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Professional Writers — How An Editor Can Tell 21 September 2009

Posted by Camille Gooderham Campbell in Advice For Writers.

A couple of weeks ago, Robert Swartwood posed a question on his blog: “what is a professional writer?”

The various responses interested me, not so much because of the different arguments on how one determines professionalism, but because of what the responses had in common — they were all from the writer’s perspective. That is, all the responders were discussing either how they determine their own status as a professional or amateur, or else how a writer could hypothetically be pinpointed as one or the other. All assumed and required some inner knowledge of the writer’s life (a professional is paid to write, a professional makes a living at writing, a professional writes every day…), knowledge to which no one but the writer and maybe family and friends might be privy.

My own response to the question was instantaneous: professional behaviour makes a professional writer.

And this is why: it’s the only thing that the editor sees.

As an editor, when a story comes up on my computer screen, I don’t know if the author has ever been paid for his or her writing. I don’t know how many hours a day he or she writes, I don’t know if it’s a full-time occupation or a hobby (or therapy, or a compulsion, or a dream being chased, or some combination thereof). I can’t make a judgement based on those things. But there are writers I believe to be professionals, based on what I see.

Quite apart from the usual suspects — abiding by submission guidelines, submitting only their best and most polished work, and so on — there are certain things I notice that make me think, “that one’s a pro”.

One is regular submissions. Professional writers are constantly submitting work; they don’t pack up and go home after one rejection (or one acceptance, for that matter). So when I start to recognize a writer’s name because I’ve seen it in our slush regularly enough, I find that I start to take that writer more seriously — he or she is obviously committed to the craft.

One is attention to detail. Queries specify submission ID numbers, story titles, dates submitted. The submission form is fully and correctly filled out; the author knows what a byline is, has selected an appropriate genre for his or her story, and has included a bio. The word count is accurate.

And here’s a funny one: the author bio had better be in the third person. All of EDF’s author bios are in the third person — all of them, and it’s been that way every day since September 2007! — so when I see a first-person bio I think, “Well, here’s someone who hasn’t bothered to check out the magazine before submitting to it…” I have no problem with the goofy and humorous bios, the story-related bios, or the sparse and bare bios. But the first-person bios trip me up every time. On that note, bios which announce that the author writes as a hobby (or otherwise advertise a less-than-professional self-perception) do take away from the professional impression a bit.

A professional writer’s correspondence with editors is appropriately businesslike and even a touch on the formal side, unless we’ve published a number of your stories and have naturally moved to a friendlier level over time. And for whatever sweet sake you believe in, if you want an editor to think of you as a pro, don’t argue with a rejection notice!

A professional writer has a professional website. Now, technically I know that this may not always be true, and I’m sure there are plenty of well-respected technical recluses who refuse to cooperate with the information age, but we’re talking about perception here. A professional-looking website with regular updates (the “latest news” on the site shouldn’t be from January 2008) is virtually essential if you want to be taken seriously, especially in the world of online magazines. Bonus points are awarded for having your own domain name, a growing list of publication credits, and current news about recent acceptances and publications.

And finally, a professional writer always shows professionalism and restraint in comment threads and forum topics and other public places. Whether in receiving criticism on one of his or her own stories or entering into a discussion about someone else’s work (or a publication, contest, editor, book retailer, or anything else under discussion), a true professional will be aware that anything posted online can travel far and wide — participating with a degree of dignity, intelligence, and restraint shows that the individual has the ethics and responsibility to go with his or her creative skills. Whining, bitching, rudeness, gratuitous unkindness, holding grudges and slinging mud… that stuff just doesn’t scream “pro” to me.

So now you know what I look for, and what it says to me.


1. Bill Ward - 25 September 2009

Excellent post — I hope some of the people who need this the most see it!

This would make a good repost at FFC.

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