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How to be a Professional Writer

January 5, 2015

In my one-to-one work with writers and as an editor for a print publication and several e-newsletters, I receive a constant flow of email and other communications. I love hearing from you! But I often imagine what it would be like for an agent, publisher, or magazine editor who is dealing with hundreds of queries a day to receive some of the troublesome communications I receive.

Let me tell you something. It has always been so, but these days this is especially true. Because we’re bombarded from all sides with email, social media, and texts—crystal clear, well constructed communications are much more likely than the other kind to rise above the noise and be heard (read).

Do your communications with publishing industry professionals exhibit the same level of care you’ve put into your writing? How can even your most routine communications help you to be seen as a professional writer?

  1. Don’t get too cute. Is the subject line or content of your email clever—or just inscrutable or spam-like? It’s the rare person who can pull off a good, attention-getting joke as a preface to more serious communication. Respect other people’s time. Write an email subject line that will clearly tell the recipient what your email is about. Then get down to business quickly and clearly in your email.
  2. Use your words. Some of our necessarily abbreviated texting and social media ways have slopped over into other communications when the abbreviations offer no advantage. There’s nothing worse than receiving an email from someone you know is needing something, but you have no idea what. Be a good writer all the time and impress with your concise and clear prose.
  3. Don’t use an email handle that’s silly, political,  gobbledygook, or a double entendre. Why risk turning people off before they even read what you have to say? In addition, make sure your full name appears in your message “from” line. (Send yourself an email to check if you’re unsure what appears.) I’m surprised at how many people don’t show their full names—and then don’t sign their emails with their full names, either. Joe? Which Joe would that be?
  4. Don’t use an address you share with a family member. Let me tell you from experience, hilarity and confusion and embarrassment can ensue.
  5. Don’t use your work email address. An agent or a contest may not respond to you right away. Can you be sure you’ll be in the same job six months from now? Also the industry professionals you’re trying to attract don’t need to receive your “out of office” messages.
  6. Don’t use autoresponders. You wrote to me, and when I reply, I receive an automatic message that makes me fill out a form before my email is delivered to you, and it always takes me three or four tries with the captcha code to get through. I’m going to do it, because I want your business, but can you be sure that the agent who read your partial will? Autoresponders that say things like “thank you for your mail” are useless—and annoying. No one needs that extra, impersonal email.
  7. Do not include your industry contacts in the distribution for your joke, religious, or political forwards, your holiday letter, or your social media invitations.
  8. Read and follow submission requirements. This might seem obvious, but you’d be surprised at how many people don’t. Whether you’re looking for an agent or publisher, submitting to a magazine, or entering a contest you disqualify yourself by not following instructions to the letter. Check and re-check submissions before you send them. And do your research! Don’t be asking an agent on Twitter questions about her interests when the answers can be found on her website.

Remember, every communication with an agent, publisher, or magazine editor is an opportunity to increase your name recognition and demonstrate that you’re the type of individual they’d love to work with. Take full advantage of every opportunity and impress them with your professionalism.
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Mary Ann de StefanoMary Ann de Stefano is the editor of The Florida Writer (the official magazine of the Florida Writers Association) and MAD’s Monday Muse. She is also a writer, editor, and organizer of writing workshops with 30+ years experience in publishing and writing consulting. Besides working one-to-one with writers who are developing books, she designs author websites. Mary Ann does business at MAD about Words, named as a play on her initials and love for writing.

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8 Comments
  1. January 5, 2015 9:04 am

    Squirming – but duly noted.

    • January 5, 2015 1:42 pm

      Haha, Jack. I might add that once you’ve established a relationship with someone, the tone of the correspondence can get be a little more casual and the wording a bit more loose. Clarity is always a good idea, though.

  2. L. Dean Murphy permalink
    January 5, 2015 9:28 am

    So that’s what makes you MAD?☺ There’s a word in the blog post that can be a maxim: professionalism. Writers should compose emails and social messages to those in the publishing world as though they’re intended for a physician who will perform surgery, or an employment application. Write on!

    • January 5, 2015 1:39 pm

      Ha, Dean. I am more the “enthusiastic about” than the “angry” kind of “mad.” 🙂 I think you’re spot on with the employment application analogy.

  3. January 5, 2015 12:05 pm

    It is so hard to find talent in the mix of all these wonderfully crafted, well-written queries, I can only imagine! Question: How does a writer stand out among all the standard, cookie-cutter submissions that are done correctly? Just wondering how that works!

    • January 5, 2015 1:58 pm

      Hi Diane,There’s quite a bit of advice out there about queries. Agent Janet Reid, for example, has been providing detailed critiques of query letters on her Query Shark blog for years. I don’t think that an appropriate and well-written query has to be cookie-cutter. And I believe beautifully-crafted sentences that convey the right information in the right order, something that goes above and beyond correctness, will always be way more effective than gimmicks, sloppy writing, or unprofessional behavior.

      • January 5, 2015 5:10 pm

        I will definitely do my research when the time comes to query! Thanks

  4. January 21, 2015 11:56 am

    Here’s what I am talking about when I suggest “use your words.” A couple of days ago I received an email and the total content was this: “​Hi, I would like to promote my book.” Not a week goes by when I don’t receive similarly obscure. Fun times.

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