This article is about writing. Whether it’s with a quill pen or a computer keyboard, it’s all about expressing one’s thoughts.
Many people love to write, and the lucky ones get paid for it. Others yearn to share their ideas with the world, but haven’t yet gone about it. Some people have a complete manuscript in their sock drawer, and have not quite summoned the courage to show it to anyone.
Tens of millions of people feel they have a story to tell. Most often it’s their own life story, which makes the proposed work a memoir. These can make great novels, just be aware that it’s very hard to sell them. Not everyone can write an Angela’s Ashes.
So then, how to proceed? The challenge for all hopeful writers is to organize their thoughts, write them down clearly, and then get published. Let’s take this in stages.
The first stage is usually the easiest, as it can be done, so to speak, all in your head. Note that most professional writers create outlines first. It’s also important to do research. Accuracy is very important. Factual errors distract the reader, and eventually wear away the author’s credibility. Readers of historical fiction, for example, are meticulous about every little detail regarding any personage, location, or time period.
The second stage is writing everything down, and properly. Sorry, but unless you’re a famous, eccentric author, quill pens won’t do. A decent longhand copy might work, but a typewriter is better.
These days, virtually all writers use a computer and printer. This allows for easier corrections and proper formatting. They also have spell checkers. Those are handy inventions, but do not rely on them too much. If you insist, just remember, eye tolled yew sew!
Most of the time, aspiring writers are, shall we say, themselves a work in progress. Usually, my writer's group ends up critiquing pages filled with errors in spelling, punctuation, and grammar. Even medical and executive professionals often display such difficulties. Our hope is that, buried somewhere under the mess, a compelling story awaits. (My online group only handles fiction, but the rules of writing apply everywhere.)
Based upon the most common errors I see from new writers, let’s do a quick review. I’ll start with some basic points.
Let’s be clear about the correct use of: its and it’s.
How about dialogue? It’s comma, quote mark, then tag. New speaker means a new paragraph. For example:
“Hello,” said Bob. "Good to see you."
“It's a nice day out,” Theresa replied.
He smiled warmly. "Shall we go to the park?"
Her response was an enthusiastic, "Certainly!"
"Okay then," Bob said, "wait here while I grab my jacket."
Was that too easy? (You'd be disappointed at how many hopeful writers have yet to master this much.)
Let’s crank it up a notch.
Do you know the difference between: effect and affect? Please define: sight, site, and cite.
Got it? Then let’s make it a bit harder.
Compose sentences with: ensure, insure, and assure.
Write the same paragraph with a Passive voice, then again in an Active one. Try it with the First Person, and then the Third Person, point of view. Switch it from the Past Tense into the Present Tense.
All right, let’s say you got each one correct. Good! I expect to see your first draft on my desk within a month. (Just kidding . . . or am I?)
Hopefully these technical points will be mastered by someone just as they get busy with writing. If not, we can only hope that their ego can handle the bad news. The serious folks will pause for reflection, and then get back to work. My writers group has seen people totally rewrite 100,000 word novels!
Authors are artists, and as such they share many well-known attributes. Some writers (especially women) are very self-depreciative. They apologize for every paragraph, and hardly believe the praise they do earn.
Opposite this, some writers (usually men) have Golden Words Syndrome. They pity us readers for not recognizing their genius. Even critiques that end up correcting their every messed-up sentence are shrugged off, or worse, met with anger.
Serious writers chart a middle course, and suffer their lumps. They learn as much as they can, everywhere they can. My earliest opinion columns were, frankly speaking, a mess. They are available still on line, and I do apologize for all the errors.
After a writer masters the basics, they still have to construct a great text or story. Nonfiction needs a good structure, citations, and examples. Fiction needs an interesting plot, clear descriptions, and sympathetic characters. This is where talent comes in.
Sheer talent can, in part, make up for a lack of skill. Some authors quietly depend on book doctors, and even ghost writers, to polish up their work. One very famous author told my writers group that he sends off his rough, first draft pages, each and every day--and lets his editor take it from there.
Some authors have so much technical skill that their merely average talent is forgiven. Certain specialized texts are agony to read, and yet, few people in the world understand enough about the arcane subject to write it themselves.
In science fiction, my favorite genre, mind-bending concepts and fantastic alien worlds often make up for a novel’s ‘cardboard’ characters. It has been said that the universe itself becomes a character.
If I implied that any of this is easy, my apologies. For us ordinary non-geniuses, it's not! There are countless 'how to' books and web sites, not to mention college/adult school courses, to help folks master the particulars.
Even then, it's almost impossible for an author to perfect their own work. Because we are mentally so close to our words, we often miss small errors, inconsistencies, and unclear points. Things that are obvious to us (and what else would they be) might puzzle a fresh reader.
Before sunmitting your work to an editor, it's best to have it critiqued. Probably not by a relative or a best friend, unless they happen to be an English professor! Better to find a successful reading partner or an established critique group. There are 'in person' groups meeting everywhere, plus numerous online forums. Critters.org is perhaps the largest. My own Writing to Publish group meets weekly, and we handle all fiction genres.
Visitors are welcome.
Now to the third point. One must get these polished words before the public! If you’re a specialist in a very obscure discipline, perhaps a university press will publish a few dozen (very expensive) copies of your tome.
If you have a good contract with a publisher of romance novels, you can toss them off by the dozen, following a standard formula--and take your cut from the thousands of paperback copies that are sold. All you have to do is keep your editor happy and the readers satiated.
If you’re well off you can self-publish, in old or new ways. If you’re broke you can post your writings on the web. Either way, they will join millions of other obscure titles, but who knows? These days, with email and blogs, something new can catch on in a big hurry. Twitter has become the newest rage.
For longer works, it is usually best to work with an agent. That’s a tall order because the good ones have a full client list, and the brand-new ones have little experience and fewer contacts. Even so, it’s worth finding one. Send out dozens of well-crafted query letters. If you can afford it, attend some big writer’s conferences, and meet top agents and editors in person.
Please be aware that there are dozens of ways you can get ripped off. Be very careful, and get advice and confirmation from multiple sources. Subscribe to Writer’s Digest or a similar publication. If you have enough money, you can take college writing classes, or even hire a personal editor (a sort of writing coach).
If you have time, find and join a compatible writers group, locally or on line. They all have different styles and rules. Ask at your local library, or a university English department, or book store.
No more excuses! Get busy writing.
by Paul Carlson