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Becoming a Professional Writer

burns guest post

 – A guest post by Jan Burns, author of Ghost Boy –

At first it was hard for me to think about becoming a professional writer. I worked in the corporate world and expected to continue in that career. However, I finally gave in to the idea of writing full-time, against the advice of family and friends. I have never regretted it.

Maybe like many beginning writers, I started submitting my writing before my writing skills were good enough, because all of my early pieces of writing were rejected. Becoming a selling writer was harder than I’d thought. I realized I was starting at square one and had to do some serious research and study before trying to sell any of my writing.

I found that writing was one thing, but connecting with editors and making sales was something very different. I had a lot to learn. But there are many ways to find this information.

To anyone who wants to be a writer, I’d suggest reading about the process. On my writing journey, I periodically read books to help me become a better writer. Techniques of the Selling Writer by Dwight Swain gives many tips. One example of this is, “Writers have to learn three things – how to choose the right words, how to make copy vivid, and how to make the meaning clear.”

James Scott Bell has written many books that offer good information for writers. In Plot & Structure, he tells writers why readers read. He says they read “to seek an experience that is other – other than what he normally sees every day. Story is how he gets there. A good story transports the reader to a new place via experience.”

Literary agent Donald Maas, in Writing the Breakout Novel, says, “Conflict is essential to a story. Nothing to fight against, nothing to win, nothing to lose, why bother reading it?”

Advice from these books and others was crucial to me when I entered the field of writing. These small nuggets of information can help someone become a better writer.

Knowing that I needed marketing information, I bought a Writer’s Market marketing guide. I recommend buying the current edition and getting new ones as they come out so you have up-to-date information. These annual books contain many helpful things, like how to write query letters, what kind of writing editors are looking for, and what to include in an author bio, among other things.

Each entry in the book contains detailed info about a market. It usually includes info about what the editor wants, as well as what kind of writing the market doesn’t use. Most entries also include the name of the editor, and what form of submission is wanted.

I analyzed the published writing in the magazines to try to see what specifically appealed enough to editors to accept them for publication. What was so special that an editor paid the writers to write them? To name a few things, the writing has to read smoothly, be interesting, and offer something new or different about the subject.

I saw that first paragraphs have to be great, not just okay. They have to be good enough to make an editor (and readers) want to keep reading. Put some thought and work into writing these.

When I first started writing, I tried to sell to national publications. I quickly found out that wasn’t very realistic. Editors there were buying writing from established, experienced writers whose work needed little or no editing.

I’d read that editors of small markets were more receptive to newbie writers like me. So, I started to research smaller markets, like my local newspaper, the Contra Costa Times. It ran travel stories on San Francisco Bay area locales. I started keeping track of the published articles in this section of the paper. I noted what info was included, the word count, and how they were slanted. Studying a market thoroughly was one of the most important things I learned early on. This has greatly helped me throughout my writing career. It gave me a huge boost in confidence when I started to get acceptances and payment for my writing. This is a big milestone for new writers.  

Some of the sales didn’t pay much individually, but the number of sales was starting to add up. I found that it really was true that editors at small publications were receptive to beginning writers.

At first, I planned to write mostly fiction, because that is what I loved to read. But I soon found that my sales here were few and far between. I learned firsthand that competition was fierce. It would take me a while to improve my fiction writing skills.

So, I concentrated on nonfiction. I read that nonfiction sold seven times more often than fiction. I didn’t want to write dry, boring nonfiction, though. I tried to find facts or statistics that readers might not know. I also tried to write in an active, engaging style.

To start out, try writing and submitting short pieces. These are much easier to write and revise than longer ones. Many magazines use short department articles, which are found at the front of magazines.

Fairly early on, I would finish a piece of writing and think, That’s the best I can do. Maybe you’ve done the same thing. It took me a while to realize that might not be enough, because you’re competing with other writers. It might be the best you can do, but you will probably have to raise the level of your writing to become a published writer.

Learn how to read a piece of writing critically – like an editor would. This is really important. You want writing that’s clear, vivid, and engaging. Dry, dull writing will automatically be rejected by an editor.

Reach out to editors for possible writing work. This doesn’t always result in a positive response, but it’s good to get into the habit. Over the years this has resulted in thousands of dollars in work for me.

For example, a decade ago I queried a Houston Chronicle newspaper editor. That resulted in my writing freelance articles for the paper for ten years, and I’m still writing articles there. I researched what types of articles the paper used in the sections open to freelancers before writing to the editor. If an editor gives you a trial run, be sure to do your best with it.

I’ve found that writing is not like other careers. It’s either feast or famine for me. I’ve read that’s the same for many writers. One week I’ll be working nonstop, including weekends. But then I’ll have nothing until the next assignment comes in. This can be frustrating, but I try to fill it with everyday things I neglected during my heavy writing periods. I also use this time to send out queries, to get more work. Keep busy.

Writing workshops, either in person or online, can be a great help. Look for ones that focus on elements of writing that particularly interest you.

You may want to join a writing organization. This has helped me greatly. Each publishes a monthly newsletter which often includes marketing information. The Mystery Writers of America, for example, offers regional monthly meetings with speakers in the industry. They also have a national conference, with breakout sessions on different topics.

All of these strategies and techniques have helped me to become a better writer. They can help you, too. Rejection can hurt, but you have to build resilience and keep going. Through the years, I’ve often read that what separates successful writers from would-be writers is not giving up. Ultimately, not giving up is what has helped me succeed in the writing world.


Author Bio: Jan Burns has written eight nonfiction children’s books and hundreds of articles and stories. She received a BA in Sociology from the University of California-Berkeley.

You can buy Ghost Boy here.

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