Backstage: De-average Your Writing Life

By Radika Meganathan

You always wanted to be a writer. Back in school, you won prizes and competitions in creative writing and storytelling. Why, you have even had few articles published. Still, you aren’t exactly loaded with assignments. There are no surprise checks in your mailbox or even returned manuscripts. You do not know what is stopping you from having at least an average writing life, if not a busy one.

Okay. Let us approach this in a logical way.

What would you say if I gave a concert without practicing beforehand?

Nightmarish, isn’t it? Not only to me, but to the audience and organizers as well. Even if I am more talented than Beethoven, I am sure I would be covered by egg yolks and rotten tomatoes by the time I escaped backstage.

Yes, backstage. The place where we train and sweat and become familiar with the details, before we perform on the d-day. Same goes for the writing industry, too. If you are clever enough to think of a few things before you leap, you might just make it to the top. To save time and effort for both you and others, here are primers on what you should do before you decide to submit.

Study Magazines

It is a universal lament of editors— please study the magazine before querying. Reading magazines is one thing. Studying them is another. How many of us really look at a magazine, other than to read the content of it? As a writer, you now need to look at it a little more carefully. When you buy a magazine, observe the look and style of it.

Study both the visual and structural layout of an article. Look at how the writer has dealt with the content. Find out what catches your eye and what bores you. Note the style of writing and structuring of the former and note the mistakes and faults in the latter. Remember all these points when you write that article.

By studying the content and style of the magazine, you would be able to decide whether you can handle that magazine’s caliber (or the lack of it), whether you have enough experience and skill to even query the publication.

Keeping track of various publications and being familiar with their content updates your knowledge in the commercial field, thus giving you an edge over amateurs.

Store Your Ideas

There is no hard and fast rule that you should research for an assignment only after a go-ahead from the editor. You might have been thinking about a story for a long time or you might have been strolling in the park and suddenly wondered about the mechanism of park management —at times like this, it is best to research and do your homework a little early. Talk with the people there, do a little library study on your way back, anything to give a strong form to your idea and angle. The great thing about storing your ideas is that you are never without a theme at hand to write about.

After developing your idea with input from the concerned people and study, prepare a list of future articles as back up and store it in a separate folder. When you find the right market or the time for it, just open your query template (you do have one, don’t you?) and mail it to the editor(s). I always have a folder named “ideas” where I tabulate ideas and whatever research I had done on them in separate documents. When I get an “yes,” I just open it and start working on it, with my background work already done. This is particularly great, if you queried during a festive season and had tight deadlines.

Invest Wisely

Be reasonable about spending your time and money. Subscribing for paid newsletters like Writers Market (www.writersmarket.com), Writer Find (www.writerfindjobs.com) or Freelancing for Money (www.freelancing4money.com) is definitely worth more than cyber-searching forever for new markets. Joining an online writing workshop or course can definitely improve you writing prowess and open your eyes towards new horizons.

Sometimes your work can be rejected if it doesn’t look professional enough. Invest in some stationary supplies&mdas;a bundle of good quality A4 bond sheets, stamps, quality envelopes and covers and if possible, a simple letterhead. I find that a hand-held recorder is very valuable—much more versatile than the little notebook and costs around 50 dollars at the most. You can always point it under somebody’s nose and start asking questions, wherever you are, whatever you (or they) are wearing. You will be able to play it later and compare notes.

And don’t forget your health! Investing in an ergonomic chair or an ant-stress monitor save you from developing eye or spinal injuries. Browse www.healthycomputing.com or http://ergocise.com for more details.

Be Systematic

Writing is a profession of self-discipline. Start by finding time in your schedule that can be allotted strictly to writing, and then discipline yourself in following that without fail. Learning to plan your time is a good start to becoming a professional.

Buy an appointment book and schedule time for researching, writing, and editing. In your organizer, mark your commitments and workload. At the end of each week, verify what you have completed, sent, or left unfinished. If you have problems finishing what you’ve started, then stick to one work at a time and don’t jump to another until you have completed the first one. This way, you will have more time and energy to deal with deadlines and assignments.

Being systematic also means making friends with your system. It is appalling to realize how many writers don’t even have the basic knowledge of computer hardware, considering the fact that they handle all their work in it. Believe me, it saves a lot of time, money and even reputation to know a little more than booting, typing and saving a file (really, a lot of us know just enough to take a print out of the finished manuscript).

Go on in for genuine components for your computer—they will save you enough money in the long run. Antivirus software will minimize virus threats and regular servicing will increase both the efficiency and longevity or your computer. And do peep in the sites that have a lot of free content that educates you about the computer. It is never too late to start learning about the digital world, and consider this: if you just happen to be good at this, you have a new market.

Plan Ahead

Probably the best advice I can ever give you is to have long vision. Planning ahead puts you ahead in the race. It is a jungle of freelancers out there, steadily increasing everyday, and you need to have a solid map for a smooth ride.

Start maintaining a file on possible local and national/overseas markets, their guidelines for writing and addresses/email ids. This will prove very helpful when you are in a rut and looking for new assignments. Every writer has the “silly season”—the time period between the submission and paycheck.

Develop a lot of seasonal queries and ideas during this break. Editors love to work with freelancers who have the forethought not to query for an article for Valentine’s Day on New Year’s Eve. Think about re-selling your pieces to non-competing, overseas publications and do your research accordingly. Or just research for more markets.

In a field where the number of paychecks is directly proportionate to number of accepted queries, the only way you can carve a niche to yourself is by planning ahead. Of course, there is no guarantee that you are going to land all those assignments, but then, some planning is always better than none.

Network

A sure way to land freelance jobs is to search for them on the ‘net. Have you ever typed the words “freelance writers wanted” in search engines? You will be surprised by the amount of results that are displayed. Learn the art of using the right words in search engines. Every time you give different words meaning the same thing, you get different results. Browse through various writing resources or simply type “writers needed,” “freelance writers location anywhere,” “freelance wanted,” etc. in www.google.com.

To my sorrow, I find that majority of these jobs need writers located in and around the States (I live in India) but that is obviously good news for those living in USA. Even otherwise, you might come across jobs in other countries as well. Two good job boards offering information about jobs are Sun Oasis (http://www.sunoasis.com/)and Craig’s List (http://www.craigslist.org).

As they say, slow and steady is the magic formula for writing success. Successful writers are don’t become so by heredity or influence, but by sheer practice, consistent research and updating. Just don’t be impatient or disappointed about your writing status—things almost always change for the better, but only after you do.

© 2002 Radika Meganathan

Radika Meganathan is a final year architecture student and eclectic writer based in Chennai, India. Apart from freelancing sporadically for magazines and e-zines, she is currently involved in publishing her free newsletter for beginning writers, ‘The Budding Writer,’ by New Year’s Eve. To learn more, visit her webpage at http://pages.ivillage.com/jwaala or go to http://www.topica.com/lists/buddingwriter.