50 simple rules for making it as a writer
A veteran author of a dozen nonfiction books distills the lessons he's learned
Published: June 8, 2010
|To succeed as a writer in the world of publishing is no easy task. A plethora of writers—many of them seasoned pros or people famous from other fields—compete for the precious space in magazines and newspapers and for the limited number of book contracts offered by publishing houses. A writer needs talent, drive and dedication to break into the game or stay in it, not to mention a little bit of luck.|
But opportunities abound. Industry folk are always looking for strong new voices, and the writer with respectable credits often has a leg up on the competition. Still, writing for publication is a challenging endeavor—a bit like shooting three-pointers from half-court. And for all writers, new and experienced alike, there are some basic rules that may serve as a blueprint for success. Here are 50 of them:
1. Pick a direction. What do you want to do? Write novels, biography, self-help, science fiction, essays, articles, poetry? The industry likes to peg writers, so set your compass and follow the needle.
2. Learn your craft. Different literary forms require different stylistic techniques. Learn and master the form you want to write in. Read, study (via courses, for example, or an MFA program), write; read, study, write!
3. Learn the industry. Whether you want to write books or newspaper and magazine articles or for the Internet, writing without knowing the markets is like trying to pin the tail on the donkey. Confidence and success come with identifying the publishers who are most likely to buy your work. Comb the trades and writing magazines, explore libraries and magazine stands, and search the Internet to see what the markets are.
4. Write all the time. Like concert musicians who practice every day to give their best performance, writers need to write all the time to do their best work. Periods of abstinence are a guaranteed route to rustiness.
5. Be a fountain of ideas. Ideas are the lifeblood of the writer’s trade. Train yourself to sprout fresh and innovative ideas by constantly thinking about what would make a great book or article. Ideas are all around you—headlines, culture, research, conversations, not to mention your own fertile imagination.
6. Pursue ideas with the greatest commercial potential. Who is the audience for your book? Is it sizeable? Does your book idea cover an angle that hasn’t been done before? To convince a publisher to offer you a contract, you want to present a book idea that has the greatest chance of success.
7. Run your nonfiction book ideas by others. Before you spend time writing a book proposal, make sure the book has a solid market. Get feedback from your agent if you have one, but if you don’t, ask someone knowledgeable whose judgment you trust, like a librarian or bookseller.
8. Learn how to write a great proposal. Generally speaking, for fiction, a complete manuscript or several sample chapters are needed for a publishing contract. For nonfiction, it’s proposals. Nonfiction-book proposals follow a basic formula. Learn how to craft a proposal, to write dynamite sample chapters, and to set your proposal apart from the competition.
9. Get started on something! Once you’ve decided what to write about, don’t procrastinate, just start. Get something down. You will write and rewrite, write and rewrite, but you won’t have anything if you don’t begin. No excuses; just results.
10. Read before you write. Starting to write “cold” can produce uninspired work. There’s nothing like great writing to warm you up to tempo, rhythm, flow, cadences, flavor, and overall élan. Before you begin pounding the keyboard, pick up a piece of writing that moves you and read it until your creative batteries are charged.
11. See it through. Writers come up with all sorts of excuses not to finish what we started. Don’t! Avoid distractions, stay focused, work out problems, and wrap it up.|
12. Be sure your work is in the best possible shape before you submit it. In your eagerness to get published, don’t let your writing get short shrift. It isn’t finished until you’ve given it your best effort.
13. Hire an editor. After reading your work over and over, you can lose your objectivity about it. Before submitting your work, have a professional editor or someone whose editorial judgment you trust read it over.
14. Write multiple proposals. Every agent has his or her own interests and editorial contacts. Sending an agent several book proposals may increase the chance that the agent will like at least one of your ideas. It’s more work, but it may be worth it in the end. And you can always use the other proposals down the line.
15. Write books with international appeal. Foreign publishers buy books they believe will be of particular interest to their countries’ readers, so keep that in mind when planning or writing your book.
16. Build your platform. Unless they have a Ph.D., a slew of prestigious writing credits, or a guaranteed appearance on Oprah, it’s essential for nonfiction writers to beef up their credentials to get a book contract. Teach a course, build a media profile, do whatever you can to make yourself a recognized expert in your subject area.
17. Snag endorsements from established authors. If you can submit your work with sparkling blurbs from successful authors or leaders in your genre, you show not only that your work is of high quality, but that you are a professional committed to marketing your work.
18. Follow submission guidelines. Check publications’ or publishers’ websites for instructions on how to submit work, as well as for descriptions of what kinds of material they’re looking for. If possible, address queries and submissions to specific people. If you don’t know the name of an appropriate editor, call or e-mail the company and find out (although in some cases websites direct submissions to particular departments without naming an editor).
19. Write a great query letter. This is the first thing an editor or agent sees, so you want it to be a knockout. Look for books and magazine or online articles to learn the tricks of writing query letters that capture the reader’s attention.
20. Follow up submissions in a timely manner. It may take time to get a response, so be patient. But if several weeks have passed and you haven’t heard back, write (or call, if allowed) to find out the status of your submission. Keep orderly records of all your submissions and follow-up activities.
21. Find markets that can further your career goals. Do you want to publish in literary journals, music magazines, women’s magazines, or special-interest online sites? Research available outlets and either send in your work or query. Also, don’t overlook alumni magazines, trade publications, and other specialty magazines, which can also generate national recognition and book contracts. For fiction writers, keep in mind that agents and editors scour these types of publications for new talent. Let your work here catch their attention.|
22. Read target publications before you submit. It’s one of the basic rules of publishing, but surprisingly it’s not always followed. Read several issues of any publication to which you wish to send your work to be sure your work is appropriate for it.
23. Suggest a column with your local town newspaper. Want to be an arts critic, a political pundit, a humor writer, an advice columnist? Write a few pieces on spec for your local paper and try to create a gig for yourself. This could not only build up your writing credits but later lead to syndication.
24. Find an agent. We all know writers need agents, but how do you find the right one for you? To aid your search, you could attend writers conferences, ask other writers, inquire at author associations or college writing departments, check the acknowledgments of books like yours, read writers magazines and industry trades, read online sites or correspond on writers forums, or check with professional literary agent associations, such as the Association of Authors’ Representatives.
25. Make sure your agent is working in your best interest. Just because you have an agent doesn’t mean you’ll be successful. Monitor the work of your agent to be certain he or she is doing his or her best on your behalf--helping you shape your work for submission, selling it, negotiating your contract, selling license rights, and championing you to industry folk. If your agent isn’t facilitating your career, talk it over with him or her, and if that doesn’t produce results, move on.
26. Eschew vanity presses and fee-charging agents. Writers don’t pay to get published, they GET paid. Avoid publishers and agents who want you to pay them. (Some agents charge reading fees; check them out to make sure they’re reputable before sending them your manuscript.)
27. Go it alone. Not every author needs an agent. There are successful authors who find publishers themselves and negotiate their own contracts. Keep in mind that small and independent publishers and university presses may be more open than the major houses to manuscripts submitted by an author without an agent. If you manage your own career, you may do things like contacting film/TV subagents to sell your book for film or TV or literary subagents to sell your book in foreign territories.
28. Write for book packagers. Book packagers differ from agents in that they come up with book ideas and sell them to agents, and then hire writers to write the books. What packagers pay may be less than you’d receive with your own book contract drawn up by an agent, but it is a good way for unproved writers to get book credits and make some money, not to mention learn the craft of actually writing a book. Check out Literary Market Place for listings of packagers.
29. Meet your deadlines. Once your project has been accepted, show you are a professional by meeting your deadlines. Plan appropriately so you don’t have to make an excuse for not delivering on time. Likewise, do not object to reasonable requests for revisions.
30. Develop relationships with editors. Befriend editors who accept your work. Turn rejections into friendships. Follow up with thank-you notes and requests for permission to make future submissions. Send holiday cards. The personal touch may help. Look for some kind of connection, like a common college alma mater, or a shared interest, such as playing guitar.
31. Always try to have something in the submission pipeline. Success is achieved by constant writing and constant submission. The more projects you have cooking, the higher your chances for success.|
32. Attend writers conferences and workshops. These are great sources of inspiration, information and contacts. And critiquing others’ writing gives you a better editorial eye for your own work. Make an effort to network with people who can help further your career. Collect and hand out business cards, set up meetings, send “nice to meet you” e-mails.
33. Create your own luck. Fortuitous breaks happen when people know about you. So be active and attend as many writing or publishing events as you can; query publishers frequently; and make as many acquaintances and friendships with industry people as possible. Let them know about you and your work, and you’ll guide opportunities your way.
34. Prepare and implement your own marketing and publicity plan. Today, it’s necessary for authors to supplement their publishers’ marketing and publicity activities to sell their books. So create and implement your own marketing plan: Do online marketing; contact reporters, journalists, and editors for articles or reviews; do readings and speeches; write essays or op-eds in which your new book is mentioned in your credits. And remember, it’s never too early to start publicity.
35. Get local media behind you. Local media are often receptive to local authors. Use local publicity to start things off and parlay it into publicity at the regional or national levels.
36. Milk publicity for every event you do. If you make any kind of professional appearance—a speech or book signing, for example—contact the local media. No publicity is too small. Send in a press release and picture before the event, or a photo of yourself and a write-up of the event afterward. And be sure to post it all on your Web site.
37. Create and maintain an outstanding website. These days having a website is de rigueur for an author, so you need to make your website stand out from the pack. What is it that you would like to accomplish with your website? Tailor your site to fit your goals, and update it often.
38. Make use of the latest technology. Podcasts, vlogs, blogs, YouTube videos, book trailers, online forums—writers are taking advantage of modern communications technology to exploit their work and boost their careers. Look for firms that specialize in working with authors on Web-based promotions, or seek out Web sites that provide free how-to guides and master some of the techniques yourself.
39. Look for trends. Trendy magazines and online publications are constantly reporting on emerging new developments. Be on the lookout, and approach editors as soon as you see something exciting emerging that would make a good story.
40. Look for thematic tie-ins for articles and promotion. Whether you want to write an article or promote your latest opus, you may enhance your chances for success by finding connections that are of interest to your target media, such as anniversaries, holidays and celebrations. Be sure to query well in advance when proposing such an article or promotion.
41. Self-publish. For some authors, self-publishing used to be either a last resort or a means to interest publishers by racking up sales and proving there was an audience for the author’s book. With the Internet, a great facilitator of book reproduction and marketing, self-publishing is often a promising route to success, especially in today’s difficult publishing environment. Be aware, however, that self-publishing usually requires a significant commitment of time and effort to turn out a quality product.|
42. Hold a board meeting. Your writing career not going the way you’d like? Stop, and hold a board meeting! You’re the CEO, president and sole employee of your writing career, so have a meeting with yourself and consider where you are in your career, what your goals are, and how you can get there. Strategize, and then take action. Consider a new approach, such as writing in a different genre or collaborating with an expert. A new line of attack can kick-start or revitalize a stagnating career.
43. Have a video ready to send to talent coordinators. Talk-show bookers like to see and hear authors they are considering. If you’ve appeared on other TV shows, they may want to see a video. You could also tape a mock interview with a friend playing host. Make sure the video projects what TV bookers are looking for in their guests: Be articulate, animated and intelligent.
44. Limit the time you spend on speculation writing. It’s great to have an assignment or a book contract, but writing in the hope of selling your work is a gamble. Set a limit to the time you put into spec writing.
45. Parlay research for one project into another. A great side benefit of doing research is that you uncover fascinating information or stories that could be the basis of another project. If you find something during your research that strikes you as having potential, take notes or photocopy the relevant passages (noting source, author, publisher, page number, and so forth) so you can come back to the subject at a later date. Also record your ideas on how it could be used, particular angles you could take, and so forth.
46. Be obsessed. Publishing is fiercely competitive. To break into and stay in the writing field, you have to want it passionately. Obsession may be the driving force that compels you to do your best work and stick through the tough times until you’ve achieved success. But don’t let your passion become self-destructive. Strike a balance between obsession and healthy everyday living.
47. Never give up. Writing is lonely and rejection is inevitable, but you love to write, and you love the idea of being published. When your days are not going as you’d like, you may become discouraged. But never give up! Develop a thick skin. Know that the time and struggle it takes to break in is just the nature of the publishing beast, and have confidence you’ll succeed.
48. Move on. No matter how much you believe in a project, if the rejections pile up, sometimes it’s best to chalk it up and go on to something else. You can always come back to the project, but know when to stop beating a dead horse. Channel anger and frustration into motivation to succeed in whatever you decide to do next.
49. Always be professional. From simple e-mails to formal submissions, show that you are the consummate professional. No matter what your current mood, keep all communications purposeful, positive and friendly. This will help ensure that your agent, publisher, or editor stays receptive to whatever you have to say.
50. Devise your own rules. Maybe you already have your own set of rules that you practice. There’s virtually an unlimited number of rules that could be devised for writing-career success. Find those that work best for you and use them for guidance, reinforcement and inspiration.
Of course, many of these rules are common sense. That’s because success is usually achieved the old-fashioned way—with ingenuity, hard work, perseverance and, hopefully, a dash of good fortune. And perhaps that’s the most important rule of all.
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Harvey Rachlin is an award-winning author of a dozen books. His most recent book, Scandals, Vandals and da Vincis (Penguin), was published in June 2010 in Poland, following other foreign editions in Korea, Spain and the U.K.