Writer Etiquette: Professional vs. Unprofessional

Once in a job interview I was asked, “What do you think is the most important part of customer service?” My answer: Manners. You’d be amazed how far ‘please’ and ‘thank you’ get you.

Often we talk about writing tones, ideas, styles, and rules, but what about etiquette? A dear friend and co-worker asked me if I had ever posted about my code of conduct, which are the rules I follow when writing for someone, and sometimes, myself.

The idea intrigued me, so here’s my breakdown on the differences between professional and unprofessional writers when given an assignment. These are things I keep in mind every time I’m dealing with anyone in a professional client/employee relationship.

Professional writers:

  • Meet the deadline. Ok, things happen, and everyone knows that, so it’s probably ok to be late every now and then – when things actually happen. A good writer will do their best work and meet the deadline, unless there is a real excuse (death, emergency, crashed computer, etc.).
  • Thank the client for the assignment. When you accept the work, you should thank them for hiring you. It shows you care about receiving work and you don’t just expect it.
  • Go above and beyond (not in word count though). Writers who solve their own problems and deliver a good piece are gold. I exhaust every form of research before I ask for help, and I let them know what I’ve tried, so it saves them time, too. This also applies when receiving feedback and edit requests. We all have to tweak things, and these writers do so quickly and change whatever needed to make the assignment better.
  • Do not procrastinate or over commit. Good writers will decline an assignment before they will accept it and turn it in late. Also, if you start early, you can solve problems quickly.
  • Let someone know there’s a problem. Once the calls are made and the research is done, you may have questions or need someone’s help reaching someone. These writers speak up to make sure they turn in the most accurate work.

Unprofessional writers:

  • Cop an attitude. Keep in mind there are millions of writers out there, and the number keeps growing. You can and probably will be replaced if you are rude in emails or on the phone.
  • Lie/make excuses. Some writers lie and make 100 excuses on why they are late. Editors know if you “have something come up” every assignment – you’re either not on your game or don’t care.
  • Back out at the last minute. This is my biggest pet peeve. I could never accept an assignment and just not do it. It’s inconsiderate, rude, and highly unprofessional.
  • Don’t have initiative or problem-solving skills. You should never ask your client a question that can be answered by a quick search. I believe people can ask stupid questions, and they should expect smart ‘a’ answers in return.
  • Think they’re irreplaceable. Writers who think they are “just awesome” and cannot be replaced entertain me. I’m a writer in my free time, and I know we’re a dime a dozen. A little ego can get you a job; anymore than that can keep you from getting one.

It’s in your best interest to behave admirably and make people want to hire you. We’re all trying to get our stuff out there, therefore acting like a professional may set you apart from others when tone and style just aren’t enough.

Feel free to share your tips and thoughts below!

If You Want to Write: Journals

Doctors will tell you to keep a journal in order to release stress and sort out emotions. Jotting down all your feelings and thoughts can help you resolve conflict, make decisions, and force you to learn about yourself. But why should writers keep a journal?

In this chapter, Ueland explains the benefits of journal writing and how it makes you a better writer. Not better in the sense of correct grammar and what the world expects of you – better in the way of more honest, real, and true to who you are.

But why is it important to be real?

Readers want to devour a good book. A good book deprives you from sleep, takes you away from your family and friends, and sucks you deep into the world it creates. As an author, you can’t do that without being real. Your reader will move onto something better, and frankly, honest is more interesting and fun.

Any writer can fill pages with words. It takes true talent to show a reader what you see rather than telling them. Ueland uses this example:

  • His muscles rippled through his shoulders. (Did they really? No.) So she asks, what do you see it your mind?
  • His muscles looked as if they would burst through the seams of his shirt. (Believable and descriptive)

The novel Gone Girl is a great example of this. And ironically, it’s set in a journal format. That’s no accident. Journals are people being who they are and who they don’t want to be. The best-seller captivated readers worldwide, and it remains one of the most talked about novels in my office. It was the nitty-gritty details of a relationship, and it felt real. You were smack in the middle of the story and couldn’t put it down.

What you can gain from your journal:

  • A greater love for writing – Sometimes it’s hard to write and get into the habit, but once it becomes a routine, you have to do it. It’s like an addiction, and if it’s not done, your day may feel incomplete.
  • It jump starts other projects – We all have a book or story idea that we haven’t made time for. We sit down at the computer and freak out because we don’t know where to begin. After journal writing, you’ll realize that you can just start, and edit and fill in gaps later. You can even trade the time you’d spend on your journal on that new project, or switch back and forth as needed.
  • Immerse yourself in your own life – If you took one hour a day you play on social media or watch TV and wrote in your journal, you’d have insight into your own life, dreams, and self. As scary as it may be, good writers aren’t afraid to explore their most inner thoughts.

She recommends keeping a journal and writing in it every day, but not looking back on it until six months have passed. Doing so, you’ll see honest progression and skill as the journal continues. You learn more about the personality that comes out in your writing because no matter how hard you try, it will come through for the world to see.

Want more tips? Check out our If You Want to Write section!

If You Want to Write: Personality

“But since he has no true feelings about poverty, nothing to offer about it, neither do you, the reader, have any feelings about it. There is no infection.” – Brenda Ueland

Passion and personality: The difference between good writers and great writers. The difference between a good story and a story no one remembers.

In this chapter, Ueland discusses what she calls the “third dimension”. It is the personality behind the words and ideas.

Depending on the reader, seeing a writer’s personality can be the deal breaker. If there is no personality, why should your reader care what you have to say? Ueland also references Chekhov’s idea for fiction, “to pose a question but never answer it.” According to Chekhov, as soon as you answer it, the reader knows you are lying or trying to prove something. That’s the beauty of writing as art; it’s all about interpretation.

What does your writing say about you?

Honest writing exemplifies its author. If you look closely, you can see certain personality traits from the author(s). Here are a few examples from recent posts:

1. I think we CAN all get along. I think various kinds of fans CAN get along, and many kinds of fans can exist within one person – you can be a fan of games, electronic entertainment, sports, literature, history, natural science, etc. I know you can be, because I am a fan of aspects of all those things.

2. No matter the animal, we grow attached to them. Sometimes we talk to them when we can’t talk to anyone else – animals can’t gossip or argue. In fact, they may be the only ones in the world we can completely trust. There’s no judgment or criticism.

3. Despite the accident, I did return the next year; though it was unremarkable for the most part. I did get a ridiculous case of athlete’s foot from the community shower. I also saw a boy cut off most of his thumb with a hatchet. Nothing matched the bus accident though.

What do you notice about the writers?

  • I see writer one is accepting and open-minded, but he wants and possibly expects others to be as accepting and tolerant.
  • Writer two doesn’t trust easily, and she sometimes feels alone and judged – so much so, that animals fill a void people cannot.
  • In the third passage, the author shows fearlessness in a potentially traumatic situation. However, he also uses humor to make light of the situation that may still haunt him.

Fun, right?! This week, pick an article, post, or book, and look beyond the words and images. What do you learn about your author’s personality? Also, think about what your readers will say about you. Feel free to share your thoughts below!

Read more tips on writing and grammar.

If You Want to Write: Writing as Art

When you write, think of painting a picture. It can be any picture you want, but think of the images that must be in the painting. For example, a beach scene.

Virginia Beach, VAIf you wanted to duplicate this picture, you would need to include the sand, ocean, and sky. You wouldn’t add clouds, the sun, an umbrella, etc. If you added those things, you may lose the tranquil setting this picture represents and change the meaning. Adding unnecessary items may distract your audience or lose them entirely.

The same is true in writing.

Adding unnecessary words, phrases, and punctuation can distract your readers or cause them to stop reading. Once that happens, conveying your message is almost impossible. Most studies agree that the average adult attention span is 8 seconds or 140 characters. Not words, characters. If that’s true, you would only read the first two sentences of this post before moving onto something else.

So, what does that mean to writers? It means we need to cut the crap.

In the chapter Art is Inspiration, Ueland discusses writing from our hearts and saying it like it is. She credits Russian writers, like Chekhov, who focus more on the truth rather than how they sound. Personally, I enjoy Russian writers for the same reason and believe that it is more effective to teach readers than sound like you have read the dictionary.

Here are a few tips to help while you write:

1. Don’t use words/phrases no one knows or ever says. Big words do not make you sound smarter or tell your reader anything about you – except maybe you’re over compensating for something. As you write ask yourself, “Would anyone ever actually say that?”

2. Only use adjectives and adverbs when needed and know how to use them. They do not improve your writing or ideas, and sometimes readers will think they are fluff.

3. Show don’t tell. Future post coming, but Ueland says, “… quietly describe what you are feeling. Don’t say your boredom was excruciating or agonizing, unless your own was, which is doubtful.”

4. Focus. Remember to only include what is necessary to convey your message. This tip applies to characters, setting, plot, words, objects, etc. You probably wouldn’t paint a mountain with a fruit bowl, so why would you add unnecessary words, details, or characters to your story? Everything should have a purpose.

Do you have any tips on editing? For more info, check out:

5 Tips on Editing Your Own Writing

Writing Succinctly

If You Want to Write: Be Your Character

I’ve read a lot of fiction – good and bad. One common factor between the two seems to be the hardest part to write. Characters. The bread and butter of any story. Sure, you can have a great premise, plot arch, and writing style, but if the characters suck the piece may suffer a worse fate.

In the chapter Microscopic Truthfulness, Ueland urges us to look for the truth within ourselves. I know, I know, it sounds deep and something that many of us seldom find, but this is a different truth. This is a truth most of us can achieve.

Own How You Feel

Human emotion is raw and pure. We seldom write when we are overflowing with emotion because we are afraid of the outcome. During the day, maybe you’re at work where you must be professional and conduct yourself responsibly. At night, maybe you’re out partying with friends or home with your family. Ueland asks us, “but how to single out your true self , when we are all so many selves?”

The trick is to own it. I find myself stepping away from the computer for a few if I receive an email that fires me up. I also take a deep breath and calm down before I confront someone. And because human emotion is so powerful, I have to do these things. What would happen if I didn’t? The idea has some dangerous potential.

However when you write, that is your time. That is your time to get it all out. Scribble down how angry, happy, turned on, drunk, or whatever you are at the moment. The writing will be messy and disorganized, but it will be believable and real. Ueland says, “Active evil is so much better than passive good, which is docility, feebleness, timidity.”

Find Truth in Your Characters

My favorite quote from this chapter: “If you feel like a murderer for the time being, write like one.” And how true that is. In order to write good characters, you must get inside their head. You must be the character. Why do you think Stephen King uses writers as so many of his main characters? What about the wife who writes about making love or an unhappy marriage? What about the child who writes about the kid with superpowers? They are their character.

Sure, sometimes it takes some research and time, but you need to know your characters. By getting in tune with your own feelings, you can tap into others’, making you more observant. The comment I write to new writers the most is “How does this character feel? Show the emotion.” A plot is easy to outline and change, character development takes serious work.

The Challenge

I challenge all the writers out there to keep a journal for one week, even if it’s a notepad on your desk or in your purse. Take 15 minutes a day and write about your day and how you feel – not how you think you should feel, but the real emotion that lies within. You may find it therapeutic, and you’d be surprised how much you learn about yourself. Happy writing!

5 Tips on How to Edit Your Own Writing

“When you write a book, you spend day after day scanning and identifying the trees. When you’re done, you have to step back and look at the forest.” ― Stephen King, On Writing

How many writers out there think they don’t need an editor? I doubt many, which is why we have jobs. Editing is a special skill that develops with practice and time. But what do you do if you don’t have an editor or are short on time? What about if you’re submitting to an editor and worry they’ll rip it to shreds?

Here are five tips on how to edit your own work. These tips may help develop your editing skills, improve your writing, and win your editor’s heart.

1. Run spell check. There’s this nifty little tool called spell check. Use it, and add words to your dictionary as you go.

2. Read your copy aloud. I don’t mean fly through it like you’re reading something for school or an online article. Enunciate the words, pause at commas and periods – read it like you would to a four-year-old. You will see and hear how it reads, enabling you to make important changes.

3. Find the meaning. Read each paragraph or section and ask yourself, “What did that paragraph/section mean or tell me?” If you can’t answer that in one sentence, consider revising for clarity and focus.

4. Check your transitions. As you read, pay attention to how you change subjects or points. Does it seem natural? Does it bounce around? Each thought should lead into the next, and the entire piece should tie it all together. If you talk about parachuting in paragraph one, it probably won’t make sense to talk about shoes in the next.

5. Step back. Take a break, and when you come back, read it one final time. If it’s an assignment, does it address everything required? Do you enjoy reading it? How does it read as a whole? Make necessary changes, and if they are extensive, read it once more.

There’s no need to memorize grammar and punctuation rules, or agonize over every word. If you want to learn the rules, I encourage it; however, the above steps will help you find misspelled words (such as its and it’s) and hear things (such as missing words) to ensure you submit your best work.

For more writing tips, check out our Writing for Web and Tips section!