Professionalism in writing: Rules for writers 10: the ‘The Four Pillars’
Passion. Persistence. Patience: professionalism in writing, or ‘The Four Pillars’ of a writer.
Professionalism in writing: it’s tricky
Rule 10 of ‘There Are No Rules’ is a tricky one. First of all, there are four headings under this rule.
And at least one of these really is a rule, a proper rule, and can’t be ignored – or is ignored at our peril. It’s called Professionalism.
I’ve listed the Four Pillars above in a particular order, because, in my experience, that order reflects the process of writing.
We’re probably all familiar with the heady rush that accompanies the single moment of inspiration that signals the birth of a new piece of work.
The rush to the desk, the excitement, the sense of something new and emerging that probably keeps us awake at night.
If we do sleep, we’re likely to dream about it.
When we wake, we’re already thinking about it and we’re consumed with plotting, planning, even catastrophising.
We might even have made notes during the night.
That initial passion – like at the start of a new relationship – is essential. We need that passion; we need it to sustain us through the rigours of the first draft.
After that, we’re on our own.
Well, not really, but the landscape changes.
Now, once the passion becomes more tempered and we can see the difficulties that lie ahead, it is something else that keeps us going. And that ‘something else’ is persistence.
We need to turn up at the desk even when things aren’t going well. We need to focus on sharpening our paragraphs, crafting our sentences, deleting what is not necessary. We need to muster the courage to ‘kill our darlings’ whenever we need to.
All writing is rewriting.
Sometimes, a piece of work will take as many as twenty drafts, or more. Other times, fewer will do: but rarely does a piece of writing reach the page fully-formed, straight from the head of Zeus.
Instead, it needs to be drafted and redrafted, often despaired over, frequently wrestled with, always polished and honed until it is the very best we can do.
The first cousin of persistence is patience.
Sometimes their roots are so inextricably wound together that it is impossible to prise them apart. But patience in this case has some other branches to it.
Resist the urge to show your early work to too many people. Resist above all close family and friends, until you are good and ready.
What you will probably get if you show unpolished work to your loved ones is criticism, or at least lack of enthusiasm. What you are probably looking for is universal validation. Wait, until you are sure that you are ready, until you are reasonably confident that the work is the best you can make it.
In the same, way, be patient about publication.
Often the rush towards publication stunts a potentially good short story or novel. Focus on the process, not the product, for as long as you can. Put the work in a drawer when you think you’ve finished. Walk away from it for a few months. Start something else.
See how you feel when you open the drawer several weeks later – whether you’re still convinced that you’re ready for the public response.
Don’t try and rush yourself – or the work. You’ll both be ready when you’re ready.
And here is where we reach the cardinal rule of professionalism.
You get one chance, and one only, to make a positive first impression. Whatever your plot, your characterisation, your genre, your audience: there is the one immutable rule of correctness.
Make sure that your grammar is correct. That your punctuation is correct.
That your spelling is without reproach.
It’s the least you can do if you’re asking editors to consider your work. Pay them the compliment of your utmost care in presentation. Search publishers’ websites for their submission rules: find out about house styles and adjust your manuscript accordingly.
Prepare for rejection and hope for acceptance.
And in the meantime, keep writing.
Let me know how you get on – your feedback is welcome.
- Catherine Dunne’s Rules for Writers
Photograph: Noel Hillis