I could tell stories about my fifteen-year-old writing self, but honestly, I’m too embarrassed. Whether it was the topics I picked or the arrogance in which they were written, I have no idea who I thought would read them. Oh. Never mind. I didn't think about it. I just wrote. Oops.
It’s common for younger, fledging writers to forge ahead and write what they want, how they want to write it. If done well, in a fresh way, it can ripple changes in the writing industry. If the pieces read like every other inexperienced writer, editors and readers will take note. Those submissions end up on the rejection pile. I can’t offer enough encouragement to be honest about how much experience you have as a writer, and to take constructive criticism seriously when it comes from a trusted source.
I’ve worked with a lot of new writers. I’ve noticed several patterns in their work. In the early years of writing, focusing on these elements will help with your success:
Know Your Audience. You can have the most well-written article on the planet, but if you deliver it to the wrong audience, it will fall flat every time. Many new writers struggle to define their audience. Either their topic is too broad and general to make it meaningful, or so specific that it requires unique marketing. That means submissions go to the wrong publications and editors pass over a piece for its lack of impact or application.
While I won't say knowing your audience is The Most Important Thing as a writer, it certainly makes the Top 5 list. To define your audience, decide what you know, who would most benefit by your knowledge, and then work to solve a problem related to that information. Every hour you spend defining and redefining your audience in the beginning is worth the effort down the road.
Content. No reader likes wading through typos and less than stellar grammar, but well-presented information will keep readers hooked. Summarizing research, sharing unique stories or topics that no one else is writing on, encourages your readers to stay. Engaging content that solves a problem or provides a reader with an emotionally satisfying experience is far more important than your ability to turn a sophisticated phrase or manipulate complicated punctuation. (I know, editorial heresy, but there it is. I said it.)
Many acquisitions editors are looking for a new spin on commercially viable topics. That means good content from a unique perspective. Grammar and style can be cleaned up. Bad content will always be bad content. Nail your topic and learn the rest as you go.
Focus on implementing basic grammar. As you mature as a writer, your grammar and style should continue to improve. If you struggle with grammar, start intentionally with capitalization and punctuation. Keep it simple, but use it. It’s amazing how important it is. From there, mix up your vocabulary and avoid run-on sentences. After that, look for spelling errors and proper use of homophones, homographs, and contractions. If you’re still going, find and replace commonly overused words like that, really, very, look, thing, good, was, of, and just. Also, use strong verbs and noun instead of loading up on adjectives and adverbs.
Be cautious in what you say about others. As young writers, the push to tell our story is driving. The desire to be heard and respected by others is fierce. Many cite Anne Lamott, who encourages us to own what happens to us and not write warmly about those who treat us poorly, as an excuse to write horrible things. On one hand, I completely agree with Anne; on the other, I understand the importance of tact and prudence.
I encourage you to be cautious how you present negative stories about others. Writing poorly about someone can burn bridges. The older I get, the more important it becomes to cautiously choose the bridges I burn. I have regrets made in youthful haste. Make sure there is no possibility of remorse, or libel, if you choose to write boldly.
Attitude. No one likes the person who can’t be reasoned with or knows everything. Arrogance is never becoming. Also, editors like me refuse to publish writers who don’t take suggestions or constructive criticism. Let it be known some editors remember their first impressions of you long after you’ve had your humble pie and are ready to get down to business.
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As you mature and grow older, mechanics shifts to more complicated sentence structure and vocabulary. Your topics gain depth because of life experience. And your stories are richer because you possess the beautiful (and hard earned) gift of hindsight.
There are seasons you make huge leaps forward in your writing skills. Other times you won’t be able to write a word and feel you're going backwards. It’s normal. We all do it.
As we learn and grow as writers, we each look back and groan at our earliest writing. Few of us start out as prodigies, but each of us can end up amazing writers. Just because you’re not in a season of mature writing doesn’t mean you won’t get there. Keep going, enjoy the writing you produce today, and have grace with yourself until are where you would like to be.
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