires entirely different skills.
While there are many nuances and bits of knowledge involved, it boils down to this:
- Spend less than you make.
- Retain the extra money.
- Find financial vehicles (e.g., savings accounts, certificates of deposit, stocks, bonds, options, and mutual funds) to help your savings grow.
- Do all this for as many years as you can.
Perseverance is critical. The earlier you start saving and earning compound interest, the more you’ll accumulate for retirement. For example, if you earn 1% per year on a savings of $100 per month for 10 years or $12,000, you’ll wind up with $12,615.99. Do the same thing for 20 years and you will have saved $24,000, and you’ll wind up with $26,556.12. Do it for 30 years, you will have saved a total of $36,000, and you’ll retire with $41,962.82. As you might expect, when you collect higher than 1% returns, this kind of long-term compounding generates even greater benefits.
So do this, and start right now.
In fact, do all of these, and let me know how significantly your professionalism improves.
Robert Moskowitz is an award-winning independent professional writer who has written and sold millions of words in just about every format over five decades. He instinctively sees the big pictures, breaks each one down into coherent slices, meaningfully prioritizes and sequences those slices, and then executes the tasks inherent in each slice in very productive ways. Put more simply, Robert knows how to succeed as an independent writer, covering all the bases from soliciting assignments to delivering polished work, from pricing jobs to budgeting and managing personal finances, from organizing a conducive office environment to establishing and following sensible guidelines regarding life, work, and productivity. Having done all this, and having paid attention to how he did it, Robert is now in a position to pass along what he knows to others.