Top 10 Ways To Screw-Up Your Writing Career

This past week my husband sent me the link to one of the articles he came across from IEEE (pronounced “Eye-triple-E” which stands for Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers. Sound technical enough?). Now normally when my husband gets all Engineer-y on me, I smile and nod along until the conversation takes a more interesting turn. But amazingly enough that often happens in the midst of his engineering talk. I guess he’s known me long enough to choose his topics thoughtfully.

Anyway, this particular link was fascinating to me, titled Top 10 Ways To Screw-Up Your Engineering Career. Sounds grim, doesn’t it? Even more so when I realized it could apply to writers, too.

At the bottom of this post I’ll provide the link to the original article, written by Jim Anderson. I’m sure he’s given lots of great advice to engineers, and I’m very grateful to him for the inspiration behind this post. I’ve tweaked some the actual tips to fit, but they’re actually more similar than you’d expect if you never considered writers to have much in common with engineers.

So here they are, 10 ways to mess up your writing career:

#10: Don’t Go To College / Don’t Finish If You Do Go / Don’t Expand Your Knowledge of Writing
Mr. Anderson recommends college as a place to learn how to think, and I wholeheartedly agree.  The idea here is that formal education is important, but perhaps not for the reasons you think. Participating in formal training is vital to train your brain to be open to new ideas and concepts and how to use them.

#9: Be The Best Problem Finder That You Can Be
Engineers may be the best qualified people on earth to identify a problem, but in order to succeed they have to figure out how to solve those problems. For writers, we may be the best person to identify a brand new twist on a tried-and-true plot, or identify the one kind of book that hasn’t been done to death. To identify a hole in the market that needs to be filled—just make sure you come up with the story that’s the right one to fill that hole. Identifying the need is only half the battle.

#8: Don’t Sweat The Small Stuff
What Mr. Anderson is saying here, I think, is if you don’t sweat the small stuff, someone else who does will be the one to succeed. Ignoring even the mundane rules—even publishers have them for freelancers—is a good way to be passed over next time. So pay attention to the rules out of respect for those who set them, because there are plenty of other writers out there who would be eager to take your place. So when your editor changes some usage or grammar item that might not be your first choice, but they have a house rule for consistency, go with what they say instead of fighting a battle not worth fighting. Pay attention to that small stuff by going with what your employer—your publisher—prefers. The small stuff . . . does it really matter? It can.

#7: Bee A Reel Fast Tiper
In this day and age everyone—everyone—types. You may want to respond to an email to a colleague or editor in record time, but speed isn’t the most important thing in life. Mr. Anderson recommends counting to ten before pushing send, in other words giving yourself a moment to re-read and digest what you’re about to communicate. I heartily agree to be careful about your communication, no matter whom you’re communicating with.

#6: Fall In Love With Your Employer
This anti-tip was probably the hardest for me to accept, because I admit to being at least a little bit in love with my employer. However, Tyndale is my second publisher and I was also grateful and excited to be working with my first publisher. All publishers are in business, and by virtue of its very nature a business cannot love you back. Yes, even if it is a Christian business. Publishers cannot stay in business if they make unwise business choices, so keep that in mind as you shape your career.

#5: Only Be Nice To the Important People
This one should be obvious for those of us who follow Christ, but it bears repeating in this context. I often say when I go to writer’s conferences that we need to be open and friendly to everyone we meet, because we really don’t know who might be the one to inspire us in the future, to give us a tip, provide an introduction or other networking help that could allow us to move up to the next level.

#4: Let Your Work Speak for Yourself
This might have been the most interesting anti-tip, particularly for us as writers. After all, shouldn’t our work stand on its own merit? Well, evidently even in engineering the engineer is supposed to tell others about the uniqueness of their work. For us, that means . . . yes, marketing. We have to talk about ourselves and the uniqueness of our work so it will draw notice.

#3: Always Use Email for Everything
I thought this would be challenging to engineers and introverted writers alike, because e-mail works so well. Why go face-to-face if e-mail will suffice? The fact is we all get inundated with email, so if possible it’s nice to connect in person. I’ve recommended for years that a writer visit their publisher in person if possible when they get a new contract, just to connect a face with a name. Oh, and it also helps with #4, about shoring up the way your work can be noticed (even within your publisher’s office).

#2: Never Make a Decision Without Having ALL of the Facts
I thought this was interesting, too, particularly coming from an engineer and directed to other engineers. I mean, aren’t engineers all about the facts? Mathematical foundations for everything, after all, and you don’t argue with math. However, Mr. Anderson makes a great point—we don’t often get all the facts, no matter how hard we try. Sometimes our decisions must be made on estimates. For writers that might mean for every acceptance we get so many rejections, so be prepared to send out more proposals than we might hope. Or for every plot that works we may follow so many bunny trails that won’t. For every reviewer who loves our work, we get so many who don’t. In a business that revolves around people—readers—we often have to make our business decisions based on estimates, trends, markets. Not concrete facts.

#1: You’re published, now you’ve made it!
Mr. Anderson’s most important point is to always learn and grow, and that’s the essence of this point as well. Once a writer is published, even if they win awards or make best seller lists, if they don’t continue growing (i.e. learning) then they may as well kiss their career bye-bye.

I hope you’ve enjoyed my take on these engineering anti-tips. It appears making the most of creativity is universal, no matter the domain.
Click here to the original link to Jim Anderson’s excellent post.

Before you go, don’t forget to check back mid-week for my New Fiction Wednesday, and then next Monday with details about my contest kick-off!


  1. says

    I would add: don’t listen. Don’t listen to your readers, to writer friends who give critiques, to serious reviewers who’ve taken the time to point out things that disappoint them. Think that you are so good, you should be telling THEM how to write, so why should you listen to their criticisms? They’re just jealous of your writing career. Don’t listen to that editor who keeps correcting you on the proper use of punctuation and those phrases you overuse. You’re paying her/your publisher’s paying her, so that puts her below you, doesn’t it?

    This seems to be a fault of many multi-published writers. You know it when remarks start popping up in reader forums like “where was the editor?” I suspect that there is often a bad case of Writer Ego afoot, that the writer imagines success means she can stop listening to input. Repeat after me: Criticism is my friend…

    • says

      So true, Jane! No matter what level a writer has achieved, we all still need to listen and learn from others. Every comment made represents a percentage of other readers out there with the same opinion. Thanks for your input!

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