by Joe Wallace & Catherine L. Tully
From time to time we’ll do a joint post here, each giving our 2 cents on a given topic. Here is our debut!
Newsstands, libraries and the internet are packed with writing-oriented publications. They offer tips and tricks for improving a writer’s chops, advice on how to land paying gigs in the industry and list the latest contests and fellowships. Some of these are worth the writer’s time and money. Others seem to encourage an unrealistic impression of what it is truly like to be a writer. You may have seen them–these magazines boldly exclaim “YOU can be a WRITER–TODAY!” and order the reader to start right away, illustrating how to keep diaries, create web logs and compile family histories.
This seems harmless on the surface, but for the implication that they hype is true–anyone is capable of being a writer. Magazine covers tell readers to start writing “TODAY”. But what does this really mean? Some of these magazines seem to want people to think they can dash off polished prose just by trying. But what does it MEAN to be a writer? The simple explanation, the first one most aspiring scribblers seem to memorize, is probably the best. “A writer is someone who writes.” However….the difference between good work and bad is the same difference between Uncle Jim’s vacation photographs and an Ansel Adams landscape. There is a confidence present in good writing, a sense of professional care and attention to detail found lacking in the work of a beginner.
John Wood, in his book How To Write Attention Grabbing Query And Cover Letters, says that as an editor, he looks for a cover letter that doesn’t try too hard to impress, yet has that professional quality the industry demands. Wood claims anything less than that pure professionalism can doom even a very talented writer’s work to the slush pile. What some of these ‘YOU can be a WRITER’ magazines don’t seem to explain very often (if at all) to the eager-beaver newcomer: professionalism is a requirement and actual hard work and serious research is required in order to understand how the publishing game works. The wrong philosophy is very hard to unlearn, and there’s a painful lesson waiting for those who are led to believe that talent alone can guarantee a sale, a place in the industry and a full-time career.
Nearly every book on the subject of freelance writing has a section on the sales aspect of the job. And nearly every book offers a variation on the question “I started this game to be a WRITER, why do I need to be a salesman, too?” This question is found in so many books and articles on the subject that it’s become a cliché. There wouldn’t be a need to continuously address this question if it weren’t so relevant. Many “Be A Writer” editors do try to set the record straight, but other publications don’t bother. After all, a professional web site, a magazine or new book is designed to sell and make money, why discourage people from looking into the business of writing? They’ll find out the hard way soon enough, but by then the editors have already made the sale.
Unfortunately, that’s the attitude that makes the dedicated writer’s life so difficult. We have to compete with vast amounts of bad writing, complete with query letters and biographies. Everything lands on the editor’s desk in a gigantic pile of pages and postage and some unlucky soul is forced to sort through it all, throw most of it away and keep the few good ones that don’t accidentally end up in the trash. And that is what YOU are competing with-a virtual army of dilettantes, wanna-bes, and plain old bad writers. Every time you mail or e-mail a query letter, a completed manuscript or a follow-up note, you run the risk of being scooped into the trash with the rest of the amateurs.
This article isn’t designed to tell you how to AVOID this from happening, it’s simply to point out one of the causes of the problem. And my own personal pet peeve is the “ANYONE can be a WRITER” statement. It’s one of the causes of the slush pile, and the piles grow daily. But knowing is half the battle. The one bit of advice I WILL offer here is to become better acquainted with any book or article that is written by an editor on the subject of submitting your work. Learn how these people think and you have overcome a major obstacle in the submissions game. I have to admit, the art of the query, the follow-up and negotiating the sale are areas very much a work-in-progress in my own career. Chances are, if you are reading this, you are having the same kinds of troubles I have had this year. I am learning all I can about how to get inside an editor’s head. If you do the same, we may both find our sales and respect in the field increasing as we go.
Just as my partner, I too find the “It’s easy to be a writer” comments ridiculous. My reason? On the whole, nothing is easy in this field–especially not in the beginning. True writers are usually not drawn to this arena because they think it is easy to get published, but rather because they love the craft. In spite of the difficulties. Tenacity may well be the writer’s best asset.
The simple fact is, in non-fiction writing–if you make it, you have to have persistence. Sure, you must also have ability, but you really need to be able to keep plugging away. Despite rejection. Despite other people being rude. Despite those days where you think you just can’t do it anymore. I am sure there are a “lucky” few out there that hit it good right from the beginning, just as there are in all venues of life. For the most of us, however it is a test of will. A question of renewed faith in ourselves every time we send a new piece out omewhere. An exercise in optimism.
So, in my opinion, if you want to be a writer–you can–but it isn’t easy. Even established writers have a constant uphill battle with staying creative, proofing their work flawlessly and staying on-track with their goals. Consider this a pep talk, along with the encouragement to learn as much about this craft as you possibly can. The learning curve is steep, but it levels off if you keep at it.
We aren’t going to tell you it’s easy to become a writer–but we will tell you from experience that it is possible. And we are here to help you in that quest by offering you as much good information as we can cram into this blog.