Become an Expert:
Master the craft of writing for new markets
by Kim D. Headlee
Copyright © 1994-2013
If becoming an expert writer seems intimidating, if you feel like you'll never "make it," that you'll be forever consigned to the pages of desktop-published rags and backwoods newspapers, relax. The process is not as complicated as you might think.
Although I am a writer at heart, I am a computer software engineer by trade. I've been wrestling with these confounded heaps of silicon and plastic for a decade and a half: demanding, pleading, cajoling, and twisting their electronic arms into doing what the user wants. Sooner or later I succeed -- usually sooner, which makes me very popular with my user community. (Okay, it doesn't hurt my chances at a pay raise either!)
Yet when a colleague favors me with the appellation "expert," I cringe.
The common image of an expert is a person who has attained the pinnacle of knowledge about a topic. And if the expert doesn't possess a particular morsel of information, it's not worth pursuing.
Painfully aware of my lack of knowledge in certain areas of computing, I thought I had a perfectly valid reason to cringe whenever I was called "the expert." Fortunately, my trusty Unabridged Webster gave me fresh insight.
"Expert" is derived from the Latin word expertus, past participle of experti, meaning "to try" or "to test." Literally, then, an expert is one who has been tested.
The tests for a writer are as varied as the forms of expression: greeting card doggerel, heroic ballad, short-short story, multi-volume fiction, single-paragraph obituary, best-selling biography, and everything in between. But strip the glitz from the loftier achievements, and in every case the basic test is publication. Plain and simple.
Sure, you knew that. So go forth and publish!
What's that? A few dozen rejection slips are weighing you down? You can't seem to find the right formula for breaking the barrier into new markets?
While I can scarcely claim to know all -- or even most of the answers, I am happy to share what I have learned so far.
Basically, my approach is "write what you want to say, then find someone who wants to buy it." Another major school of thought centers around the philosophy: "choose a market, then write what you think they want to buy." While the latter may work for many writers, it carries the inherent temptation to sacrifice honesty for commercialism. And "what they want to buy" may be a moving target. I am pleased with the success I have achieved so far using my approach, and I believe it is a viable method for a writer at any stage of career development.
- Select a topic you feel strongly about. Whether this stems from expertise or a desire to learn more through research, it is much easier to inspire your audience when you are inspired. The adage, "No tears for the writer, no tears for the reader," applies to the other emotions as well. Stir those emotions within yourself, yoke them to the page, and invariably your readers will hitch along for the ride.
And your first audience is the editor who must spot your gem shining through the slush swamping her desk. She is your "customer," and you must convince her to purchase your wares. In a heartbeat she will skip to the next manuscript on the pile, unless you can entice her to read further.
- Craft your very best story or article. If the topic is not original, create an original slant. Energize the work with vibrant words and phrases. Let it soar on the wings of your heartfelt convictions. Make it sing with little-known tidbits of information. Polish the grammar, spelling and punctuation until it gleams with perfection. Read it aloud to yourself or to your writers' group, and be prepared to whip out the polishing cloth again. Mozart could compose an entire symphony, note-perfect, in scant days without making a single stray smudge on the score. Most of us mere mortals must devote much of our creative energies toward revising our work.
Let the piece "simmer" awhile, unread, before sending it out. Work on another story for a few days. Often the subconscious mind continues to refine the first work, even while the conscious mind is absorbed with unrelated tasks. If you follow this simple technique, your final editing session can be quite productive indeed.
- Do your homework. The Writer's Market and related publications are good places to start. When you've targeted a potentially receptive market, study back issues to determine whether your piece fits the style, content, and intended audience of the magazine. If a magazine advertises "no cutesy animal stories," do not mail "Toby the Talking Turtle" -- even if it has garnered every kiddie-lit prize in the galaxy. Editors are busy folks too; the last thing they need is one more writer who refuses to play by the rules.
Be alert to editorial changes, and don't be shy about including a comment about the change in your query or cover letter. Often this is an effective way of showing the editor you really have been keeping abreast of developments.
- Request guidelines, if available, and follow them to the letter. Writer's Guidelines Magazine offers an ever-expanding list of guidelines for magazines and book publishers, for a nominal fee. When you factor in the time, money and materials it takes to write an individual request to each market, the service offered by WGM can deliver a huge savings.
Of course, the guidelines are useless if you don't heed them! For example, "one and one-half inch margins" means exactly that. Not one tenth more or less. In Writing Screenplays That Sell, Michael Hauge reports that 90% of all screenplays are rejected either because of a dull story concept, or incorrect manuscript format. Guidelines are provided for your benefit, to give your story a better chance of succeeding in that market. Usually editors put a good deal of thought into their guidelines. Don't waste this valuable tool, and run the risk of sending the subliminal message that you do not respect their efforts.
Glittering content loses its luster when the presentation fails to meet stated expectations.
- Write a stunning query or cover letter. This is your calling card; your only chance to make a good first impression. Don't blow it! Writing is a profession, so act professionally.
Avoid ultra-fancy stationery, neon-colored paper, bizarre fonts, and other eye-catching devices. Most of the time it only detracts from the content of your work. You are trying to sell your product, not your stationers'.
The tone of your query is influenced by your style and personality, but I've not heard of an editor yet who is moved by whining or needling -- except to dump the writer's package down the nearest trash chute.
Above all, never make assumptions. An editor once shared with her readers (writers and editors) a particularly ambiguous query letter she had received. The writer did not state whether he wished his story to be considered for publication, or for her critique service. The SASE contained only one stamp for a 25-page manuscript, yet he did not indicate the copy was disposable. According to the editor, the story was inappropriate for the magazine, both in content and length. So she was inclined to reject the manuscript, but his lack of specific direction cast considerable doubt on how she should proceed.
Editors do not have time to play mind-reading games. Your query should be as specific and to the point as possible. And the quickest way to be branded an amateur is to babble about unrelated experiences in an attempt to appear more qualified. If you have no clips to share, your query and your article must be your ambassadors.
And even after you've become best buddies with an editor, don't ever forget to enclose the SASE!
- Wait patiently for a reply. Impatience is a very unattractive attribute. Every issue contains work by many different contributors; therefore, logic dictates that you are not the only writer vying for the editor's attention. Acting that way can give your work a one-way ticket to the recycle bin.
Instead use the time to perform additional market research, to have a backup plan ready in case your piece cannot be used by the first editor. Or better yet, write! Having several manuscripts in circulation at the same time is a fine way to keep from worrying about a particular submission.
Keep track of your submissions, receipts of acceptance, payments, etc. A simple wall calendar gives me just enough space to jot notes about each submission. At a glance I can tell how many acceptances and rejections I've received for the month, which manuscripts are still circulating, and when payments and contributor's copies have arrived.
If an editor's response seems overdue, wait another week. Then send a brief, polite inquiry about the status of your submission. Standard mail is usually preferred by editors over telephone queries. After all, an editor's job is to edit. Having to talk to panicky writers all day leaves precious little time for editing.
With every correspondence, professionalism is the key to developing a productive writer-editor relationship.
- If the reply is negative, don't despair. Many writers find it extremely difficult to separate rejection of the work from rejection of self. But if you are serious about a literary vocation, you must learn to do this -- for the preservation of sanity, if nothing else.
Gird on your courage to study the rejection slip. Even form letters can provide invaluable clues. Some common responses, and what to do about them:
- "Topic does not fit our current editorial focus" -- you need to do more thorough market research.
- "Topic duplicates material we have published/are planning to publish" -- perhaps you can choose a different slant, rewrite, and resubmit.
- "We are overstocked with this topic" -- select another topic, or another market.
- "Does not meet our needs at this time" -- doesn't mean it will never meet their needs; resubmit in several months.
Receiving a rejection is like falling from a horse: unless you jump right back into the saddle, you'll never ride again. Champion equestrians do not evolve overnight, but must suffer many bumps and bruises. The same is true for writers. This is the steel by which our skills are sharpened.
- And if the reply is affirmative, rejoice! You've passed the test, and you may legitimately call yourself an expert. Treat yourself to a special evening on the town, or whatever non-writing activity pleases you. You've earned it. Celebrate tonight, for tomorrow the cycle begins anew.
What does it take to become an expert writer? Skill, knowledge, dedication, discipline, patience, and perseverance. Not to mention a thick hide, bleary eyes and callused fingertips; perhaps even a neglected spouse and kids. No one ever promised an effortless jaunt to the summit of literary fame. But each test successfully completed makes all future tests that much easier to master.
Writers Connection, April 1994