Be a Professional: Break the rules

I’m not going to lie: Writing about how to be perceived as “professional” is a topic that makes me cringe — not because it’s unimportant, but because the advice you’ll hear on the subject is pedestrian at best.

We’ve all heard it before:

  •  Don’t blog drunk
  • Don’t post your dirty laundry on your blog
  • Don’t drop the F-bomb
  • Use spell-check
  • Identify your audience
  • Write for your audience
  • Get ‘em to buy what you’re selling

You know this. I know this. So why are the biggest writers — the ones we most admire — always the ones that break all the rules?

I just watched “Page One: Inside the New York Times,” and it occurred to me that a lot of that film was about a guy who admits quite candidly to being a former junkie. Think about that for a second. Normally if you tell a potential employer that you used to do hard drugs and have spent some time in prison, they won’t even have you in for an interview (or so I’m told). Yet the New York Times blew off the conventional wisdom and hired this guy to write for them.

He’s not the only one who’s gotten ahead by breaking the rules, but he’s a good current-day example. Obviously his writing is top-notch, or else the paper of record wouldn’t have hired him. Beyond that, does he behave like a “professional?” I guess it depends on your profession and your view of polite society and its restrictions. In the film, he tells off the chuckleheads at “Vice” magazine, which I admired. And his response to the question “Are you scared [about the Times potentially disappearing]?” is featured in the trailer. His reply? “I was a single parent on welfare. This is nothing.”

Gurus and business types will tell you to smooth your rough edges, and to be friendly and personable as to avoid offending anyone. However, for a writer this is death. If you have no rough edges, if you are unfailingly polite, if you have never ruffled any feathers, then you haven’t lived — and you certainly can’t write for the public.

I’m not suggesting that we should all start writing the kind of trash you’d find on “reality” TV, but the fact of the matter is that advice aimed at those wanting to be taken seriously and treated like professionals is for people who have chosen to toe the line. Writers do not, cannot, and should not toe any line but their own.

Maybe this advice will make you a pariah, maybe it will get you blacklisted, and it will certainly piss someone off. You must choose: Are you going to be a great writer, or are you going to be a hack?

Having opinions is dangerous. Expressing them in print is more dangerous. Good writers know this and do it anyway. They have courage where others do not — and anyone who tries to tell you differently is selling something.


Laura Roberts is the author of Rebels of the 512, the best novel you’ll ever read about pirates, ninjas and evil politicians in Austin, Texas. You can find her book online at Amazon and Smashwords, or read more of her work at Buttontapper.com.

All PWA blog posts in April 2012 are edited by guest editor Cameron Lindsay.

If you enjoyed this post, consider subscribing to our RSS feed.