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Success Tips for Beginning Writers and Would-Be Authors

by Barbara Brabec

AS AN AUTHOR with high visibility in the home-business community, I am often asked for advice on how to get started as a professional writer, and how to get a first book published when you're an unknown writer. This report tells how I got started and offers practical tips for success.

Read for Success

I've always thought it curious that I published a magazine called Artisan Crafts for five years back in the 1970s and never once thought of myself as a "writer." Although I wrote many articles and edited all the reader contributions, in those days I saw myself as merely an editor. I didn't get serious about writing until a few months after I ceased publication of the magazine in 1976, and only then because my circumstances had changed. Suddenly without anything challenging to do, I heard or read something that prompted me to go to the library and pick up a couple of books on writing.

I didn't know it at the time, but one of the three books I selected turned out to be a classic, and one of the best books any beginning writer could hope to read. It was On Writing Well—The Classic Guide to Writing Nonfiction by William Zinsser (now in its 30th anniversary Edition).

Zinsser's book changed my life because it changed the way I thought about myself and educated me as to what a "good writer" actually was.

I used to believe that good writers had to use big words and write long sentences, like the flowery book reviewers in the newspaper. Not true! "Use short words and short sentences," Zinsser advised, "and write about what you know." By the time I finished his book, I knew I could be a professional writer if I chose to be one.

There are hundreds of how-to books for writers, yet very few writers who read these books ever figure out how to earn a living from their craft. The problem with most writers, I believe, is that they choose what they want to write about rather than what editors and publishers want to buy. Clearly, failure to heed the advice of seasoned pros is a great way to decrease your chances for success. I believe I have been able to earn a living from writing only because I decided at the beginning to be as professional a writer as possible, and then I methodically applied all the things I learned in dozens of books and magazines on how to write well and be paid accordingly.

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Another extremely helpful book, which I discovered in the mid-1980s when I found myself getting interested in self-publishing, was How to Get Happily Published—A Complete and Candid Guide by Judith Appelbaum (and a co-author whose name disappeared from later editions).

The end of this book so touched my heart that I was prompted to write the one and only fan letter I've ever written to an author.

I've never forgotten these words in the reply I got: "We can live without letters like yours, but not as well." That pretty much sums up how I've always felt about my fan mail, too.

I read this particular book well into the night while my husband snored away, oblivious to the fact that his life was about to change because of what his wife was reading in a book. This book was such an encouragement because it gave me a pat on the back at a time when I needed it most. It also made me realize my true potential as both a writer and self-publisher. Best of all, this book was a virtual roadmap to success. If you're an aspiring writer or would-author, I believe this book will do the same for you. I can't recommend it highly enough.

There are many other fine books for writers, of course, and a search on Amazon will turn them up. In your desire to learn, be sure to read writer's magazines, too. One of the first things I did when I decided to become a professional writer was subscribe to Writer's Digest magazine and order five years' worth of back issues. What an incredibly helpful magazine for both beginners and seasoned pros! I had no idea then that I would someday be working with the folks who own Writer's Digest. They acquired the publishing rights to one edition of my Homemade Money book before it found a permanent home with M. Evans & Co.

The Real Secret to Good Writing

From experience I've learned that average writers become good writers only with considerable effort and attention to detail. And good writers don't just write, they become specialists in the art of rewriting, which, in my opinion, is the real secret to good writing.

When I was writing my first book, I used to read issues of Writer's Digest in the evening, and my husband would often hear me mutter, "Oh, no! I'm doing it all wrong." Next morning, I'd go back to my book-in-progress and start rewriting, correcting my bad writing and attempting to avoid other common errors beginning writers always make. I literally rewrote my first book a dozen times and, by the time it was finished, I felt like I'd taken a college course in writing.

TIP: Test the quality of your work by reading it aloud. Whenever you stumble, you can be sure some reader will stumble, too. Make whatever changes are necessary to make your copy flow.

Control Your Ego

My first book, Creative Cash, was published almost word for word as I wrote it, and I was pretty proud of myself when it began to get rave reviews and went on to sell more than 100,000 copies. Twenty years later, however, when I reread that book with an eye to doing a sixth edition for a new publisher, I was embarrassed to find that my writing wasn't nearly as good as I thought it was, and my organization of material was not good at all. In the end, I simply wrote a brand new book, giving it a new subtitle in the process.

In my defense, I was writing on a typewriter in the 1970s, which made it much more difficult to reorganize content once it had been typed. Having word processing power greatly improved my ability to write well because it's so easy to make changes and move blocks of text from place to place right up to the last minute before submitting a manuscript to a publisher.

The real point I want to make here, however, is that writers (myself included) tend to let their egos get the best of them as soon as they have been published, and that's a big mistake. Writing, like woodworking, or growing roses, or designing Web sites, is both an art and craft that must be continually practiced, honed, and improved for maximum success. The most successful writers are never satisfied that they are as good as they can be, but are always striving to become better. I've often related to something Samuel Johnson once wrote:

"Read over your compositions and when you meet a passage you think is particularly fine, strike it out."

Tips From Other Great Writers

The most successful writers also write about things they know. I like this quote from Elizabeth Forsythe Hailey, one of my favorite fiction writers:

"Search your own life for the story only you can tell. The best thing about writing from life is that you can be sure of using original material. And no research is needed beyond the time you spend looking deep inside your own heart."

Closing on a humorous note, also consider this tip from Don Marquis:

"If you want to get rich from writing, write the sort of thing that's read by persons who move their lips when they're reading to themselves."

Related Articles by Barbara:

How to Write a Good Memoir

Selling Your Book to a Trade Publisher

More Writing/Publishing Articles

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