So, you want to be a writer?
If you’re looking to develop your writing skills, and maybe even pursue it as a career, then you’re going to need a little bit of help (trust me). In an effort to share my tips on pursuing writing, I have collated a lot of the advice I have received over the years into a well-rounded listicle for your viewing pleasure.
“But Rosie,” I hear you ask, “why isn’t writing number one, if my number one goal in life is to become a writer?”
Well, dear reader, how exactly are you going to become a writer if you’re not aware of the great myriad of writing styles out there? I highly recommend reading as widely as possible, across all genres. And I mean all genres – fiction, nonfiction, creative nonfiction, essays, poetry… there is so much more to writing than just prose, than just the novel.
So yes, the best way to become a better writer is by reading. Not only will this introduce you to all sorts of recherche genres and experimental styles, but it will also expand your understanding of more formal stylistic features, like characterisation for the novel, figurative language for poetry and syntax for nonfiction.
Reading widely is also a fantastic way to bolster your vocabulary, which is why I used the wonderful word ‘recherche’ in the above paragraph – and I encourage you to find definitions for any and all unusual words you come across. You may just find the perfect descriptor for something inevitably… recherche.
At the risk of sounding too repetitive, I also recommend writing in many different styles, at least until you find a genre that you like best.
A good writer has honed their craft across one style or genre, but I would argue that a great writer is excellent at writing across genres.
The best advice I have ever (indirectly) received about writing is from Gary Provost: “Don’t write just words,” he says, “write music.”
Hint: it’s really good advice.
3. Find your voice
Here’s a thought: imagine reading a piece of writing and being able to envision the author reading their piece aloud to you. If you can do that, then the author has successfully established their ‘voice’.
Honestly, I don’t have much advice on how exactly to achieve this. Above all else, finding your voice takes practice, time and dedication. Without practice, you will never discover your style. See number two.
4. Find your niche
Now this might seem a little contradictory. First I instructed you to read widely, then to write widely and now I’ve suggested you write a little less widely. It’s not that a niche is necessary, but it can be helpful, especially if you are aiming to write professionally.
For example, as a poet, I mostly write about my personal experiences of mental illness. Now, it is what I am best known for.
Finding your niche isn’t about limiting your writing – it’s about strengthening it.
5. Write what you want
Finding your niche is great, but it is pointless to forge a path in a niche you’re dispassionate about. Passion is the most essential tool in your writing arsenal, and a piece of writing will really sing if you are passionate about the topic.
6. Write what you know
And if you don’t know, then do your research, and do it well. If you want to write about the Arctic, but have never left Australia, then it’s going to be challenging to do without reading up about even the most seemingly mundane things like climate.
7. Edit your writing
Read it. Then read it aloud. Edit. Then repeat. The fastest way to have your writing rejected is with a plethora of typos.
Fun fact about me: I am notorious for confusing ‘casual’ with ‘causal’.
Now that you have some polished work, it’s time to submit it. There are some great websites to help you sift through available publishers. Subbed In has a great list of places to submit shorter works like individual poems or essays (last updated in early 2020), while the Small Press Network is a search engine to sift through places to submit novels, novellas and collections.
Remember to be realistic: it’s unlikely a big name like Scholastic will accept an unsolicited (a word which here means ‘without agent representation’) manuscript from a new writer with no previous publications. It’s not impossible; just unlikely.
That being said, some large presses like Pan Macmillan have time allotted to assess manuscripts by new writers (previously called Manuscript Mondays).
Most importantly, be persistent with your submissions. You need to try. And try, and try. Then, when you fail – because you will inevitably fail – when you receive your twentieth rejection letter of the month, then try again.
Publishers across all genres are often overwhelmed with a ridiculous influx of work, and they cannot possibly publish it all. Do not be disheartened by rejection letters though; learn from them. If a publisher has taken the time to write you feedback, then absorb what they have to say. Some will be more generous with this feedback than others; some will send a generic rejection letter, and others simply won’t respond.
One of my poet-mentors, Ali Whitelock, shared this mantra about writing: submit and forget. Submit your work to as many places as possible, then move on to your next project to keep your sanity intact.
9. Pay close attention to submission guidelines
As an editor, there is nothing worse than opening a document and seeing an obscure, overly flourished font that I can barely read, or a typeface that is all over the place (never, ever centre align a non-poem). If a publisher asks for a 12pt Times New Roman font with each page numbered and titled, then you better follow those guidelines. It’s unlikely that they will reject your submission if your font size is too small or large, but obeying the guidelines demonstrates you have done a little bit of reading of their website.
10. Take a leap of faith.
Writing requires persistence, and above all, it requires a leap of faith into an unknown (possibly unknowable) space.