Want to be a writer?
  Barbara Sachs Sloan

Some New-Writer FAQs by Barbara Sachs Sloan

1. How do I become a writer?

That depends on the type of writer you want to become. Assuming you mean you want to be a published writer, first you must decide what you want to write. To be published means to find a "market" (the magazine or publishing house that buys your writing) for your written work, also call "piece." Everything written falls into two categories: fiction and nonfiction. So, which one do you want to write? Fiction includes poetry, short stories, novelettes, novellas and novels. Nonfiction includes news and feature articles, columns and books. There are dozens of books and schools that specialize in teaching these forms to would-be writers. So begin by doing a little research: find some books and courses that appeal to you, that break the writing process down into simple steps. Do your "homework" and learn the basics. And write. If you do nothing else, get comfortable with words. Make them your friend.

2. and this leads to another question: Can anyone be a writer?

This is one of the most controversial questions in the writing business. Some people believe writing cannot be taught; others say it can. The process certainly can be taught, but the skill involved in taking a subject and presenting it in a way that grabs and holds readers may not be enough to overcome poor vocabulary and a lack of facility with words. Good writers have ideas that get expressed without the "disability" of clunky wording. They've learned the art of saying things simply and directly. They know the difference between using a long sentence and a short one for effect and how to weave the two variations into one piece that makes a point or has an emotional effect on the reader. The real question here is this one: Can you put one thought in front of another in a way that makes people want to read those thoughts? If you can't, this is what you need to learn if you want to be a writer.

3. How do I get published?

When you're ready, when you have a piece that's been polished (you've looked at Writer's Market and followed the instructions for typing a manuscript in proper format, you've had that manuscript edited and tightened so it reads smoothly and has the impact on a cold reader it's supposed to have), you submit it to the markets you've found that print that type of piece.

4. I see so many different ways of handling grammar and submissions--how do I know which one is right?

If you're American, get yourself a Webster's Collegiate Dictionary, a Harbrace or Holt Handbook and a Writer's Market. The first two books will tell you how to handle grammar, punctuation and spelling, as well as wording for tightness and effectiveness. The third one, Writer's Market, shows you listings of magazines and publishers and whether or not they offer their own guidelines for submissions. Always request guidelines if you're targeting a particular magazine. For a book publisher, you may need an agent, and the listing will say something like "No unagented submissions accepted." If you're British or Canadian, or if you write for one of those countries' markets, be aware that they handle quotation marks and some spelling differently. The Internet is a good example of "mixed" punctuation and spelling--not only do you have the poor spellers adding their creative versions of words, but you also have the mix between American, British and the new language of computer-code styles.

5. What's the difference?

American style is to put all (ALL) end quotation marks OUTSIDE commas and end-of-sentence periods ("He's gone." He received an "A," a "B," and a "C."). British and computer-code style is just the opposite ("He's gone". He received an "A", a "B", and a "C".) A spelling example is the family of words ending in -or: neighbor (British = neighbour), color (British = colour). It helps on the Internet, for example, to know where the source of grammar and punctuation you're consulting actually originated: If it's British, it may have uk in its url, but even if it doesn't, if it tells you to put quotation marks inside commas and periods, it's British style.

6. What else can I do?

Read. Whatever types of pieces you want to write, read published examples of them. Get familiar with which magazines or publishing houses publish those types. If you can't find a publisher listed in Writer's Market, check the library for more publishing listings. And practice. And study. One of my favorite books is Gary Provost's Make Every Word Count. A favorite grammar guide besides the ones I've already mentioned is Pinckert's Practical Grammar. Another favorite is William Zinsser's On Writing Well. For fiction, three of the best how-to books I've seen are Evan Marshall's The Marshall Plan for Novel Writing and Sol Stein's How to Grow a Novel and Stein On Writing.

When you've reached this point, then it might be time to network a bit and even to join a writer's group, that is if you're not getting published already. By networking I mean go to writers' conferences and meet people, especially taking advantage of the chance to meet authors, editors and publishers who attend. In forming a group, be careful: The worst writing group is one where no one has done any "learning" yet. Instead, these wanna-be writers have jumped into writing without doing their homework. And their advice will be inconsistent and even contradictory. They are no doubt well-intended and caring individuals, but why spend time getting pats on the back from people who don't even know the real basics about getting something written well for publication? The best place to find a group to join or to form is in a course with others who are learning along with you. You'll sign up for the second and third course, and to your surprise you'll see some familiar faces. Look closer: These people may be just the ones you need to have in your group.

7. How do I know whose advice to take?

There's a basic rule in "criticism" that goes like this: If several people read your work and all make different comments, the work is probably all right. If more than one of them however repeats the same problem, you should take heed. As for "professionals" like me, well, there are those who have trained and worked in the business, and then there are many who call themselves "professionals" when they really are no such thing. You tell the difference by doing your own homework first; then if you see letters coming from so-called professionals (or web sites) that contain typos and other errors in grammar and spelling or are just sloppily presented, don't be taken in. Someone's mere enthusiasm for a subject doesn't earn that person anything at this point.

8. What about book doctors: How do I know a good one from a bad one?

Again, do your homework first. After you have some "training" under that belt of yours, you'll have more of an "educated" eye for spotting those little things that give away the nonprofessional pretenders. Can this book doctor write? Has he or she ever been published in any kind of way? Does this person use a name or is the book doctoring business called something else that "hides" the people involved? How far away is this person? Is he or she a total stranger? Try to get to know one of your instructors or develop that group first for this purpose. Instructors often read manuscripts on the side and charge reasonably if at all. You may never need a book doctor. But if you do decide that's the only way, find one through someone you do know and get other references. You wouldn't hire a nameless stranger to run your business, would you?

9. When do I know if my work is ready to submit?

It takes awhile to learn to write well. I've had adult students who came into my courses with works that were so good, all they needed was some minor editing and trimming. I would say the average learning time is between four months to a year; to achieve mastery takes longer, of course. That doesn't mean your early stuff is unprintable, but it may have promise very quickly. It's a judgment call, and one sure way to tell is to try submitting something you really think is good and see what happens. There is a "hierarchy" to rejection slips: Your manuscript crammed back into the return envelope means it was regarded as "loathesome" by whoever read it; your manuscript neatly returned with a curt "not suitable for our publication" form note tacked onto it means lots of things ranging from your writing was not up to par, the grammar and punctuation were poor, to the article simply wasn't what they want; your manuscript returned with an actual handwritten or hand-signed note attached means you are at least regarded as a professional and they might consider something else of yours, or they at least think you should keep writing and submitting; your manuscript returned with a letter saying it isn't quite right but redo this or that means they will consider the rewrite and may still reject it; your manuscript returned with a note saying IF you change this or that and we like it, we'll take it, means you ALMOST have a sale.

10. Should I call a publisher?

Usually not, but there are times when calling is acceptable. If you get an unusually favorable rejection with a personal note attached or a rewrite request and what's said in the letter isn't completely clear to you, by all means call and discuss it. If you act professionally, the editor will speak to you. Just don't waste this person's time with trivial questions and conversation. This is a business, and you have a business question. Get your answer, say thank you, and let the editor go. You can be warm and friendly, but don't gush and don't ramble.

11. Is that it?

No, and it never will be. There will always be more to learn, even if you make millions from your first book. You'll keep learning, or you'll fade away as so many promising writers have. And for all those who helped you, you'll be passing the good along helping other new writers.

12. So, what does it take?

To succeed at writing is pretty much the same as at anything else: set goals, take action, be patient and kind, keep learning and improving, and don't give up. You probably won't sell the first novel you write, but you'll learn from it. You may learn so much, you sell your second novel. Later when you reread your first novel, you'll cringe at how bad it really is and you'll laugh at how good you once thought it was.

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