Wolfgang Baur is the publisher at Kobold Press, and produces tabletop RPG books for the Pathfinder RPG and other games, often in collaboration. He has worked as a magazine editor, game designer, copywriter, localization editor, and more. You can find him online at www.koboldquarterly.com, and also on Facebook and Twitter, but only when he is doing serious research.
There’s a widespread perception that creative people are, shall we say, not utterly reliable. That writers, artists, graphic designers, and the like are somehow immune from the standards and practices that other professions adhere to.
This is nonsense from start to finish. It is a pernicious lie, and it’s an excuse creative tell themselves. Don’t fall for this trap if you want to be a successful creative professional.
What it takes to be a successful artist, writer, or other creative professional is the same as what it takes to be a successful lawyer, accountant, or chemist: it takes hard work, study, practice, discipline, and a professional attitude. Anyone can be an amateur. But to make it as a pro, you gotta cultivate a professional attitude.
Where’s what I mean: I have worked with many game designers, artists, and art directors lately. Some are fulltime freelancers with serious chops. This means they have turned their hobby into their day job, which is weird enough. Turning a sideline into fulltime is tough, especially when most of your friends remember when that sideline was “just a hobby” (more like an obsession, maybe). In any case, it is all too easy to fall down on the business side of things, but that lack of professionalism is what kill your chances of success.
If you are going to be a creative professional and be a dilettante, you can, of course. Missing deadlines, waiting for inspiration, failure to tell anyone that you are overbooked and need more time, generally acting like an ass: these things are no more popular among the creative professions than they are among anyone less working for a living. So here’s my 4 ironclad rules for creative professionalism:
1. Learn to Say No: Don’t overcommit. Your peers and freelance liaisons will respect you much more for an honest “No, I can’t meet that deadline” than they will for shoddy work, late work, or excuses.
2. Commit if you are committed: If you say yes, meet that deadline. Make it great. And make it easy, turn over work that you are proud of and that makes someone’s life easier.
3. Communicate: Even if everything is going great, creative tasks can have long deadlines. Don’t let silence drag. Publishers, editors, and colleagues worry if they don’t hear from you. Check in with editors, art directors, press people, anyone who might be happy to hear that it is going well. Don’t just communicate when you are in trouble.
4. Empathy: Oddly enough, having some empathy for human frailty seems to me the mark of a consummate professional. Yes, hold people to their promises, absolutely. But if someone needs their gall bladder out or is just burnt out from overtime, give them a break even if they are saying “I can type in the hospital.” Be human, crack a smile, and don’t use “but I’m a professional” as a club. You’re paid to do original, creative work, not counting coup against anyone else.
Optional Example: A Tale of Two Art Directors
One art director I work with hits me with email *before* things fall apart, reminds me of publishing commitments, asks about errors and omissions, and generally communicates with a degree of empathy and support that makes it super-easy to say “Wow, that person is making the art side of this project fly right by!” Another art director made lots of promises, never reached out by phone or email, and let projects languish for weeks or months past due. Guess which person I’m still doing business with? Treat others as you’d like to be treated, and their professional respect for you will grow and grow.