A BAKER'S DOZEN TIPS FOR WRITERS
by Joelle Steele
The luminous pearl peaked out from behind the clouds and cast her beams through the lace curtains of the bedroom window. Hmmmm. I might use a part of that sentence in a poem some day. For now, that's just my way of telling you that the full moon was shining right in my eyes up until about fifteen minutes ago. It's 3:45 a.m., I am wide awake, and all I feel like doing is writing. So, I have decided to write about writing and about my life as a writer and what I've learned that might help you as you start out on your own writing career.
If you want to write, write. - Natalie Goldberg
If you want to write, you can. Fear stops most people from writing, not lack of talent ... - Richard Rhodes
Writing a book is like driving a car at night. You only see as far as your headlights go, but you can make the whole trip that way. - E.L. Doctorow
Find a subject you care about and which you in your heart feel others should care about. - Kurt Vonnegut
Get your facts right. - Frederick Forsyth
Write what makes you happy. - O. Henry
If you want to be a novelist you have to know people. You have to know the dimensions in which they have lived, do live, or may live. - Morris L. West
I like to write and I write a lot. I won't say I'm the greatest literary giant on the planet, but I have achieved a fair amount of success as a writer. I've written thousands of articles, short stories, poems, lyrics, contributing chapters, plays, novels, and non-fiction books, starting with my first published article in 1974 which was followed by six more articles and a poetry chapbook that same year. The rest, as they say, is history. But, that history is important. It's a story of life and a story of the life of a writer. How did I become a writer? What is the secret of my success? Funny you should ask...
I never had dreams of being a writer. I was only interested in being an artist. But, I have always been a writer. I began keeping a diary when I was about 8 years old and wrote my first story at that age, I started writing poetry when I was about 10, and I co-wrote my first play (adapted from a children's book) when I was about 11. Two years later, I wrote a play of my own. I was always writing essays and short stories, and I can't recall many occasions on which I earned less than an "A" on any kind of written assignment in school. Writing was just something I did. Like art. I have been an artist longer than I've been a writer and many of my published writings have been accompanied by my own illustrations and photographs.
Writing an article or a book was not a dream of mine. In fact, my first published article was written primarily as a means of publicizing a business. When I received a check in payment for that article, it was an amusing surprise to me. When two other magazines contacted me about writing on related topics, I casually agreed to do so without even asking whether I would be paid for doing so! Those were the days.
Fast forward to the 1980s. What a decade. I am soooooo glad it is over. The 1980's made me who I am today as a person and as a writer. You see, during that decade I did a whole lot of living and a whole lot of struggling to stay alive thanks to four very close brushes with Death. I won't give you the blow-by-blow details or even the highlights because it is now a closed chapter in my life. And there were a few bright moments here and there. I was running three businesses, one of which was a periodicals publishing company. But I was making my living mostly from writing and lecturing, and I visited lots of places I would never have visited under any other circumstances. I got my first computer in 1983 and went crazy writing. It was sp much easier it was to write on a computer. I was in heaven, a veritable writer's paradise, if you will. Between 1983 and 1989 (my "glory days") I had 482 articles published — that's roughly six per month — and 8 books. For most of that time, and on through 1994, I was also writing four monthly magazine columns. Oh yes, and through it all, I did it "my way."
Well now, that's just a bare-faced lie. You see, when you write for hire and publishers actually pay you for your work, you have to do things more or less "their way." That was a considerable learning curve for me. I am really an independent sort of person and I kind of like doing things as I see fit. Trying to fit into someone else's mold was a bit out of character for me, but I like to think that I am adaptable and capable of learning new things, so I went out of my way to figure out and then master the tricks of the writing trade, and in the process, I became an editor of books, articles, and eventually Web pages.
And now we come to the purpose of this article, the most important things I have learned about life in general and about writing as a career in particular:
1. Learn how to create a proper outline. Do not write anything without an outline. Nothing is worse than reading someone's rambling, incoherent, stream of consciousness masquerading as a novel. It may make sense to the author, but not to the reader. Writing from an outline creates the necessary structure that all written works must have in order to be informative, persuasive, entertaining, etc. I can always tell when something is not written from an outline because it will usually contain repeated information, plot lines that don't wrap up in the right place or at the right time, missing background information, out of sequence events or instructions, or an overall illogical approach to the subject matter that will only confuse the reader. Draft your novel, poem, letter, how-to book, or web page into your outline. Don't try to get everything perfect in your first draft. Just get it all down on paper so that you can see if everything makes sense. If it does, go back and start the process of fleshing out your characters, inserting solid dialogue, defining terms, adding researched materials, emphasizing whatever needs to be stressed so that the reader "gets it" for sure, writing all your descriptive content, and creating your appendices and glossaries, or whatever front and back matter you plan to include in the work.
2. Learn how to use proper syntax. Don't know what syntax is? It's the way the words and phrases are arranged in a sentence. It's part of the structure of language that makes it understandable. When your syntax is poor or off in any way, the reader can't understand what you're talking about. Worse yet, editors don't understand what you're talking about, so we can't help you fix it. About all we can do is make a note in the margin that says something along the lines of "unclear, rewrite." A manuscript that is riddled with bad syntax is an expensive one to edit.
3. Learn how to create characters that are REAL. If I can't understand what your character is all about, you have not done your job in this area. Every character must be believable because the reader needs to identify with them or feel admiration, empathy, or loathing or something, anything, towards them. If they don't, they will not want to read further. Give your character a full-blown personality. Read Stephen King and Charles Dickens for examples of how to do it effectively and, if you feel so inclined, you may also want to order my eBook on creating fictional characters, Living and Breathing: How to Make Your Characters Come Alive.
4. Learn to write good dialogue. I used to read more horrible dialogue than almost anything else when I was editing. Read your dialogue aloud to see if it sounds "real" and if it makes sense. Go easy on dialect; a little bit goes a very long way! Don't rely on "throwaway" lines (e.g., "Okay." "You bet." "Goodbye."). These are wasted on readers because they don't need you to end a conversation the way it would end in real life. (Reading the works of great authors will help you learn how to write great dialogue.)
5. Do your research. There's nothing that I find more discouraging than when I'm editing a manuscript (or even reading a published book) and I catch errors and misinformation in the content when I myself have only a passing familiarity with the subject matter. How careless! Whether you are writing a novel or a work of non-fiction, take the time to thoroughly research your subject. Never rely on the Internet alone for information — way to much erroneous nonsense out there. Go to the library and read as many books as you can find on your subject as well as related subjects. The various viewpoints from multiple authors, written during different time periods and from different perspectives, will provide you with a strong and credible wealth of knowledge on which to base your work.
6. Write every day. If you want to be a writer, you must WRITE. Don't just talk about it; do it! Never leave home without a blank notebook and a pen — or your laptop, tablet, or digital recorder. Dictate or write down your ideas, even if they are only fragments. You become more proficient through practice. Whenever an idea crosses your mind, write it down. If you think of a unique name for a character, an unusual plot twist, a new pitch for an advertisement, a great line for a poem — anything — write it down. Keep a file of ideas on your computer and add to them as you get new inspiration. I usually have about 100 or more book, story, or poem ideas in my file, and I am usually actively writing about ten books at any given moment — fiction and non-fiction — and I work on them a little at a time according to which one I need to finish first or am most motivated to work on. If I'm in the short story mode, that's what gets my attention. When I find myself in the poetry mode, I switch gears and work on a poetry collection. In between these projects I also write (and used to edit) for hire. In other words, I am always writing.
7. Don't put limits on your writing. Take every opportunity you can to tackle a variety of writing projects. Stretch your writing muscles by trying your hand at poetry, fiction, non-fiction, essays, screenplays, short stories, articles, etc. The more you write, the better skilled you become, the more proficient you become in the use of words, and the more opportunities will open up for you to earn an income from writing.
8. Approach writing like a business. That's exactly what it is. Get those romantic notions out of your head about writing in a candlelit garret with ink-stained fingers from your leaky quill pens. This is the 21st century, and when you become a freelance writer you join the ranks of the self-employed. Take a second job, if necessary, to pay for the basic tools of the trade: a computer, a laser or inkjet printer, Internet/E-mail access, and the necessary software to run it all. Find a quiet place for your equipment and learn how to use it. Keep organized records and files on your computer so that you don't "lose" anything. Back up your work at least weekly. I back up daily, and there's no excuse not to, because external drives and flash drives are now readily available and very reasonably priced. And for those brave souls who trust it, there's always "the Cloud."
9. Get a good writer's reference library and use it. This is essential to the writing profession. You might want to start with the four books I refer to most often: "Webster's New World College Dictionary," "The Chicago Manual of Style," "The New Fowler's Modern English Usage," and "Roget's 21st Century Thesaurus." If you're short on cash, you can probably find these at a used book store. Since you'll be selling your work, you'll also need a copy of the most current "Writer's Market" every year or a subscription to it online. My own library also includes numerous foreign language dictionaries, dictionaries of literary allusions, and books of famous quotations. Online dictionaries are helpful, but hardcopy dictionaries are the most reliable and accurate. Since I write a lot about certain subjects, I have specialized references for those topics as well. You might also want to consider keeping a clippings file of things you come across that might be of use to you on a future writing project. I usually type up the information in the clippings (or scan them) and store them in the computer in one of my research folders. By going "paperless" like this, I went from six four-drawer file cabinets to one single file drawer in my desk. And, I can now find things far more quickly.
10. Query, query, query. Then query some more. Author John Jakes said, "Too many beginning writers give up too easily." The same is true of experienced writers. You simply cannot send out enough queries. Send at least ten every month. Don't miss a month. This is how you get your books in print, get article assignments, and keep your cash flowing. Most of the time, publishers are not going to come looking for you; you have to go looking for them. Your search for new markets for your work must be ongoing. Prepare to spend at least one-fourth of your time marketing: querying, researching writing markets, and writing synopses and book proposals (the latter not required as often these days, but still helpful to writers in clarifying the viability of their book ideas).
11. Read, learn, and keep current. Read everything: books, magazines, poetry, and especially a daily newspaper — they're all online and at your local library. Some of the best ideas for novels are born on the pages of the morning paper, and being informed helps you understand the latest trends which may need to be incorporated into your non-fiction. TV news is inadequate because they dwell on the same stories over and over again. There is a ton of news they never even touch on, but it's in newspapers (like the International Herald Tribune) and magazines. Read a wide variety of authors so that you can get a feel for how each handles character and plot development, dialogue and dialect, descriptions for a sense of place, explanatory and expository writing, how-to and educational instruction, and anything else you can possibly think of. You will ultimately develop your very own unique style, and the works of established authors will provide the building blocks for that style. Take classes. Study writing and writing trends. Study other things that interest you. Take up a hobby. Become an expert in at least one field. Your writing will come alive with new ideas. Learn what the writing markets are and who is publishing what. Spend time at the library and your local bookstores (bricks-and-mortar and online) to see what's hot and what's not.
12. Surround yourself with positive, supportive people. Stay away from negative people; they will suck the very life out of you and keep you from achieving your dreams. Don't let anyone dump their negative attitudes about writing or anything else on you. And don't listen to the naysayers of the world who tell you it's hard to get published. It isn't. If you hone your craft and diligently market your writing, you will get published. There's no "magic" required to be a professional writer, just plain old perseverance and hard work.
13. Get your act together as a person. Responsible adults make good professional writers. Expect and accept criticism and learn from it. Meet all your deadlines. Return calls and answer E-mail promptly. Develop self-confidence and good people skills. Seek professional help for whatever you need, whether it's psychotherapy, bookkeeping, editing, or legal advice. Cut out the drugs and alcohol. Believe in yourself and in something greater than yourself. Do things. Participate. Meet people. Volunteer. Make a life for yourself and then go out and live it to the fullest. You deserve a great life, no matter what you choose to do for a living!
This article last updated: 11/05/2015.