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.