Friday, July 29, 2011

Let's Get Professional

I spent twelve years working in the corporate environment in variety of roles that covered everything from humble jobs like "Customer Service Representative" and "Administrator" to "Consultant" and "Project & Client Manager".

I moved up through the ranks because early in my career when my experienced, successful bosses gave advice, I listened and learned how to conduct myself with that tag which we bandy around called "professionally".

So when I read agents and editors blogging about how writing is a business and you have to behave accordingly, I get it.

The problem is, it seems like a lot of writers just don't.

I think in part this is because many have never worked in a "professional" environment (read: where people wear suits, have meetings around board tables, their days are run by an hourly appointment schedule, and they're expected to communicate fluently with everyone from the CEO to the Janitor).

Now, don't misunderstand me: I'm not singing the praises of the corporate environment - frankly, I'm glad I got the chance to turn my back on it.  But I learned some useful skills there.  If you haven't spent a few years working like that, then you may find some of the points below helpful in your rise to the top of the Publishing pile:

Conducting Yourself Professionally...

1.  Means primarily being reliable, dependable and true to your word, i.e. If you have a deadline, you meet it.  If you can't meet it, you alert those who are affected by the deadline as soon as you know you won't be able to meet it.  (Note: This does not mean five minutes after the deadline has passed).

2.  Means dressing for the job.  Most of the time for a writer, this is no biggie.  You can sit around in your pajamas and Donkey Kong slippers while you're writing, no one will care.  But if you have a video conference, brush your hair, wear a nice blouse/shirt, and make sure it's a blank, or nondescript wall behind you.  Clutter is distracting and your SCREAM poster, well, screams...  Oh, and if you ever get the chance to meet your Publisher in-house in New York, wear grown-up shoes and buy a suit (or at the very least, some nice slacks, a button-down top and have your hair / make-up done if you're a woman).  Whether it's right or not, you'll be judged (at least in part) by how you present yourself.

3.  Means speaking with caution: Pragmatism is the word of the day, flexibility is the attitude that wins.  Even if the other person has been terribly unprofessional in what they've said or done, don't fight fire with fire.  Try to find a win-win situation.  If you've been put on the back foot by someone else's actions, deal with the problem first, talk about the conduct later.  Do not blame.  Do not vent.  Do not threaten.  Fix.  Solve.  Work.  Vent when you get home.  To your cat.

4.  Means taking bad news with a good attitude - even if it's fake.  People will often tell you things in business which sound aggressive, critical or LIKE THE WORLD IS ABOUT TO END.  If someone delivers that kind of news, ask for some time (an hour, a day, a week) to think about it before you respond.  Whenever it's critical that you do respond, focus on the issue, not the person who is the cause of it.   Put emotions aside until after you've put the phone down or gone home, and vent to your spouse / partner / cat. 

5.  Means being discreet (!!!).  I think this is probably the hardest one for novice writers.  Word to the wise: anything you tweet, blog or even facebook can be read by ANYONE.  Which includes the people involved.  It's a very, very thin line between sharing rejection statistics and making yourself look like a blabbermouth.  And honestly, discretion applies even more if an agent / publisher wants to work with you.  After all, if you can't keep your mouth shut about a full-manuscript request, how will you ever manage to do it about a publishing contract that's in the works?  (And PS - true discretion doesn't mean "The very best of my writer dreams just came true... but I can't tell you what it is *wink wink*).  You'll probably get away with that one, but it's hardly a testimony to your trap-shutting capabilities.

6. DOES NOT mean never having a sense of humor.  Professionals laugh and joke all the time.  But the true professional will get to know you a little first and feel out where your boundaries lie before slapping the Fat Mama joke on you, or making a crack at a colleague's expense.  It's actually harder to be funny in a way that isn't potentially offensive or shocking.  If you've got the gift, use it!  If not... maybe wait a while before displaying your rapier wit.

7.  DOES NOT mean identifying where your colleagues, competitors or suppliers are going wrong.  Quite the opposite.  A true professional has class enough to let the thing everyone knows but no one is saying be left unsaid.  (And, if it must be said, caging it in the most diplomatic terms possible).

8.  DOES NOT mean giving everyone a free pass to walk all over you.  See, the trick with professionalism is that you're savvy enough to choose your battles.  You keep your trap shut, work with flexibility, try to accommodate your agent / editor whever possible.  Then, when it's really important and you have to say no - they're ready to listen because they know you don't do that on a whim.

9.  DOES NOT mean pretending.  There's a huge difference between diplomacy (saying what you mean in simple, impersonal terms) and duplicity (saying something you know will be taken in a way you didn't mean it).  Refer to point number 8 - pick your battles.  Choose when it's really important to conflict, then you're more likely to be heard.  Because I promise you, it isn't always necessary to get your own way.

10.  DOES NOT mean never having fun.  Some of the funniest and most enjoyable relationships and conversations I had have been with colleagues-cum-friends.  In fact, most people I know prefer to make work fun.  The trick is in proving your professionalism first.  That way, people know they can trust you.  Once they know they can trust you, you'll be surprised what comes out of the woodwork.

So, what does all this look like in practice for the unpublished author?

- When writers flame their own negative reviews, roll your eyes and keep your trap shut.

- When you read blogs or tweets where people Name and Shame others in the industry, cringe and stay out of the conversation.

- Don't shy away from contentious issues if you think they're relevant, but always, always, always debate the issue, not the person who's writing about it.

- Be discreet.  Be discreet.  Be discreet - about what agents you're querying, what publishers your agent is submitting to, the upcoming contract, or anything another author tells you about their career.


Because it makes you look good.  And the pain of being careful pays out in the end when professionals want to work with you.  It's worth the wait.  It's worth the seeming isolation of not sharing news.  It's worth taking one on the chin for someone else now and again.  And it's definitely worth building relationships founded on trust. 

If you do, you won't just succeed, you'll be promoted by the very people closest to you in the rat-race.

Your Turn: Do you have anything to add?  What ways can we choose to be professional in the publishign industry - especially online? 


  1. Great article. Great tips for staying professional. I can't add anything to this but I'll definitely keep them all in mind when my butt is not plastered in front of my computer. Thanks for sharing.

  2. Excellent post Aimee! Every writer needs to know this.

  3. Certainly an important topic.

    I try to be very careful about the things that i post online.

    I believe that is is very important to "Think twice" and "Comment once" in other words not write a 'hot' comment belittling someone or something and then have to spend days undoing your comment.

    I would prefer to be seen as the silly smuck that helps other and is nice to people that don't deserve it rather than the nasty flaming old shrew that makes everyone cry.

    However i agree, if you have an issue that you think needs to be discussed. By all means do it! Just do it in a way that discusses the issue from YOUR point of view. Allow room for, "This is my opinion because.... does anyone else have another opinion."

    Above all things I like to think that i am NOT right all of the time.

    Great post Aimee

  4. This is SUCH an important topic for writers! We need to be as professional as we are approachable, both online and in real life. Thanks for sharing your thoughts on this.

  5. Great article, Aimee. Good advice for writers, for people in other professions--heck, even for my kids! If my teens would learn more about being discreet and choosing their battles, there would be fewer tears (from them and their parents!).

  6. So....if someone, say, loses a job because of unkind words rashly and spontaneously spoken...that is ok? Provided you are...right? Actually, sometimes Thumper's Rule will apply: If you can't say anything nice, say nothing. Seriously. Say nothing.