09 April 2009
Writing lessons from my father
My father was a sports writer for the Dayton Daily News before I was born, but those experiences were not the ones that helped me when I became a freelance writer and editor twenty years ago. Rather, his decades as an insurance salesman and the lessons he taught me about running a business made my nonfiction career easier to build and more successful.
Here are some of his business principles. Although he followed them to be an upright person, in the long run they helped his insurance career . . . and later my writing career.
Be honest with companies and customers. My father sold his customers the policies he thought they needed, not the policies on which he would make the most money. He never backdated a policy to cheat Nationwide into paying a claim on something that happened before he wrote the policy. For a writer, honesty means letting a client know when a project is going to be late, not making up quotes or facts, not stealing words or ideas, helping clients understand when the project they want to hire you for is half-baked and helping them refine the idea, and telling someone who wants to hire you that you’re not the right person instead of taking the job and botching it.
Deliver what you promise. Nothing destroys trust faster than to have your word mean nothing. Over the years, I’ve seen nonfiction writers lose clients forever by routinely turning in work that was late, incomplete, not what was agreed, or way too long or too short.
Help others on their career path. My father helped new agents learn the ropes. Similarly, nonfiction writers can recommend other writers for a job when they are too busy to take it or are not as well qualified for it. Fiction writers can act as mentors, can take part in critique groups and brainstorming groups, and post writing advice on their blogs or Websites. All writers can buy their friends’ books.
Be loyal. When my father bought a new car, he bought it from one of his customers, even if he could get it cheaper somewhere else. Similarly, when my aunt became a best-selling author, she still used the same agent who took her on when she was an unknown. (I know that’s not the right path for every author, but some writers do seem to view getting a “trophy agent” as part of being successful.)
Create good will with freebies. My father never charged to notarize documents, and he sent out a calendar every year to his clients. Similarly, a nonfiction writer can do rewrites for free, throw in a sidebar for free, or pass along press releases or news heard at a conference to an editor. Fiction writers can, and often do, give away pens and other promo items and run contests with free books as prizes.
As you might guess, my father kept his customers for years and got many new customers by referral. The same occurred in my nonfiction career when I followed his example.
In addition, these principles help a writer build a “brand” with editors, agents, and publishers as a person of integrity who is reliable and pleasant to work with.