If you want to know how to be a successful author, it starts with knowing you're a writer. But there’s a difference between being a professional writer and a hobbyist.
Professional writers publish for a specific audience, and they publish often. Hobbyists write for themselves, and there’s nothing wrong with that.
If you’re aiming to be a professional writer, it's going to take more than writing skills. There are certain things you should do as part of your writing lifestyle and ways you should act when dealing with other industry professionals to become a successful author.
In this article, I’ll give you some general tips on what’s expected of you as an author in the writing industry and outline how to act like a professional so you can have a smooth working relationship with other industry professionals and continue to publish throughout your career.
From a Hobby to a Career
When I started my writing career, I began writing short stories. I dabbled. I wrote when I felt like it and didn’t have a writing process, mainly because I didn’t know there was such a thing. In short, I was a hobbyist.
When I decided to try to become a writing professional, I wanted to submit one of my short stories to a publication. But I panicked. I’m the type of person who will shy away from any situation where I might end up looking like an idiot.
So I did as much research as possible, but I still wasn’t coming up with much in the way of how to conduct myself as a first-time author. I didn’t know how to address an editor, how to format my story, or even how to respond if I got rejected. (Rejection was the one thing I had been virtually guaranteed when I did my research.)
I thought I had a good story, but I was worried I would be laughed at for not knowing how to proceed. It made me frustrated and nervous because I didn’t know what to expect. I needed insight about the publishing process.
I’ve since learned the standards of writing industry professionalism from experience and talking with other writers and editors. Professionalism is largely how you act, both in your own writing process, and in the way you interact with other industry professionals.
What Does “Professional” Mean?
For the purposes of this article, the term “professional” is used to describe how a writer acts rather than what success they’ve achieved. This article is about the daily things you can do to move toward success as a writer, including how to interact with other professionals in the industry. Professionalism is part of how to become an author.
Here's what a successful writer, a professional writer, does.
Practice, Practice, Practice
Your first short story, book, or poem is not a masterpiece.
As the years go by, you will learn more about writing, you will develop your own voice and writing style, and you will produce more stories.
A professional writer is someone who constantly strives to improve their writing craft. And not just by reading and writing craft books (though those can be useful), but by actually writing. Start a writing habit to make the move from hobbyist to professional.
Don’t underestimate the value of feedback, either. Join a writing community so you can get input from other writers. You can’t improve if you don’t know where your writing needs improvement.
Pro tip: Not all stories are worth publishing. Sometimes they help you get an idea out. Other times they get the creative faucet running.
Practice, in other words. It’s perfectly normal to have a junk drawer full of stinkers. Just write another one. Repeat.
How to Be an Author: Treat Writing Like a Job
If you want to get your work out there consistently, you need to treat this like a job.
Most often, that means setting work hours.
Writers don’t write all day, every day. (Which is a relief to hear, huh?) Develop a writing schedule and stick to it, just like you would a part-time job.
During those hours, write.
Why the strict boundaries? Because everything has a tendency to be “more important” than writing for a lot of writers. Writers want to write, but we are also huge procrastinators. Dishes, a random phone call, exercise . . . really anything can come between you and your writing sessions.
Tell your family and friends you’re a writer. After you set your writing schedule or game plan for the week, make sure you let everyone in your household know the hours you’ll be writing. And most importantly, stick to it!
Pro tip: At the start of the week, set your schedule.
Things come up—doctors’ appointments, lunch with friends—and that’s fine.
Schedule your writing time like you would any other activity. This will help you prioritize your writing.
Know the Industry
Before you submit anywhere, whether it’s to an anthology or to an agent, do some research.
Querytracker.net is a great place to research agents. The publication’s website lists info on anthologies, ezines, or wherever it is you’re submitting to.
Know what they like and how they want stories submitted to them (and follow their guidelines).
Also, read your genre. Read in general, but especially read your genre.
Know the big names right now, the award winners, and the bestsellers. Professional authors know the tropes. They know what’s trending.
This is your job and you need to know where your writing fits into the industry.
Speaking of the industry, you need to have some awareness of what’s going on with that as well.
You should try to keep up with things like which publisher bought out which other publisher, what famous person’s book got pulled and why, what books are making a splash, and what publications aren’t the most reputable (and which ones are awesome).
You don’t have to know every little detail, but you should keep pace with the broad strokes, especially when it comes to the genre you write.
Four ways to keep up with the industry:
- Follow hashtags and topics on social and in your news feed can help you keep up without too much effort on your part.
- Goodreads and bestseller lists are good places to see what books are popular in your genre.
- Publishers Weekly, Poets & Writers, and Writer’s Digest are good places to keep tabs on industry news.
- Most genres have professional organizations. Following and/or joining those can help keep you in the loop. See the big ones here.
Treat People with Respect
Being professional in this industry requires you to act like a professional.
These days, it seems normal to say whatever you want on the internet, but keep in mind this industry isn’t actually all that big.
If you’re rude or downright nasty, others will hear about it.
I’ve heard horror stories from ezine and anthology editors about writers who yell at them for rejections, blast them on social media, or ignore requests for information.
I’ve also talked with writers who have worked with publications who don’t respond to emails, don’t pay on time, or go out of business and don’t notify anyone.
So yes, you may run into examples where others are acting unprofessionally, but in all the instances I’ve mentioned, other writers, editors, and agents get upset and spread the word when it's a pattern.
No one wants to be jerked around or insulted, especially not when they’re trying to have a successful writing career. Keep it professional and treat everyone with respect to avoid missing out on opportunities because of negative interactions.
Pro tip: Some other things to keep in mind when approaching editors/agents:
- Don’t write emails full of emojis, slang, or misspellings. (Shows you’re not serious and indicates your writing probably isn’t great.)
- Don’t talk back. (This shows that you're difficult to work with.)
- Don’t insult other writers, editors, agents, cover designers, etc. (Shows lack of professionalism and is just rude.)
- Don’t take forever to respond to requests, especially when returning contracts. (Shows you’re unreliable and difficult. Plus, you’re holding up the entire production.)
- Don’t spam editors/agents via social media asking them to buy your book, read your story, etc. unless they ask writers to do so. (Shows you can’t follow instructions and have zero respect for their personal space.)
Doing any of these is a red flag to other industry professionals, and they won’t want to work with you.
You might not get blocked from all publications over one minor faux pas, but if you continue to act in an unprofessional manner, word will get around and that successful writing career you were hoping for will be squashed.
Another critical step for becoming an author is to publish and publish often.
It doesn’t matter where you publish, but you need to keep your name in the public eye.
This is why I love getting short stories published: the frequency of publication.
Not only is it a way to keep your name out there and create content for your newsletter and social accounts (we’ll talk about that in a moment), but it’s a nice little affirmation.
Pro tip: Publishing doesn’t have to mean getting your work accepted by traditional publishing. You can self-publish or share your work through your website.
The most successful writers today are hybrid authors, meaning they publish both traditionally and via self-publication.
Have Patience with Editors and Agents
Publishing takes time, and not just in the traditional book publishing company world.
It’s not unheard of for an anthology editor or a literary agent to take months (sometimes over six) to get back to you with a response.
They are working their way through hundreds (in some cases, thousands) of submissions and they’re only human.
Besides, you have a job to do, don’t you? You have more stories to write while you wait. Successful writers keep writing.
Pro tip: Move on to writing the next story while you’re waiting.
Don’t Respond to Rejections or Bad Reviews
Rejections happen to all writers. Bad reviews happen to all writers.
It’s going to happen to you.
When those rejections and one-star reviews come, you’ll feel sad. And then you’ll probably get mad.
If you take away nothing else from this article, listen to this: Do not respond to rejections or negative reviews.
Your story isn’t for everyone. You’re not looking for your story to be for everyone.
(In fact, you have done a better job writing your story when it doesn’t engage every reader. When you try to please everyone, you’ll end up writing a boring story that no one is pleased with.)
Editors and agents often send form letters. It’s not a commentary on your work; they’re just busy.
There’s no need to respond to them, even to thank them, but especially don’t yell at them. (Remember, everyone talks.)
Your story might not be what they wanted at that moment. Or they’re looking for a different style. The point is, there are a million reasons you could be rejected, and most of them don’t have anything to do with your writing.
Reasons you might get rejected:
- The anthology/magazine is full
- They didn’t want that specific type of story this time
- Your story is too long/too short to put in with the other stories they’ve already accepted (they have finite space)
- It’s not quite the right story for their publishing house
- The story doesn’t quite meet the theme of the anthology
- They accepted a similar story last month
Note that none of those reasons have anything to do with the actual writing.
A Word on Reviews
As far as reviews, let the haters hate.
Reviews are not a personal attack on the writer (even if they sound like it). The person writing it doesn’t know the writer, and as the saying goes, everyone’s a critic.
Let it be. You’ll become a better writer for it.
Pro tip: Don’t read reviews. Instead, focus on getting the word out about your story and asking your readers to leave reviews. The more reviews you get, the better your rankings will be.
Track Your Submissions
You need to know where you’ve sent your work, where you’ve been accepted, when it’s a reasonable time to follow up with an editor, how much you’ve made, etc.
I would recommend making a spreadsheet and keeping up with it.
At minimum, you'll need a column for the story name, the publication, the date sent, and whether you were accepted.
Always keep track of simultaneous submissions (that means when you send a story out to more than one publication at a time), so that when you get an acceptance, you can withdraw your submission from the other publications immediately.
It’s unprofessional to let editors continue to consider your story when it has been accepted elsewhere. Their slush pile is large enough without leaving stories in there that they can’t ultimately buy. It’s a waste of everyone’s time. Save everyone the headache, and withdraw your story when it’s been accepted elsewhere.
Pro tip: Make a rejection goal for the year. (I go for 100.) This strategy works multiple ways: it takes the sting out of the rejection, ensures you’re writing, and challenges you to keep submitting.
Don’t Spend All Day Writing
Sadly, writing is only a small part of the job of being a professional writer.
Professional writers also need to maintain relationships with potential readers, which means having a website with a newsletter sign up email list and at least one social media account.
Your website should be “on brand,” which simply means don’t have a bunch of pink paisley and cursive writing if you write horror, or don’t have blood dripping from your name if you write romance.
You should send a newsletter once a month.
It doesn’t have to be complicated: a little anecdote about your life or writing, some show or book recommendations (in your genre!), maybe a giveaway if you have some merch or a story for them.
Don’t overthink it. (See this article for content ideas.)
You should post on social media at least once a week, but it’s more important to find a platform and posting schedule that works for you. Consistency is key here.
Pro tip: Sign up for newsletters from some of your favorite writers (in your genre!) and use those letters and their website and social accounts as idea fodder for your own. They’re doing something right if you’ve heard of them, so learn from their knowledge and apply it to your own reader outreach strategy.
Professionalism Leads to Success
Treating writing like a job and acting like a professional isn’t always fun. But if you want to be a professional writer, you have to act like a professional writer.
Treat your writing like you would any other job.
You need a set schedule, you need a process, you need to improve, and you need to treat your coworkers (editors, agents, other writers) with respect.
Success is not going to come overnight. (Most likely. If it does, remember me when you’re famous.) But you’ll get there a lot faster if you act like a professional.
Do you want to become a professional writer? How do you act like a professional? Let us know in the comments.
Today, let's practice treating your writing like a job.
For the next fifteen minutes, your task is to write. Your task isn't to write something perfect; it's to practice an element of your craft.
What should you write? Here are a few ideas:
- Write the next scene in your work in progress.
- Find a piece of writing feedback you've received. Edit the original writing piece based on the feedback, or write a new piece with that feedback in mind.
- Start a new short story in your genre. (Bonus points if you edit it and submit it for publication!)
When your fifteen minutes are up, share your practice in the Pro Practice Workshop here, and leave feedback for a few other writers. Not a member? Join us here.
Remember, this is an important part of being a professional author, too. Don't skip the chance to get feedback on your writing!
And if it feels a little scary to share your writing, that's okay, too. Think of it as a small way to practice publishing (also a trait of professional authors!) and share your writing anyway.
After you share your writing, check out the pieces from three other writers and leave feedback for them. Supporting other writers and building relationships in the writing community is an important part of author professionalism, too!
Sarah Gribble is the author of dozens of short stories that explore uncomfortable situations, basic fears, and the general awe and fascination of the unknown. She just released Surviving Death, her first novel, and is currently working on her next book.
Follow her on Instagram or join her email list for free scares.