The 10 Commandments of Highly Productive Professional Writers

by Ruth Harris

I've known and worked with a lot of professional writers over the years (decades).

Some work first thing in the AM, others in the PM, some don’t get started until near midnight. Some write sober, some don’t. Some write on a computer, some on legal pads, and some write on tablets or even phones. Some edit as they go along, perfecting each sentence before going on to the next. Some keep strict, almost corporate office hours, some write irregularly but in hot rushes of productivity.

Others write a first draft as fast as they can, then go back to edit and revise. Some outline in detail. Others work from a jotted list of scribbled notes. Still others let the characters do the work. Some brainstorm the plot with a trusted friend or spouse. Some work with a crit partner/ editor/beta reader getting comments and guidance along the way. Others won’t let anyone see their work until it’s finished.

Bottom line, there's no ONE way to get the job done and no ONE way will work for every writer. Still, no matter where, when or how writers write, certain general rules seem to work well for most people most of the time.

1. Thou shalt hold thy nose and type.

Anatomically impossible, of course, just like another frequently suggested act but writing without over thinking has positive payoffs:

2. Thou shalt write. A lot. 

Commandment 2 is a close relative of Commandment 1. Professional writers turn out copy, they meet deadlines, they get the job done and the more they write the better they get. Same with any job, career or profession.

Do you want a surgeon who's just out of med school or one who's done hundreds of knee/hip replacements? See what I mean?

3. Thou shalt not give in to temptation. 

You know the Internet is full of enemies: email, Facebook, Pinterest, YouTube, Candy Crush and Words With Friends. Now meet the allies:

4. Thou shalt respect thy genre. 

Successful writers of horror, romance, thrillers or mystery read widely in their genre. They study its conventions, know what readers expect and they do NOT let them down. Period.

Don't think you will reinvent the wheel. Pros know better. Find out more about the subject in my earlier post "know your genre". And here are additional resources get you started:

5. Thou shalt keep it real. 

Successful professional authors don’t clutter their minds with gauzy notions of "literature" or "art." Instead, they are experienced, disciplined and competent storytellers and entertainers who understand that craft matters. 

Great books are about characters, plot, setting, if "art" is the outcome, great, but, as in building a house, don't rely on wishful thinking when what you need is a hammer and some nails.

6. Thou shalt learn to bail thyself out. 

One of the great old-time pulp writers (200+ books) once told me "Each book is a pain in the ass in a different way." What he meant was that at some point each one is going to present a problem.

You name it, sometime, somewhere, in the course of writing a book, you will get stuck. Professional writers have learned how to bail themselves out. Whether it means going back to the beginning and starting again, a light rewrite, a total revision, a personality transplant (for a character, not the writer—lol), the pros have learned how to get themselves out of trouble.

First aid for boo-boos:

7. Thou shalt put thy butt in the chair and face thy crit group/beta readers. 

 Your crit group/beta readers say your characters are stereotypes? They hate your MC. They think your love scenes are boring/soapy/ unbelievable. Are they right? Do they know what they're talking about? Do you agree with them? Should you agree with them?

8. Thou shalt accentuate the positive.

I read a while ago about an in-demand sports psychologist whose theory is that if a golfer is a good putter, s/he should practice putting until s/he becomes a superb putter. This shrink’s approach was not to focus on correcting an athlete's weaknesses, but on polishing his/her strengths to the highest possible level.

Writers can take the same approach: write what you're good at. Do more of what comes easily and work on your strengths. Snappy dialogue? Sheet-scorching sex? Evocative descriptions? Slam-bang action? Whatever you love to write will certainly be one of the keys to making your book stand out.

9. Thou shalt park thy ego and learn to edit thyself. 

Heresy coming from an editor, I know, but professional writers are often excellent editors of their own work. After years of experience, they have learned to recognize their strengths and weaknesses. They have developed the ability to look at their own work objectively and their approach is practical: what works stays, what doesn’t work hits the cutting room floor, aka the delete button.

The ability to self-edit comes with time and experience but it’s a goal for beginning writers to keep in mind.

Here are a few ideas for learning to edit your own work.

10. Thou shalt suck it up. 

Rejection and rotten reviews are in your future. Guaranteed.

10+1. Now that you know the 10 commandments and pledge to obey them, go forth and hit it out of the park. ;-)

What about you, Scriveners? Do you find bliss in single-tasking?  Are you following these "commandments"? Do you have any to add to the list?  What is the most important rule you follow for your own writing? 


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MARK TWAIN HUMOR CONTEST  Entry fees: $12 Young Author or $22 Adult. 7,000 words (or fewer) of any original work of humor writing. Submissions must be in English. Submissions are not required to be in the style of Mark Twain or about Mark Twain. 1st Prize: $1,000 (Adult), $600 (Young Author). Other cash prizes! Deadline July 10, 2015

Saturday Evening Post Great American Fiction Contest. Entry fee $10. Your story should in some way touch upon the publication’s mission: Celebrating America — past, present, and future. Think Norman Rockwell. No profanity or graphic sex. Any genre. No previously published stories, but they can have appeared on your blog. Between 1,500 and 5,000 words. Deadline July 1, 2015

PULP LITERATURE'S The Hummingbird Prize for Flash Fiction $10-$15 ENTRY FEE. Winner published in Winter 2016. First Prize: $300 (Runner up: $75). For unpublished short fiction up to 1,000 words in length. Contest Opens May 1, 2015 and closes June 15, 2015

Ink & Insights 2015
 is a writing contest that comes with a detailed critique. Send the first 10,000-words of your book. The entry fee is $35: pricey for a contest, but a fantastic deal for a critique. Each submission is read by four judges who score 18 areas of your novel. This looks like a great opportunity! Over $5,000 cash and prizesDeadline May 31.

Writer's Digest Writing Compeition. This is their biggie. First prize is $5000 plus your photo on the cover of Writer's Digest. Entry fees are a little pricey at $25 for a story, $15 for a poem but there are lots of big prizes. Categories for many genres of fiction, Creative nonfic, essays, screenplays, and poetry. Early Bird deadline May 4th.

WOW Spring Flash Fiction Contest: Fee $10, or $20 with critique. The critique is a fantastic deal. These quarterly contests are judged by an agent. 750 words.  First prize is $350 plus a $500 publishing package, publication and an interview. 20 prizes in all. Enter early. They only take the first 300 entries. Deadline May 31.

WRITER ADVICE FLASH PROSE CONTEST $15 ENTRY FEE. Flash fiction, memoir, and creative non-fiction running 750 words or less. First Place earns $200; Second Place earns $100; Third Place earns $50; Honorable Mentions will also be published. Deadline April 21, 2015.

The 2015 Bulwer Litton Bad Writing Contest. Wretched Writers Welcome! This is the "It Was a Dark and Stormy Night" Bad Writing Contest! Write the worst opening line you can come up with (about 50-60 words). Must be a single sentence. NO FEE. Small cash prize. Deadline April 15

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