Thursday, July 18, 2013

On Starting Out as a Writer

If you enjoy this article, visit my Web site: and connect with me on Twitter, LinkedIn, and


On Starting Out as a Writer

Dr. Eric Thomas Weber

Photo of a typewriter, just for fun.
I received an inquiry today from Montique Clark on LinkedIn. I had posted about the fact that I've just sent an article to a journal that is very proud of its incredibly high rejection rate. The good thing about this particular publication is that they answer you quite promptly, in general. The reason is that the journal has committed to either answer you very quickly or to give you feedback on your submission. Giving feedback takes time, so that motivates them to say no very quickly to more than 93 percent of submissions. From the author's standpoint, that means it's unlikely to land one's piece there, but why not try? After all, you'll know quickly whether they're not interested. It doesn't hurt them, furthermore, since they're proud of a high rejection rate. If you know that the first great place isn't interested, you can then move on to the next possible outlet, feeling confident that at least you tried.

Montique explained that she's interested in writing and would like some suggestions for getting started. Here are a few thoughts for anyone who is thinking about starting out as a writer. I'm no famous writer, but I've been studying the publishing industry and process and have plans in motion for a career of writing, ideally for wide audiences in time.

For scholars who are looking to land their first publications, the typical advice is excellent: Start with a book review. An incredible number of books are published every year, even though we're told the print industry is on its way out. Given the volume of books released, publishers struggle for attention. One way they get it is by sending free books to outlets that review them. For scholars, that generally means scholarly journals. If you're not too interested in more technical or academic readership, then consider looking to the many publications, often magazines -- which today are becoming "e-zines." Many of them review books that are sent to them and welcome volunteers to read the books and send in carefully written, short reviews. Reviewing books provides a service to the public, that can now choose book purchases with a bit more information in advance. It also gets you a free copy of the book. In addition, it gives you a chance to thinking about your own writing while you review someone else's. Finally, it gives you a very beneficial chance to be published and to start building your track record.

Among scholarly outlets, the journals in one's field are the ones to look to, checking whether they publish reviews and who is the review editor. For general audience or non-academic audience authors, look to the relevant trade magazines related to your interests. Find the stuff you like to read and see whether it includes opportunities to write reviews. If you're having a hard time finding an outlet, go to your library to find the year's Writer's Market book (released by Writer's Digest Books), or spring for it yourself, if your library's copy is old. The book's got a few informative essays, but it's amazing value is that it is like a phone book of writing opportunities. You'll find info about countless outlets for publishing your work, some of which are paid and some of which are not.

This leads me to an important point. If getting paid for your writing is important to you, know that it will take time to get there. I've been paid a little bit for some of my writings, but the vast majority of them have not come with financial compensation. Writing certainly can be a paying occupation. Syndicated authors can make millions of dollars, even if that's mainly the rock-stars of writing. Nevertheless, if you're getting your start as a writer, you need to invest considerable time on the front end, to build your skills, network, and audience, and to hone your voice as a writer. I've heard that a big deal author in my town had to invest in his own writing, self-publishing his first book, which was no real success until his second book was turned into a movie. Be patient, and start writing because you love to do it. If you don't love to write, it's probably best to stop thinking about a career in it (whether "career" refers to lifetime or source of income). I'll come back to ways of getting paid for writing in a moment. For now, though, know that it will take some time to invest in one's writing career.

Another route to getting started as a writer is through letters to the editor. If you start with your local paper, not the New York Times, landing a letter to the editor is pretty easy. They're often quite short too, so that means you can get one done quickly. The nice thing about short pieces like letters to the editor or op-eds is that you can have a first draft done quickly. The challenging and exciting part about writing them, though, is that given how short they are, it doesn't take so much time to go over them 20 or 40 or 50 times. Yes, that many times. Comb over every word. Decide whether you're being as economical as you can be (a practice I'm not exercising in this blog post, to be sure). Write with pith, power, relevance, and sincerity. Pitch a letter to the editor, land a few, and suddenly the editor at a regional newspaper knows your name. Letters to the editor are a great first step comparable to book reviews, though shorter.

Once an editor knows your name, consider that many local or regional newspapers post the contact info for their editors on their Web sites. Give him or her a call. Talk over your interest in writing a  piece for the paper, and pitch -- briefly -- four or five ideas that you might write about. This is vital, since you could otherwise end up spending a lot of time on a piece that a newspaper editor wouldn't find particularly newsworthy. Always think about the gatekeepers and their interests. Consider their interests while you speak to an audience and you'll be on the right track. When an editor gives you no positive feedback, it's time to approach another outlet. Give it time too, and then come back to the first paper with new ideas. If the editor nibbles, he or she will generally look at a draft of your submission on the piece of interest. Know too that it's invigorating to write about a subject that a news editor thinks is interesting and worth reviewing. You'll already have surmounted one of the big challenges.

Once you've got permission to send the editor a piece, comb over your draft 50 times. Yes, 50 times. It's only about 500 words anyway. If you go over it 5 times an hour, you can send it to him in 3 or 4 days, even if you're writing in your spare time. When you've combed through a piece that many times, you'll find your words are carefully chiseled, and ideally they reveal just what you mean on a topic that is both interesting and important to you and to your target audience. Send it in. If it is accepted for publication, make sure to buy a copy or two and to scan it into the computer. Make a digital scrapbook of these pieces, and soon you'll have a track record of writings. A lot of these points pertain to magazine writing also, though some magazines just want to see your submission first. Then again, magazines will often publish book reviews, so look into that first. 

Once you've got a relationship with one or more newspapers, think about making your contributions regularly. What kind of themed column could you put together, contributing once a month or eveyr two weeks in a way that is valued among the people in your audience. Publishers all the time buy syndicated material because they don't have enough local material, or because they need a balance of subject matter. In any case, if you put together a column and publish it regularly, you might find that other papers are interested in publishing the same column. Boom. You've just become a self-syndicated columnist. You're reaching a wide audience and doing so regularly. Now guess who's interested in you. People who like your ability to reach an audience, namely literary agents. They'll help you (and be highly necessary in most cases) to land your book proposal with a major publisher. The publisher, like Random House, Vintage, etc., is interested both in quality work AND in the author's ability to reach an audience. After all, doing so means you can let your loyal audience know about your forthcoming book. They need to know about it and be interested in you in order to be motivated to buy your book.

When you get to that point, you might start making some real money, maybe. It depends on the audience for your book. If people are so interested in it that they invite you to come speak about it, you could earn some money for such efforts. Also, along the way, your newspaper columns might earn you some money, a lot if your pieces start to come out in hundreds of newspapers or more. At the same time, though, if you've made a great impression with a magazine or newspaper, you might find that a salaried position as a writer is even better, more stable, etc. More power to you. There are many ways to get involved and to make writing a career. For a lot of people like me, though, there are ways to align one's work or free-time enjoyment with our passion for writing. In such cases, money's not the object, and the goal is really to participate in our democratic conversation about things that matter to us and to others. 

To my mind, that is the big reason to be a writer. It's to contribute to the public discourse. If you don't speak up, others will. You might not like what you hear. So, either speak up, or your complaints will only be heard by your Facebook friends. There are many ways to become a writer. Going to grad school isn't a typically good one for becoming a widely read author. After all, at one time I heard that the average academic journal article is read by 7 people. The point there is not the same as writing for general audiences, of course, but it is writing nonetheless, and can be joyful. If you want to learn more about writing, check out some of the following books. I will warn you that, sadly, one or two of the books that are valuable for learning about writing careers are themselves poorly written. As strange as that may sound, it is still true that they contain valuable information about what it takes to be a professional writer. 

I am sure that this is much more than what Montique was looking for. Don't worry. I won't mind if people skim this. In a sense, here's another value of writing, such as on blogs like this one: it's often helpful to organize one's ideas just for oneself. To get clear on what we're doing, how, and why is an invaluable benefit of writing. So thank you, Montique, for the opportunity to reflect on getting one's start as a writer. I hope that some of this proves helpful for you and for others. It certainly has gotten me thinking again about strategy and the big picture for my career as a writer.


2013 Writer's Market

2013 Guide to Literary Agents

Get Known before the Book Deal

Thinking Like Your Editor

From Dissertation to Book

Book Proposals that Sell


Eric Thomas Weber, Ph.D. is associate professor of public policy leadership at the University of Mississippi, representing only his own views in this article. His third book, Democracy and Leadership, will be published in December of 2013. If you enjoy this article, visit my Web site: and connect with me on TwitterLinkedIn, and

1 comment:

  1. Writing is a good thing. Writing articles, blogs, posts and contents is really a good thing. I read your post and it is great. Thank you for sharing it with us.