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The "Standard of Ur" from ancient Mesopotamia

The "Standard of Ur" from ancient Mesopotamia

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.


Lisa said...

That's all terrific advice for writers. As I was reading the list I was mentally running my own checklist to see if I am doing the same thing in my day job (I'm in sales). Fortunately, I am following your father's example and it's been working out well. It's a good code to live by no matter what your business.

Charles Gramlich said...

I didn't realize your father had been a writer. Cool. But whatever he was, he was a wise fellow. Great rules to live by. I wish more people did.

Lana Gramlich said...

Your dad sounds like a wise man. There's a third option to something you said early on, though; "My father sold his customers the policies he thought they needed, not the policies on which he would make the most money."
When I was in sales (which I was good at, but hated,) I learned that you CREATE a person's need for what your'e selling. Welcome to the hellish world of the 21st century. <:(

steve on the slow train said...

Absolutely brilliant advice. Your father must have been a wonderful man.

Karen Harrington said...

Great advice that can be applied to so many disciplines. :)

Barbara Martin said...

Advice that should be followed by many.

Shauna Roberts said...

LISA, Wouldn't life be a whole lot better if everyone behaved like this?

CHARLES, it's hard to think of my father as a writer because as far back as I can remember, he was always an insurance man. But in addition to working for the Dayton Daily News, I believe he had also been editor of his high school paper. So he did do quite a bit of writing at one time.

LANA, I wouldn't object to supermarkets "creating a need" for healthy foods. But I suppose usually salespeople "create a need" for things people don't need or that are harmful. I don't mind that technique nearly as much as the one where the salesperson creates one expectation (you're taking a survey, or because you've been a good customer, your bank is giving you a little gift) and then suddenly confuses you by switching to a hard sales pitch for time shares or expensive Internet services.

STEVE ON THE SLOW TRAIN, yes, he was a wonderful man.

Welcome, SCOBBERLOTCHER! Thanks for visiting. I agree.

BARBARA MARTIN, that's for sure.

Rae Ann Parker said...

What a nice post. When I read, "Help others on their career path" I automatically thought of all the writers in RWA & SCBWI who have helped me.

Steve Malley said...

Thank you for this, Shauna. It cam eat just the right time!

Shauna Roberts said...

RAE ANN, without RWA, I probably wouldn't have any fiction published at all. Joining RWA was the best thing I ever did for my writing.

STEVE MALLEY, you're welcome. I hope these ideas help you set the tone for your new business and help make it a success.

Sphinx Ink said...

Excellent principles to follow, in life as well as in business. Thanks for posting them. And, by the way, who was your aunt the best-selling author, and what were some of her books? (Inquiring minds want to know....)

Shauna Roberts said...

SPHINX INK, my aunt was romance writer Janet Louise Roberts, who wrote under her own name for Warner, Ballantine, Pocket Books, Lancer, Avon, Pinnacle, and Dell. She also wrote as Rebecca Danton for Popular Library, Fawcett Crest, and Dell; as Janette Radcliffe for Dell; and as Louisa Bronte for Avon, Ballantine, and Jove. Many of her books are available on eBay. They're probably at aLibris and other used books stores online too.

Gary Dobbs/Jack Martin said...

Ain's many insurance guys like your dad around these days. Sounds like a wonderful man.

Sphinx Ink said...

Shauna, I'm impressed...I've certainly seen Janet Louise Roberts and Janette Radcliffe books on bookstore & library shelves in past years. I don't recall whether I ever read any.

Clearly your writing talent is in your DNA!

Rick said...

What a wonderful post, Shauna! I'm so glad you wrote it. Best piece I have seen on this topic in a long time.

KAnderson said...

Shauna, as I embark on my new career as a computer consultant I found your post to be very timely.

Shauna Roberts said...

ARCHAVIST, he was a wonderful man. And as for finding a good insurance agent, when I was first out on my own, my father advised me to interview several agents and choose the one who seemed most professional and knowledgeable.

SPHINX INK, knowing someone who's a successful novelist is a big confidence booster because you can then dismiss people who say it's impossible to support yourself writing fiction.

RICK, I'm blushing.

KEN, I'm glad you stopped by, since you'd met my father. If my post helps you as you start up, I'm happy. I'm sure you're going to be a big success as a consultant.