A step-by-step guide to the basics of becoming a published writer
(Republished from 2010)
Do you write, even if just for your own pleasure? Congratulations: You are already a writer. But perhaps you are thinking about taking it a step further, sharing your work with others, getting published and establishing yourself as a professional writer. This short guide will take you through the essential steps towards fulfilling your writing goals.
Step One: Write
It sounds obvious, but always dreaming and never accomplishing is easily done. The editor and best-selling novelist Sol Stein said that a writer is “someone who cannot not write.” Write regularly, setting aside even 15 minutes or half an hour a day, for example. You may want to carry a notebook with you, so you can jot down notes and scribble out bits of writing at any time, as events grab your attention, or new ideas seize your imagination. Keep a private journal, or set up a blog, where you can post short articles as frequently as you like for others to read online and comment on.
Step Two: Read
Never be fooled into thinking you know it all. The best writers understand that there is always something new to learn about their craft.
By reading good writing regularly, you will subtly imbibe the knowledge of what makes a good writer. Read websites, newspapers, magazines, books, novels. Occasionally make learning a conscious process, asking questions as you read: What was it early on that made you want to continue reading? Which words and phrases drew you in? How did the order of sentences, paragraphs and ideas help the flow of the writing?
Reading about writing is recommended. An introductory book such as Essential English for Editors, Journalists and Writers, by Harold Evans, can alert you to the best practices and most common pitfalls early on in your writing career.
Step Three: Make a Plan
Make a list of what you want to accomplish and how. A concrete plan will help you to think practically and maintain focus. Nail down the basics, such as what type of writing you want to do and what subjects you would like to write about. Your plan does not need to be elaborate, but could be as simple as a list of immediate goals, such as writing x number of articles on a particular subject, entering a fiction contest, or being published in a particular type of publication. Goals may also reflect practical considerations, such as how much time you are willing to invest in writing, and how much money you expect to be paid.
Step Four: Build a Portfolio
When you begin writing professionally, potential editors will want to see evidence of your writing skills. Even if you have not been published, you can still gather together four or five samples that represent the quality and scope of your writing. Have samples at hand, ready to be sent out by email at short notice if necessary.
Better still, create a website to showcase your work. Free online tools such as Blogger and WordPress make it very easy for anyone to create a simple blog or website, regardless of technical experience. Include an introductory page that gives the reader relevant information about yourself and what type of writing you do, a page or pages for samples of your writing, and a way for potential clients to contact you.
Step Five: Find Opportunities
If you are confident in your writing skills and have a clear sense of direction, begin the search for opportunities. Join an email discussion list or forum for writers to keep abreast of what’s available. Read or subscribe to relevant blogs and websites for news of jobs, openings and calls for writers.
If you have an idea of your own, contact a publication and make a pitch (proposal). Research each publication thoroughly before pitching: Knowing the ethos, tone and audience of a magazine or newspaper will increase your chance of success. Introduce yourself, and succinctly explain your idea, why it is relevant to the publication and its readers, and why you believe you are qualified to write it. Early on, you may be asked to prove yourself by writing a piece “on spec,” which means you write the article and if they like it, they will accept it.
Finally: Be Bold
Once you begin step five, do not be timid. Present yourself as a professional, and potential clients will sense your confidence and treat you as such. When making a pitch or responding to an ad, do not be apologetic about your lack of experience, but focus on the skills and passion that make you the ideal candidate for the task. With confidence, commitment and creativity, you can succeed as a writer.
Image: János Fehér