Whenever aspiring writers send me their “fantastic, soon-to-be-bestseller” to compliment, I cringe. They’ve put a ton of effort into their manuscripts. They’ve neglected their family and social lives—and maybe even their paying jobs—to imbue their narratives with all the talent and skill they can muster.
But when I read these works, I’m reminded of my own early, unschooled efforts. I expected immediate acclaim, but, my work wasn’t nearly ready. I didn’t believe that creative writing is a craft—like carpentry—that one must learn. Now I cringe at my own beginning efforts.
Nicola Morgan has a post titled, Failure to be Published; Harsh Reality. In it, Morgan, now a repeatedly published author of YA and children’s books, says of her decades of rejected writing:
“I thought I was better than I was. I didn’t know what mistakes I was making.” [Emphasis mine.]
And that’s the thought I hope aspiring writers will internalize.
I’ve tried hinting, coaxing, and cajoling the sincere new writers I meet online.
I’ve suggested they learn the ingredients and skills that make good writing, and have their work critiqued by experienced writers. I’ve urged them to hold off posting or mailing their work to agents, until it’s polished and powerful.
I’ve tried to discourage them from sending out query letters before they understand querying. (The same problems that appear in their manuscripts pop up in their query letters.) And to know what publishers and readers want.
So, for your own peace of mind, let your work be seen by professionals and the public only if:
- Your spelling and grammar are impeccable. (Spell check has its limitations.)
- You know where the punctuation goes with a quotation mark, and understand the purpose of commas
- You know what a paragraph is, so your words and sentences don’t run on and on
- Your writing is free of clichés
- Your word usage is correct, because you keep a dictionary near, as you write
- You use words that precisely express your meaning, because you frequently consult a Thesaurus
- Your characters are complex
- You’re sure of the purpose and construction of scenes
- “Show, don’t tell” is clear to you
- Your story’s got an irresistible hook
- Your story contains nicely unpredictable elements
- You’ve had the final draft fully proofed by someone with strong proofreading skills
- People who are unrelated to you enjoy reading what you’ve written
- People who read something you’ve written ask to see more of your work
Read articles and posts by successful writers that explain how to write well. Take writing classes; join a critique group of good writers. Hire a writing coach or an editor. Keep practicing. Keep getting better.
If you found this post helpful, you might also like Calm Down! It’s Just a Draft. If you’re ready for even more “tough love” for writers, see Why Did You Resign?, by Mike Cane.
Need help improving your drafts? Get in touch with me; I’ll help you out. I’m experienced and easy to work with. Don’t believe me? Take a look at the Testimonials tab on this website, then get in touch.
There’s a lot of solid advice above. Perhaps the two pieces that stand out the most for me are the “complex characters” and the “show, don’t tell” ones. Ranking up there (but sometimes hard to identify) is the hook.
This may just be my interpretation, but I think your comment “let your work be seen by professionals and the public only if” is too absolute. It’s my belief that one should seek out feedback early on under certain circumstances: workshops, feedback forums, critique groups, etc. The first draft might be crap (sadly, so might the last), but if one can keep an open mind and accept constructive criticism along the way leading to a better story and improved writing, that’s a positive, and I think other aspects will likely start falling into place as a result.
Of course if the comment referred to agents and editors with whom one has but a fleeting moment with which to grab else be tossed in the slush pile, I absolutely agree with the above advice.
This is great advice Lynette. This is why I’m a huge advocate of manuscript critiques.
Ashen White says
reading your blog post makes your earlier message to me even more humbling. Thank you again for your praise, and I shall strive to keep you entertained.
Also – great advice in your blog post. I shall definately be putting your recommendations into my writing and preparation activities.
Well, I still consider myself a beginning writer, although I’ve been writing for about 10 years now. Most of those years, I was an arrogant teenager, so I don’t think they count. Only recently have I begun doing research into the craft of writing. To be honest, I’d already learned a lot of the advice through trial and error, but some of what I discovered came new and has helped me develop my work more fully.
I don’t really understand why someone would send in an early work, though. I’ve always loved my work and thought of myself as a budding genius (please don’t burst my bubble on that one), but I also have always felt my work was just shy of publish-worthy (“my work” means several novellas and short stories, hundreds of poems, several songs, and a novel).
I WILL be sending this most recent work in for publishing, when I finish it, as I truly feel it has the potential to be a good book (well, let’s face it, I hope it will turn out as great, bestseller material; what writer doesn’t?). So, I want to thank you most emphatically for the checklist to use while rewriting my work. I’m sure it will come as a great help at that time.
Thank you so much for the wonderful post, and taking the time to advice those of us who are still in the beginning stages of their writing career. I hope I can use your recommendations to turn myself into a great writer someday! Have a wonderful day!
P.S. I wonder, though, does there happens to be a post somewhere on this site about ridding yourself of the “to be” verbs? I can’t seem to help myself in using them, and I think my work would read much better without them. I’d really appreciate an article on this subject, and again, thank you for your time.
Lynette Benton says
Good idea, Kyla. Maybe I will write a post on overuse of “to be” verbs. It’s rewarding for me to hear from a writer such as yourself, and know that what I write might have helped you achieve your dream!
Don’t forget to have your work professionally edited before you submit it! It’s difficult for us to catch our own writing errors.
Lauren @ Pure Text says
Great post! I’m not master; I’m still honing in my craft, but I am past this phase, thank goodness. I used to think I was…amazing. I still think I’m talented and often smile at my own creations 😛 , but there’s much more healthy self-doubt in there. 🙂 Now I project my confidence toward the future, e.g., “I WILL be an amazing, publishable poet if I stay as dedicated to improving as I am.”
Denis Ledoux says
I often find the equivalent of the work you write about in Don’t Publish Your Writing Yet when I visit some art shows-especially those held in non-profit venues. I see canvases (or works in other visual media) that are clearly not ready for showing. There’s something unfinished or unrealized about them. Sometimes the artist is standing there and I would like to say, “Do yourself a favor and explore you medium and your message more deeply before showing.” But, of course, I just smile and walk on.
Lynette Benton says
Thanks, Denis. I know of what you speak.
Folks, if you work on family histories, and you haven’t visited Denis’ web site (www.turningmemories.com/), do yourself a favor and get fantastic information and guidance for your project there.
Lynette, thanks for sharing this again (for those who hadn’t yet “met” you when you wrote it). I hate to admit that I was one who sent some very bad writing out. Then I sent some decent stuff, but to all the wrong markets. Because of my past mistakes, I’m the first (and sometimes only) one to tell others they aren’t ready, and why. People who read my (poorly written) stuff and said “Send it out! Send it out!” were not doing me any favors. I’d rather encourage someone to learn than to make a fool of themselves.
Lynette Benton says
Thanks for commenting, Debbie. I so agree with you. It takes bravery to tell folks their writing isn’t ready. (I know, because I teach writing and sometimes a student just doesn’t want to hear the truth.) Often I see the work of new writers posted on their websites and want to suggest they take it down because it represents them badly. (Sometimes the grammar and punctation alone leave much to be desired.)
But if work is sent out when it’s mediocre and badly written, it will be repeatedly rejected. Best for all concerned to wait till the writing is sparkling before sending it out into the world.
Beth Landau says
All excellent advice. It’s easy to get caught up with “gotta get published” mania, but craft is key, and that takes practice AND honest criticism. I especially like: “People who are unrelated to you enjoy what you’ve written.” My mom thinks my writing is genius. Of COURSE she does. That’s not the point!
Lynette Benton says
I recently read: “Don’t ask your friends and relatives to critique your work; their opinions are worthless.” I love that; it’s so to the point.
On the other hand, occasionally my husband can be a little too honest, now that i think about it. . . . 🙂
Good advice, Lynette!
Lynette Benton says