Q & A for Writers
Q: I’ve always wanted to write. How do I get started?
A: To borrow a line from a well-known commercial, just do it! Pick up a pen and notebook, or sit down at your computer, and begin. Every poem, article, story, or book is written one word at a time. Words become sentences, sentences become paragraphs, paragraphs become pages. Lots of people say they want to write but never make the commitment. If you really want to be a writer, you have to write!
Q: Okay, so I’ve made the commitment. I’m writing. What else is there to know?
A: Actually, a lot, especially if your goal is publication. Gone are the days when editors had the time and inclination to take on a “promising” but amateurish manuscript and help the writer shape and polish it. In today’s publishing world, editors seek high-quality submissions by writers who already have a good grasp of the ins and outs of the profession.
Q: That’s scary. Does it mean I should give up without even trying?
A: Absolutely not! You can learn the skills necessary to become a published writer . . . if you’ve got the dedication and determination to work at it. There are plenty of helpful books you can study (see some of my favorites here), or you can enroll in a writing class. You’ll find them offered at universities or community colleges, online, or via correspondence. I’m a graduate of both the Institute of Children’s Literature Writing for Children and Teenagers Course and Long Ridge Writer’s Group. Writer’s workshops and conferences are also a great place to learn and to meet other writers of all experience levels.
Q: What’s the best way to start—books or magazine pieces?
A: My personal recommendation is to hone your writing skills on short fiction and/or nonfiction. Each manuscript is a smaller investment of time, for one thing—days or weeks rather than months or years. And the turnaround time for an editor’s response is a lot shorter, too. But even more important, magazine writing teaches you to “write tight”—to weed out the excess, narrow your focus, and make your point succinctly. And even if you go on to book writing, those skills will still come into play. Every word must count if you want to hold your reader’s attention. Another compelling reason to begin with magazine writing is that as your work is bought and published, you develop a professional reputation and a growing list of writing credits—and at a much faster rate than in the book publishing world. And those magazine credentials will serve you well if or when you do venture into book writing.
Q: I’ve finished my article or short story. Now what?
A: Whatever you do, don’t rush to send it out! There are very few successful “one-draft writers” out there, so rewrite, revise and edit until this piece is as good as you can make it. The real work of writing is in the rewriting, and for me, that stage can be the most fun and challenging. The next step is to let your story “chill” for a couple of weeks. Get to work on your next manuscript. Then come back to this piece for a final reading. You might be amazed at the additional areas for improvement you’ll find this time around. And if you make more than a few minor changes, set it aside for another week or two and go through the process again. Believe me, it will be worth the wait in the long run.
Q: Okay, it’s as good as I can make it. Where should I send my story?
A: The pros usually know their target markets before they sit down to write, so if you haven’t done so already, spend some serious time researching the most likely markets for what you have written. This isn’t my favorite part of the writing business, but it is essential. Visit your library or bookstore and pick up the current edition of Writer’s Digest Writer’s Market or sign up online. Another excellent resource is Sally Stuart’s Christian Writer’s Market Guide. Use the table of contents or index to find publications that correspond to your potential readers and subject matter. Find out if sample issues are available and send for them, or (again) check at your library or bookstore. Christian writers might obtain certain publications from their pastor or church library. A hands-on examination of not just one but several recent issues of your target magazine will give you the best idea of whether or not your story is appropriate.
Q: I think I’ve found just the right market for my story. How do I submit it?
A: First of all, make sure your manuscript is formatted correctly. That means margins of 1” to 1.5” on the sides and 1” on top and bottom. Your first-page heading should include your name, address, phone number, e-mail address and approximate word count. Your last name, the title, and page number will appear at the top of all subsequent pages. Center your title in ALL CAPS about 1/3 of the way down from the top of your first page, with your byline (the way you want your name to appear in print) underneath. Double-space throughout the manuscript. Check your writing instruction books for more details and illustrations, or get a copy of Formatting & Submitting Your Manuscript. More and more editors accept submissions as Word document attachments, but check the guidelines or ask first! If the editor prefers snail mail, don’t forget to enclose a self-addressed stamped envelope (SASE) if you want your rejected (we always hope not!) manuscript returned. Gain some extra peace of mind by enclosing a self-addressed post card the publishing house can return to you to confirm your submission arrived safely.
Q: I did it! My manuscript is in the mail. So now what?
A: Be prepared to wait—editorial decisions take time. During your market research you should have come across an indication of the usual response time for the publication. For magazines it might be anywhere from a few weeks to several months. Book editors can take up to a year or more. Frustrating? You bet! But you won’t help the situation by constantly bugging the editor with status requests. Wait a couple of weeks beyond the stated response time before following up. These days, an e-mail inquiry is usually acceptable, or sometimes a quick phone call (check those writer’s guidelines. If you send “snail mail,” again, don’t forget the SASE. Above all, don’t waste time waiting and wondering! Have another manuscript in the works. Concentrate on making it the best it can be. Rewrite, revise, research markets, send it out. Keep busy on the next project, and the next, and the waiting time will pass much more quickly. And . . . the more manuscripts you’re submitting, the greater your chances of success!