Writing Tips for Beginners
“Step up private! So, you think you want to be a writer. And have they warned you, what kind of a grueling, draining, and utterly unrewarding the job of writing is?”
“And you still want to do it?”
“By God, there must be something wrong with the brains of you lot.”
“Nevermind. Go speak with the quartermaster; he’ll give you some paper and something to write. And son, guard that pencil with your life, you won’t get another.”
People think of writing as an art form, or as a profession, a craft, a hobby, a passion, a business, or a way of self-expression– all these are perfectly valid ways of looking at writing, but each comes with its unique set of challenges. Every successful writer faced them all and found ways to overcome them.
While I can’t guide you through every challenge out there, I want to share the things I wish I understood when I started writing years ago. Maybe then, I wouldn’t have sent my very first unedited short story to the top magazine of my genre.
Being a Writer
A baker bakes, a painter paints, a writer… tries to avoid writing at all cost. We can be ridiculous about that sometimes but remember: you are a writer when you write. The more you write and learn about your craft, the better writer you become. If you don’t write, then you’re as good as a baker who developed an irrational fear of the oven.
The Finances and Timelines of Writing
I’d like to get this one out of the way. It may be years before your writing can pay even for a single sheet of paper or a pencil. Most people who assume they will be different find out they’re not, and quit, leaving more space to the rest of us. You can do yourself a tremendous favor if you prepare for the long run. For most people, a writing career really is a marathon.
If your goal is to get published, a couple of years is a reasonable timeline.
Should I Write Novels or Short Stories or…?
Try both. Don’t get too attached to your early work, though. Most writers have a special hole in the wall, or a loose floorboard, where they hide their early manuscripts. Your only goal near the beginning is to get all the bad writing out of your system as soon as you can.
Be pragmatic and stick with either short stories (around 5000 words) or novels (60000–80000 words). These two lengths are the easiest to sell, and they teach you how to work against a word count.
Plotting and Pantsing
There are two extremes on the spectrum of how people write. On one end, you have people who spend significant time planning out the events of their stories before they write the opening line. They call themselves plotters. On the other end, there are those who make their stories up as they go along. They fly by the seat of their pants, so to say, and therefore are called pantsers.
If you’re just starting, try both extremes and see which one produces better results. There are advantages and disadvantages to both approaches so you’ll do well if you can find a balanced middle ground. Planning and spontaneity aren’t mutually exclusive.
Long gone are the days of a writer sitting at his typewriter, producing pages of near-perfect prose. Most writing today is produced in a series of drafts.
The first draft, also called the vomit draft, is to get all the raw out there on paper. The second draft, or a rewrite, focuses on fixing all the problems and inconsistencies of the story. You only start worrying about the style when you get to the third draft.
Don’t be surprised if your story requires five or six second drafts.
How to Get Feedback
Friends and family are great to begin with, but make sure you only send your work to those who read a lot. Uncle Stephen, who never read a book in his life, may not be the best authority on writing, even if he’s eager to offer advice.
After writing a couple of stories, search online for a writing workshop. It’s a place where you can share your work with other writers and get feedback. Finding out what complete strangers think of your stories can do wonders for your writing.
Standard Manuscript Format
Here’s the Standard Manuscript Format preferred by the industry. Use it. It makes you look professional when you submit your stories to editors and agents.
Submitting Your Work
Finding out where to submit can be tricky business. You need to figure out the specifics for yourself. But here are a couple of places to begin:
Submission Grinder — a free tool listing currently open calls for submissions and other helpful details like the acceptance ratio. It’s run by Science Fiction Writers of America (SFWA), so the selection of publications may be biased towards genre fiction.
Duotrope — same as above, but this is a paid service. I never used it, but it’s popular and boasts a large catalog of available publications.
Writer’s Market — a listing of current openings in the world of writing. A good place to search for agents. Writer’s Market releases a print version of their directory every year.
Expect your stories to be rejected. Many, many times.
Embrace rejection, each one moves you closer to your goals. Think of all those rejection letters as battle-scars on the body of a warrior. These are marks of experience, not failure.
Most rejections you’ll receive are going to be polite form rejections, but sometimes you may get a personal rejection letter. This means an editor liked certain aspects of your story but disliked others. He took time out of his busy schedule to help you, take what he says to heart.
A writing career, like all things worth pursuing, takes time. It’s the domain of the dogged, the bloody-minded, and the persistent. Stay in the game long enough, and you’ll be fine. Quit, and you’ll never know how far you could’ve gotten.
We’re all in this together. I work hard to help other writers bridge the gap between a passion and a profession. If you found this article useful, consider pledging as little as $1 on Patreon. Thank you.
Originally published at www.sebastianhetman.com on March 4, 2019.