Writing/Opinion: Professionalism

I want to spend a minute today to talk about professionalism. If you know me, that probably sounds pretty funny, considering I don’t hesitate to drop the f-bomb into any conversation at a moment’s notice (in fact, there’s several in this blog post). I don’t stop to think about the words coming out of my mouth before I say them. Some people term that verbal diarrhea. And that’s all true; I freely admit to being one of the biggest dicks I know (I also freely admit to being one of the nicest people I know, but my hypocrisy knows no bounds). I’m opinionated and I pretty much disagree with 98% of the rejections I receive. Of course my fucking story was a perfect fit and I have no idea why it wasn’t chosen.

Despite my personality quirks described above, very few publishers or editors I’ve worked with know that about me. And until they read that line above, they probably thought their rejection letters were taken with a smile and a nod and possibly an “Oh, well. Better luck next time, Chris.”

Not so, not really, because if you’re a writer, rejection stings. Sure, eventually you get to that “better luck” point (sometimes it’s in 5 seconds, other times 5 years), but just like every other aspect of life, you’re judged mostly by your visible and public reactions to things. So you got a rejection letter. Not cool. Do you blast back at the editor/publisher with a “Hey, you’re a fucking tool!” or a “You’ll regret this because I’m the next Stephen King!” email? Or do you write back with something nicer, something like, “Would you mind telling me why my story didn’t make the cut?”

If you answered yes, keep reading.

Professionalism seems to be a lost art. And, by the way, professionalism is different than being polite; you can be polite and still be completely unprofessional. Professionalism goes beyond just saying please and thank you, as I’ll illustrate below.

I work in corporate America and it sucks. I’m not going to lie (nor am I going to say that’s a very professional thing to say, as it’s not) but it is a professional environment. There are standards that the company I work for must abide by and therefore, in my job capacity, there are standards that I must abide by. If I don’t abide by these markers set forth by my employer, what happens? My boss gets all pissy with me; I get reprimanded, possibly shit-canned. More than that, in my particular industry (which is heavily regulated), my employer can be fined and prohibited from doing business in certain geographic areas.

Now you’re probably wondering what all that has to do with being a writer. Well, consider those standards as a market’s submission guidelines. This means you better damn well read and follow them. Keep in mind, this is your reaction to those guidelines, not an action you’re taking (Your specific action in this scenario was writing your story, since you don’t have to send it anywhere). I read a lot of these blog posts where it’s “common courtesy” to follow a market’s guidelines. My response? FUCK THAT. It’s not a courtesy; it’s a requirement. By not following those guidelines, you’re being unprofessional. It’s not impolite to ignore a market’s request for 12 pt Courier, it’s fucking unprofessional. I don’t care if you hate Courier with a passion, if it leapt off the page and ate your mother’s face off, if the market wants Courier, it’s CTRL-A, change font, SAVE AS…

During my time editing Title Goes Here:, I’d have those people who wouldn’t read the guidelines and submit some of the most off the wall shit; they were rejected, without being read. And here’s a further little note: I kept a spreadsheet of submissions. Title, author name, and, if a piece was rejected, the reasons why. We weren’t a huge magazine, reading only about 700 subs a period, so I felt it was nice to remember people if they subbed again. But, I also knew if your first submission was some deformed version of our guidelines, too. You could be certain I was looking closely at your new baby, too.

Another thing: make sure your cover letter is in complete sentences, has proper capitalization and grammar, and addresses the things the market wants addressed. Usually that’s story title, word count, sometimes a brief list of publications, and a bio, in case you’re accepted.

Notice what information isn’t asked for up there?

Anyone?

Bueller?

Bueller?

Your name.

But that doesn’t mean don’t sign your email. You have no idea how many cover letters I’d get that looked like this (yes, this is an actual cover letter):

hi, here’s my story. let me know if its good enuff to be published. thanks.

Okay, I get it… we’re on the internet, dealing with something as impersonal as email, but that’s even more reason to make your communications professional. Hopefully, the above example illustrates the difference between polite and professional. I mean, they said hi and thanks, so really, that’s polite enough. But the professionalism is important here because what if the story is on the cusp and it needs some editing, which means working with that author to get the story where it needs to be. I couldn’t imagine any further email communication with this person. First impressions count.

And, lately, I have seen some markets now having “don’t forget to include your name” in their guidelines. This saddens me. It’s unreal that we’re so unprofessional that we need to tell people to sign their fucking name to a letter.

The other things that fall into that professionalism category are, like I stated above, not going back to the publisher/editor after being rejected, especially if your comeback is snark or ignorant in any way. You can be, and usually are, forgiven for asking for feedback, but don’t turn to being dick if A) you don’t like the feedback or B) you’re told no.

Reactions, people. It’s all about your reactions to these situations.

They also extend to personal meetings, though less so. Those personal interactions is where polite really comes into play. I’ve met editors who’ve rejected me, and it’s never, “Hey, you fucker, you rejected me…” it’s always “Hi, nice to finally meet you.” Shake hands, smile, and be personable since it’s unlikely you’re wearing a pinstriped suit, polo, or even khakis and a tie. Speak well, be as well groomed as possible (sometimes, in convention land, this isn’t as easy as it sounds), and try not to be drunk (again, a feat not as easy as it sounds).

Look at it this way: every time you submit a story to a market, you’re applying for a job. You want compensation for your work, which means you need to give that market not only a story worth publishing, but also an author worth representing. The writing “industry” isn’t huge and publishers/editors talk to each other. They listen, they hear your name, and you want them to hear your name in a positive light. You don’t want to be “that writer” who gets the thumbs down chat, the mockery, and placed on that “watch list” because you didn’t provide a professional package.

Think before you submit. Proofread. Remember those lessons from way back when about spelling, grammar, punctuation. Say please and thank you. Sign your name.

Bottom line is that to be taken seriously, then you have to be serious. That extends beyond putting your ass in a chair and writing as best you can. Every contact you have with an editor or publisher should be as clean as possible, professional, and top-notch.

Questions, comments, discussion are always welcome.

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