Advice for writers

I received a very sweet comment on a blog post on the subject of writing from last February as follows:
Hi Mrs. Lewis, do you have any home school tips for a 14-year-old who wants to earn money as a writer? As in how to get from typing at the dining table to a paycheck in the mail. :) I comment on your blog often but always anonymously because of trolls. I respect and admire you very much!

Sometimes it's hard to believe I'm a writer. After decades of hoping and submitting and rejection, I can now legitimately make the claim that I'm a writer. Wow.

To learn just why this concept still blows me away, allow me to direct your attention to a blog post I wrote nine years ago entitled "Writing for God."

Go on and read it. I'll wait.

(insert elevator music)

Now you might understand why being a writer still amazes me.

Those years of rejection weren't wasted, as it showed me how the writing world works and taught me a great deal. To that end, I'm delighted to offer some advice to my young reader. Some of this advice applies to non-fiction writing, and some to fiction writing.

• Read. Very few writers are also not voracious readers. My grasp of grammar is appalling, but I've picked up the understanding of what makes compelling writing by reading compelling writing.

• Write. Duh. I know this is obvious, but a surprising number of people who want to write just never get around to it. They read about writing, they attend workshops and seminars, but they use every excuse in the book to avoid putting the seat of their pants in the seat of the chair. As Chris Baty (founder of National Novel Writing Month, or NaNoWriMo) said in his excellent book "No Plot? No Problem!", "If there's one thing successful novelists agree on, it's this: The single best thing you can do to improve your writing is to write. Copiously."

• Don't expect to get paid for your writing, at least right away. While there are exceptions, most people have to go through the grunt-work of building their writing credits, which often means giving away their writing for free while they build a platform and an audience. I've written my weekly WND column since 2008 for free. My "pay" has been training (I had to learn to write columns) as well as slowly building a readership. Look for opportunities to write for free, and use those opportunities to build your résumé.

• Where should you look for unpaid writing opportunities? Start with offering guest-pieces to online sources in your area of interest. Launch a blog. Write newspaper op-eds. If you write fiction, do some indie-publishing. Anything to demonstrate you can write.

• Learn what you're doing wrong. Get your ego out of the way, and listen to (and act upon) constructive criticism – especially if it comes from editors. However, be wary of offering your work to be critiqued by amateurs. Sometimes this can be more emotionally damaging than helpful.

• Write what you know. If you're writing non-fiction, it's helpful to begin with stuff with which you're already familiar. In the case of this young reader, the obvious subjects are homeschooling and whatever her family situation is like (her family's line of work? her passions and hobbies?).

• Start small and work your way up. This is part of the "building your résumé" side of things. Unless you have a staggeringly unique story, the big magazines and publishers just aren't interested in an unknown writer. That's why it's important to get writing credits wherever you can.

• Develop an online presence. I am social-media-phobic (with the exception of this blog), but most younger people don't suffer from this affliction. Keep your online presence squeaky-clean and begin to build an audience.

• It never hurts to ask. Smaller magazines, guests posts for bloggers, newspaper op-eds … it never hurts to pitch something at a publishing opportunity. The secret is to phrase your pitch in a way that explains why your contribution would be useful to the publisher's readers. What benefits will readers gain by reading your article? What will they learn? Why is the information important or useful?

• If someone pitches, pitch back. If you're fortunate enough to have something accepted, never hesitate to follow up with even grander possibilities. One of my earliest publishing breakthroughs came with Countryside Magazine. When they "pitched" by accepting my first article, I "pitched back" by proposing to expand the subsections into separate stand-alone full-length articles, which resulted in nearly three years' worth of articles published, which were later turned into an ebook. Remember, it never hurts to ask. All they can do is say no. And your willingness to do extra work will be remembered.

• Be professional. Meet your deadlines, meet the word count requirements, and make sure your copy is clean and error-free. Those three things alone distinguish the professional from the amateur.

There are many fine books on writing available. I hesitate to give book recommendations for novice writers because I don't want to distract them from the process of writing. That said, I have two recommendations for fiction writing that should be in every writer's library:

GMC (Goal, Motivation and Conflict) by Debra Dixon. Possibly the single-most useful and helpful analysis for building a compelling fiction plot, and a classic in its field. It's a bit pricey ($20) but worth every penny. Scout around and see if you can find a used copy.

The 38 Most Common Fiction Writing Mistakes by Jack Bickham, author and writing instructor at Univ. of Oklahoma (now deceased). This is an older book (1991) but it's one of the best I've ever read for pinpointing common fiction-writing errors. I've given writing workshops based on this book, it's so good. Amazon has several used copies.

Now, dear readers, it's your turn. What additional advice can you give our novice 14-year-old writer who wants to earn some money through her word craft?