Saturday, October 20, 2012

It's All About Technique

As you proceed through your writing career, you’ll change as a writer.  While some of this change may occur naturally, you’ll have to work at improving your writing skills and developing your technique. The best way to do that is to write as much as you can and study the works of other writers.

Unfortunately, you’ve been taught just the opposite. While you studied literature in school, the aim of that exercise was to get you to understand the thoughts of famous writers and not necessarily their techniques. In their quest to make sure you didn’t copy parts of the works of other writers, your teachers pounded the idea that all your thoughts needed to be original. The last original thought not based on work that had been done previously most likely was that of the first person who learned to write. So why should you be any different.

While it’s okay for artists to sit in front of the works of old masters and copy them, the same doesn’t apply to writers—at least that’s what you were taught. In fact, it’s just the same. In order to improve your writing skills and develop good technique, you have to look to other writers, but not those who wrote long ago—in other words, not those found in traditional literature. Instead, you need to read and analyze the works of contemporary writers—at least ones not further back than the 1940s and 50s.

To begin, you first need to learn to read like a writer. Read over a piece of writing to enjoy it for what it is, but then go back over it and study the writer’s technique. If you liked it, ask yourself why. If you didn’t, also ask yourself why. See if you can figure out what made you read this in the first place. If you have a favorite writer, read as many works of his or hers as possible, then pick part of a particular one to study.

In order to study a piece of someone else’s writing, you need to put it in the same format as your own. Copy a few paragraphs of particularly good writing into your word processor. Make sure it’s double spaced, then print it out. Look at it as if its your own writing. What do you notice about it? Are the sentences consistently long or short? What about the types of words used? Does the writer employ any special techniques?

After you’ve studied this sample of another writer’s work, compare it directly to one of yours that’s similar in topic and tone. Why is the other writer’s work better? Now try to write a few paragraphs of your own on the same topic and in that writer’s style. The more you read and study of that writer’s work, the more of his or her technique you’ll subconsciously pick up. Over time, by reading and studying a number of other writers, you’ll soon develop a technique all your own that has bits and pieces of the technique of others woven into it.

A good way to get yourself moving forward is to put together a reading program. Pick writers who you like and who write about similar topics. Also pick a few that write about other subjects that you don’t. If you’re a non-fiction writer, start with non-fiction works, but pepper your program with a few really good short stories or novels and pieces of creative non-fiction. If you’re a fiction writer, start with works from the same genre as your own—historical fiction, romance, mysteries, etc.—then pepper your program with a few select biographies and works of creation non0-fiction. Follow this program for three to six months. Afterwards, you’ll begin to notice a distinct improvement in your writing as your writing skills and technique improve.

Friday, October 5, 2012

Tapping the Markets

As a beginning writer, you must try to place your work in almost any publication just to get some credits. However, most markets open to novices pay little or nothing. And while you’ll get some credits, you may starve in the meantime. These first markets include church publications, fillers for local newspapers, and features for weekly newspapers. The amount you get paid doesn’t seem to matter as much as seeing your work in print. But when the initial thrill of publication wears off, it’s time to move on. You've paid your dues and sharpened your writing skills.

The next step is to assess your financial foundation and potential. If easy, though insufficient, income sources have to kept food on your table while you experiment with higher paying markets, you should be sure that you can rely on your initial markets for steady assignments and that you can shorten the time required to complete them. Try squeezing your bread-and-butter work into the first week or ten days of every month. That way you’ll be assured of at least some money to pay your bills.

Also, are you psychologically prepared to face these writing chores every month. While they may seem like a bother, the work you get from them will build up both in credits and cash.  Conversely, can you quickly switch over to even more demanding but business-expanding assignments, perhaps even within the same hour?

Your progress might proceed like this: Currently, you’re writing a combination of feature articles for several local newspapers in your region and brief but interesting local travel stories. If you play your cards right, you might even be able to sell the same article to say four or five publications, as long as their readerships don’t overlap. This way you only have to write an article once, but get to sell it several times. Your weekly article may bring in say $35. If you sell to five papers, that’s a total of $175.

Check with your editors and line up a three or four months of work for them. But to plan that far into the future, you’ll need ideas and that’s where those clips you’ve been saving come in. Clips are like fine wine, the more they age, the more valuable they become. Digging through them will provide you with lots of ideas—many of them updates on the topics covered. Topics are constantly being redone and published again in this business.

Go back and study those periodicals where you bombed out the first time. Editors change and you’ve grow more skilled, so your chance of scoring with them the second time around is good. Carefully peruse their table of contents.  How do their published articles differ from yours? Are they offering their readers lots of tips or are they more general in scope. Can you revamp any of your queries to include details you missed before? Perhaps you've misread or misinterpreted the writer's guidelines, or possibly the editorial direction has been altered while you’ve been concentrating on other publications. If you can’t rework your queries, look in your folder of clips to see what you can find for higher-paying markets. Set yourself a timetable to send out 20-25 new queries within two weeks to the markets you've picked. Work as furiously as you can on this to get the ball rolling. Then while you’re waiting, you can work on some of your bread and butter assignments.
Pull out all the stops. Sharpen your writing technique. Study the work of writers you admire— analyze it and compare it to your own.  Copy a paragraph or two, then print it out double-spaced, just like your own work. Doing this will help you see it as writing on a computer and not the printed page which will help you compare better compare to y our work. After you do this, rewrite what you’ve copied in your own style, using your own words. Try this exercise from time to time during your writing career.