The Art of Writing Professionally (part 2)

Before I get into this, some background. I am not a full-time writer, at least not of the type this article is discussing. I have had a nonfiction book traditionally published, had a screenplay optioned, and am querying a novel. So I've written at a professional level but not made it my full-time job. I was asked several years ago to write this article for an event on Wattpad.

Read part 1 of this article here.

In this part of the article, let’s look at some critical non-writing skills for those who want to become professional writers.

Professional Skills (cont’d)

You must be widely read.

Read every single day. It is as important as writing. Read good books and bad books, genre books and literary books. Read in your genre and out of your genre. Read best sellers and prize winners and classics. Read for pleasure, but also learn to read critically and analytically. Reading is vital to professional writers for several reasons:

  • First, reading is a critical part of the writing business. Professional writers read widely in their genre, because they need to know what’s being published, what’s selling well, what tropes are required, what tropes have been overdone.
  • Second, reading improves vocabulary. Although a thesaurus and dictionary should be well-worn, well-used tools of any writer, reading teaches you how and when to use those words.
  • Third, reading creates an understanding of what good writing “sounds” like. If you’ve ever sought advice because your sentences felt too choppy or been concerned that your pace was too fast or too slow, you developed these instincts by reading. (If, on the other hand, you don’t notice these things and a reader or editor brought it to your attention, that’s a sign you need to read more!)
  • Fourth, reading helps teach the craft of writing fiction by providing successful examples.
You must study the industry.

If you want to become a professional writer, you must study the industry and stay up-to-date on what’s happening within it.

Professional writers are running a business. You must understand the marketplace for your business. This includes both the traditional publishing industry and the self-publishing industry, regardless of whether you plan to publish only one way or the other.

Honestly, anyone who says, “I will only publish x way,” is already making a poor business decision. Some books are best suited for traditional publishing in today’s market. Other books are best suited for self-publishing. If you do not study the industry, you won’t know what’s best for your book at the time you release it.

When you’re ready to make the move to writing professionally, you need solid business skills.

Like it or not, you will have to become a savvy marketer. You will also have to understand literary contracts, rights and how to license them, and taxes.

Most writers hate this aspect, and many try to ignore it. Do so at your peril.

If you want to make money, you must approach writing in a professional manner, which means treating your career like the business it is.

Where do you learn these skills?

Do you need to major in creative writing in college? Writing is a career that does not require a college education. In fact unless you are interested in literary fiction, you may find that college writing courses hinder your goals, especially if you’re interested in writing for a commercial market.

There are myriad resources available to help you develop all of the skills required. Some are free, and some are not. If you want writing to become a profession, then expect to invest in it. Some of the resources you should cultivate or take advantage of include:

  • books on craft
  • traditionally-published books (which serve as examples)
  • industry blogs
  • critique groups
  • beta readers
  • writing conferences
  • writing classes
  • writers organizations
  • contests that offer feedback

Online writing sites are a great place to post work, get encouragement, and make friends. Do not mistake the comments on those stories for quality, critical feedback. Yes, you will occasionally have readers who offer quality feedback, but they are rare.

Do not limit yourself to those sites, and do not fall into the trap of believing the encouraging comments you’ve received mean you’re ready to publish or step into the world of professional writing.

In the conclusion of this article, we’ll look at the life of a professional writer.

non-writing skills

The Art of Writing Professionally (part 1)

Before I get into this, some background. I am not a full-time writer, at least not of the type this article is discussing. I have had a nonfiction book traditionally published, had a screenplay optioned, and am querying a novel. So I've written at a professional level but not made it my full-time job. I was asked several years ago to write this article for an event on Wattpad.

Before we can talk about how to become a professional writer, we have to define what a professional writer is. Is every writer who publishes a novel a professional writer? I don’t think so. Many writers publish a novel or two “just for fun.” Although they might fantasize about selling a million copies or making a lot of money, they don’t study the craft of writing, study the industry, or invest in a professional product. 

A professional writer, on the other hand, does all of those things and more.

By definition, professional writers are people who approach writing as a profession – whose goal is to obtain all or a significant part of their income through writing. Becoming a professional writer requires the same amount of study, time, effort, and even money that it takes to become any other sort of serious professional. It is not an easy path, and it’s not a guaranteed one, no matter how hard you work.

Let’s take a deeper look at how to become a professional writer and what the life of a professional writer is really like.

Professional Skills (Writing Related)

Writing is a profession build on words. It is the art of using words carefully and precisely to convey meaning and evoke emotions. Those who aim to be professional writers, then, need to master that art and the skills that comprise it.

You must learn grammar. 

You need to not only know the rules of grammar and how to apply them, but you need to understand the principles underlying those rules. Rules can be broken. The underlying principles cannot. Until you are able to break the rules without violating the underlying principles, you are not ready to break the rules.

When you eschew capital letters or choose to format dialogue incorrectly, you are not being edgy or pushing boundaries. You’re confusing your reader and marking yourself as an amateur.

You must study the craft of writing.

Writing is not only an art, it is also a craft. There are hundreds of books written about the craft of writing fiction. Some are general, and some focus on specific topics, such as structuring a novel, structuring a scene, writing dialogue, creating effective description and settings, or building realistic characters. Some books are better than others, but all have tidbits to teach.

Anyone who is serious about becoming a professional writer should be building a library of craft-related books, studying them, and practicing the techniques found within. Some techniques will resonate; some will not. But your skill and knowledge will increase.

You must write—and get feedback.

There is an old adage that the first million words you write are for practice. The idea behind it is that you have to write and write and write in order to become a good writer. That is only partially true. You do have to write and write and write, but you also have to get feedback on that writing, and you have to learn to use that feedback to make your writing better.

If you don’t get quality feedback, it is entirely likely that what you write after a million words is no better than what you wrote in the first thousand. Professional writers seek critical feedback.

You must learn to edit.

But… But… no one can edit their own work! That’s what editors are for!

Yes and no. There comes a point in polishing a final draft that every writer needs to hand off the manuscript to a second pair of eyes because it’s true, it’s nearly impossible to catch all of your own mistakes.

That, however, is not the editing I’m talking about. Creative writing – that first draft that gets the story on the page – is only about 10% of the “writing” involved in producing a complete and polished manuscript. The other 90% is editing.

Editing is more than copy editing, more than removing redundant words, more than tinkering with sentences. Editing includes analyzing character arcs and plot arcs, evaluating what should and should not be included in the final draft, and tearing a draft apart and rebuilding something stronger. Editing is far more difficult than writing the first draft.

Professional writers are made in the editing phase, NOT the writing phase.

In the next part of this article, we’ll look at the non-writing-specific skills you need to be a professional writer.

writing professionally