Want to be a writer?
  Barbara Sachs Sloan

Advice to a New Writer by Barbara Sachs Sloan

I'm a writer. I wasn't always a professional, however.

I started writing when I was a little kid, scribbling in the margins of my grandmother's books (she wasn't a reader, so she didn't care). Like some of you, I got into letter writing. But I remember one night in particular when I was lying on the rug in front of my parents' gas-log fire, and I was reading a letter from a dear friend. In it she said I could write a book in a letter.

And that planted the germ of the idea, "Maybe I SHOULD try writing." This turned out not only to be a naive decision, in that I thought you just WROTE, but a frustrating one when I enrolled in my first real writing course.

The instructor gave us our assignment, and we all wrote furiously. At the end of the time period, I proudly turned in my golden effort, knowing he would praise me with, "Well, Barbara, of course you're TOO GOOD for this piddly course--why don't we just award you the Nobel Prize NOW?" And I would humbly hide my knowing smile.

That's not what happened. He gave it back to me the next class period. It was covered with his blood. No, that was just red ink, but it was all OVER my words. Arrows went here and there, text was crossed out, and comments filled the margins of my notepaper around my tome. I stared at it, unbelieving. And slowly his red marks penetrated my consciousness. And the worst realization crept into my brain.

He was RIGHT. He had carefully tightened, tailored and clarified my words into something cohesive and smooth. Hm, I thought. Look at what I did. Look at what HE did. Okay, so in his class, I would write "his" way. But I had another class. Our professor was an elderly woman, soft-spoken. Her advice, I thought smugly, had to be old-fashioned.

Again I received the assignment. I went home determined to impress this woman. We were to write in an "expository" style I didn't quite understand beyond the "point/counterpoint" basic explanation she gave us of it. So I wrote convincingly of one point, then as convincingly of the other side to it. And again I proudly turned in my paper.

The professor had lost so much blood on my paper alone, I was sure she had to have gotten a transfusion overnight. She looked fine. I was the one who paled. And I felt anger. I resented her comments and marks. What did SHE know? Well, she knew a lot. My next assignment came back with a lot less "blood" on it than the first ones in both classes, and my third assignment came back with almost no marks. It became a goal of mine to turn in one assignment that did not draw blood at ALL.

Two years and many classes later, in fiction as well as nonfiction writing, in aesthetics and philosophy, in film, radio and television, and in "interpretation," I landed a job as a feature writer with a newspaper chain in the Midwest. And there I was: a writer, a professional writer. And I remembered my first two writing instructors' advice, for they both had told me the same thing: If you want to get your writing published, you have to do one thing first and keep working at it until you get it right – You must get control of your words.

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