Top Ten Writing Mistakes Made By New Children’s Writers

By Suzanne Lieurance

Okay. So I’m not David Letterman. But I doubt if he’d know much about the top 10 mistakes made by new children’s writers anyway. I, on the other hand, read from 10 to 20 manuscripts for children every week (I’m not bragging — I’m just an instructor with the Institute of Children’s Literature). While many of the stories I read are destined for publication, I find that 10 common mistakes crop up again and again in the other manuscripts I edit each week.

I’ll start with number 10 (just like Letterman) and work my way up to the number one writing mistake made by new children’s writers (and, just so you know — I’ve been guilty of making some of these mistakes myself, so don’t beat yourself up if you realize you’re guilty of some of these, too):

  1. No Clear POV Character — Children tend to relate to the POV character in a story. This is the person they will root for. Make it clear right from the start whose story is being told. Even if you have two main characters (twins, for example), you need to pick just one of these kids to be your POV character. And, it should go without saying, when writing for children, make sure your POV character IS a kid — even if Grandma has a big part in your story.

  2. Multiple Points of View — Unlike stories for adults, stories for children are generally told from only one POV. It isn’t difficult to maintain a single point of view once you get the hang of it. Just remember — if you are “showing” everything from your main character’s point of view, then he or she has to be present for everything that happens. I see stories all the time where the POV character suddenly leaves the room. Yikes! If your POV character wasn’t there to see or hear what went on, then we can’t see or hear it either.

  3. Telling instead of Showing — Read a good story and chances are there is a lot of action and dialogue (showing) with minimal stretches of straight narrative (telling). Too much narrative and the story sounds like a summary. Readers don’t want a summary. They want scenes with action and dialogue that make them feel they are actually experiencing what is going on. So “show” as much as possible of your story through action and dialogue.

  4. Overuse of Adjectives, Adverbs, and Other Unnecessary Words — Do you really need to say someone “whispered quietly” Or “shouted loudly” ? Or, my favorite — she “nodded her head”? What else could she nod? Or, she “shrugged her shoulders” — she certainly wouldn’t shrug her foot!

  5. Dialogue That is Not Punctuated Properly — Get a grammar book to learn how to punctuate dialogue properly. But, most importantly, remember to change paragraphs each time the speaker changes. I read manuscripts all the time where three or four characters are speaking, yet the paragraph never changes. Just imagine how confusing that is to the reader!

  6. Long Timeframes — I know Harry Potter takes place over several years. But, the story also takes place through several books. Most children’s writers start out writing stories for children’s magazines or they want to write picture books for very young children. Either way, the timeframe in these stories should be rather short — a couple of hours or a day or two. If your story takes place over a couple of weeks or (gulp!) a couple of years, then you need to shorten the timeframe.

  7. No Narrative “Hook” for the Reader — I know what you’re asking — “What is a narrative hook?” Well, that’s simple. It’s just an opening sentence or two that “hooks” the reader and makes him or her want to continue reading to find out what happens.

  8. Dialogue That Doesn’t Sound Real — Listen to any child or teenager and you’ll find out that much of what kids and teens say (at least to each other) tends to sound like a series of grunts. So don’t have the child or teen in your story use words like “shall,” or never use contractions. If you do, the dialogue will sound too formal and your work will not have a child’s or teen’s voice.

  9. Adults Who Step In to Save the Day for the Child — I know what you’re thinking. Parents and other well-meaning adults DO step in all the time to save the day for kids. So why can’t they do it in stories for children? The answer to that is ± because children don’t want to read stories like that. Stories for children have strong children (or children who eventually become strong throughout the course of the story) as characters. This empowers the children who read these stories. They figure, if the POV character can solve his own problems then maybe they can too.

Now. Drum roll here.

The number one mistake new writers make in their stories for children is

  1. No Real Conflict — There’s no story problem. Your POV character needs to face some big problem right at the start of the story. Then, he or she needs to struggle and struggle with this problem as he/she tries to solve it. That is, things need to keep getting worse and worse until finally the POV character is able to solve the problem (or at least resolve it) and change or grow somehow in the process. Without a story problem you have what editors like to call “an incident,” and editors don’t publish incidents. They publish stories.

So that’s my list of top 10 mistakes new children’s writers make. Use this article as a checklist when you’re writing for children. Avoid these mistakes and you’ll be well on your way to publication.

See you in print!

Suzanne Lieurance is a freelance writer and she teaches children’s writing for the Institute of Children’s Literature. For information about children’s writing, visit Lieurance’s writing website.
Article Source:

Building a Better Biography

By Ami Hendrickson

Whether you are a beginning writer or an established byline, it behooves you to construct a biography as a means of introducing yourself to those who haven’t yet had the pleasure of reading your work.

Bios are more important than you might think. They give the reader a quick overview of your qualifications to write whatever it is you have to say. They offer a bit of your writing history. And they provide an opportunity to connect with your readers on a personal level.

It doesn’t matter if you don’t have a string of best-sellers to list on your bio. In fact, it doesn’t matter if you have few (if any) credits to your name. The biography is a fluid piece. As you start accumulating credits, you can easily add them and allow some of the less impressive things to fall by the wayside.

Bio Building Guidelines

Writing your bio doesn’t have to be a chore. Some simple suggestions:

Write in the third person. Use your full name in the first sentence. Afterward, refer to yourself either by your first name only, your last name only, or the pronoun “she” or “he.”

Say you are a writer in the very first sentence. If you specialize in fiction, nonfiction, poetry, or screenwriting, say so. If you have a niche area that you are especially known for, say so. (“Jane Smith is a freelance writer specializing in worsted yarn and the humor of Albert Einstein.”)

Brag. Tell people what you’ve done. This is no time to be shy. If your writing has ever won any sort of recognition or contest, use the term “award-winning.” If you have written a best-seller, say so. If you have published ten, 20 or 100 articles, mention it. If your mother thinks you’re brilliant—keep it to yourself.

It’s okay to be eclectic. If your credits are all over the map—if you’ve done a little of everything, that’s fine. Something like “Smith has written greeting cards, warning labels, and street signs. She has also provided copy for breakfast cereal boxes,” would be appropriate to highlight your range.

No experience is necessary. If you don’t have many (any?) writing credits to include in your bio, don’t panic. Identify areas in which you specialize, or that you know more about than the average person. Write those down and don’t worry about perceived shortcomings in the byline department. (“Smith has climbed Mt. Everest twice, walked on the moon, and appeared as a Playboy Playmate. She is a double black belt in Tae Kwon Do and enjoys knitting potholders in her spare time.”)

Location, location, location. If you wish, include a short sentence about where you live. Don’t be so specific that the loonies out there can find you and stalk you. But a reference to your family members, your pets, and your hometown can help make you more accessible to your reader.

If writing about yourself in the third person, or “bragging” about your abilities is difficult, write some sample bios for famous people, or for people you know well. Once you get a feel for the exercise, then apply it to yourself.

If you don’t have a bio, I urge you to spend some time creating one. Make it as lengthy and as packed with information as you wish. Then leave it for a few days, come back to it and edit it.

When you’re done, ask yourself if you would read something written by the person the text describes. Work at your bio until the answer to that question is “Yes!”

Bringing Your Bio on Board

Once you have drafted your bio, you will discover that opportunities to use it are plentiful. For instance:

Websites, weblogs, book jackets, and brochures are useful places to include such information.

A short space at the end of magazine articles is often devoted to the author’s biographical information.

If you ever teach or speak publicly, a short bio allows someone to easily introduce you to your audience.

You can also include your bio in a short paragraph in letters introducing yourself or your work to a potential publisher, editor, agent, or manager.

When you use your bio, tailor it for the situation. Use the whole thing on a resume of writing credentials. Shorten it to a single paragraph for inclusion in introductory letters. For speaking introductions, you may wish to shorten it still further. And for “about the author” blurbs, condense it to one or two sentences.

The point, however, is that you cannot utilize something you do not have. So spend some time thinking of how best to introduce you and your writing to the world. Then have fun looking for creative ways to make your bio work for you.

Ami Hendrickson is an award-winning writer, screenwriter, educator, editor, and consultant. She has written for some of the leading horsemen in the world including Clinton Anderson, of Downunder Horsemanship, and hunter trainer and judge Geoff Teall. Find out about her latest projects Website, or visit her blog at Museinks.

Overcoming the Fear of Writing a Synopsis

By Vicki M. Taylor

If you noticed, I didn’t title this article “Overcoming YOUR Fear of Writing a Synopsis.” I don’t think you own the fear anymore than I do or any other writer. We all share a common emotion, one that can be summed up in one word: Formidable.

What is it about this particular piece of writing that brings out more moans and groans from writers than a room full of sixth graders getting a surprise math test?

What is a Synopsis?

Look at the word. Synopsis. Say it with me. “Sin-op-sissss.” Even the sound of the word emanates dread. What is a synopsis? Webster’s defines it as “a shortened statement or outline, as of a narrative. Abstract.” Nothing sounds particularly evil in that definition. Let’s look at it a little closer — “shortened statement or outline.” Hey, look at that, “outline.” Now, there is a little word we’re all familiar with. Does “outline” make you cringe as much as “synopsis”? What about “shortened statement”? Not me. Probably not you, either.

Start with a Simple Sentence

Let’s start with the shortened statement. I’ll use the popular children’s story Lady and the Tramp to demonstrate my points.

What is our story about?

Lady and the Tramp is a story about dogs.

True, but the portrayal is dry and uninteresting. Would you want to just read a story about dogs? What makes this dog story different? Let’s see if we can add some more information to better describe the story.

Lady and the Tramp is about two dogs from different sides of the track.

Good. Now we know that there are two main characters. And, we know that these two characters are different in some way. Let’s see if we can do a little bit better.

Lady and the Tramp tells the adventures of an upper-class, well bred cocker spaniel and a roguish mutt from the wrong side of the tracks.

Okay. Now we have some description and a hint at a story. We know that these two distinctly different characters are going to have at least one adventure.

Describe Your Story in 25 Words or Less

So, now we need to think about our audience. The synopsis generally goes to an editor, agent, or publisher. So, we must capture their attention. Give them something to grab onto and not let go. This is where you can really get creative and meet the “describe your story in 25 words or less” challenge.

Lady and the Tramp is filled with exciting adventures of Lady, a lovingly pampered cocker spaniel, and Tramp, a roguish mutt from across the tracks.

Whew! There it is — 25 words — exactly. We’ve just written a strong hook for the opening of our synopsis.

Every synopsis should start out with a statement that describes your story in approximately 25 words. However, don’t be a stickler about trying to hit the “magic” number. There isn’t really a magic number. But, keeping your description to approximately 25 words helps to focus your writing on the key elements of your story.

Key Elements — Not That Difficult to Identify

Speaking of key elements, those are what we now need to identify so that we can create our synopsis.

Wait, wait. Stop groaning. I promise we’ll go slowly. Okay?

I think I’ve read every article and book written on creating a synopsis and even though every writer has their own formula for creating the “perfect synopsis,” I admit that authors agree on one thing — You need to practice. So, my suggestion is that you do what I’ve done here. You find some simple stories and practice creating the synopsis for them. Once you’re able to pick out the key elements easily, you’re ready to create a synopsis for your own story.

So, back to our story, Lady and the Tramp.

First Element — Structure

The basic structure of the synopsis should be a complete summary of your story from beginning to end, written in present tense. Simple, right? So far. Let’s see how that helps us with our story.

Lady and the Tramp is filled with exciting adventures of Lady, a lovingly pampered cocker spaniel and Tramp, a roguish mutt from across the tracks. Lady’s owners love her but ignore her when their baby arrives. The owners leave her with a cat-loving aunt who locks Lady out of the house. Lady runs away and straight into a street-wise mutt named Tramp who shows her how good he has it being free from owners. Lady is caught by the dog catcher and spends time in the pound learning some of Tramp’s secrets. Hurt and jealous, Lady is returned home and exiled to the doghouse once again. Lady discovers a rat making its way into the house and is helpless to defend her home. Tramp helps her by getting into the house and killing the rat. However, he’s accused of attacking the baby and is placed in the dog catcher’s wagon to be taken to the pound. Lady’s owners return home just in time to see how Lady has been treated and have Lady show them the dead rat.

More Key Elements — Setting, Main Characters, Conflict

Not bad for a first draft. We’re missing a few items that would make the story more dramatic and compelling for the editor, but those can be added easily. First, we should make sure that we’ve established the setting for the story and identified our main characters.

We’ll have to identify real conflict between these characters and their motivations. Then, we’ll have to show the resolution of the conflict. It isn’t as important to name every character in the synopsis, but you must name your main characters.

Final Key Elements — Tell Your Ending

Finally, we must make sure that we’ve wrapped up our story and told our ending. Yes, that’s what I said, we tell our ending in the synopsis. You must never, ever tease editors and leave them guessing about the ending of story.

As a side note for romance writers: If your story is a romance, make sure you always establish the love relationship between the two main characters by showing how they met and why they’re fighting against their attraction.

With that advice, let’s see how our synopsis shapes up after adding these key elements.

Lady and the Tramp is an early twentieth century story filled with exciting adventures of Lady, a lovingly pampered cocker spaniel, and Tramp, a roguish mutt from across the tracks in New England. Lady’s owners lavish attention on her until a new baby arrives that takes all their attention. Ignoring Lady’s needs, they go away on a trip leaving her and the baby with a callous aunt and her two Siamese cats that wreak havoc. Lady, wrongly accused of the mischievous cats’ pranks, ends up in the backyard doghouse and eventually fitted for a muzzle.

Fearful, Lady runs away and straight into a street-wise mutt named Tramp who shows her how good he has it being free from owners. He treats her to a night on the town, complete with a romantic Italian dinner from his favorite restaurant. Unfortunately, even though he protects Lady from a vicious dog attack, Tramp can’t protect her from the dog catcher. Lady spends time in the pound learning some of Tramp’s secrets from his other wayward, albeit intimate, acquaintances.

Hurt and jealous, Lady returns home and is once again exiled to the doghouse. Lady’s other neighborhood dog-friends advice her to forget this scoundrel and chivalrously offer to take care of her. Tramp returns, hoping to change Lady’s mind about him. She rejects his advances and sends him on his way. Moments later, she’s alarmed that an ugly rat enters the house, but can’t do anything about it because she’s chained. Tramp comes to the rescue by finding a way into the house and killing the rat before it can harm the baby. However, the heartless aunt accuses Tramp of attacking the baby and calls the dog catcher who places him in the wagon to be taken to the pound.

Lady’s owners return home just in time to see how Lady has been treated and have Lady show them the dead rat. Lady’s friends run to stop the dog catcher’s wagon and everyone is reunited after a thrilling chase scene. When the commotion settles, Tramp chooses the family life and abandons his drifting ways to stay with Lady and her owners.

And, there you have it. Your synopsis. Was that so painful?

This synopsis is rather short when compared to the longer books you desire to write. Don’t let that intimidate you. The concept is still the same.

Final Advice

Editors have specific requirements when it comes to the length of your synopsis. Unfortunately, just like snowflakes, no two editors are the same. One editor requires a ten-page synopsis while another may only want two pages. My advice to you is that you follow the requirements of the editor and make sure you include enough information in your synopsis to tell your story but not so much to slow it down. Focus on the story’s development from beginning to end and make sure you emphasize the resolution of the conflict and/or romance.

If you’re having trouble writing your synopsis, don’t beat yourself up about it. Go back to your story. Have you developed the plot completely? Do you understand your characters and their motivation? Is your conflict believable and resolvable? If you can’t answer those questions, the problem isn’t with your synopsis. If you don’t understand your story how do you expect an editor to?

Good luck and remember to practice, practice, practice.

Vicki M. Taylor has been writing technically for nearly fifteen years and has recently published fiction. She enjoys writing stories with strong women as the main characters. When she’s not writing, you can find her lurking about the many writing boards chatting with others and dispensing little pearls of wisdom from her computer in Tampa, Florida. Vicki M. Taylor has a website, where you can read more of her writing.

Lady and the Tramp is owned by Disney Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved.

10 Ways to Annoy a Newspaper Editor

By Joni Hubred-Golden

Almost 20 years ago, I broke into journalism by walking, wide-eyed with fear, into a tiny newspaper office and asking whether the editor would accept a freelance submission. Since I hadn’t thought ahead far enough to consider a topic, he gave me the name of an artist who made rugs. That’s just how he put it, too: “She makes rugs. Go talk to her.” As I left, he added, “And take a camera.”

A few weeks later, the article —in better shape than the lengthy piece I turned in—was published on the front page of my hometown newspaper. And I was (pardon the pun) hooked. It was only a matter of time before a trembling, shy woman walked into my office and said, “I’m a freelance writer.” What a difference a desk makes. Suddenly, it was my job to critically evaluate someone else’s writing to determine whether it deserved a spot in my newspaper.

Over the years, I’ve worked with dozens of freelance writers, and some have gone on to successful careers in community journalism. But for every success story, I’ve met someone who took a writing course and heard someone say, “Your hometown newspaper is a great place to build your clip file!”

Guess again, dear writer. Guess again.

Today’s newspapers aren’t the same wide-open playground of years gone by. Over the past 20 years, the Internet has pulled readers by the droves onto the information superhighway. Some newspapers have gone with the flow. Others struggle with significant losses in circulation and advertising revenues, and nationally, newspaper readership dropped 20 percent just in the past two years.

These days, the words, “I’m sorry, I just don’t have a freelance budget” aren’t necessarily a brush-off. Most editors—at least the ones I know—will make room for a well-written, targeted freelance article. And whether you get paid in dollars or copies, it’s well worth your time to make contact with the editor of any publication distributed in your area.

Now, when I say, “make contact,” I don’t mean “show up in her office on a deadline day.” A woman I’ll call Arlene (to protect us both) never quite understood how long five minutes can be when you’ve got a graphic artist waiting on a banner headline for your lead story.

Arlene is a classic Freelance Flop. She convinced people to publish her writing, but never more than once or twice. She made every mistake in the book. These mistakes will keep you from getting published— that’s a guarantee. Placing my tongue firmly in cheek, I offer them to you in no particular order:

  1. Call an editor any time of day, any day of the week. Be surprised and offended when she refuses to take your call.
  2. Drop by the office “for just a few minutes” and don’t leave until you’ve pitched at least three or four story ideas. Insist on seeing the editor in person, because you want to get started right away.
  3. Don’t let anyone—not an assistant, not a reporter —stand in your way, even if they claim the editor is on deadline. Editors are always on deadline. Be firm about your request.
  4. Don’t worry about subject matter, because newspapers will publish anything. Your recap of last Sunday’s guest sermon by a visiting pastor deserves a good placement, too.
  5. Likewise, length is a matter of personal preference. The newspaper pays by the column inch, after all.
  6. Using correction fluid to clean up your mistakes can be messy and completely re-typing takes too much time. Jot down needed corrections in the margins.
  7. Because the editor knows you so well, there’s really no need to clutter up your manuscript with contact information. Or page numbers. Just staple it together and add a little handwritten note about when you expect the piece to be published.
  8. Insist on payment for all submissions, with the exception of a short letter to the editor. You are a professional freelance writer, you have paid your dues, and you deserve compensation for your work.
  9. Follow up with the editor no later than 12 hours after submitting your work. Reiterate your understanding of payment terms and the publication date.
  10. In the event the article does not appear when the editor promised, call to remind her about the promise and let her know you will give your work to her competitor if it’s not promptly published.

Now, I realize most writers are smart enough to steer clear of these mistakes. Some might find the list insulting. Before you start writing hate mail, consider this:

Arlene never realized any of the mistakes she made were mistakes. She thought she was protecting herself and her work, and she lacked one of the most important qualities I’ve seen in every successful freelance writer I’ve ever known: humility.

If you don’t mind annoying an editor, go ahead and ignore her deadlines, invade her workspace and test her patience. If you want to see your writing published, or better yet develop a working relationship, ask when she might have time to chat with you. Come prepared with a few local story ideas. And it wouldn’t hurt to be a little wide-eyed, too.

Joni Hubred-Golden, a writer with 20 years of experience in community journalism, recently launched Michigan Women’s Forum, a news-based web-zine designed to inform and inspire Michigan women. In addition to writing most of the site’s content, she also dabbles in marketing and writes a regular column for the Farmington Observer, based in her hometown of Farmington, Michigan.

Analyze Your Writing Market for Optimum Success

By Annette Young

Check out the latest issue of the Writers & Artists Yearbook and you can find information on a multitude of magazines that accept submissions from freelance writers. But is the information they provide enough? The brief description can indicate whether the publication may be the type of magazine you wish to write for, but when it comes down to the nuts and bolts of writing, the word length or actual house style may be vastly different from your initial preconception.

There is no substitute for studying your chosen market; although this can be a costly procedure, you can limit your spending and purchase only a selected few of the publications so that you get a feel for the content. Look on these purchases as an investment for your freelance career. To keep your start-up costs down, it is possible to look at back copies of magazines initially, but remember that markets have to study reader trends and their requirements may well have changed since that issue. You also need to ensure that any article you may be working on has not already been previously published within your chosen magazine.

Before making any purchases, begin by working your way through the Yearbook and ascertain any potential publications, then narrow your choice until you have a few favorites and that’s when your research really begins. Choose your publications wisely; try to focus on magazines whose criteria suit your own specialist subjects or interests. Every market has their own needs and by compiling a file that can list specifics, this could undoubtedly increase your chance of success.

Many magazines will have their writers’ guidelines available on their website, but if not, send a written request asking for them. Always enclose a stamped, self-addressed envelope and once you receive the guidelines, study them intently; there may be some useful advice which you can add to your file.

Taking time to do the relevant research now will save endless rejection letters flooding through the letterbox. Editors do not want to reject a well-written article or story; they have space to fill within the magazine and if your submission matches their criteria, then you have one foot in their publishing door.

Editors receive a great many submissions each month, many of which are completely unsuitable for that publication. If you have managed to pen a carefully crafted piece that is ideal for that market then you will be in with a chance.

An article that has far too many words or has not been targeted at a specific audience, however well written, will have little chance of success. But when researching, don’t just look at the main articles to get a good overview of the publication as a whole. It is vital that you study every part of the magazine and that means do not overlook the fillers or the advertisements. All of these provide great indications on desired subject matter and it also gives you an insight into the type of people who purchase the magazine.

Understanding the age group for each magazine is imperative. There is very little point writing a short story about teenage problems if your chosen market is aimed at the retirement sector. Whether stories or articles are your main consideration, don’t make the mistake of thinking that you can read just one issue and then submit your work. Your comprehensive file will be invaluable so that you know which subjects have been covered, thus avoiding querying any previously published topics. This saves you wasting your time researching and then writing about the subject and it saves the Editor from having to discard it.

Take an average 20 stories or articles and see if you can find a general pattern contained within them. Try and visualize the type of person who would be reading this publication. Double-check the word count and whether it is written in the first or third person. This may sound like hard work but no one is going to hand you a writing opportunity on a platter. Opportunities within the publishing industry have to be grasped firmly in both hands and for most writers, golden opportunities have to be created.

It is worth checking to see if your chosen magazine uses the same writers on a continual basis, but don’t let that put you off. Your submission still has a chance, especially if you have done your homework. Remember to address your article to the right person. Sending your precious manuscript to someone who has not worked for the magazine for some time will only show that you have not researched the publication thoroughly enough. This will not show you in a favorable light.

With Internet access being so readily available to all, research for your article is now much easier, but remember to check and double check your facts. It is worth remembering that it is very easy to upload information onto the web and facts may not always be accurate.

Increase your chances of publishing success by careful research and before you know it, your byline will be appearing in magazines everywhere.

Based in the UK, Annette Young currently works as a freelance writer specializing in healthcare and relationship articles but also teaches creative writing and journalism both at college and for private students. She is currently Co-Editor of a new holistic website advocating the benefits of living a more natural lifestyle. Website: Your Life Naturally. You can email Annette Young at annettejyoung AT

So — You Think You Want to Be a Freelance Proofreader?

By Jan K., The Proofer

How many times have you thought to yourself that you would be a good proofreader? You have a decent working vocabulary, you are able to construct a well-turned phrase, and you know when to hyphenate a compound noun (or maybe you don’t, but you could take a good guess!). You’ve always wanted to work at home, and you’ve thought about becoming a freelance proofreader. But just how do you become a freelance proofreader who works at home?

You know who you are. You are the person who picks up the newspaper, a magazine, or a book and shakes your head every time your brain stumbles over a typo, incorrect punctuation, a poorly worded sentence, or lousy page layout and design. Your eye wanders down the right-hand margin taking note of the excessive word breaks and you turn the page only to find an orphaned line perched at the top of the page, sitting there all by its lonesome. “Didn’t anybody proofread this?” you lament. You start thinking that maybe you could be freelance proofreader. You’d really love to “be your own boss” and make your own schedule. What you don’t know, however, is how do you go about making this dream a reality.

I have to be honest — being a freelance proofreader was not my “dream.” My dream was, and still is, to buy the winning lottery ticket. In the meantime, it seems that I enjoy eating on a regular basis. My father had the audacity to be born into Middle Class Working America, so unfortunately, I do not have a family fortune to cover the checks I write at the grocery store. Therefore, I was left with one option: I had to work for a living.

Even so, it was still not my dream. In fact, I was a corporate accountant weenie for almost 20 years. How far removed is that from having my own at-home job as a proofreader? It was more luck and opportunity than anything else that brought me to where I am today — successfully earning a living while working at home, providing a service that I never thought to provide. I happened upon this career through a temporary job that I took several years ago when a lifestyle change had been prompted by a switch in my husband’s careers. That change made it impractical for me to work full time. The temp agency with which I signed was contacted by a company that needed someone who could proofread accounting-based, research-journal articles (some combination, huh?). Given my strong accounting background and the fact that I’d mentioned that I was writing my own novel, my temp recruiter thought I just might be a good match for the job.

It turned out that the recruiter didn’t know how right she was. I temped for that firm for almost a year and when it was time for my husband to relocate (as we had to do from time to time for job purposes), I proposed to the company that I continue to proofread for them off-site. Voila! “Jan K., The Proofer” was born.

I don’t recommend this way of starting out, although you shouldn’t rule out the possibility of checking with temporary agencies in your area. It may be that they get requests for proofreaders; the old axiom “You won’t know until you ask” might come into play here. However, temp agencies needn’t be your only resource. You need only to look at yourself, your interests, and your own work experience and education to provide the fertile soil from which you can cultivate and grow your own at-home proofreading business.

What is it that you do for a living? What trade journals or newsletters are there that pertain to and are published for people in your profession? What literature do you read that relates to what you do? Someone wrote it, someone did the page layout, and someone probably proofread it. That proofreader could be someone like you.

What around-the-town publications do you encounter other than the daily newspaper? Does your town produce a monthly magazine? Are there any graphic design businesses in town that produce brochures, meeting materials, or advertising catalogs? Are there local organizations that put out newsletters? Is there a college or university in or near your area where there are students writing research papers? Does the company for whom you presently work have an in-house newsletter?

Does your church or your kids’ school hand out flyers or news bulletins? Who does the newspaper inserts? When the local stores advertise, who does the advertisements?

If you think about it, printed text surrounds you. You encounter printed matter for almost everything you do. What you need to do now is narrow the field and determine where to find a likely starting place.

It is probable that you are not going to get an at-home proofreading job by simply showing up at a printing shop and announcing “I am a freelance proofreader, give me work.” You might, but my guess is that this particular method of self-advertising is not going to score you enough work to allow you quit your day job. What you need is experience and exposure.

First, if you don’t already know them (and why would you if you’ve been checking gas meters for your local utility company for the last ten years?), you will definitely need to learn the standard proofreading/editing “marks.” These are the little glyphs and squiggles that indicate to the typesetter or page layout artist what corrections need to be made to the printed material and where. Some marks are self-explanatory, while others look like an Ancient Egyptian. There’s no secret-organization ban on you learning the marks. Go to any library and check out a book about editing or proofreading, or go to a bookstore and purchase The Chicago Manual of Style. In it you will find several pages that list all of the standard proofreading marks, what they look like, and what they mean. Practice on any text that you have on hand. Chicago will even provide an example for how the marks are placed in and around the text.

Second, consider taking on some volunteer proofreading work. Try your church, the school, or a local charity group — any organization that puts out something in print. Offer to do it for free in exchange for an acknowledgment: “Proofreading for this newsletter has been provided by Wilomena the Word Wizard.” The acknowledgment does not suggest that it was done for free, but rather who “provided” the service. Work on getting a couple of assignments. Build up a small clientele and ask them if they are willing to act as a reference for you.

Third, do some self-advertising. You can spend less than $50 and produce professional-looking brochures, business cards, and handout flyers with your own computer and printer. Walk through your handy yellow pages and jot down some target markets: graphics design shops, print shops that do typesetting, colleges or universities, and/or publishing firms. Spend some time taking your brochures to these places. Tack up flyers in library, stores that have public bulletin boards, at your neighborhood community center, and storefront shops like Mail Boxes, Etc.

Get a web page! There are dozens of domains that will allow you to create a free web site if you can not afford a dot-com site. Most domains even provide web page design templates for those of you who may be a Web Yutz-bo like me. I now have two regular clients who found me on the Web (they found me, I didn’t have to spend a minute trying to find them — ain’t technology great?).

Get a plain-paper fax machine! You can get them now for $100 or less. I can honestly say that I recouped the cost of my fax machine within the first two months that I had it. I can’t begin to count the number of small jobs I’ve gotten because I was able to receive a three- or four-page project, proof it, and fax it back within the hour or same day. I’ve even gotten jobs that were hundreds of pages long that needed to be faxed back, page by page, as I finished it. I have one regular client for whom I can work only because I have a fax machine.

Fourth, be prepared for this to take a while. Unless Lady Luck plops the perfect client in your lap tomorrow, it is probably going to take you quite a while to build up a clientele. It literally took me four years (and a very supportive husband) to establish myself to the point where I have work almost every day. I do have dry spells, and once a year my primary client has nothing for me for an entire month. So, I’m still working on self-advertising, keeping my web site updated, and schlepping brochures and flyers around town.

Once you actually begin to work, be prepared to do the work and not see the check for a couple of weeks. Not everyone is going to hand over a check when you hand over the completed project, especially if you land any large-firm clients that have Accounts Payable departments where the policy is to pay everything at 30 days, period. Although I do establish up front that my invoices are presented “Due Upon Receipt,” I have had to accept the fact that some companies reply “That’s great, but we’re going to pay you Net 30.” Fortunately, in almost five years of working freelance, I’ve only ever had one client stiff me, and even then it was only for about an hour’s work. Lesson learned: it’s gonna happen.

As with any work-at-home job, it is not for everyone. You have to be self-disciplined and able to devote quality time and concentration to the job at hand. If you can not deliver quality work, and on time, then you will never be successfully self-employed. If you don’t have the skills or education, then you need to get some. If you don’t have any experience, create some through volunteer work. No job contacts? Find them! Don’t know how to design your own brochures or business cards and can’t afford to have them done professionally? Look to your own friends; who do you know who can do that sort of thing and what can you swap or barter with them for the service? (That’s how I got mine done, and my brochures, business cards, and flyers look GREAT!)

If you are determined to work at home, and you are determined to be a proofreader, then you can make it happen. I did. And if I can do it — me, who couldn’t sell game software to a Play Station junkie — you can, too.

For a list of reference books related to proofreading, copyediting, and the publishing industry, please see my recommended book list.

Jan K., The Proofer is a full-time freelance proofreader and copyeditor. In business since 1995, she has enjoyed working for a diverse world-wide clientele, covering subject matter including academic research, medical law, consumer surveys, and self-help materials. See Jan K.’ website for more information.

© Copyright 2001 All rights reserved.

Breaking Yourself Up Into Your Characters

By Bob Yehling

I faced a serious time crunch, even for a life in which time always seems to fold on top of itself. I sent a list of potential “next books” to my agent—five or six ideas, and told him I was not beholden to any particular order. “Recommend whichever book or books you think will be our best next shot,” I said.

Within two days, his recommendation came back. He chose The Voice, an idea for a novel with which I’d been playing—entirely in my head, never on paper—for two years. What’s more, he marked his choice with exclamation points. In this tough-as-nails publishing climate, when a successful agent puts exclamation points next to something, you push everything else aside and write it. I shook my head. That figures: He wants the one title that has never been outlined, mapped out or even played with beyond a journal entry or two. Never mind character sketches, settings, narrative arcs, conflict/resolution treatments or the other preparatory work I normally do when preparing to write a novel or long short story.

I took a deep breath—then held it when I read the next sentence in his e-mail. “Because of the political theme, if you can get it done by October 1, we may be able to sell it in time for the 2004 (presidential political) season,” he wrote. “Hurry.”

It was May 20. I had less than four and a half months, with a one-month period looming in June and July in which my other commitments would render it impossible for me to write a word

To put it kindly, the challenge was daunting. I would need to employ all imaginable speed, creativity, focus and ability to use dialogue to propel the story forward. I would also need to develop characters in a hurry, and breathe life and realism into them so that they didn’t resemble the stick figures that lurch in and out of so many hurried novels like tin men in a snowstorm. My only “advantage,” if you can call it that, is that I’d spent time mentally grooming my protagonist, a 1960s-era rock music legend with keen political savvy and the ability to grasp and bring out the higher qualities of the human condition. He was a fun character, a creative character, one that appealed well to my lifelong fantasy of being a rock star and my tendency to dart in and out of political activism whenever the times and issues felt crucial to me. This was one of those times.

I worked out the protagonist by peppering his world with grains of my own life in order to develop a sense of the familiar. During this process, I tripped and fell into the secret of how to write this book: I would season all of the characters with slices of my own life. Everything would become fair game— travels, conversations, readings, music, dreams, intuitions, observations, likes, dislikes, realizations, journal musings, memories, relationships, adolescence, triumphs and failures. “Stand naked before your audience,” Robert Bly admonishes; I had to go all the way. The characters would “choose” what they wanted from this pool of my life, and “integrate” it into their own existences, their own experiences.

I got to work. The plot line of The Voice is straightforward: The rock music legend, Tom Timoreaux, is “drafted” to run for president by a pair of top-flight strategists—one Republican, one Democrat—who are disgusted with the disintegration of the political and governing processes. They defect and turn to Timoreaux, whose political acumen has helped numerous members of Congress and the Senate over a 30-year period. However, Timoreaux and his old band are planning a major 40-stop tour that is already sold out. In The Voice, the intensity of an 11th hour presidential campaign and a long-awaited reunion tour converge—and the protagonist’s voice and vision hold center stage.

However, one character would not make this book. The Voice is populated with subplots and side stories, to show Timoreaux’s colorful “behind-the-scenes” life. He hires his wild-child youngest daughter, Christine, to sing backup vocals in the band; as the summer progresses, she becomes a star. His wife, Megan, is the family’s core, a nod to the Native American tradition in which the wife is the true guiding force. His three other children also play roles in the book. The two strategists, Roger Wilkinson and Jason Robiski, are fully developed, as is the lead agent on the candidate’s Secret Service detail, Mike Jensen. To throw in some personal and political intrigue, I added an alluring Italian woman who may or may not be the candidate’s daughter from his formative years in San Francisco (he was a 1960s music legend, after all); and a foe who doesn’t want the status quo to change—and will stop at nothing to silence Tom Timoreaux.

I breathed pieces of my own life into each of the characters and many of the scenes. My muse brought forth a collection of 30 songs for Tom and Christine; “after all,” she sweetly whispered into my inner ear, “you can’t have an original band without original music.” These songs were the sweetest surprise of the whole process, one of the greatest occurrences of my writing career, and attested to the absolute trust I give the creative process when writing first drafts. You may receive these jewels, and you may not, but you’ll never have a chance if you question and edit and discard during the creative process. I gave Tom a number of my personal characteristics—love for San Francisco, love of 1960s rock music, a Leo’s need to be on “center stage,” teaching creativity to young people, living in the New Mexico mountains (my former home), and much more. To borrow from Alice Walker, I constructed around him the temple of my familiar—to a degree.

I gave Megan Timoreaux my love for the White Mountains of northern New Hampshire (she comes from that region), my fondness for Native American and ancient Sumerian cultures, the level of awareness consistent with a long-time meditator, an ability to shut off the noise of the world, and a talent for painting and photography (both dormant in me at present). She loves medicine wheels and the poetry of Catullus. She is a deeply loving, supportive parent. She’s a strikingly beautiful, tender woman in her 50s who takes rugged hikes and protects her family with a lioness’ ferocity. (There’s that Leo again.)

Christine Timoreaux is a partial reflection of my own daughter—stubborn,beautiful, independent, and engrossed in college. She’s also a gifted singer and art student who (unlike my daughter) loves to party. Her strained relationship with her father opened up a maelstrom of personal pain from deep in my core when I covered it. Roger Wilkinson is a political wonk, a high intellectual, a connoisseur of fine art, a bow-tied nerd—which I was until my early teen years. Jason Robiski is a fast-moving, jet-setting lover of strategy, intrigue, all things Italian and beautiful women, who sometimes gets into pickles with the latter and a figment of my very real past. Mike Jensen is a Secret Service agent with a wild streak, a rugged outdoorsman, highly protective of family and his detail, observant to the extreme, and a lover of eagles. I can relate. Damiana Scigliano, the Italian mystery woman, loves ’60s music, lives in Venice, still idealizes her romantic partners, and will not be stopped if a matter concerns principles and the salvation of her own dignity. All traits that, for better or worse, I carry.

The characters “seasoned” themselves as the writing progressed. They took on lives of their own, voices of their own. I used these personal characteristics to animate them, to develop an energetic and emotional charge between the characters and their storyteller—me. In this way, the characters’ voices rolled through loud and clear, and I could become an instrument for the story they had to tell, with all its twists, turns and surprises.

The pace was never a problem: Two of the most intense experiences I’ve ever witnessed were a rock music tour and a political campaign. In The Voice, they come together. Everything runs at warp speed, where things happen quickly and people think on their feet. So do my characters. While they began with a smattering of my qualities (and idiosyncrasies), they finished as far different personalities. That is the beauty of the entire “breaking yourself up” process. If you spread the seeds among the garden of characters, and let them sprout into distinct beings through deep characterization and effective dialogue—vital for good fiction—then your readers will never know that you utilized this technique.

By breaking myself up, I was able to grab a character and know whose hand I was holding as he or she told the story through me. From that beachhead of a trait or two, entire beings developed and blossomed in ways I never imagined when I sat down to tackle this ridiculous deadline. As the book grew, three more benefits of this technique revealed itself: I found I stayed “in character” much easier, the dialogue fully conveyed the characters’ respective voices, and I immersed in the creative, timeless pure writing flow for four or five consecutive hours a day. As Henry Miller and Ernest Hemingway emphasized, that’s all a writer needs—and they produced the works to prove it.

I finished the 170,000-word first draft of “The Voice” on September 16, two weeks ahead of schedule. When I began to rewrite and revise, and trim about 40,000 words from the draft, yet another gift from this character-building process showed itself: I had only half the work of previous books. All the story needed was a comprehensive revision and a fine-tuning. I’d written as fast as I could for three months, and the entire narrative arc and personality bloom of the characters came out right the first time. It felt like an outpouring of manna from the heavens.

Following my experience, I decided to test the effectiveness of this technique for others by taking the plunge. I introduced it to a class of mostly professional writers in a September workshop I conducted, and also advised a couple of clients whose books I was editing to animate their characters by injecting more of “what you know.” The response was strong and positive; their characters sprang to life. I then asked myself, “Is this just my ego billowing to new heights by thinking my life is so interesting that it can define every character in every book I ever write?”

There were two answers to that question, besides “No”: I wrote what I knew; and my characters did not define themselves by my personal experiences or traits. They are much different than me. This just helped me to get to know them and bring them to life in the face of a near-impossible deadline. I looked back at several books of one of my favorite authors, Joyce Carol Oates, and saw where she often did the same thing. She had to. So do we: We have to make our characters real. We make them real by writing what we know. Furthermore, I learned much about myself from spending the summer with these characters—and I came out of the experience feeling more complete, relieved, exhausted, and wondering if I even wanted to write another novel again.

It’s two months later. Another set of characters are knocking on the door, looking for an animating characteristic or two that will throw open their worlds. They want to form a fictional reunion of my freshman high school English class and relive an experience in that class that changed and defined my life. I think I’ll help them out.

Bob Yehling is a writer, editor, teacher and author of two books, Make Me An Eagle and The Voice. He teaches writing workshops throughout the country, including the Writes of Life series, which includes a segment on breaking yourself up into characters. You can find Bob Yehling at his Website

Interview: Screenwriter Madeline DiMaggio

Follow Your Dream: An Interview with Madeline DiMaggio
By Christina Hamlett

(Excerpted from “ScreenTEENwriters”)

Former actress and published author Ms. Madeline DiMaggio is a successful author and television screenwriter whose trademark wit and imagination have been stamped on such shows as Bob Newhart, Kojak, Three’s Company, as well as documentaries, soaps, animation and movies of the week. Her work as a creative consultant and story editor for Paramount Studios and NBC has given her insight on virtually every aspect of writing for the industry. Back when she was in high school, though, her plan for her life was much different.

So what was the dream when you were 17?

DiMaggio_how_to_write_for_televisionWell, I was a drama major and saw myself as an actress. I was starring in all the school plays, I did summer stock, I went to New York, I got my degree in Drama. It was an incredible major for writing because the strength of my writing has always been my dialogue. But had I known that I would one day become a writer, I would have learned how to type. And how to spell! I never studied writing but every time I was in a three-act play, I was actually studying structure and character development and how people talked. A lot of actors end up being very good writers just for that reason. It was a good background to come from.

Suppose you attend a rural high school that doesn’t offer theater or film classes for learning the creative side of the craft.

Well, the first thing I’d do is to take a class at a college or even a weekend workshop where someone such as myself or Michael Hauge will come in and teach a seminar. High school students, by the way, get an incredible break in the cost of these workshops. These kinds of things are really good for an introductory, crash course in the basics. It also doesn’t cost them a dime to go on the Internet and download screenplays just to get a sense of structure and dialogue and what the formatting looks like.

Speaking of the Internet, do you think it has helped or hurt the newcomers’ accessibility to Hollywood?

It has helped terrifically! It has changed the face of the industry, which I think really needs to be changed. There are young filmmakers, for instance, who are already getting deals as a result of 15-minute movies they’re making. It’s an incredible way to market yourself because people now have access to your work who normally wouldn’t.

So what’s this going to do long-term to the careers of Hollywood agents? After all, if you can access script sites and get yourself known electronically, are you going to need a rep?

The fact is that if you’re recognized on the Internet and you get a movie deal as a result, the first thing you’ll need is an agent. You may not need an agent to sell but you do need one to have a career. And as far as getting an agent, it’s just not something that happens overnight. Agents today only want to represent screenplays that they think they can sell very fast. It used to be that they’d take on a new screenwriter because they thought they were very good and that they could build a long relationship together. What they do now is take on a project that they can sell.

Do you need a degree in film to have a film career? Or is it better to major in something that will pay the bills?

That’s a hard one to call. For one thing, film school is incredibly hard to get into, but what’s marvelous about film school is that you’re meeting all the future filmmakers of Hollywood . . . and the world! What you’re making is a bunch of incredible contacts, plus part of the curriculum is that they put you at the studios where you can make even more contacts and get a nuts-and-bolts, hands-on internship in the very business you want to work in. If you’re absolutely, definitely, passionately certain that you want to do this for a living, then you really do need to make it your focus in college. If you aren’t 100% certain, I think that you should take some classes but also find something that you can make money at while you’re pursuing writing as your second job. It just depends on how focused you are and how confident you are about what you want to do with your life.

What about books? There’s certainly no shortage of them on today’s market. How do you decide which ones to add to your bookshelf?

That’s a very personal thing and as subjective as going to movies themselves. For instance, I can be emotionally struck by a movie that’s may not be great and may not affect someone else at all. The important thing is that there was something about it that really stayed with me. What you do in the case of looking for a book to teach you about screenwriting is find someone whose tone and style and message you resonate with, the one who says it to you in a way that you can really grasp. Personally, I think the best book and the best self-taught instruction you can get is a screenplay written by a writer who has sold. That’s because the greatest teacher a student will ever have comes from reading actual scripts and seeing the writer’s vision in its most pure form, minus all the visuals and the Horner score and how good Brad Pitt looks on a horse . . .

How about screenwriting contests?

Unequivocably, there is not one single thing I know of that gives better access or bigger breaks to new screenwriters than screenwriting competitions and fellowships. The people who are reading the entries are people who are in the industry and will be reviewing your work if you get into the finals. I have an agent, for instance, who once agreed to be a judge in a contest only because it meant a trip to Hawaii and being put up in the Hilton Hawaiian Village for a week. “I’m not going to sign up any new clients,” she insisted. On the way back, she told me on the airplane that from the ten scripts she had judged, she was signing one of the writers. She may not have been looking but she certainly knew what she wanted as soon as she found it.

With all the contests to choose from, though, how do you know which ones are legitimate and which ones are just a scam to make money?

The first thing is that you need to do your homework. Find out what writers have won the contest before, what the parameters are, how many people usually enter, who the judges are. Don’t be afraid to just call up and ask questions. I also don’t think any of them should have excessively expensive fees to enter. The Nicholls, for instance, isn’t that expensive but attracts a lot of attention. The Monterey Film Competition, the Disney, the Columbus Discovery Awards—these are all very legitimate and provide tremendous exposure.

Well, let’s say that someone likes my script and I get invited to a pitch session. Once I get there, though, they seem to have changed their minds. Should I try to convince them that they’re wrong?

No. If you see them not responding—or responding negatively to what you have to say—what you do is move on to another idea. Trust me—they get really mad if you try to change their minds! You need to remember that the whole point of a pitch session isn’t that you’re going in to sell anything; it’s that you’re going in there to get information. That’s what’s absolutely crucial about pitching. It’s most likely that they won’t take anything that you originally went in with but that you’ll come away with a better understanding of what they are looking for. You then use that information as an opportunity to come back with an idea that fits in with their agenda.

What’s the best advice anyone ever gave you about writing?

The best advice I think they give anyone in Hollywood is what William Goldman said, and that’s “No one knows anything.” For me personally, one that stands out in my mind—and because I write a lot of comedy—was that you should never try to be funny. Hearing that from two well known producers when I was doing Bob Newhart took this incredible weight off my shoulders and I’ve been writing comedy ever since!

You recently co-wrote a script called If the Shoe FIts with Pam Wallace (Witness). Any plug you’d like to give for it?

No. It’s a terrible movie.


It’s a horrible film but a wonderful script. And that’s a good lesson for everyone to learn because it’s an amazing lesson about what can happen between a script and a movie. Sometimes it can be improved and other times—like this—it can just be the worst thing you’ve ever seen! The fact is that Pam and I were paid, we got the money, we got the credit, the movie was made in France on a very low budget, and everything that we spent an incredible amount of time in writing was all taken out. If you read the script and then rent The Stroke of Midnight, which they renamed it, you wouldn’t recognize it.

So you have no control over it once you sell?

That’s true. It’s the luck of the draw—who gets cast, what’s the budget, who directs it, a lot of different factors that can make it better or make it worse. But the end result is that we still got work as a result of that script.

Even if it was a bad film?

Exactly. The point is that in Hollywood, when you sell a film, they don’t ask to see the video; they ask to read the script. Bottom line is that having a bad movie made is better than having no movie made. It doesn’t matter how it turns out as long as the writer gets the money, gets the credit, and can move on to something else. What happens is that you’re marketed on the merit that you sold a script, which they all know is no easy feat to begin with.

What if you just go with a pseudonym for the ones that look like they’re going south

A lot of people do that.

Was that an option for you and Pam?

We actually had the choice of taking our names off of If the Shoe Fits and we chose not to do that. The credits were more important to us.

What do you think is the most valuable thing that the next generation of screenwriters needs to know to be successful?

You have to detach your ego from your material and recognize that the goal is to make that material better. You may not agree with what people are telling you but you still have to listen to it and try to apply what fits the situation. The other thing is that if you’re really passionate, it usually takes about seven scripts before you finally sell something. Consequently, the earlier you start writing, the better. Starting at 17 or 18 puts you right in the ballpark, given the emphasis on youth in Hollywood.

If you were 17 again, what would you do differently, knowing what you know now about this business?

I would have paid more attention in school!

Writers’ Conferences: Are They All They Should Be?

By Jessica McCurdy-Crooks

What is a Writers’ Conference?

This is a gathering of writers, whether amateur or professional, discussing a particular subject or general information about writing, selling a novel, articles or even poetry or fiction readings. There are as many different types of writers’ conferences as there are different types of writers, such as Christian Writers’ Conference, fiction writers’ conferences, conferences for people who write for children — you get the picture. Whether or not they are useful depends on a number of factors. Perceptions and expectations are the deciding factor as to whether or not they are worthwhile. If you attend a conference expecting to sell your novel or get a major contract, then be prepared for some disappointment. Very few attendees at conferences end up selling a story.

Who attends These Conferences?

Attendees vary, from beginners to seasoned, many-time published writers. This coming together of people from such widely different writing backgrounds and experiences can add to the benefits to be derived from attending such a gathering.

Writers’ conference attendees fall into two main groups: students and teachers. Sometimes the lines between both can become blurred. A fellow writer noted that apart from teachers, students fall into three distinct groups, namely:

  • Professionals who are seeking further networking opportunities
  • Serious writers who have not yet been published
  • Those who want to ‘feel’ like writers


What to Wear?

Dress codes vary as widely as these conferences do. For some semi-formal is fine; for most, however, the safe bet is “casual business.” Writer Del Stone is most comfortable in khaki slacks and a polo shirt; I find that a nice shirt and jeans normally go over well. There are dinners that might require that one be dressy, while at meetings something more casual can be worn. Workshops, on the other hand, allow for flexibility in dressing.

Some conferences will provide information on what to bring and wear, so it is a wise move to get brochures on the conferences you plan on attending.

What to Expect

Do keep your expectations realistic — don’t expect to come away as an award-winning writer. Your skill level as a writer will also impact on your experiences at a writers’ conference, especially if it is your first such foray. Marie Stone, a freelance writer from Oregon, noted that as a student, she “missed a lot because [she] was too busy being star-struck.” This happens to many first-timers, and even professionals are not above being dazzled by being in the same location as their heroes. However, try to remain focused on what is happening. How else will you learn?

Expect to work if you intend to get the most from attending. Work, work, work is the order of the day. Be prepared for this by taking along note pads, pencils, pens and other implements that you think you may need. Also, do not shy away from critique sessions — the feedback can help make your career.

Value / Networking Opportunities

The assertion that your expectations are the prime factor in determining “value received” is reiterated again and again by fellow writers, and even by speakers at such conferences. One professional writer, who also speaks at writers’ conferences, noted that “value for money” in terms of writers’ conferences is to some extent dependent on the attendee’s skill level as a writer, and his or her willingness to participate in class discussions.

Other factors that will impact on what you take away with you from these gatherings include:

  • The opportunities that exist for networking with other writers, publishers, editors
  • How “good” the presenters are
  • How keen the students are, as this will make for interesting interactions in critique sessions, etc.

If you will be incurring major expenses, try to find people who have attended this particular conference before and get feedback from them. This can save you from disappointment and feeling that you have been cheated.

Additionally, one can significantly improve his/her collection of writing resources from the many offerings on sale. In the final analysis, though, the true value is your own sense of accomplishment or satisfaction.

The most valuable reward is that of making contacts; these networking opportunities can be just the lead you need to break into a particular market. Do not believe that you only need these contacts with editors and publishers; other writers are just as important as contacts. Many writers have gotten work from being recommended to a publisher from writers they have met at conferences. How to network successfully takes skill and tact. Try to be attentive to what is being said, even if it is not what you want to hear. If you look beyond the words, something useful might be gleaned, or better yet, you can arrange to have further discussions with the speaker. You should leave a conference with e-mail contacts and business cards, but be sure to tell the people that you will be in touch. One last word of advice about networking: be polite — people will remember.

Should you Pitch your Work?

This is the most important question on the mind of most people planning on attending a conference for the first time. The opinions on this vary widely — some writers advise against this, while others emphatically say “yes, yes, yes.” Whether or not to pitch your idea or work will depend on the conference.

Those against feel that opportunities should be used to socialize, so that publishers will be able to associate your face with a name the next time you submit to them. This, they feel, can have a positive effect on the response to your query.

Writer Charles Pekow recommends that while it is possible to pitch one’s work, subtlety should be used. His words of wisdom are to, while socializing, “enquire as to their services, jobs and interests so that you will know if what you have to offer is what they need.”

Some conferences actually have time set aside for this activity, so if it is important to you, select conferences that offer this as part of the package. If in doubt, call to find out. Be prepared; as such, select your best work(s) and write a memo or query to give to the editors/publishers you plan to approach. Having your story/article well thought out will save you wasting both your own time and that of other people. It will also show your professionalism and commitment.

One final word of caution: do not give in to the urge to just approach editors and pitch your work — it can be a major turn-off and presents future obstacles to your landing work with that company. You do not want to build a reputation of being difficult.


Those who get the most from attending writers’ conferences are those individuals who are serious about their craft, and as such are prepared for the conference and know their expectations before attending. One thing is sure– even if you do not get a solid lead to work, the networking opportunities to be resulting from attending are unparalleled.

Jessica McCurdy-Crooks trained as a librarian, but notes that “these days I provide this service only on a part-time basis. I started writing poetry as my first love, but started writing reviews on Jamaican hotels, restaurants, etc. for an online company and found that I actually enjoyed writing.

The Writer’s Block: 786 Ideas To Jump-Start Your Imagination, Jason Rekulak

Review by J. Kristin Dreyer

The Writer’s Block: 786 Ideas To Jump-Start Your Imagination
by Jason Rekulak
Running Press
March, 2001
672 pages

8 AM — You sit down in front of your computer, eager to get to work on The Great American Novel (or even The Decent American Novel, for that matter). You open up a new document on your computer.

11 AM — Two loads of laundry, one talk show, and one phone conversation with your best friend later, your document is still blank. You know the ideas are up there somewhere, but you’re not quite sure how to pull them out through your fingers and onto the screen.

Cover of Jason Rekulak's The Writers_block

Sometimes, we all need a little push in the right direction. That’s what The Writer’s Block is for — this amusingly-cube-shaped book is full of creative nudges. Just open it up to a random page, and you’ll find the inspiration you need. Whether you open to a Spark Word (like “marathon” or “vanity”), a motivational thought about writing, or a writing prompt, your keyboard will be back in business in a matter of minutes.

The Writer’s Block is a necessity for any writer’s bookshelf. Or — better yet — keep it on your desk in case of emergencies. It’s like the bag of candy you keep hidden in your desk drawer — just what you need to keep yourself going.

Kristin Dreyer Kramer is a refugee from the Real World (no, not the TV show). he escaped (barely!) from advertising agency life and is now a freelance writer (starving artist). You can find her at