5 Things Working in Business Taught Me About Writing

Last month I found myself in a little cafe in Brussels with four artists, discussing an upcoming art exhibition at which I was going to do a reading. One of the artists asked me whether I agreed with the view that once a writer has committed creative ideas fresh from his brain to paper, he should leave them in this raw state. It was on the tip of my tongue to retort that my agent would have a heart attack if I did this! I didn’t say it, however, because I was pretty sure that the artists would be shocked at the suggestion that creative work be polished for the marketplace.



Guest column by Helen Grant, who was born in London.
Her first novel, The Vanishing of Katharina Linden was
shortlisted for both the Booktrust Teenage Prize and
the Carnegie Medal in the UK. She now lives in Brussels
with her family and two cats. Delacorte Press will publish
her second novel, The Glass Demon, in 2011.


The conversation got me thinking. Creativity and business sense don’t have to be at odds. Before I became an author, I spent over a decade working in consumer marketing, and many of the things which I learnt from my days in business have been as much use to me as a writer as the many books I have enjoyed and inspiring experiences I have had. This is what working in business taught me about writing.


It’s tough starting out as a writer. The agent who eventually took me on receives about 15,000 unsolicited manuscripts a year and only takes on a handful of new authors. The odds are against you, so don’t make things any worse by submitting material in the wrong format or sending it to an agent or publisher who doesn’t deal with that kind of work. You wouldn’t market babyfood to seniorsso don’t send a romance novel to someone who only takes on crime. Pick your target.


Some of my friends are surprised that I had to fund things like my own author websiteI guess they thought my publisher would pay for “all that.” In fact, since I began writing I have personally invested in travel (for research and for initial meetings with my publisher), website design, launch events, promotional materials and book trailers. Because I am paying for these things myself, I cost them very carefully, look for the most cost effective suppliers, and always ask myself whether they are going to pay back in terms of increased sales or awareness. If not, why do them?


When I worked in marketing, I had to be at my desk before 9 a.m. and I was often there long after 5 p.m. Now I write from 8 a.m. until 12.30 p.m. or 3 p.m., depending on what time my kids’ school day ends. The great Victorian writer Anthony Trollope, who got up at 5.30 a.m. every day to write before going to work for the post office, said: “There are those … who think that the man who works with his imagination should allow himself to wait tillinspiration moves him … I was once told that the surest aid to the writing of a book was a piece of cobbler’s wax on my chair. I certainly believe in the cobbler’s wax much more than the inspiration.” Trollope wrote 47 novels, of which most are still in print over a century later.


It’s no different from working in an office; your colleagues would like you to be cheerful, productive, meet your deadlines or flag problems up before the deadline has been missed. I’ve worked with office prima donnas and also with people who can’t be relied on to do their bit on time for a project that affects a lot of departments. It’s dispiriting. Don’t give anyone a reason to think that they would be happier if they didn’t have to work with you any more.


When I was a junior marketing assistant, I once worked with a boss who would call me into her office to discuss a report it had taken me a whole week to produce, and have her red pen out ready to scribble all over it before she had even read the title page. She just assumed that whatever I produced would not be the way she wanted it. Being a junior, I couldn’t show anger at this. I have never had any agent, editor or copyeditor be as harshly critical as that manager was. By comparison, it’s quite easy to accept constructive criticism of my writing by a friendly editor; after all, the aim is to produce a better book at the end. Perhaps if I ever run into that manager again, I should thank her…

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2 thoughts on “5 Things Working in Business Taught Me About Writing

  1. Kristan

    Very good advice. I think #5 is something that you develop over time, but #4 is something you can do right away. (#3 is natural to some people, but not me, so that’s another one that hopefully can be developed!)

  2. Kane Gilmour

    Hi Chuck!

    The RSS feed stopped publishing new content on 22 Sept for some reason. Apologies that this isn’t relevant to Helen’s post but I couldn’t find a better link from which to communicate technical difficulties.

    Great blog.




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