Are there simple basic rules for all writers? I’ve been asked that question many times. There are books written to help writers write. Some are very good. The Chicago Manual of Style and A Handbook for Scholars are invaluable resources. Others are grammar books, which are useful but don’t get to the “nitty-gritty” of what is really required of a writer who wants to make a living writing. These rules are made by writers for writers and are meant to be encouraging as well as instructive.
Rule No. 1 Determination
Determination is the quality of being determined to do or achieve something; resoluteness. You must first make a decision to write. This sounds simple enough. Most writers have made that decision. But, there is more to it than just deciding to write. What to write and how are next. The decision of what to write is based partially on your knowledge. Most writers who are knowledgeable about fishing will be unwilling to tackle an article about the development of cancer tumors. Determination must be tempered by knowledge. The often repeated writer’s adage, “write what you know,” is applicable here.
Resoluteness, however, is a useful word when discussing determination. To make your resolve tangible, set goals. These points will assist you in your goal-setting exercise:
- Be specific about what you want to achieve. Instead of saying ‘I want to finish an article by Fall’ state ‘my article: Fishing in the Arctic will be completed by October 1, including all editing and photography’.
- Break this goal into smaller chunks…’baby steps’ of say 500 words per day. Be sure to schedule work with photographs concurrently.
Not taking this step leaves you wide open to missing your deadline. Giving yourself an achievable goal means you are more likely to reach it. The results must be measurable, otherwise how do you know you’ve achieved what you set out to do?
- Is the goal attainable? Don’t set your sights too high. Always work within your own abilities, otherwise you will become disheartened. Keeping ahead of your goal allows for all those ‘life’ situations that you may, and probably will, encounter.
- Always give yourself an end date. This gives you a specific time-frame in which to work.
If you are resolved to write a quality piece, which most writers are, you have observed the first rule for writing. Your written goals will provide you with a ‘roadmap’ for the next rule.
Rule No. 2 Discipline
The second rule is harder than you think. Writing requires discipline. Most writers’ advisors say “write something everyday.” It doesn’t have to be submission quality. Writing a letter to your son or daughter away at college, writing in a blog or writing ideas for future stories all count for this task. The main idea here is to cultivate a regimen for daily work. Make time to write. This can be difficult if you have a full time job that is not writing related. If evenings and weekends are the only available time, other family commitments must be taken into account. Look to writers’ blogs to exchange ideas as to how other writers have accomplished this seemingly insurmountable feat.
Writer’s block is a well known malady for writers. If you just can’t get to the next paragraph or sentence. Take a break, if that doesn’t help, listen to your favorite music or change writing venues. Try a coffee shop or a library. Having resources close at hand might help, too.
Rule No. 3 Focus
A writer must focus. If you jump from one topic of interest to another several times when writing a story, the outcome will appear jumbled and without direction. The same is true if you attempt to write while personal issues are distracting you. No writer can do his/her piece justice when struggling with unrelated issues.
Here are three questions to answer to help you focus:
- Who is the intended audience/reader of my piece?
- What is the single most important point of my piece?
- If the reader thought about my piece one week after reading it, what would their dominant impression/recollection would be?
After deciding to write, you must decide what to write; then, set a writing schedule for yourself. Make sure that your goals are attainable. Writing takes discipline. You should write something every day. If you have a chosen topic and a deadline goal, work toward that goal. If there are days when you can’t work on your piece, write something anyway. When setting out to write, be sure you can focus on the job. Don’t let yourself be distracted by outside events or demands. Scheduling and adhering to that schedule will help you to produce a piece within the designated timeframe. Determination, discipline and focus will give you tools to produce a quality piece.
- Make your introduction brief. Like less than 30 seconds. If someone introduces you, skip the introduction completely, because you were just introduced. There’s nothing that stalls a presentation or performance more than a two or three minute monologue before getting into the “meat” of things.
- Use the podium. If there is a podium or table, use it to hold your materials. Sometimes we shake when we read (even if we’re not nervous, though especially if we are), and we shake more if we become conscious of our own shaking.
- Use the microphone. If there’s a mic, use it. Sure your voice might carry without one, or you may have to fiddle with it a moment to adjust for your height, but people in the back can hear better when your voice is amplified. Trust me on this.
- Encourage audience interaction. When performing poetry, this means you can allow an audience to clap if they choose to clap. When giving a presentation, let the audience know whether it’s appropriate to ask questions as you present or if you’ll have a Q&A after the presentation is complete. Then, make sure there is a Q&A.
- Act confident. You might be terrified, but try not to let it show on the outside. To accomplish this, stand tall. Speak with conviction. Make eye contact. Most importantly, don’t apologize. While you may know when you’re making mistakes in front of an audience, many of them are probably unaware.
- Be organized. If you’re giving a presentation, have talking points ready to go before the presentation. If you’re reading poems (or from a fiction/nonfiction book), have your selections planned out before you hit the stage. The audience will be uncomfortable and frustrated if you spend time paging through your book to find the correct passage.Organization goes a long way in how the audience perceives you and how you perceive yourself.
- Slow down. This is an important tip, because many people automatically start talking fast, especially if they know they’re on the clock. I try to remember to breathe and pause in appropriate places. Nothing awkward, just long enough to allow my audience to digest what I just said. A pregnant pause may be useful but use sparingly.
- Make personal, add humor. Be careful with humor. Sometimes your jokes will not be personal. Sometimes your personal stories will not be humorous. Sometimes the stars will align and both will coincide, and that’s when you’ll engage your audience the most. While I advise humor and personal anecdotes, make sure they have context in your presentation.
- Stop before you’re asked to leave. There’s something to the thought of leaving the audience wanting more. Know your time. Wear a watch. And end a little early (like a minute or two). If the audience feels like the presentation or performance went by fast, they’ll attribute it to your great speaking skills. Don’t drone on…
- Provide next steps and/or a conclusion. Depending on why you’re speaking, you should have some kind of suggestion for your audience. Maybe it’s to buy your chapbook or applaud the hosts. Maybe it’s to put some of your advice into action immediately. If you’re presenting a topic, it’s a good idea to sum up all the main points before sending your audience back out into the world.
One bonus tip: Provide handouts. Whether you’re reading poetry or leading a workshop on business management, handouts are a great way to let your audience have something tangible to take away with them. Your handouts should be helpful and relevant. They should also include your name and contact information, including your website or blog url. (Yes, it’s a sneaky good marketing tool.)
Just remember, speaking is an activity. Most activities are hard to master unless you practice. So get out there and speak and realize that you’re going to make mistakes early on. That’s part of the learning process. Just dust yourself off and get out there again.
Get your facts straight. It doesn’t matter if you’re writing your own story or someone else’s. If readers, publishers, and the media find out you’ve taken liberty with the truth of what happened, you and your work will be ridiculed and scrutinized. You’ll lose credibility.
Issue a disclaimer. Most nonfiction is written from memory, and we all know that human memory is deeply flawed. If you aren’t sure about the details but are determined to include them, be upfront and plan on issuing a disclaimer that clarifies the creative liberties you’ve taken.
Consider the repercussions. If you’re writing about other people (even if they are secondary figures), you might want to check with them before you publish your nonfiction.
Be objective. You don’t need to be overly objective if you’re telling your own, personal story. However, nobody wants to read a highly biased biography. Book reviews for biographies are packed with heavy criticism for authors who didn’t fact-check or provide references and for those who leave out important information or pick and choose which details to include to make the subject look good or bad.
Pay attention to language. You’re not writing a textbook, so make full use of language, literary devices, and storytelling techniques.
Know your audience. Creative nonfiction sells, but you must have an interested audience. A memoir about an ordinary person’s first year of college isn’t especially interesting. Who’s going to read it? However, a memoir about someone with a learning disability navigating the first year of college is quite compelling, and there’s an identifiable audience for it. When writing creative nonfiction, a clearly defined audience is essential.
CALL FOR SUBMISSIONS
The Path to Publication Group publishes the literary publication – The Path. You are invited to submit short stories, essays, book reviews and poems for inclusion in the Winter issue.
The theme for Volume 7 No. 2 is ‘Behind Closed Doors’. For more information, please visit the websites: www.pathtopublication.net and www.thepathmagazine.com . Past contributors will receive a call for submissions by e-mail, automatically.
1) Short stories and essays – over 2,500 words
2) Poetry – 1 page (No theme required)
Please polish your manuscripts to the best of your ability and, of course, have someone else edit your work before sending to Path to Publication. Do not format your work: no page numbers, no headers or footers, no footnotes, no paragraph indentations (skip a line for paragraph spacing). Manuscripts must be submitted in Microsoft Word or RTF form. Font: Times New Roman – size 12. All submissions must be submitted electronically, as e-mail attachments, to: email@example.com .
Deadline for Issue #14 is October 31, 2017
All rights are retained by the author, and there will be no compensation for accepted work at this time*.
*Because we are staffed by volunteers, we can only compensate our writers in exposure to our audience. Our columnists enjoy great publicity for their own blogs, books, websites, and projects. Many find great reward in doing something good for the world of literature and literacy. You may also purchase add space to further promote your work.
- Be sure the backstory enters the story at the time it’s essential to understand the plot, characters, or emotion. Not a minute too soon or too late. Sometimes backstory information has been added by you, the author, so that you can understand it. Cut it out and put it in a folder so that you can resurrect it, if you need it. If the reader doesn’t need to know it, cut it out.
- Choose one word to replace phrases. Choose phrases to replace clauses. Change prepositional phrases like teacher at Fairbanks School to Fairbanks School teacher to adjective noun. (Darcy Pattison and Joe Hight both mention this in their articles listed below.)
- Cut the adverbs. Replace them with strong verbs. (There are at least 20 sources that tell authors to do this.)
- Don’t interrupt dialogue too many times with unnecessary actions. Cut the facial expressions and body gestures, like grimacing her face, raising her eyebrows, lighting his cigarette. Let the bigger actions speak for the characters. Make sure these actions are not ordinary. They are actions only a character like yours would do. Let them move the plot, highlight the character, and/or add emotional tension. Dialogue that is interrupted too many times with unnecessary actions like these might make a reader put your book down forever. Highlight the words in your text that interrupt the dialogue.
- Rewrite the dialogue so it can be understood without tags of he said, she said.
As readers move from traditional hardbound books to digital books for the various e-readers available now and in the future, one thing hasn’t changed over the years, the reader’s expectations. They expect a level of quality when they spend their money to purchase a hard copy, or time downloading a digital book.
What readers expect:
- Characters they can empathize with
- Believable Dialogue
- Good editing
- Deep POV
- Tight writing
- Good word choice
- Proper use of nouns, verbs, and adjectives
- Proper grammar
- Proper punctuation
- Proper spelling
- Words that don’t send the reader to the dictionary
- A book that doesn’t bore the reader
This is only a short list, but you get the idea. Readers are author’s best friend or their worst enemy, the author makes the difference by the words in their story, how well the edited the manuscript is, and the author proofreads it before it reaches the reader.
Some may think this is a lot to ask, but consider the fact, the author’s reputation is on the line with every piece of writing they prepare for consumption by readers. This could be a blog about the book, a viral book tour, an author’s web site, a press release about their book or any piece of copy.