If you’re here, it’s probably because you want to know about writing, and think I can offer some helpful advice on “how to be a writer.”
Now I’ll post some helpful links at the bottom of this page, otherwise this page will be nothing but, and I’m sure that you can use a search engine and are researching how to go about being a professional writer. Awesome! You’re doing research! That’s essential, and a huge step in the right direction.
However, you don’t need a bunch of links to follow, as that’s not really why you’re here.
You’re here because you want to know how to be a successful writer.
You’re not going to like the answer.
There really isn’t one. There are several. Some of them are easy, some of them aren’t, but they are all true.
So here you are.
How to Be a Professional Writer:
1) WRITE. A lot. This should be obvious, but you’d be surprised how many people “want to write” and don’t.
2) READ. A lot. Everything. Stuff that’s both in your genre (don’t know what your genre is? I’ll get to that later) and not. Read fiction AND non-fiction. Read books on how to write and how to publish. Read author and agent blogs. There’s a fantastic amount of information out there on this subject.
3) FOLLOW THE RULES. When you’re ready to submit for publication/query an agent, read the submission guidelines and follow them. These are busy people, and you’re asking them for the one thing they don’t have much of – their time. When they do have a moment to give to you, make the most of it by being nice and polite and don’t annoy them by doing your own thing. Their submission guidelines are there for a reason – they bothered to write them. It’s your job to follow them, and give it your best shot. However, remember that your best shot might not be what they’re looking for, so –
4) BE PREPARED FOR REJECTION. It’s going to happen, and it’s going to happen a lot. You’ll need a thick skin, and writers already have fragile egos. Toughen up. Deal. Cope. Do NOT sit down and throw a tantrum, which brings us to –
5) TAKE IT LIKE AN ADULT. The publishing industry/world is very, very small, and the people in it talk to one another. Do NOT make an ass out of yourself when you’re rejected and send whomever rejected you a nasty email, and do NOT make a pest out of yourself to someone you have sent communication to, lest you BE rejected. Be as professional as you can be. Give yourself a day or so to mourn and cope, but take the rejection for what it is and learn something from it. Which brings us to:
6) LEARN. LEARN. FOR THE LOVE OF ALL THAT’S SACRED, LEARN. You being here is an excellent start. Learn what you can about writing and publishing. Take English (or your primary language/the language you want to write in) courses and learn proper grammar and sentence structure. Remember the part about your genre? Learn what genre (where your book would be found in a bookstore or library) you write so you can query appropriately when the time comes. You don’t want to query a children’s book agent with a book you’ve written for adults. Learn what NOT to do as well as what is essential. Learn the rules and abide by them. Learn how to approach other writers and agents. Learn from every experience.
7) BE PATIENT. Publishing takes time – years in some cases – and writers tend to be an impatient bunch. Everything happens in its own time, and it’s hard to sit around and wait. And therein lies your problem. What are you doing sitting around waiting? Shouldn’t you be writing something?
8) BE PROFESSIONAL. Again, this should go without saying, but you’d be surprised at some of the random stuff that goes on with people that they don’t even think about. Do not post naked pictures of yourself or your loved ones on your Facebook page. Do not post a rant about how you hate your publisher/agent/publishing industry/editor for ______. Don’t trash-talk people on any public forum. Basically, if you don’t want the world to read it, don’t put it online. Take down your amateur porn site, because anyone looking to publish your work WILL find it. They’re going to look you up. I’m sure you’ve seen the rash of people getting into trouble because they’ve posted this or that on Twitter or Facebook. Don’t be one of these people.
Which brings us to another aspect of “professional.” Professionals get paid to do what they love. They do not PAY to do this. Money comes FROM the publisher TO the writer, NOT the other way around.
DO NOT PAY TO PUBLISH. When I originally wrote this guide back in 2012, self-publishing was in its infancy and there were so many scams out there, I strongly advised against the practice. Here we are, a decade later, and things have changed. However, some things have stayed the same. Now, as then, there are several people willing to “help you out” when it comes to self-publishing. Grifters gonna grift.
If you’re set on the self-publishing route (and there are many legitimate arguments in favor of this, given the current state of commercial publishing), you’ll need to lay out some cash in order to make your work the best possible version of itself (unless you don’t care about such things, in which case you are the reason self-publishing is still viewed as substandard by a great many in the professional writing community). This investment is wholly different from the “don’t pay to publish” rule, in that you’re not paying to publish — you’re paying to improve your product, which is no different from paying an agent their commission. The only difference here is you get to choose your editor, your cover artist, and other things an agent would take care of, and that person? It’s usually you, hence the “self” part of “self-publishing.”
That’s the true difference between commercial and self-publishing: how much work you do.
Literary agents* take care of the majority of the heavy lifting so you don’t have to. They EARN their 15% commission, and don’t get paid until you do, which can take years depending on publication schedules.
The “how much work you do” is both the pro and the con of self-publishing. In choosing this route, you are responsible for EVERYTHING, not just the writing of the story. Marketing, design, editing, sales, bookstore/library space (and some places won’t take self-published work for various reasons)…that’s all you, baby. Total control is great, but you have to understand…it’s TOTAL. You set your pricing, you upload your books, you’re responsible for understanding the terms of each platform you distribute through…it’s A LOT of work. And you thought writing the book was hard.
*It has come to my attention that some less-scrupulous “literary agents” now run their own “publishing platforms” that they point you to when they reject your work. This goes back to the scam practices I linked to above. They’re basically vanity presses, and that is not something you should consider.
Here, have a nice link to someone who is worth your self-publishing money. Skyla Dawn Cameron of IndigoChick Designs will make your book not suck, and make an amazing cover for you as well.
And that is the ONLY money you should pay anyone to help you publish your book.
Which brings us to:
PUBLISHING IS NOT EASY. There is no “magic bullet” or “easy fix.” Those people willing to “help you out?” They want your money. Plain and simple. They’re called “fee-chargers,” and they’re wrong. Let me repeat – money comes FROM the publisher TO the writer. NOT the other way around.
A.C. Crispin has kindly given her permission for me to link to her article on publishing/literary scams.
True literary agents would never ask you for money or charge a fee that isn’t legitimately covered in the contract they offer you. Agents work on commission – if you don’t get paid, they don’t get paid. They work hard for you and are worth every cent of their commission. More on fee-charging at Writer Beware.
In short, be tough, be smart, and work hard. There’s a lot of luck involved in publishing too, but it all basically comes down to one thing – you.
You can have all the publishing doors in the world opened for you, but in the end, it’s your writing and your attitude that will get you through them.
If you want to be a professional writer, you’re going to have to learn to be both a professional and a writer. You might be an awesome writer, but if you’re a pain in the ass, no one will want to work with you, regardless of your prose. You might be the nicest person in the world, but if you can’t string five words together in a coherent sentence, you’re not going to be published.
It’s a delicate balance, and ALL writers suffer bouts of insecurity. The trick here is not to let it stop you writing.
THAT is how to be a professional writer. Now stop reading and go write something.
Writer Beware – bookmark this link, put their blog on your RSS feed, join their Facebook group. This is the single most important link on this page, and the best resource I can offer you.
No Control – If you have delusions of grandeur about how your cover is going to rock, think again. Damn it, Jim, you’re a writer, not an artist (and even if you are, forget it)!
Preditors and Editors – a wonderful site detailing those who play nice and those who don’t in the writing world.
Plot and Structure by James Scott Bell – I can’t say enough awesome things about JSB. Read everything he’s ever published about writing.
Elements of Style by Strunk and White – Timeless, and the authority for writers on punctuation, grammar, and writing style of American English.
On Writing by Stephen King – Even if you’re not a fan of Stephen King’s novels, the man knows how to write, and in this book offers writers something of what he’s been through during his years in the writing industry. READ THIS and keep it close by your side.