7 Things I’ve Learned So Far, by Marion Winik

This is a recurring column I’m calling “7 Things I’ve Learned So Far,” where writers (this installment written by Marion Winik, author of HIGHS IN THE LOW FIFTIES: How I Stumbled Through the Joys of Single Living) at any stage of their career can talk about writing advice and instruction as well as how they possibly got their book agent — by sharing seven things they’ve learned along their writing journey that they wish they knew at the beginning.

GIVEAWAY: Marion is excited to give away a free copy of her book to a random commenter. Comment within 2 weeks; winners must live in Canada/US to receive the book by mail. You can win a blog contest even if you’ve won before. (UPDATE: Tina Lincer won.)


marion-winik    la_ca_0521_highs_in_the_low_fifties

Marion Winik is the author of six books of creative nonfiction, including the
New York Times Notable Book FIRST COMES LOVE, as well as two volumes
of poetry. Her most recent book is HIGHS IN THE LOW FIFTIES (skirt! June 2013),
which was praised by Newsday, Kirkus and author Jane Smiley. Marion’s work has
appeared in such publications as The New York Times Magazine, The Baltimore Sun,
Salon, More, and Newsday, and her commentaries for All Things Considered are
collected at www.npr.org. She is a professor at the University of Baltimore and was
named “Best Humorist” in Baltimore Magazine’s annual Best of Baltimore list in 2013.
For more information, go to www.marionwinik.com or find her on Twitter.



1. Never let an idea get away. I have never been the kind of writer who is bubbling over with ideas. The only way I’ve written nine books and hundreds of articles is by refusing to let one escape. This is a three-step process.

  1. Write every idea down. Don’t assume you won’t forget. Always carry paper, and pen, and dictate into your phone if necessary.
  2. Even if the idea seems less promising later, scribble a couple sentences about what you meant.
  3. If it doesn’t work out now, save the rough start in a folder of unfinished stuff. At some point, you will be very glad to have these.

2. Learn to manage your key employee. It’s interesting to learn how other writers manage their time, whether they do or don’t write every day, for how many hours, in longhand or laptop. Interesting, sure, but what’s more important to study is what works for you. You may not need a rigid schedule, or absolute solitude. You may be more productive late at night, or early in the morning. You may need specific goals and rewards for each session. Really pay attention to what practices are most productive for you, and be a thoughtful boss.

(What to write in the BIO section of your query letter.)

3. Proofread your emails. In our rush toward glory, it is easy to send out messages with typos in them. This is particularly unfortunate when sending queries or submissions – i.e. dealing with people who don’t know that you actually do know the difference between “its” and “it’s”. Realizing you’ve done this is like finding a big spot on your shirt after you leave a job interview… too late. Lame apology/correction emails almost make it worse.

4. Memoirists – don’t spring surprises on your friends. If you think you can publish something unpleasant about someone and they’ll never see it, you are almost definitely wrong. Show people what you’re writing about them before it’s published, or make sure they are effectively disguised, or decide you really don’t care about this relationship and that you haven’t created grounds for a lawsuit. For my new book about dating, High in The Low Fifties, I tracked down each of the guys, some of whom I had seen only once, and had them read their section! This embarrassing procedure generated a whole additional chapter titled “Where Are They Now?”

5. Editors’ letters usually make the revision sound like a lot more work than it actually will be. Often the cover letter describing a revision will make you shudder. It sounds like everything is wrong, they hate the piece and you have to rewrite it from scratch. Then, after you’ve torn out your hair, gnashed your teeth and turned in an overhaul, it turns out they liked the first version pretty well and just wanted a few specific changes. Somehow the prose description of what’s wrong with the article always makes it sounds much worse. Push for specifics about what to do and where to do it.

6. Don’t put everything online. Except in rare cases, you can’t publish a book of material that has already been online. This material has been available for free and probably will be forevermore, reducing or eliminating its commercial value to a print publisher. A little bit of it can be in your blog or on various websites, sure. But if you want to sell a book, you have to have patience with delayed gratification.

(8 Simple Tips For Selling Articles to Magazines.)

7. Start something new before the glow wears off. Not long after you receive word of any success, consider your next project and start making notes about it. If necessary, go back to that file of dribs and drabs I mentioned in #1. Good news is generally followed by bad news, and the ego rollercoaster of the publication process will take you down if you don’t have an ongoing relationship with the work itself. Take it as an article of faith that your best work is ahead of you. And make it so.

GIVEAWAY: Marion is excited to give away a free copy of her book to a random commenter. Comment within 2 weeks; winners must live in Canada/US to receive the book by mail. You can win a blog contest even if you’ve won before. (UPDATE: Tina Lincer won.)



If you’re interested in a variety of my resources on your
journey to securing an agent, don’t forget to check
out my personal Instructor of the Month Kit, created by
Writer’s Digest Books. It’s got books & webinars packaged
together at a 73% discount. Available while supplies last.


Other writing/publishing articles & links for you:


Want to build your visibility and sell more books?
Create Your Writer Platform shows you how to
promote yourself and your books through social
media, public speaking, article writing, branding,
and more.
Order the book from WD at a discount.

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12 thoughts on “7 Things I’ve Learned So Far, by Marion Winik

  1. Tina Lincer

    All good advice. Think I may have to start paying attention to “Don’t spring surprises on your friends,” though a friend recently heard a piece of mine on the radio and clearly didn’t recognize herself or her family.

  2. writeandtravel

    Thanks Marion for those “mama said” reminders. Many a note regarding a character or story idea has landed in my idea folder. As you said, you never know when they may be of use. Your suggestion in #7 is so true. I am at chapter five of my second book and look forward to the process of traditional publishing. It seems that I’m so pumped up from the first book that my new characters of the second one can’t wait to tell their story and I’m having fun writing it. Finally, thanks for reminding us to ask for specifics when it comes to revisions. We as writers expect the negative; taking a all or nothing approach to our work. We must not be afraid to ask the needed questions that will save time for everyone involved. Best to you.

  3. Michael Sean Comerford


    John Carpenter suggested I read your list and it’s great. Thank you. I’m a former newspaperman amid my first attempt at a book – today.
    I’ll be keeping your advice in mind as I go. Particularly, the part about managing my most important employee.
    I’m in the first stages of writing, then finding an agent. You can see my blog at http://www.EyesLikeCarnivals.com
    Thanks again,

    Michael Sean Comerford

  4. jirvin

    Perfect words as always. I consider myself extremely lucky to have taken three classes taught by you.
    By the way, I ordered your book last June but it got lost in the mail since my shipping address was different. It was a signed copy too, and I’m still heartbroken about it!

  5. PeggyKnowzit

    I LOOOOOOOOOVE #3. Proofreading is an under-appreciated and under-used action – everyone needs a secondary set of final eyes. Cover letters, book covers, and promo pieces are not immune from being bitten by the typo bug or the misspelling virus. Write on!

    My favorite piece of advice to writers is: if you’re the brilliant one with the ideas but hate dealing with the details, hire a nit-picker as a proofreader/grammar checker/ spell checker/sentence structure guru.


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