Continuing my early articles for writing beginners on the art of writing. (With thanks to Writing Magazine for allowing me to use them). Also available in paperback and ebook in a compilation called 'Write On! - the writer's help book'.
A question which occurs to many an aspiring writer (of books or articles) is the thorny one of credibility. It usually goes like: ‘I haven’t written much, so will my lack of a track record count against me?’ This concern that a distant editor will not take them seriously unless they can demonstrate previously published work is very real.
However, the simple answer is, you can’t do much about it at this stage of your writing career, so don’t worry. But you can overcome it.
As a general rule, unless you are writing an authoritative non-fiction work where a recognised degree of expertise is required to add weight to the project, the question of track record should count somewhat less than the article or story itself. As far as fiction is concerned, most editors are interested in the story content, not whether you can fill a whole shelf of your local bookshop or library.
Submissions are rejected all the time for all manner of reasons; wrong target market, poor quality writing, repetition, lack of ‘spark’, editor’s toothache on a wet Monday. But while a known author might have a degree of edge over a complete unknown in the initial reading stages, there is so much demand for fresh content that unknowns get their first acceptance letter every day of the week.
By the same token, ‘knowns’ get their fair share of rejections, too.
This might add weight to the suspicion that publishers don’t really know what they want until they see it. Given the shifting nature of readers’ interests, this suspicion is not entirely without foundation.
Instead of a disadvantage, this should be seen as good news for writers everywhere. A changing, even volatile reading market means it's ripe for trying out new topics. Even tapping into a known subject with an entirely fresh approach will often catch an editor’s eye, whereas a weary piece following a well-trodden path will whistle off the desk into the ‘not this one’ file quicker than a fried egg off a greasy plate.
With non-fiction, it is important to present an accurate, well-researched and interesting piece of work which shows you have a good grasp of your subject matter. If you can also claim some familiarity or connection with the topic, then you should let the editor know in your covering letter, especially if it's your first submission. A well-written inside track often beats an outside observer hands down.
If you don't have this, you can only let your writing speak for you. (N.B: If submitting magazine or web articles, a selection of good-quality photos to back up your feature will stand a better chance of catching an editorial eye than a page of text by itself. If the editor doesn't have to source photos, it saves them time and money - and you get paid for supplying them instead).
With fiction, it is the story that counts. Yes, a known name below the title will stand out to begin with, but the writing itself is the main decider. And this is where you are on your own, with only your skill as a story-teller to get you through.
So, with such a stacked deck against you, what can you do?
Well, it's the oldies but goodies here. You can open with a bang, for a start. Let that first line stand out by making it a belter. Don't have your story beginning with a whole page of solid, stodgy text – it’s an entertainment, not an instruction manual in a tractor factory. Put in some dialogue, keep the paragraphs short and snappy, ditto the chapters - this adds pace - and make the page look lively and interesting.
If writing a magazine article, your text will appear in narrow columns on the magazine page, so you need to break it up to take account of this.
Try introducing some light humour in your dialogue. Few conversations in life (unless they involve a divorce court or a dismissal letter) are devoid of humour, and there is no reason why your writing shouldn't reflect this. It doesn't need to be a string of jokes, but humour can be indicated by the dialogue, mannerisms or reactions of your characters. In fact, if you find your characters actually taking over, to the extent that they begin to say or do things you hadn't planned (no, you’re not in the twilight zone, I promise – it does happen), then let them; it will seem more natural.
Your first acceptance, of course, is a huge leap. Having achieved that and with the printed words on the page to prove it, you can now demonstrate that you have done it – a great morale booster for the future.
Until then, all you can do is turn in the most professional, accurate and entertaining pieces you can write. Note the plural: never sit back and wait to see what one submission produces. Get on with the next project. And whether a book or article, if it comes back, be prepared to take any comments seriously, re-read and re-work where necessary... and submit somewhere else.
It’s what writers do.
TOP TIPS· The only way to build a track record is by writing it.
· The market needs content, ideas and, above all, submissions. Why not yours?
· Be reliable, professional and on time. A solid reputation counts.
· Finish one project, start another. It’s called writing.