Being A Writer: What’s In Your Job Description? by Johanna Harness

22 Jun

So many people say the key to being a writer is simple:  butt-in-chair, hands-on-keyboard. There’s even a shortened version of this reminder:  BIC-HOK.

But here’s the thing: BIC-HOK is all about attendance.  It’s a minimal requirement for the job.  You must show up.  You cannot hold any job if you never show up for work.

The problem comes when we think this minimal requirement is the only requirement.

Even more worrisome, the minimal requirement becomes more difficult to meet if we continue to make the same mistakes day after day.  It’s far too easy to ask, “what’s the point?” and give up.  Knowing our broader goals as writers will help us to meet this basic one.

We need specific criteria to understand our roles as writers and whether we’re meeting our goals.  Keep in mind that we’re more likely to continue writing over time if our goals are within our control.  (So instead of saying, “I’m going to get an agent,” we might say, “I’m going to have X number of queries out at a time.  If I get a rejection, I’ll consider any advice, revise my approach as needed, and send another query.”)

So how do you define your job as a writer?

You have to decide this yourself, depending on where you are now and where you want to be.

I find it helpful to stand back a little and pretend I’m hiring someone for this job.  What qualities would I expect?

Completion.  Finish some stories, yeah?  Build a portfolio of polished work.

Consistency. Show up on schedule. You don’t have to write every day, but show up as agreed. Be where you say you’re going to be, doing the work that needs to be done.

Dedication to the Craft. Follow through the work from start to finish: planning, drafting, re-envisioning, rewriting, refining, editing.

Creative Openness. Listen to criticism with a specific filter:  will this make the story better?  Know the creative vision for the story so it’s clear whether any given advice moves the story in the desired direction.  Do not be toughened to criticism. Be sensitive and smart.  Pay close attention to those who have more experience in the profession.

Training. Study the craft.  Read widely, both inside your chosen genre and beyond.  Read books about the craft and try out new techniques.  Set a budget and save money so you can attend workshops and conferences.

Networking. Hang out with other writers, both inside a local community (when possible–seek opportunities!) and within a broader community (social networking, conferences, blogging w/in a community of bloggers, participating with writing associations, NaNoWriMo, etc.)

Be prepared to pitch and sell. Know what you’ve written and who will want to read it.

Listen to readers. Take time to listen to the readers of your thoughts, not just the readers of your syntax.  Pay attention. Respond.

Focus on both broad and specific goals. You should be able to take apart a sentence, understand its purpose, rearrange the necessary components, and put it back together with an eye for artistry and functionality.  You should also understand the trajectory you want your writing career to take in the next ten or twenty years.  Focus on the specific, but understand how it fits into the big picture.

Balance. Take care of yourself.  Do not sacrifice everything for writing.  Enjoy family and friends.  Remember that colleagues are not just other writers, but people with non-writerly concerns and worries and joys.  Go to concerts, eat cake, and dance.

I’m sure I’ve forgotten something important, but that’s my basic job description.  What’s in yours?


Posted by on June 22, 2011 in Idaho, writing


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23 responses to “Being A Writer: What’s In Your Job Description? by Johanna Harness

  1. gaijinass

    June 22, 2011 at 1:50 AM

    I liked this. Seemed a lot of it just happened to be the nuances of Bic-Hok though. I also think it’s really valuable to work often and with a particular voice within ones “niche” market while not only doing this. Writing outside your comfort zone has benefits.

    • johannaharness

      June 22, 2011 at 5:06 AM

      Good point about writing outside your comfort zone. That feeling of discomfort means we’re learning–always a good thing.

      And yes, none of this means anything if we don’t show up for work, but I run into a lot of writers who think writing is limited to creating rough draft after rough draft and waiting to be discovered. It’s still a BIC-HOK approach, but the chance of being successful is pretty minimal.

      • gaijinass

        June 22, 2011 at 7:04 AM

        You know, the only other point I would likely add is to READ. Reading is massive for me. Books and blogs that I think are worth while. It gets the creativity pumping and one develops a sense of flow and language employment.

    • johannaharness

      June 22, 2011 at 8:09 AM

      Agreed. I also enjoy talking to people about what they’re reading. I learn so much through the observations of others–plus I get some great reading recommendations!

  2. P. L. Parker

    June 22, 2011 at 7:01 AM

    Very good points!

  3. Janis McCurry

    June 22, 2011 at 7:10 AM


    Long-term goals are important to me. I don’t look at writing as just as far as the next story. I think of writing as over time, whether you get published or not. Thoughtful blog. Thanks.

    • johannaharness

      June 22, 2011 at 8:11 AM

      Exactly. We need our own measures of progress and success.

  4. Peggy Staggs

    June 22, 2011 at 8:43 AM

    All good points. I’m struggling with balance. I don’t seem to have any right now.

    • johannaharness

      June 22, 2011 at 6:24 PM

      Balance is always the most difficult part, isn’t it?

  5. Liz Fredericks

    June 22, 2011 at 9:08 AM

    Johanna, you’ve inspired me with yet another superb and thoughtful post. Everyone posting on the blog this week has raised exactly the right points at the right moment – thank you.

    • johannaharness

      June 22, 2011 at 6:25 PM

      This makes me smile, Liz. I love it when the universe lines up that way. 🙂

  6. Patti Yager Delagrange

    June 22, 2011 at 9:47 AM

    I needed this today. Thank you. I’m going to re-read your suggestions to make sure I follow them. They are solid and make a lot of sense.
    Thanks again. BIC-HOK. I like that!

    • johannaharness

      June 22, 2011 at 6:26 PM

      I’m so glad it was what you needed to hear!

  7. Clarissa Southwick

    June 22, 2011 at 10:44 AM

    What wonderful guidelines for the working writer. Thanks, Johanna. You’ve given us something to strive for.

  8. Jennifer Spiller

    June 22, 2011 at 12:29 PM

    As usual, Johanna, you seem to be the mouthpiece for the messages I need to hear. Sometimes I think you’ve got a direct phone line to the universe and my little corner of it.

    You can put me down for “writing in that uncomfortable place” right now. The stuff I’m working on is scary and I need to dig deep. Consequently, I find myself shying away, turning towards distractions instead of away from them.

    Of course, you also know how much I beat myself up about stuff, so right now, while I don’t have my novel completed, I keep jumping straight to “Oh, non-completion. FAIL.” Must move beyond that so I can actually reach completion!

    • johannaharness

      June 22, 2011 at 6:27 PM

      I’ve never known you to shrink from the difficult work, Jenn. No beating yourself up!

  9. Paty Jager

    June 22, 2011 at 5:34 PM

    Those are all essential to writing. I’d add imagination.

    • johannaharness

      June 22, 2011 at 6:28 PM

      Imagination! Yes! And a sense of wonder and magic. The process really is amazing.

  10. Carley Ash

    June 22, 2011 at 5:45 PM

    Great blog today Johanna. Thank you.

  11. Mary Vine

    July 3, 2011 at 9:51 AM

    I’ve learned a lot reading through the Gem State blogs! I might add that even after you get published you wonder if it’s worth it because the pay is little unless you make it big time. If you’re like me, though, you can’t NOT write. Thanks!


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