I haven’t been in touch for a while for two reasons:
- I finished my substitute teaching year, which means I’m now spending my days gardening, instead of sitting behind a desk.
- I actually got a paying writing job.
It’s that second installment in my life that I want to talk about. It’s been quite an experience. Despite imagining myself as a paid writer in my idle moments, I never thought about the day-to-day requirements of having a writing job. I was more or less thrown into my first writing project with very little training. This meant that I had to race to catch up with all the other, more experienced writers on the contract. It was alternately exhilarating and frustrating. There were moments when I felt like the greatest writer ever. And there were also plenty of moments when I was sorely tempted to lock my computer in a trunk somewhere, run away, and go live in a tree house where the editors would never find me.
I was forced to learn on the go, which made the project difficult, but also very informative. Here are a few things I figured out by the end of the first contract:
1. Check your email religiously.
My first writing contract, like many contracts, was carried out online. I never met my editors or fellow writers in person. We never talked on the phone or had a group Skype session. What we did was email each other. Every day.
I quickly realized why one of the requirements in the job posting was a reliable internet connection. Since we could only communicate through email and were working under a tight schedule, there was no time to waste waiting for someone to respond to an email you sent out three days ago. If you didn’t check your email every day, you were fired. It seems harsh, but if you couldn’t stay committed to the job, you would weigh down the rest of the team. Imagine if you worked in an office, and your coworker would always wait three days before answering any of your questions. You’d want to throw them through a window by the end of the quarter.
Luckily, getting my MA online taught me to check my email at least twice a day. When I was in high school, I could let my emails molder away without any lasting consequences. However, once I got into college, I learned that the simple act of checking your email folder (and more importantly, keeping it organized) would help you stay on top of things.
If you are going to go into professional writing, learn to check your email and send prompt responses. It helps to have one email address for personal use and one for professional use. That way, if you’re on a tight schedule, you don’t have to wade through advertisements and Groupon coupons. A little spam might leak through, but not enough to drown out the important messages you actually need to read.
2. Learn to proofread your own work.
Your editors will love you. Their jobs are hard enough without having to be your spellchecker, too. They are there to fix formatting problems and make your work sound awesome. They are not there to do something you should have learned to do in junior high. And a happy editor makes for a happy writing experience.
3. When your editor tells you to wait, wait.
When I started the contract, the project supervisor told all of the writers not to jump into the next part of the project until our work had been approved by an editor. Our editors reminded us of this on a regular basis, warning that if we got ahead of everyone else, we would have to redo our work later.
Guess what I did?
I’ve always been uncomfortable with waiting when there’s a deadline coming up. In school, this served me well. By the end of day one in class, I would already be generating ideas for my final project. I turned in my papers well ahead of my classmates, and then I would sit back and relax while they scurried to finish their work.
However, as I quickly discovered, jumping ahead does not always help when you are working with other writers. Eager to make a good impression, I completed the first part of my work long before the deadline, and, rather than wait for my editor to give me the green light, I leapt into part two. Then, a few days later, I received the editor’s feedback on part one. Turns out, I didn’t have a complete handle on the formatting. I had to revise part one, and part two was practically unusable. I had to go back and redo all my work. I would have been happier if I had spent my time between parts one and two hiking or listening to Radiolab in the garden, instead of trying to get ahead of everyone else.
I’m somewhat abashed to say that I made the same mistake again with part three. The overachiever in me kicked in, and I started part three without approval. Luckily, I had a better handle on the work, so I did not have to rewrite as much that time. Still, I made life harder for myself. I wasn’t used to teaming up with an editor.
So please learn from my mistake. If you get a writing contract and you have the good fortune to work with an editor, take advantage of their expertise. Let them critique your work before moving on with the project. You’ll save yourself a lot of time and embarrassment.