Vintage WD: How to Get Started as a Writer

You want to write, but don’t know how to begin? Taken from our December 1990 issue, follow these 10 steps to beginning a rewarding, fulfilling career as a writer.
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Writer's Digest, December 1990

By Thomas Clark

You want to write, but don’t know how to begin? Follow these 10 steps to beginning a rewarding, fulfilling career as a writer.

I am a writer. Now you say it. “I am a writer.” Congratulations. You’ve taken the first step in getting started as a writer. You’ve announced that you are a writer. The question is no longer open to debate by spouses, teachers, friends, or – most important—yourself.

The question now is how you’ll back up that statement.

Simply saying the words may not make you a writer. But it’s unlikely you’ll become one without saying them. At this moment, it doesn’t matter if publishers and readers are willing to recognize your statement as accurate. No publisher must send you a contract, no reader must buy your book before you can say “I am a writer.” But you must say it. And then you must write.

That’s the easy part. And the hard part.

The easy part because you’ve been writing most of your life. Probably well, too; that’s why a part of you wanted to say, “I am a writer.”

Writing is an act of courage

It’s the hard part because writing is an act of courage. Discipline and creativity and boldness and determination are mixed up in it too, but writing is an act of courage above all. Writers must possess the courage to believe that what they have to say is worthy of being read by others.

It’s difficult to have that courage from the first time you sit at the keyboard. Maybe you have to work your way toward it. Maybe you have to train your mind to accept it. Maybe you have to sift through your experiences, your beliefs, your essence to find the material you believe worthy of such courage. There are ways to accomplish these tasks.

GETTING PREPARED

I don’t believe there are born writers. I’m more willing to accept that there are prepared writers and unprepared writers. If you’re prepared to write, you know it. Go forward. For the rest of us, it’s time to get prepared.

Preparing the framework for a successful career as a writer has both a mental aspect and a physical aspect. Some of you will want to first work through the creation of what I call the “writer’s mindset,” and then tackle the physical acts of writing. There’s a danger in doing so. The longer you delay the physical acts of writing, the greater the chance your writing will sputter and die without recording even your first written thought. But if you prepare your relent while you prepare your mind, they will feed and encourage each other.

MIND MATTERS

One of the most important commitments you can make to your writing is to set aside an area where you write. It can be a room, an alcove, a table—even a closet just wide enough for a desk. This is the place where you write.

Your place to write doesn’t need a lot. A light, obviously, and a surface that will hold a keyboard or paper. A spot for your reference books (more on those in a moment) is useful, but not essential.

What is essential to your mindset is that your “office” have an air of exclusivity about it. (The Internal Revenue Service will demand this should you try to deduct your office as an expense, but that’s beside the point.) That’s why a corner of the kitchen table that must be converted from office to eatery three times a day really isn’t adequate. By reserving this space for your writing, you’re telling yourself that writing is important to you. It’s at least as important as the television, which likely has a place of its own. And if writing is important enough to possess a place, it’s important enough for you to go to that place and use it.

When you go to this special place and sit before your keyboard, you are acting like a writer—a second component to establishing your writer’s mindset. There are other actions you can take that will encourage your writing. Reading this magazine is one; you’re giving time to a task that benefits your career.

Attending writing classes or a writers conference serves this purpose as well. These actions also put you in touch with others who are creating their own writer’s mindset. It’s best to find experienced writers to talk with, because they can answer the questions that will arise as you begin your career. But even if you join a writer’s group that includes only beginners, the experience will work to encourage your development as a writer. You and the other group members will be stronger together than apart, each of you helping the others to find the courage within.

As you continue this search, collect the tools a writer needs. A keyboard is important—it’s up to you whether that keyboard is attached to a typewriter or a computer (although you should recognize that a computer will give you more flexibility down the road). You need a keyboard for two reasons. First, handwritten manuscripts are impossible to sell to publishers. Second, professions writers (with some exceptions) type their work. Many—even most—create at the keyboard. This, too, is a part of acting like a writer. And when you sit before the keyboard and move your fingers on the keys, you’re no longer acting. You’re writing.

Next to the keyboard, you’ll want to place certain books: a dictionary, a thesaurus, Will Strunk and E.B. White’s The Elements of Style (Macmillan), a style manual, Writer’s Market (WD Books). Those are the staples; you can add to them whatever books feed your mind or answer your questions. As your writer’s mindset matures, don’t be surprised to see this set of books enlarge and mature. The Beginning Writer’s Answer Book will give way to The Art and Craft of Feature Writing perhaps, or to The Complete Book of Scriptwriting. Make such changes gladly; they’re the writer’s equivalent of leaving behind Nancy Drew for A Separate Peace.

But don’t allow these books to just sit. Relax in an easy chair and read them. Sit at your desk, your fingers on the keyboard and your eyes in the book, hunting down the tip that helps you polish that bit of dialogue or refine that idea. And avoid surrounding yourself only with books about writing; general reading is the overlooked cousin of writing. Read for enjoyment, certainly, but also read to see the advancement of the craft in other writers’ hands, to see the preferences of editors and publishers, to see other writers barely scratch the ideas and emotions on which you have so much more to say. Then run to your special place and begin.

PUTTING YOUR MINDSET TO WORK

As I said before, you’re smart if you begin to put words on paper even before you’ve found just the right thesaurus or returned home from your first writers conference. As important as such acts are in creating your writer’s mindset, they pale beside the actual act of writing. This is what allows you to continue to say “I am a writer.”

This is also the act that separates most “wanna be” writers from those who succeed. Not because the wanna-bes had no real talent for writing, or even that they really wanted only to have written. Most new writers fail because they don’t recognize how simple it is to get started.

You can start right now, in fact. Grab a sheet of paper —or scribble in the corner of this page—and write, “I am a writer.” If your keyboard is handy, tap in those letters.

Congratulations. You have written.

Now keep going. Ask yourself, “Why?” or “What else am I?” and record the answer. Don’t think about it; just write it. Nothings strips writing of its power to freeze our ambitions more than a short session at the keyboard. When we realize that to write a few sentences doesn’t require five hours of planning and three more undisturbed hours at the keyboard, the idea of writing becomes a lot less threatening.

How long you spend on this exercise is up to you. You overcome the major hurdle, which is the first word, right at the beginning. Regardless of how long you sit at the keyboard today, though, you must set a time to do it again tomorrow.

When you write every day, it helps your writer’s mindset stay active and grow. Each session at the keyboard reinforces everything that’s gone before and prepares you for the next step. Twelve days from now you may be typing “I am a writer” for the twelfth time, but your answer to “Why?” will be more compelling. You’ll be a better writer than you are now.

Of course, you can’t make a career of typing “I am a writer.” Decide what type of writer you want to be—a poet, a novelist, an article writer, a screenwriter, and so on. Such goal setting isn’t as permanent as it may first sound. You can always change your direction later (and eventually a diversity of directions may help your writing), but at this stage of your career it’s counterproductive to be starting a poem, researching an article, and outlining a novel. Pick something and work on it until you finish the work or you lose so much interest in it that you’re tempted to start skipping days at the typewriter. (Don’t skip. Start a new project instead.) Better a few unfinished false starts than a career abandoned amidst a sea of beginnings.

As you set your initial goal, think small. There are celebrated cases of writers penning an epic novel as their first writing project. But you’ll get almost as much satisfaction from completing your first letter to the editor. As a new writer you need the encouragement of finishing, of taking a project from beginning to end. That sense of accomplishment doesn’t increase according to the number of manuscript pages you’ve written. (The sidebar, “Morale Boosters,” lists ten easily finished writing assignments to get you started.)

When you finish it, put your work in the mail. Writer’s Market is on your bookshelf because professional writers are publishing writers. Learn the rules of marketing (they’re in Writer’s Market), and determine which publishers will be most interested in your work. Then send it off, and get started on your next piece.

You can now unconditionally say, “I am a writer.” You may not yet be a published writer, but that adjective will attach itself in time. Before it does, you can expect to be rejected. If you do, you won’t interpret rejection letters as saying, “You are not a writer.”

You may, in fact, receive a rejection letter that says just that. Or an unfeeling instructor may scribble it on a paper. A relative may whisper it to you “to save you the hurt.” Burn the letter. Withdraw from the class. Kick the relative out. You are the only person with the power to make that statement, but you’ve already chosen to say the reverse.

Congratulations. You are a writer.

Writers must have courage

THE WRITER’S DIGEST GUIDE TO GETTING STARTED

This checklist of basic advice—and tips for translating the advice into action—will help you keep your newborn writing career moving in the right direction during its critical early years. As you progress, you’ll discover what works for you and what tips you’ll want to pass on to future new writers. Until then, tear out this page and post it in your permanent writing area. Which brings us to tip #1 …

SET ASIDE AN AREA WHERE YOU WRITE.

  • If space is cramped, a card table in the corner of a bedroom is OK. Separate the space from the rest of the room with a folding screen.
  • The best desk may still be a door laid over a pair of sawhorses.

INVOLVE YOURSELF WITH WRITING.

  • To locate a writing class, contact a local university’s continuing education office.
  • To locate a local writer’s group, check with a university’s English or journalism departments, or check with area libraries

EQUIP YOURSELF WITH THE TOOLS OF A WRITER.

  • Use a keyboard that produces clean, readable type.
  • An excellent set of reference books comes from Merriam-Webster: Webster’s 9 New Collegiate Dictionary, Collegiate Thesaurus, Dictionary of English Usage, and Standard American Style Manual.

READ.

  • Read general books critically: study characterizations, plotting, tensions, use of detail.
  • Begin your writing library with these five books: On Writing Well, by William Zinsser (HarperCollins); Storycrafting, by Paul Darcy Boles (WD Books); Working Days: The Journals of “The Grapes of Wrath,” by John Steinbeck, edited by Robert DeMott (Viking); On Becoming a Novelist, by John Gardner (HarperPerennial); and The Art and Craft of Feature Writing, by William E. Blundell (NAL).

PUT WORDS ON PAPER.

  • Loosen up by beginning each writing session with five minutes of freewriting. Write whatever comes into your head; don’t stop writing until the five minutes pass.
  • Don’t revise while you write. Complete the work first; then revise.

WRITE EVERY DAY.

  • Wake yourself an hour early and spend the time writing. Many writers find the early morning hours the most productive.
  • Carry a notepad. Jot down ideas while stuck in traffic, in line or on hold.

DECIDE WHAT TYPE OF WRITER YOU WANT TO BE.

  • The type of writing that you like to read is probably the type of work you’re best prepared to write.
  • Write about what you know. Use profession, family, hobbies, family activities, and experiences to suggest writing topics.

THINK SMALL.

  • Hone your fiction-writing talent with short stories before attempting a novel; write articles before attempting a novel; write articles before trying to write a book.
  • Build your confidence by submitting to local or regional publications. The competition is usually less fierce than at national publications.

PUT YOUR WORK IN THE MAIL.

  • Always include a self-addressed, stamped envelope (SASE) with your manuscript and correspondence.
  • Keep several pieces in the mail and a new work in the typewriter at all times.

EXPECT TO BE REJECTED.

  • Remember: A rejections is nothing more than one person’s opinion of one piece of writing.
  • Examine returned manuscripts from the editor’s viewpoint: Look for the problems that the editor saw.

10 MORALE BOOSTERS FOR NEW WRITERS

Publication is the biggest morale booster for new writers. But outside of vanity presses—companies that you pay to publish your work—writers can’t determine whether they get that morale boost or not. That’s an editor’s job.

But you can concentrate your early efforts in areas where you are most likely to get published. Here are five such manuscripts you can write.

  • A letter to the editor. Very few local newspapers are so flooded by mail that they turn away letters to the editor. Pick an issue that concerns you and express your opinion in three to six well-reasoned, plainly stated paragraphs. If there are weekly community papers in your area, you probably have a good shot a placing a longer (750-2,500—word essay on an issue of local concern.
  • A press release. Volunteer to write up notices of special activities or news for a school, church, community group, or other organization. Follow traditional newspaper style, putting the most important information at the top of the story.
  • An article for your company newsletter. The possibilities are endless—profile a new employee, explain a technique that’s saved your department time or money, report on the company softball team. You’ll also have the undying gratitude of whoever edits the publication.
  • A movie, restaurant, or museum exhibit review. Almost every community has a “shopper.” These giveaway newspapers are always hungry for readable copy, and they’ll welcome your contribution. Be forewarned that the publisher probably will reject reviews that might offend advertisers (who are the paper’s sole means of support).
  • A Reader’s Digest-style anecdote. The competition at The Digest is stiff, but there are many other magazines that use these humorous slice-of-life reports. You can improve your chances by keeping your retelling crisp and concise.

Except for the anecdotes, don’t expect these projects to earn any pay beyond experience.

While publication is a great morale booster, simply finishing a piece of writing can have the same effect. Here are five short writing assignments that will boost your writer’s mindset.

  • A character sketch. Write a few pages about a character you’d like to use in a short story or novel. Who is this person? What does she want from life? Who is keeping her from it? What does she look like? How does she spend her days? Write until you feel you’ve known this person for years.
  • An overheard conversation. Eavesdrop on a conversation at the office, in the grocery, or at the health club, then come home and recreate it on paper. Write until the dialogue reads like people talk.
  • A probing journal entry. Use your private book to explore an ethical dilemma, ponder a philosophical gray area, or justify a questionable action. Dig deep and stretch your ability to translate thoughts into words.
  • A letter to an out-of-town relative. Describe something or someone the relative has never seen—a new house, for instance, or a newborn child. Offer as complete a portrait as you can.
  • A rewritten scene. Pick a section from a book you thought was poorly written and re-write it. Change whatever you want to create an improved version that still serves the book’s overall purpose.

You can use these exercises as jumping-off points for other, larger projects. Or try combining them in various ways, such as a scene in which one character describes a problem encountered by a friend the other character in the scene doesn’t know. –T.C.

About the author:

Thomas Clark was senior editor of Writer’s Digest, a frequent speaker at writers conferences and workshops, and—as he will tell anyone who will listen—a writer. His own articles have appeared in a variety of magazines and newspapers, including Modern Bride. “Which proves,” he says, “that a writer can publish anywhere.”

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