Friday, 10 December 2010

Being a Professional Writer

What does it mean to be a professional writer? Is it simply about being paid for your work, or does it go deeper? Since I've yet to be paid for my work, I hope the latter is the case - certainly after this week I feel like a professional writer, whatever happens next in my career.

Writing is a terribly long-haul activity, a strange blend of enchantment and elbow grease, delight and disappointment. I wonder whether this odd mixture helps us to improve our characters and their arcs - by struggling through the low times ourselves, we start to see the sacred value of success. Or maybe it just makes us all a bit neurotic!

Professional writers must understand the market and their place within it. For debut novelists, that place is small and shrinking ever further by the day - so keeping an eye on the market and looking for a niche is a key skill. When dealing with publishers, professional writers must know when to apply pressure and when to pull back - choosing their battles carefully. A writer who carps about every editorial change or marketing suggestion is unlikely to get to acquisitions, let alone see a further contract.

Like any business, publishing is based on personalities and your ability to get on with people. Many a self-proclaimed artistic genius has failed to take over the world because they were actually an odious git. Yet, I think it's true that even the most affable amongst us will run into people that they simply don't get on with. Being a professional is about gritting your teeth and making the best of that situation, rather than repeatedly punching someone in the face. However much you might want to.

Writers shift between publishers all the time, and that is a natural thing, especially given the merry-go-round of editors moving from company to company. I'm very happy with my agent at the moment, but I'm sure we'd both agree that we would move on if our interests diverged too far. Again, this should be treated professionally - getting an agent is not like getting married (even if publishing a novel is quite a lot like having children). I would sound a note of warning to those writers who change agents like they change their shoes - if you are onto your third or fourth agent you should perhaps take a look at yourself and wonder what you could be doing differently to make the relationship work.

Diversification is another thing that professional writers do, but finding the right level can be a little tricky. With a lot of pressure on authors to be brands, diversifying too much can make your work seem diffuse and unfocused, as though you're not really sure what you want to be doing. The problem is that a lot of us genuinely aren't sure what we want to be doing, but being a professional is about hiding that fact!

One thing you can't afford to be as a professional writer is desperate. Desperation is the province of the amateur, no matter how accomplished their writing. If you are desperate to be published, agents will smell you a mile off and shuffle away with a fixed look on their faces. It is important to get your work on the shelves, to build a career and to reach your readers.

But it's only a book. If you're a professional writer, there will be more.



  1. This is an excellent post, Nick. Being a professional is certainly about all these things. It's also about thinking forward through a projected career and novels one has yet to plan out, let alone write. It's about having a ten-year-plan.

  2. Great article Nick! I like the 'punching someone in the face' bit and yes, totally agree that we have to grit our teeth quite often (but my dentist keeps telling me not to do that!)

  3. dunno about the desperation thing. i think it comes with the territory whether professional or not. great post! you should be a columnist.

  4. There's a strange balance to be found between being an artist and a brand - and trying to maintain being a human being as well.

  5. Great article - as usual. Every post I read on this blog, and I am a sporadic reader, is always filled with clear thinking, honesty and a refreshing balance. (This reads like spam, but it's not)