Now that in-person conferences are back, it’s a good time to review proper etiquette for these gatherings. I’ve been teaching at writers conferences for over twenty years, and I’ve seen a ton of aspiring writers in various stages of disequilibrium. Everyone wants to get a book contract and everyone’s a little scared they never will. They hear stories about the odds and it sends shivers to the tips of their typing fingers.
Those who persevere have a chance.
In the course of these conference years I’ve seen a number of writers who have gotten that contract and gone on to be published by major houses. I’ve even helped a few get there, which is nice. And while it’s nearly impossible to judge why one manuscript makes it and another—which is comparable or even better—does not, I have made note of one item: The overwhelming majority of writers I’ve seen make it are those who look and act like a professional.
When you meet unpublished writers who act like pros, you form the immediate impression that it’s only a matter of time before they make it. This impression is not lost on agents and editors.
So what are the marks of a professional?
Successful writers-in-waiting look professional. They do not come off as slobs or slackers. They dress sharply though unpretentiously. They say you can’t judge a book by its cover, but we do it all the time with people. Don’t shoot down your first impression by looking unkempt or having stink-breath that can kill low flying birds.
Professionals know something about their profession. They spend time reading blogs and books and the trades, though not to the exclusion of their writing.
To the Point
A pro has the ability to focus on what the other person (e.g., an agent) will find valuable and, most important, can deliver that in a concise and persuasive manner. You should be able to tell someone, in 30 seconds or less, what your book is about, in such a way that the person can immediately see its potential.
Common courtesy goes a long way, especially these days. If you have an appointment with an agent, be there two minutes early. When you’re done, thank them. Follow up with a short and appropriate e-mail. Don’t call them unless you’ve been invited to. Don’t get angry or petulant, even if there’s a reason for it. Burning bridges is never a good career move.
Take Action Every Day
Over the long haul, a successful professional in any field is always in a growth mode. Be looking for ways to improve—in your craft and in your social skills. When you do this, day after day, you begin to build momentum. That, in turn, will fuel your confidence and keep you going. And there is nothing an unpublished writer needs more than motivation to keep going.
Keep writing. Keep learning. And act like a pro.
James Scott Bell
Resident Writing Coach
Jim is the author of the #1 bestseller for writers, Plot & Structure, and numerous thrillers, including Romeo’s Rules, Try Dying and Don’t Leave Me. His popular books on fiction craft can be found here. His thrillers have been called “heart-whamming” (Publishers Weekly) and can be browsed here. Find out more about Jim on our Resident Writing Coach page, and connect with him on