Thursday, April 21, 2022

Tips from a Pro: Eric Dontigney - The Writer’s Mindset

It’s an odd sort of thing to think of oneself as a professional in the world of writing. There are few, if any, clear lines of demarcation. After all, consider all the novelists who moonlight as college professors, lawyers, or scientists…wait, maybe I’ve got that relationship inverted. Oh well. The point is that it’s hard to know when you’re a pro. Writers don’t really get licenses or certifications the way you see in other professions. Frankly, that’s a real problem in the credential societies that most developed world countries have become. 

At best, you get writing adjacent certifications. Copywriters can take courses around certain kinds of writing or skills that support their writing. Maybe you head over to HubSpot Academy and get certified in their Content Marketing course. For speculative fiction writers, maybe you try to snag a spot in one of the big workshops, like Clarion, Taos ToolBox, Gotham Writers’ Workshop, or Odyssey. If you love capital L literature, you get yourself an MFA at the low, low price of lifelong debt. 

Yet, none of these degrees, certifications, or workshops actually make you a professional writer. They might help you skill up in certain ways, and there is value in that. Honing your craft is part of the process. But…but, the primary difference between the amateur and professional writer is what I think of as the Writer’s Mindset. There isn’t anything mystical or magical about the writer’s mindset. You don’t need a guru to get there. You don’t even need to firewalk to get it. In fact, it’s almost hideously mundane. 

The Writer’s Mindset is about treating your writing career as a career. It involves annoying things like going to work every day. You must check your email and reply to clients or editors in a prompt manner. You meet deadlines. I know, I know, that sounds a lot like work and almost nothing like that Romantic Ideal of sitting around on a couch and waiting for the muses to strike you with brilliance. Yet, if you look at people who make a successful go at writing for a living, in any area of writing, this is how they handle their business. 

Stephen King talks about it in his memoir, On Writing, with his 2000 words per day goal. Kevin J. Anderson, the author of something like 150 books, advises people to not make excuses and get on with the writing. David Badalucci talks about setting goals and developing good habits, like blocking out time every day for writing. In other words, professional writers don’t treat their writing like a hobby. As a general rule, people take time for their hobbies. They make time for their careers. You can blow off your hobby as often as you want, but you can’t blow off your job very often before you won’t have it anymore. 

Feeling discouraged, yet? If not, good for you. It means you’re at least open to the idea that writing professionally is work, and you’ll have to make some sacrifices along the way. If you are feeling discouraged, it means you probably bought into some of that Romantic Ideal thinking, but all hope is not lost. You can adapt how you think about things. That’s the miracle of neural plasticity at work. Of course, I’ve been talking about all of this in general terms. I can hear you saying, “Great generalizations. But give us specifics, Dontigney!”

Okay, that’s fair. Here are some specifics that can help you adopt the Writer’s Mindset. 

  1. You must set a writing schedule.
  2. You must keep to your writing schedule, barring a genuine emergency. I’m talking blood spurting, house on fire, we must go to the bomb shelter because bombs are literally falling from the sky right now, kinds of emergencies. The kind of emergencies that you would leave a day job to go handle. If it doesn’t rise to that level, it’s probably an excuse. 
  3. The phrase “writer’s block” must leave your vocabulary. Every other kind of professional does their job on demand, which means that you can as well. 
  4. You must investigate your industry. This is for fiction writers, so think things like agent preferences, editor preferences, and industry trends. This information may not alter your current writing projects, but it may inform subsequent projects.
  5. If you get a (reasonable) deadline from an editor, meet it. Meeting deadlines makes you the “no-hassle” writer. People like working with the “no-hassle” writer. Nobody likes working with a prima donna. (Caveat: this does not apply to film-to-book adaptations. Read about Bruce’s experience with that here.)
  6. Accept that not every writing day is going to be fun. It will feel like work sometimes, maybe often, and you need to keep doing it anyway. 

Now, mind you, this advice is aimed specifically at people who want writing as a career. It’s okay to treat writing as a hobby. A lot of people do. The tradeoff you make with that choice is that very few people ever manage to make a living at their hobby. Making the transition means incorporating some of the less pleasant aspects of day jobs into what was your cool, fun hobby. If you can come to terms with that, you have a shot at becoming a professional writer. 


Eric Dontigney is the author of the highly regarded novel, THE MIDNIGHT GROUND, as well as the Samuel Branch urban fantasy series and the short story collection, Contingency Jones: The Complete Season One. Raised in Western New York, he currently resides near Dayton, OH. You can find him haunting obscure sections of libraries, in Chinese restaurants or occasionally online at

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