Keep in writing shape
Published: January 15, 2003
|Every successful writer I ever met, I'd ultimately find out, had, at some critical point, a mentor. Usually an older writer whom they greatly admired, who not only freely offered advice on the art and craft but helped navigate them through the tricky ins and outs of the business. Strangely, my mentorwasn't a writer at all. He was, of all things, a retired salesman for The Wall Street Journal, a tall, whitehaired man in his 60s named Al.|
For years, all over Manhattan, Al gave free lectures on how to effectively find work in the increasingly competitive marketplace. While hunting down a couple of research
books in the New York Public Library one day, I accidentally ran into one of his talks. It was infinitely eye-opening. I was immediately sucked in by the core of his philosophy: that the secret to finding work, no matter what type, lay in nothing but simple sales techniques in aggressively selling yourself.
Before I knew it, I was following Al everywhere he spoke, four days a week, mornings and afternoons, uptown and downtown, East Side and West, to libraries and churches.
Traipsing through rain, sleet and snow. I just couldn't get enough of him. His approach was so novel, and it made so much sense. All I had to do was translate it into the business of freelance writing. That ended up being so incredibly easy, I remember letting out a slight giggle.
The results of my initial efforts came shockingly fast and were nothing less than overwhelming. Like a huge wave. Within two months, I'd attracted so much work I was actually forced to turn things away.
Its magic continues to this day-the gift that keeps on giving. I'm always working on two assignments at a time, with a third waiting not far away in the wings.
When I asked Al how I could ever thank him for what he taught me, if I could repay him in some way, he threw me a gentle, if not embarrassed, half-smile. He said he
didn't want a thing. "The best way to thank me," he said, "is to pass it on-just pass it on."
And so here, in these pages, all these years later, Al-inspired, I am passing it on.
You need to seek out contacts, preferably the power brokers at the top of the masthead or high-level editors, and cultivate them as "allies." Networking is a
must-have tool in your writing existence. If you ignore this aspect of the business, believe me, you'll suffer the consequences. I hear all the time from writers, "But I don't like to mingle. I'm too shy. I'm not a good talker." My response is matterof-
fact: "This is the way the game is played. If you don't want to play, don't expect to win." Which means: Don't expect editors to come to you. They won't. Like Mohammed, you need to go to the mountain. I don't care how much talent you think you have. It's not enough, all by itself, to "make your career." And remember: If you're not cultivating contacts, some other writer out there is.
2. Learn to work under deadline pressure
Deadlines are what separate the professional from the hobbyist. Pros can't wait for inspiration to propel their creativity. They write because they have to, because
someone on the other end is waiting for their work. They write all hours of the day and night. I've tortured myself over the years to hit deadlines, from five-minute ones to monthlies. That's the nature of the beast. It's where the tough get tougher. So either get assigned to something with a due date or create an artificial one. If nothing else, it's good practice to see how well you function in such a situation. You may actually find that you're not cut out to write professionally, that in reality, you're merely a dabbler. Not that there's anything wrong with that. It's just good to know where you stand.
3. Build a portfolio
Before you start hitting the major newspapers/magazines/publishers, you will need some clips. Mind you, I'm not even remotely suggesting that you work for free. I'm really not. In fact, I insist on writers always getting paid at least something for their hard work. What I am saying is this: You can't expect to be published in The
New York Times or sell a book for a $400,000 advance or get a major assignment from Sports Illustrated or People Magazine with little or no experience. You must pay your dues, as in any other profession. You won't go from singing in the shower to headlining in Vegas. That's not realistic, and you'll be hitting your head against a brick wall if you try. Instead, move up the publishing
ladder a step at a time. Before going for the majors, get five to eight sizable
clips together, ones that show off your writing. Begin with local newspapers, small magazines or trade publications. Make your "bones" there, where there is less
competition and where you'll have the freedom and opportunity to develop your own voice. And consider each story you write an audition for something better and higher
paying. In other words, write the heck out of it. Make it brilliant!
4. Read something every day
Magazines, newspapers, books. But try to be choosy. Read things written by great writers. If you're a magazine writer, get a copy of The Best American Magazine Writing. If you're a sportswriter, pick up The Best American Sports Writing . And don't be a passive reader: Analyze what the writer is doing, what the writer does to achieve a certain effect, what the writer does with plot, characters, dialogue, action and exposition. Read, read and read. The theory: Whatever goes into your brain is likely, in time, to find its way out. It's called "filling your cup." By mere osmosis, you'll absorb the craft without even knowing it. Great writing
will be inside you, dying to get back out. In pop-psychology parlance, this
is called "modeling."
5. Write something every day
No matter what. Forget that you're tired or don't feel like it. You're supposedly a writer. So write. Don't be a pretender. And don't even think about that dreaded aspect of all things creative: writer's block. If you're convinced you have writer's block, just write about it. Write about why you think you're blocked. Trust me, this'll snap you out of it in a hurry. Remember, all writers, from Tolstoy to Hemingway to Stephen King, have written badly before they wrote well.
6. Make friends with writers
It'll inspire you to be around other wonderfully creative people and to be able to share ideas back and forth. Seek out happy, positive and successful writers. Afterward, your energy will fly off the chart.
7. Turn in clean copy
Make sure you spell correctly and are grammatical in your dealings with editors. I can't tell you how many letters/notes/e-mails I get from "writers" with grossly ungrammatical sentences and a slew of misspellings. I cringe. It turns me off
immediately-as I'm sure it would editors. These are the tools of your craft. Learn how to use them-or else. Buy a grammar/spelling book. Get a good "spell/grammar check" computer program. There's no excuse for sloppy English. One misstep
can sink your chances of selling a story.
8. Study the publication
You need to know as much as you can about the editor, magazine or publishing house before firing off a proposal. The more you know, the more you can "target" your approach. It'll likely also give you a step up on the competition, since most writers
don't do this extra homework (at least, they didn't until they read it here). A great example of someone going that extra yard for success is the great golfer Jack Nicklaus. Before playing in tournaments, the "Golden Bear" would arrive in town
a few days early just to scout out the course. Taking a golf cart, he'd ride around, jotting down observations and ideas in a small notebook on how to play certain holes. No wonder he won more major tournaments than anyone else did. One time, playing in the Masters, another golfer noticed that Nicklaus looked decidedly perplexed. "What's wrong, Jack?" To which Nicklaus responded, "There's supposed to be a telephone
pole there." The pole had been removed a day earlier. Jack knew it was there!
9. Find a mentor
Someone who's a successful writer can teach you the ropes and keep you from making
the same mistakes he or she did-a tour guide to lead you down this dark, mysterious tunnel called the writing business. It'll not only save you a ton of time reaching your goals as a writer, but will also keep you from climbing the wall with frustration. A mentor can be your answer
person on all problems.
10. Stay on the case
Don't be a lazy slug even for a moment. Be relentless in your writing and your search for work. Do something toward furthering your writing career every day. Read a book on writing. Write a pitch letter. Apply for a writing job. Set up a job interview.
Write a networking letter. Arrange a meeting with an editor. Read a book by a great writer (not so much for entertainment but analyzing what the author does to achieve
a certain effect). Read articles about the industry (at Inside.com or Mediaweek.com, for example, or in The New York Observer's Off the Record column) and general interest magazines where you'd like your work to appear one day.
You need to be proactive and be it daily. Action breeds action! It also adds up: A single "positive" every day builds to 365 in a year!
Bottom line: Fight for your writing dreams with all your might and never let go!
Michael P. Geffner
Reproduced from January 2003 issue of The Writer.