Monday, March 08, 2010

Tips on writing

A post chock full of writing tips for all the young writers who contact me with questions about this crazy business and craft. Last updated 2/26/14.

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Start local and small. My first paid bit of writing was for Ohio Writer. For my 900-word book review of Judith Hemschemeyer's The Harvest, I was paid the royal sum of $10. That was in June of 2000 (you can see how the next ten years unfolded for me here). Building a professional writing portfolio and the associated career takes time, and it sprouts from humble beginnings.

If I were starting out today, I'd probably fish around for casual blogs associated with professional publications. Many daily and weekly print papers have online blogs that might not pay much, but would be an excellent place to earn a link and a bonafide publishing credential. Who knows? If an editor likes your style, it might lead to something more serious (and lucrative).

Bonus tip: Leave a few comments on a blog (under your real name) that you might like to write for before querying the editor with your idea.

Small local papers are often looking for writers to cover things like school board meetings and local government. These usually are paying gigs. I spent five years doing that sort of thing for The Broadview Journal. That stint earned me experience, street smarts, clips, a bit of local notoriety, and a steady paycheck.

Get involved with a local literary or publishing organization. Here in Cleveland, we have Cleveland Digital Publishing Users Group (CDPUG), and the Cleveland Society of Professional Journalists. These types of organizations host all sorts of events, parties, and classes where you will meet professional writers and editors.

If you want to be one of these people, you have to support what they do. That means buying their books, paying the club fees and having a genuine interest in their community. It means learning from them in an organic sense. This is perhaps the most important piece of advice I can offer a new writer.

I'm sure there are plenty of online sources as well. Many professional journalists I know are members of Freelance Success for example.

Go to the library. There you will find droves of books dedicated to publishing and writing advice. Librarians are wonderful and can always make good suggestions.

In my home library, I have a shelf full of Writer's Market editions. Two other good books to start with are The First Five Pages and The Elements of Style.

Mind your manners in a cold contact. Don't ask established writers for big favors. Never send them unsolicited writing to critique. Also, don't ask a writer to do your work for you. Finding the right publications to query is hard work. The question, "Where can I publish this?" is almost never appropriate. Get online and start researching for yourself, or go find a copy of the LMP.

Follow guidelines. When you're ready to submit, follow the guidelines on the agent's or publisher's site. If there are none, a one-page query is your best bet. NEVER use cutesy fonts or graphics or anything that discredits your professionalism.

Get tough. The more successful a writer is, the more rejection they've faced because they toughed it out and lived to submit another day. If you want to achieve success, you will get kicked. Hard. And repeatedly. When you get a rejection, send out another query the same day. It will help you keep your game face on. Sometimes you have to resort to Plan B and rethink your approach or your project, but giving up gets you no where. Your submission or query will likely get rejected again and again--until the one day when it gets accepted.

Be warned: there is a growing trend in the publication industry wherein the powers that be simply do not respond to submissions that don't interest them. All you can do about "passive" rejections is keep a meticulous spreadsheet detailing all your queries with dates, names, pertinent websites, etc. Include any special notes as well. How long you wait to give up on getting a response is up to you, although sometimes an agency or publication will have response time info on their webpage.

Simultaneous submissions? Again, your call.

You are your own publicist. The days of the reclusive and mysterious writer sucking deeply from a Winston before his trusty Royal typewriter are gone. You must represent yourself and you must do it online. Prospective agents and publishers are busy people with no patience for ineptitude. If your information is more than a click away, you'll lose them. I recommend you maintain two types of webpage. This blog is my main active webpage. Content here is frequently updated. Here is my static/informational site. Content there does not change very often.

If you are just starting out, your static page might simply include some education and contact information, and your active page may be a twitter account. However you choose to do it, you must have these things. Design, develop and shape them in a way that properly represents you and your work. They will evolve with you. They will surprise you as well.

Bonus tip #1: Google Drive is a brilliant tool for creating static public webpages.

Bonus tip #2: The way you drive a readership to your blog is by going to other sites that have the sort of readers you are trying to attract and leaving brilliant comments.

Lastly, a bit of nostalgia. When I was a kid, I had a Mattel Knit Magic toy. You threaded the yarn through this squiggly little thing in the front, turned the crank, and PRESTO! a knitted tube would come out the bottom of the plastic machine.

You were supposed to be able to do all sorts of things with the tubes, make groovy hats and stuffed dolls and scarves, but all I ever ended up with was a long tube, (although I did love my Knit Magic machine).

When I lead discussions on writing, I often say that there is no Essay Magic machine, wherein you thread an idea in, turn a crank and watch an essay wind out from the bottom. The process I go through in order to produce a good solid piece of writing is laborious, wonderful, frustrating, difficult and satisfying. It has matured through the years.

It is important to be in love with your process, to truly revel in the revelations, and savor the small victories. If you focus solely on that "big" publication, you risk missing the small and wonderful things that happen along the way. Write because you have something to say and your own way to say it. Write because you are driven to the craft. Above all, write because we need the good writers. We need their words and observations. We need them to scale and record the human condition.

I will likely revise this page from time to time, so stop by again. And if you have good news, bad news, or your own advice to share, please do tell all in the comment section.

Best of luck,


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Miz Dinah said...

Thanks for the information, Erin. It's always nice to get the goods from someone in the know. I will file this away in my brain under Writer's Cramp.

Tag said...

I appreciate your advice. It applies even to a beginning writer who doesn't have much ambition past the occasionally interesting post on my blog. Thanks.

April said...

Thanks for the great advice. I've wanted to break into writing for sometime and this was very helpful in knowing how to get noticed. I'm saving this blog post for later reference.
Thank you much Erin.

LimesNow said...

Very good practical advice, Erin, to add to the encouragement you gave me personally in e-mail. I thank you!

Oh, boy. WV plays into my twisted hands again ~ basipply. This is it, basipply: I'm never going to be a professional writer, but at least I have a general idea how it's done, if I chose to.

DogsDontPurr said...

OMG! I had one of those Knit Magic things! I thought it was going to be so cool, but it so quickly became so anticlimactic. A knitted tube...WTF? I was expecting chunky sweaters, mittens, and hats! And I never did figure out how to keep the ends from unraveling. Erf!

Al Penwasser said...

Thank you! This is great advice!
Does this mean I don't have to drink Frank's Kraut Juice?

Bill said...

you're pretty impressive, erin o'brien!

Erin O'Brien said...

Thanks everyone. I've been meaning to write this post for the longest time.

What's funny is that, as I put this together, I kept thinking of how I should be taking my own advice on some current projects.

Anonymous said...

I bet Winston misses the days of the deep suck.


Big Mark 243 said...

Erin, it always seems that the good advice we give to others is the same advice we need to hear. I used to think that is why even the best figthers have trainers. They could tell someone what to do in their fight, but then they would need someone to tell THEM what they needed to do when they got in the ring.

I do appreciate your sharing this advice. Thanks a lot!!

paul bitzan said...

Professor O'brien,

I say with all sincerity that you have been a great influence and role model for me since we've "met."


Kirk Jusko said...

Um, you might want to end this some other way than "Best of luck"

That's what it says on The New Yorker's form rejection slip.

WV expolle: used to be a polle but is no longer.

Colleen said...

Great, practical advice, Erin. Looks like we all have our work cut out for us!

Thanks for posting.

Diane Vogel Ferri said...

A whole writing seminar and I didn't have to leave home. Thanks Erin!

Alanna Klapp said...

Hi Erin, thanks so much for this post! What wonderful solid writing advice. I'll definitely be referring to this again! I didn't know you could make a static Web page with Google Docs. I also really enjoyed reading the "Yeah, Write" piece, it made me laugh out loud (as much of your writing does). Thanks also for The Writing Show link love!

Also have some good news to share....I won second place in the Procrastinating Writers Blog essay contest! Here's the link for you and anyone else who would like to read:

Thanks for your blog and taking the time to write this post, you are a huge inspiration to a lot of writers, myself included!

Loreen Niewenhuis said...

Hey Erin,

I finally found some time to get back to your blog. 'Glorious Steinem' still has me laughing.

I thought your post on advice to writers was excellent and was wondering if I could re-post it to I'd link back to your blog, of course.

Just e-mail me at if it's cool.

Hope you are well.

-Loreen Niewenhuis.

Anonymous said...

I'd add a bit to your advice on freelancing for local newspapers. You suggest seeking to cover things like school board meetings; while that's OK, most papers will have major beats like local government and schools assigned to a regular reporter (I am such a person). But in these dark days for print media, they've all cut back on still-important-or-interesting coverage of "peripheral" subjects: health, transportation, science, particular types of community events (such as animal control and adoption, always a popular topic). A freelancer can carve out a personal niche in areas such as those, becoming the go-to person and only local expert.

Erin O'Brien said...

Thanks for dropping in and commenting, anon, and with such good advice. When I was talking about covering meetings and such, I was thinking of smaller community papers.