Friday, June 03, 2005

Take Stock

At the start of the summer and about the mid-point in the year, it’s always good to take stock. Where are you with your writing life? If you are frustrated, getting no answer from editors or getting rejected, then I have a few ideas for you.

I’ve seen a lot of submissions—with books and also with magazines. Because I’ve worked in both areas of publishing, I’ve learned a great deal from what writers pitch for ideas. Many writers dream of writing a book. It’s something solid to hold in your hand and maybe see in the bookstore. It’s a good long-range goal but is it realistic for the short-term. In most cases, the answer is no.

Book editors want authors who have a publishing history in magazines or newspapers. These writers have learned a lot as they practice their craft in the shorter format and are more attractive to editors. What can a writer learn from writing a shorter magazine article? A great deal is the answer.

First, for the higher-circulation (and higher-paying) publications, they learn how to write a one-page query letter.  You have to grab the editor’s (and the reader’s) attention in the first paragraph of a query letter and you show your writing style is attractive. I find that most writers don’t understand this technique in the early days of their work. I certainly didn’t understand it. I had to learn to pitch ideas to the magazine editors which were targeted to their audience and attractive to them.

Your job as the writer is to understand the needs and desires of the editor—then be a problem-solver for the editor. You pitch the editor the perfect idea for their publication. You can learn this skill in magazine writing.

Also through magazine articles, you gain a variety of other skills. Often you have to interview someone else for the contents of the article so you learn how to conduct interviews and ask the right questions. Magazine writing teaches how to craft an article with a beginning, a middle and an ending (with a key point called a take-away for the reader). You also learn to write on deadline (something important for magazine and book publishing).  The magazine editor will tell you how many words to write for the magazine. As the writer, you deliver that amount of words—not lots more or lots less—right on target. If you write too much initially, then you learn to cut. If you don’t write enough, you learn how and where to expand your article. It’s a skill that translates into book publishing to make sure your chapters are suitable lengths for example.

Many times with new magazine writers (even the professionals), their first submission isn’t exactly what the editor was thinking. Admittedly it’s hard to get into the editor’s head. As a writer, you learn how to follow the editor’s instructions for rewriting and again meeting a new deadline from the editor.

My experience says that many writers hold unrealistic expectations about what can happen in their writing life. Few people leap into the marketplace with their first book and become a best-selling author. The majority of writers instead apprentice. They learn their craft with a smaller goal, then eventually they are able to accomplish the higher goal. For many years, I wrote magazine articles before I wrote my first book. Jerry B. Jenkins author of Left Behind wrote more than 100 books before the ground-breaking series.

It’s valuable to have writing goals and aspirations. Each of us hold them. It is also valuable to take stock. Can you make a smaller goal or an incremental step in the direction of your goal in another part of the writing world? 

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