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Advice for would-be writers

I asked some friends of mine, writers and editors all, for some advice that I could pass along to people who are interested in a career using writing and editing skills. I’ve compiled the responses below.

Learn and understand the significance of social media.

Strunk & White’s Elements of Style is your Bible, followed closely by the AP Stylebook.

Don’t use three-dollar words.

The rule today, in a world of 140 characters is TLDR.

Research doesn’t mean Google.

Learn to spell.

Learn to diagram sentences. Style guides and Strunk & White are not enough. Learn a foreign language so you have something to compare English to.

Follow the rules of grammar, except when it interferes with connecting with your audience.

Do NOT go to journalism school. Instead, focus your college education on learning a subject field or two. And given a choice between two courses or two professors, ALWAYS choose the one that requires more writing. That is how you get to know what you’re writing about and how to express it. I was a credentialed Capitol reporter for 7 years, took 0 hours of journalism in college, and the j-school grads in the other bureaus regularly sought me out to explain to them what was going on.

Boring writing (e.g., grant applications) pays; fun writing (travel) doesn’t.

If you MUST write, then write. But also work on other marketable skills. Be prepared to do other jobs to support your writing.

Keep your definition of “writing” open and broad, check your artistic ego at the door, and learn how to write to explain things to people.

Technical writing isn’t glamorous, but not only can it pay the bills when the Great American Novel isn’t getting picked up and the magazines aren’t buying your essays, but it’s actually excellent for helping hone your craft in other genres.

And it pays a LOT better than being a “content creator” for clickbait sites.

Technical writing covers so many things – user manuals and online help, sure – but also ISO documentation, writing and editing scientific reports and abstracts, technical proposals, even things like business plans.

Technical writing is *just* like journalism, only you’re explaining processes and results and things rather than events. A good reporter can make a good tech writer.

(And again, it probably pays much better these days).

Read (substantive material) more than you write. Do more than just opine. Practice, practice, practice. Aim to communicate clearly and concisely. Find a niche to report on, and find a way to tie it into a larger story

Read everything you can. There are 2 and only 2 ways to become a writer or an editor. Writing and reading.

You have to be ready to read A LOT. If you don’t read, you’re not going to be a good writer. Not only does reading (and Twitter doesn’t count) expose you to different styles of writing, it provides a blueprint as to how ideas are best expressed. And obviously, it fills your head with, y’know, facts and stuff.

Expand your mind, broaden your horizons. Surround yourself with beautiful writing and clear thinking, and both will start to rub off on you over time.

Roger Ebert once said, “The Muse visits during the act of creation, not before. Don’t wait for her. Start alone.” And I think that’s exactly right. Don’t think you can plan out what you’re going to write in your head, because it will end up completely different. The mere act of writing opens up avenues in your brain that you didn’t even know were there. So if you’re short on ideas, just sit down and start typing. Once the fingers are moving, the ideas will follow.

Before you pitch, read sample pitches online; some writers post their previous pitches on blogs. And follow Shane Snow’s advice about starting with small publications and working upward, which he discusses here:

Professional associations can be helpful. Here are some for you to investigate.

  • International Association of Business Communicators:
  • Editorial Freelancers Association:
  • Public Relations Society of America:
  • Society for Technical Communication:
  • Society of Professional Journalists: