Read widely. Write endlessly. Do your research. Proofread twice. Make your deadlines.
Never work without a contract, even if it’s just an email that says “Here are the terms we agreed to, please reply to confirm that all is correct.” Never sign a contract you haven’t read, and if you sell anything longer than a short story or an article, get an agent. Don’t be afraid to negotiate. Be willing to work for low wages while you build your résumé. Make sure your client or publisher has a deadline for paying you, and hold them to it. Always calculate your income in hourly wage terms; it will encourage you to be more efficient and seek better-paying markets. Be scrupulous about your taxes, and hire an accountant who specializes in working with freelancers.
Don’t expect to make a living writing fiction. Whenever you see words–a press release, an in-flight magazine, a billboard–remember that someone was paid to write them, and that someone could be you. Seek new clients wherever you go. Get nice business cards and a good professional website and email address. Send out unsolicited pitches and submissions. Learn how to effectively promote yourself and your work, even if you hate doing it. Don’t let promotion take up time that you should spend doing actual writing.
Take classes in performance and public speaking so you can sound good when you read your work aloud or participate in panel discussions. Go to conferences and conventions to listen and learn, not just to boost your own career. Politely ask older, better writers to mentor you. Make lots of friends in the business–real friends, not just professional contacts. Show them your work and listen to their opinions. Learn to love a good edit and to seek out editors who will give you one. Don’t be an egotist or a doormat.
Take care of your arms and back and voice and eyes; they are the tools of your trade and very difficult to repair or replace if they get damaged.
Know your limits. Push your limits.
Photo credit: Scott Lefton