Crap Habits Of A Highly Ineffective Professional Writer

This post ain’t for you literary types who want to write one glittering snowflake novel every five years. It ain’t for you types who live and die by the whispered whims of a false and fickle Muse. It most certainly ain’t for you most diligent purveyors of Doctor Who slashfic.

I’m talking to you who are (or want to be) professional writers, freelance or otherwise.

See, I’ve been freelancing for about 10 years now. Further, I’ve also served as developer on some books (the Hunter: The Vigil gameline, for instance), so I’ve had to hire writers and, more appropriately, deal with writers of all types. Not long ago, I attended the GameX convention and sat on a panel whereupon we discussed… er, I think soil erosion and pornography, but also, also we talked about Breaking Into The Game Industry.

Thing is, breaking into the game industry isn’t that different from breaking into any creative industry as a writer.

So, some of the advice there, I can give here — plus some new gems (re: turds) of wisdom.

Except, I’m not going to talk about all the positive traits one must possess. I’m going to talk about those negative traits you most certainly should not possess. It’s time to talk about your bad habits, you surly little bedbugs. Everybody’s got ‘em. I had them (and surely have some that I haven’t yet identified). But, you want to weather the storm and keep on freelancing, you’d do well to purge yourself of these niggling inadequacies but fast, lest you find yourself living in a piano crate with a one-eyed, three-legged pit bull tinklemachine named “Decimator-of-Crotches.”

Here, then, a small sampling of Your Potential Bad Habits.

1. Persistence Does Not Mean Annoyance

“Hey, it’s cool if I email you every 15 seconds, right? You’re comfortable with me crawling up into your ass cavity and living there for a li’l while? Sweet.”

I’ve said it before, and I will say it again: being a writer requires inhuman stubbornness and persistence. It is the equivalent of putting a bucket on your head and headbutting a brick wall over and over and over and over again — until either you or the brick wall crumbles. That being said, persistence should never translate into being annoying. In other words, don’t be up somebody’s ass.

A good developer, editor, agent (loosely aggregated as “the client”) will get back to you within one glacial epoch and won’t leave you hanging. Some get shit-tons of email and have to comb through it. For others, their jobs don’t really leave room for email or other correspondence (despite the need to do so) and so they must carve our personal time for professional returns. If they haven’t gotten back to you in a reasonable amount of time, you’re probably safe sending a quick and polite missive — “Just wanted to confirm that you received my message, thanks for your time,” or something like that. But don’t stalk them. Doesn’t matter how much of an incredible writer you are. If you become annoying, you’ll find either a nasty response or worse, an endless gulf of No Paying Work (at least from that client).

Trust me, I get it. You wanna know what’s up. You want work. You want to feed your children (and by “children,” we might mean, “heroin and video games habit”). But you won’t get any of that if you invade the (admittedly electronic) personal space of the client. Dig?

2. Writing In Public Does Not Mean You Can Suck In Public

“My blog is my personal space. I don’t care about commas and capitalization and, uhhh, making sense. It’s Zen. It’s just for me.”

Well, good luck with that. You wanna know what I did when I was hiring writers? I looked them up on the Internet. I am not the only person who does this. Unless your work is friend-locked or posted anonymously or tucked behind the walls of Facebook (meaning, it’s not really public writing), I’ll probably find it. If it’s got issues, I might not hire you. If you can’t be bothered to put out a public work that isn’t at least cogent and competently written, what’re the chances I’m going to get a clean, professional draft from you? That assumption might be false, but as it turns out, I and other editors cannot tell the future (yet!). So, unless the client is desperate, he’ll move onto more certain candidates.

This goes double for public portfolio work. Articles or short stories living out there on Ye Olde Web with your name on them are emblematic of the work you will put out to a potential client. If that work is riddled with mistakes small and large, I will assume you have one of two problems. One, you are simply not a capable enough craftsman (er, “craftsperson?”) to catch these errors, or two, you just don’t give a rat’s uterus. Either promise trouble.

Are you looking for perfection? No. Like unicorns or the chupacabra (or the fearsome “Chupacorn“), perfection doesn’t exist. You’re looking for competent. You’re looking for B+ or better. Clean, readable, few if any mistakes.

Point being, don’t advertise your inability.

3. First Draft Does Not Mean A Shitty Draft

“Whoa, dude, chillax. It’s just my first draft. We’ll clean up all those extra commas, misspellings and blood stains on the final draft. Pshh. I mean, c’mon.”

There exists a preconception about a first draft, and that preconception is that it hangs out there in the wind with all its boils and scabs and infected hair follicles and whatever.

No. No! A billionty times, no.

Maybe your own private first draft hangs out that way. That’s okay.

But the “professional” first draft better be as clean as a nun’s vagina. (Though, I wonder: are nuns really self-aware of vaginal hygiene? I don’t mean to slag on nuns, but you have to ask — if they don’t really, erm, “use” those parts that much, maybe they don’t attend to their, ahhh, “Gardens of Eden” all that well. Could be that porn star vaginas are actually the emblem of cleanliness, which would put that “cleanliness and godliness” notion to the test. Ah, but I digress.)

(By the way, I’m going to Hell. I’m driving the boat. And you’re all on it.)

You hear the words “developer” or “editor,” and you think, “It’s their job to develop and edit my garbage so that it gleams with a spit-shine!” Oh, ye gods, that’s not true at all. The client doesn’t want to polish a turd. The client wants to take your good work and make it great work. They don’t want to fix your fucking commas and spelling errors. That’s bush league amateur hour stuff, and you don’t want to be That Writer.

The first draft you turn in professionally might end up being your own private second or third draft. That’s a reasonable metric.

Some real quick tips to get that first draft shiny? Your spellchecker is both friend and enemy. Use it, but don’t expect it to be goddamn psychic. It might incorrectly fix a misspelling so that the sentence is still broken. Further, it maybe catches 75% of your errors– which still leaves a substantial portion of your draft without repair. Hence, read the draft a few times. Out loud. Go through it. Have someone else go through it (provided you’re not under NDA). But for fuck’s sake, don’t turn in a crappy, clumsy first draft. That earns you a kick to the pink parts.

4. Just Because They’re Called “Notes” Does Not Mean They’re Optional

“Nah, fuck you, man. I think capitalizing every other word captures the alienation and isolation of the human condition. That, and it looks fucking rad as balls. Am I right?”

No matter what you call them, “notes” or “redlines” or “imperial declarations” –

– they ain’t optional.

Listen, you have some wiggle room. Don’t agree with a note? This is your work going out there, admittedly, so it’s worth a conversation. The client is not always right, that much is true. If a conversation can be had, you might be able to make a developer aware of his mistake, or better, you might be able to fix the problem your way, whether or not there existed a “problem” to begin with. (Example: the editor says you spelled a word incorrectly. “Cat is with two t’s!” the editor proclaims all froth-mouthed. He’s wrong, but he’s also paying you. Clever switch out — use the word “feline” instead of “cat.” No argument had, problem solved.) I’ve been wrong a number of times as a developer (though more as writer), and I’m happy to renege on a bad note if I’m made aware of it — but I, like many others, are a “handle with care” type. I’ll have conversations about notes if you approach with politeness. Come at me aggro, and for right or wrong I will start kicking and punching.

And For God’s sake, don’t argue. Getting combative with a client over a note gets you black hashmarks on your record — the client is the one who, as noted, controls your work, and controls your cashflow on this project. You can get combative internally. You can rage inside your chest. Feel free to throw a Frisbee at some dude’s nuts, provided that dude is not your editor. When it comes to professional writing work, there exists an element of “Lie Back And Think Of England.” Let’s be realistic — arguing is a futile affair. The client is probably going to make the change anyway, and worse, might not hire you again (or, worst of all, will tell other editors about what an asshole you are, even if he’s the asshole).

Again, to reiterate:

Conversation, good.

Argument, bad.

When it comes down the pike that the note is the note and it isn’t going to change –

Remember that the note isn’t optional.

5. Just Because You Have Excuses Doesn’t Mean Anybody Wants To Hear Them

“Oooh, sorry. My pet hamster, Hamtaro C. Pigglesworth, has bladder cancer. I’m going to be a week late on this project.”

Shit happens. Sad but true. You get sick. Pets perish. People die. Houses burn, cars crash, Mayan Apocalypses occur. You have room for problems like that. Only the most stalwart fuckface of a client will tell you to go to hell when you suffer the slings and arrows of life.

But, those events are rare. Or rather, they should be rare. If every week is a new drama for you — whether it’s true or not — you’re damaging your credibility and reliability. If every project and deadline is tinkled on by your ever-rushing urinary waterfall of problems, do you really believe that they’ll keep hiring you? Maybe you’re a genius and your work is so pristine that they can handle the pushed back deadline, buuuuut — probably not. You might be awesome in your own mind, but that won’t pay the bills, friend.

Thing to remember is, everybody has problems. You’re not special, so don’t make your problems special. I’m not talking about those actual special issues mentioned above — I’m talking about run of the mill shit. Don’t make excuses. Nobody wants to hear excuses. Writing is a results-driven career, though so many seem to think that it instead runs on whimsy and empty promises. Excuses are a warning sign. Cuidado! Except, instead of “wet floor,” it should say, “meager work ethic.”

The Hard Truth

Here’s the reality: you are not an employee. You set off too many warning signs, and you’ll get dropped or won’t be hired again — because, I assure you, you have competition chewing at your heels, ready to get in the game. I’ll be up front. The reason I was able to write 85+ books and get work beyond that freelance game writing was because I so often jumped in the game when other writers fucked up. Hell, my most recent work with my writing partner ended up in our hands because — drum roll, please — the clients weren’t happy with what the last writer produced (sloppy and unfinished). We got in the game and knocked it out of the park. Who looks good? The other guy? Or us? Who’s likely to get more work? The other guy? Or us?

Look over your shoulder, and you’ll see thousands of other writers clamoring to be where you are. You’re lucky, so don’t dick it up. If you stumble — they’ll climb over your fallen body. You’ll get a boot to the mouth. That’s just the nature of the thing. It may not be right, it may not be comfortable, but reality so rarely conforms to those kindnesses.

34 comments

  • All true and all stuff I learnt on my own after being dropped by a translation bureau.

    What? I will admit that I suck, but only because I can assure you I am getting better.

  • Holy crap yes.

    Hell, I’m sitting on four projects this month. Three of them, I’m filling for someone else’s irresponsibility.

    I’m not the best writer. Far from it. (I would like to think I’m also not the worst.) But work ethic is important, often more than raw ability.

    Now, your opinion: What do you think about warning an employer about a *potential* lateness issue? I know I’ve had issues in the past where a crisis (of the degree mentioned at the beginning of your post) was pending and highly possible, but I didn’t know when the proverbial scythe would fall. The way I handled it was a friendly, “Heya… I might be late for X reason. I don’t expect to be, but the crisis is pending and it could occur any moment now.”

    Did you ever really get note arguments? I’ve heard about them, but I don’t think I’ve ever been involved in a situation where a fellow writer really gave a stink about something like that.

    (I say all this after having cursed the name Chuck Wendig when that turdchomper gave me some really harsh edit notes one time and I learned a lot about how to not hang myself over criticism.)

  • David —

    Ayup. Acting as “utility player” is a big way into any creative industry, because eventually, someone falls down. And you can be there to fill in the gap.

    Warning an employer about a potential (and serious) lateness isn’t weird. When my father got sick I had to send warnings like that (though, to either my credit or discredit, somehow I still managed to hit my deadlines during that time). The early warning is good — not only does the client have a choice then whether or not that sits well with them, but it also gives you the chance to underpromise and overdeliver.

    I’ve had note arguments, yes. Nothing serious. I welcomed the note conversations, but not the arguments. Worse are the ones where writers got notes, apparently disagreed or didn’t care, and then only made… ohh, maybe 50% (were I optimistic).

    As a writer, I’ve had my share of “I disagree with this note!” but 9 times out of 10, the developer was right, and I was wrong. I learned a good deal about writing and about accepting criticism when dealing with a series of developers.

    – turdchomper c.

  • I see what you did there. You secretly denigrated my blog with your #2. Or was that me that did it all on my own? I don’t feel that I can be held accountable for proper semi-colon use when in the presence of sparklepires.

    Actually, my blog is a sore spot for me re: seeking representation. On one hand, I get a few thousand hits daily – which translates into greenbacks for a publisher (built in audience) but on the other hand, I write about douche monkeys and the nozzles who love them. (Look for it in the YA romance section!)

    NOTES: YES YES YES. As a writer you HAVE to learn to take your lumps. Then again, not all criticisms have to be taken as they’re given. The key is to divorce yourself from your work enough to be able to look at it objectively. That comes with time and lots and lots of broken, bleeding, moaning MSs sent back to you.

    And because I’ve not hit my quota in this comment yet, dick spigot. You’re welcome.

    • (It’s funny. People always think I’m talking about them with these blog posts — the secret? I’m talking about me. Usually, I’m calling out trouble spots because I tromped right through them with my Stupid Boots on.)

      As for a blog — well, I think the concern is less about content, unless you’re advocating Neo-Nazism or something. Hell, on tminds here I blubber about all manner of profane mayhem and foolishness, and somehow I ended up with representation. Safe content is safe, and that’s fine, but safe content is also *dull* and won’t earn you that in-built audience. I mean, holy crap, you get thousands of hits daily. That’s… really big stuff. (Have you considered getting a proper, non-LJ sits? Or do you have one and I’m just missing it?)

      And “sparklepires.” Heh.

      Signed,
      Dick Spigot

  • Dear Cock Knob:

    I always think it’s about me because let’s face it. It’s always about me. Nuclear proliferation? Me. Global Warming? Yes, that skirt WAS a little short. In conclusion, thanks for noticing. Ahahaha, the blog thing is something I’ve just been chewing over personally, and to be honest, your blog needs WAY more work than mine. I only sporadically throw out come buckets, it’s an every other paragraph here. Mostly because I keep commenting with that sort of language. (It’s a sickness.)

    Er, you know that I didn’t really think you were pointing me out, right? Because Guido over your shoulder is waiting for a nod from me, and this is your pass. Doyce insulted me once. Once. (Bonus points for the reference!)

    I do need to get a proper blog, but I don’t know which route to go, Obi Wan. Maybe I’ll set that up this holiday season like the baby Jesus intended.

    And pfft, this blog came my way via two agent blogs and a prolific “artists/sci fi writers/Hugo-Nebula news” feed. Not too shabby, Brohan. (The Rejectionist, Janet Reid, and Bibliophile Stalker, for your records.)

    Forever Yours,
    Ball Chancre (A love story!)

    …and now I want to write a series of romances from the POV of some STDs.

    • Dearest Beef Curtains:

      A proper blog is easier than you think. WordPress does wonders, and it’s surprisingly easy to set up, and easy to make it look good.

      It’s better if you have your own domain name and host, of course.

      And you found tminds via those three sites? Really? Huh.

      – c.

  • My darlingest of Purple-headed Donkey Punchers,

    (I actually have several posts dedicated to poorly chosen “love” prose. Like snapping aligator pussy. Too far? Did I take us somewhere we’re not ready to go?)

    WordPress, they’ve been at the top of the list to look into, and I see you’re using them as well.

    And yeah – I have those three on my google reader, saw a 1-2-3 hit (that first post I commented on – your writing tips are great posts) and the rest is history. Minor, specific history, but it’s in the past, is what I’m saying. Did you just call me fat?

  • Speaking of blogs that make your cock fat (I mean specifically your rooster, and aren’t those against code?) Bookends LLC is posting about self-censoring your blogs.

    Chuck, I would like to apologize for keeping you from hitting the big time because I’m incapable of dropping F bombs here. I mean, I’m not going to STOP, I just wanted to throw an apology out there and see if it’ll stick.

    • Stoney:

      Self-censorship isn’t the worst thing, you just have to know where your line is.

      Ultimately, I try to stay in line with my “brand” — not that I’ve consciously thought of it as that until fairly recently (last coupla years), but I don’t really write safe fiction, I’m not necessarily looking to break into the YA machine, and I know that Having An Opinion nets me more readers and interested parties than Having No Opinion. Will you turn off some potential audiences by being brash or opinionated? Heckadang yes. But, you also might bring in *new* audience by doing the same. You have to strike that balance to know how to maximize the brand’s visibility that way.

      Which sounds like such horrid corporate-speak.

      Mostly, I walk the line by being self-deprecating and by ahem, trying to be funny. That helps soften the acid, I think. Mmm. pH balance. Yes, I will sometimes talk about politics or religion (both no-nos!), but — am I really turning anybody off by having opinions? Were uber-fundamentalist Christians my audience to begin with? Were they ever? Probably not. The standard variety of Christian might be, but I have nothing against them. Nor I do I oppose moderate, sane GOP — I only think the extreme assholes are… well, the extreme assholes. And again, were they ever my audience? No.

      My rough rule is, don’t be an asshole, and when I am an asshole, I try to throw myself under the bus as much as possible. :)

      – c.

  • You forgot rule number 6: Don’t be a dick to your customers.

    Admittedly, sometimes fans will have a golden image of the writers they adore where they can do no wrong and will want to hang out and watch the game on Sunday. But I’ve heard other writers diss what their fans enjoy and seen some behave coldly at conventions.

    • John:

      Not bad things to consider, but this post is more about the writer dealing with clients (be it a publishing company or whoever). A writer’s relationship with fans is a tricky thing, and probably deserves its own post.

      – c.

  • I do it.

    Every time you blog about this sort of thing, I think, “Oh shit, this is about that time I was a total tool.” Except I can’t /really/ come up with an example of that time.

    • David –

      Yeah, that’s the thing, I’m not talking about anybody specifically. In 10 years time, I’ve made errors, and as a writer, I’m still finding my way. Always will be, I suspect. Vocalizing that stuff here is a way for me to learn it, or to examine it. And because I’m doing so publicly, everybody’s along for the ride. Whether they like it or not, because I have a gun. I HAVE A GUN.

      Now somebody give me five bucks. I have to pay Justin.

      – c.

    • Is heckadang yours?

      I will give you five dollars if you let me use it without restriction.

      Five whole dollars. That’s sweet money, these recession times.

      – c.

  • I miss playing games, especially MMOs with my wife, while I’ve been working on my first true freelance gaming project (which I finished last night), banging away at the latest iteration of the novel and preparing for shooting my contribution to the Escapist’s video contest. I haven’t touched Dragon Age in a week or more because I’ve been working after I get home from work.

    But I won’t get anywhere as a writer that can work from home if I just sit on my ass while I’m there. I’m keeping my eyes open and my fingers moving across the keyboard. Sooner or later, something’s gotta give. The day may yet come where I can rearrange things so that there’s room for writing and gaming.

    And maybe a unicorn will show up to take me snipe hunting with Abraham Lincoln.

    • Josh –

      I’m with you. I’ve talked about it before, but it likely deserves its own blog post. Games for me have been a serious distraction in the past. I don’t let it happen now — working out of the home office, I don’t touch a video game during the day. Only nights and weekends, and even then, only if I’m done my work. And *even then* I always wonder, can I write some more? Hence, blogging every day here. Plus, it’s oddly more rewarding to create my own things these days.

      – c.

  • Preach it, brother.

    Seriously, I really do think about half of succeeding as a freelancer is getting shit done. I’m with David, here… A lot of my freelance work has been cleaning up after someone else screwed the pooch. I’m not even sure how to deal with the few full-length deadlines I get.

  • Oh, and staying in touch. If people can’t find you and can’t reach you, it makes them nervous.

    And letting your editor know you’ll be late a month after a piece was due… Not the best idea if you’re looking to ensure future work.

  • Stoney:
    1. Go to godaddy, register a domain. Pay with
    2. Go to hostingmatters. Tell them you want to host the domain there.
    Both 1 and 2 will cut into your stash of stripper-lure bills, but not much. Suck it up.
    3. Open the hosting matters control panel. Go to the smiling Fantastico button. Click the button in the list of Fantastico apps that says something like “Gimmeh WordPress.”
    4. Give thanks to me, who art beneficent.
    5. Johnny Dangerously.

    Voila. Eet is done.

    Chuck. Great post.

    • Doyce speaks good.

      My one addition/change there — I like Laughing Squid as host. They’re supporters of the arts, and are very, very, very customer service friendly.

  • “4. Give thanks to me, who art beneficent.”

    Doyce is trying to bite into my shtick of being the patron deity of the internet, it seems. Still he has good advice. I know I’m having trouble with designing my web page but WordPress gives you the tools to do it and can help make a functional site for all to enjoy.

    Also, Chuck doesn’t have a gun. He just has the Cleave edge and the determination to use it!

  • Excellent post! I’m glad to see that the second point about writing in public is on this list. It’s too easy to fall into the belief that editors think the internet is nothing but an amateur hour showcase and deserves no attention. It’s nice to know that writers’ public work is actually being considered worthy of attention – even if that attention is mainly given to determine whether those writers fall into that same “amateur hour showcase” category or not.

  • Although there’s a part of me that wonders if editors researching a writer online are reaching a little far sometimes. What I write about online has little to nothing to do with my ability to write professionally, any more than what I say in the company of friends reflects on my ability to sell a product in-person. They’re two different practices, using the same method of communication, that’s all.

    If I’m working a job where I have to speak, I’m not going to curse as much as I do in my personal life, for example. If I’m blogging amongst friends, how much does my grammar and basic form reflect on my professional writing?

    Just a thought.

    • David:

      What you’re asking is: is it fair?

      But that’s not a reasonable question. Fair is a meaningless metric. The metric is, will they hire you, or won’t they?

      Further, the “chatting amongst friends” and “posting on the Internet” are two wildly different things.

      Imagine:

      I go to a street corner, I get a bullhorn, I take off my pants, and I start jabbering at cars.

      That’s like what you do (you = The General You, not you specifically) on the net. It isn’t private. For all intents and purposes, it’s the You that you want public. It’s the Advertised You. It isn’t amongst friends — it’s amongst millions of people (potentially).

      It’s less about what you write, and more about how you write it (again, unless “what you write” equals extreme religion, politics, or other hateful madness) — me, part of my writing ethic is to write with some measure of correctness and skill, and one *could* assume that someone who approaches general writing with laziness and a lack of effort might have a similar work ethic. Is that a fair assumption? No. But that doesn’t mean it’s not going to happen just the same. Competition for writing careers is tense. Why give up an edge to someone else?

      – c.

    • I’ve done 1-4, for sure. I’ve been solid with deadlines, and don’t recall giving too many, if any, excuses. The others, though, I’ve been a guilty party.

      – c.

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