Recently, an interviewer asked me what I considered the most common "mistake" made by beginning writers. It was a difficult question, because there is no single answer. Writers -- beginning or advanced -- are not a homogenous group of people, but a wildly diverse assortment of folks. Consequently, they are likely to make a wildly diverse assortment of mistakes!
Nevertheless, certain key miscalculations tend to be common among new writers. Here's my vote for the top three:
I call this problem "The Redbook Syndrome," and see it far too often in writing classes. A student describes an article s/he would like to write, and adds that s/he thinks it would be "just perfect" for Redbook, or Cosmo, or Ladies Home Journal, or a similar leading magazine.
Often, "The Redbook Syndrome"is the result of a writer's ignorance about markets. Redbook, Cosmopolitan, and similar publications are the most visible magazines in the marketplace: You can find them at checkout counters in grocery stores and drug stores; you can find them in airport shops; you can peruse them in waiting rooms everywhere. When many writers start thinking about "writing for magazines," therefore, they naturally think about writing for the magazines they see every day -- the ones that appear most familiar.
Unfortunately, this visibility is exactly what makes these magazines so difficult to break into. Such magazines are at the checkout counters because they can afford to be: They can pay for this positioning. That means they can also afford to pay for the best writers money can buy -- and feature an exclusive novelette by Danielle Steele, an interview with Katharine Hepburn, and the latest recipes from Oprah's personal chef all in the same issue.
As a new writer, therefore, you're up against some serious competition when attempting to pitch your idea to Redbook. But it isn't just the "big name" authors that you're competiting with. Because of their visibility, the top publications are deluged with amateur and inappropriate submissions -- not only from beginning writers, but from readers who aren't really writers at all, but simply everyday folks with a story they're burning to tell. If you don't have a "name" yet as a writer, you're going to end up in the same slush-pile as all those stories about "my dreadful divorce" or "my perfect kids" -- and it's going take not just a good idea but a downright incredible idea and a lot of luck to get out of that pile.
There is only one sure way of breaking into the big leagues: By working your way up. If you dream of seeing your name in Redbook or something similar, pursue that dream by submitting your work to publications that are appropriate for your current level of expertise, whatever that may be. Forget the checkout racks and comb the magazine stands in the back of the store, or in a bookstore, or at a newsstand. Look for markets that are likely to be receptive to your work today. Build clips, polish your skills, make contacts, and learn the trade. Focus your energies on the process of turning yourself into a respected, reputable, professional writer. It doesn't take as long as you think -- and it takes far less time than submitting your work over and over to markets that aren't appropriate.
The flip side of "The Redbook Syndrome" is the "Not Ready for Prime Time Syndrome." In this case, "prime time" means any magazine that actually pays money (or decent money).
Far too many excellent writers are convinced that no "real" magazine would buy their material. Instead of submitting their work to paying publications, therefore, they write for free, contributing articles to newsletters, charities, local papers, and any other paper that accepts volunteer work. "Someday," such writers think, "I'll submit my work to a real publication -- once I get good enough." But someday never comes.
To be blunt, this is rarely a writing issue. It's a self-esteem issue. It's not even a fear of rejection in the classic sense -- the fear that one's work will be rejected. Rather, it is a fear of rejection of self, a fear (or expectation) that predates one's writing career. Writers who have learned to expect rejection of self (through personal experiences that have nothing to do with writing) often automatically expect rejection of their work as well. The unspoken assumption is something like "Since I'm not good enough, my work couldn't possibly be good enough either."
In other cases, the problem arises from a misperception of what it means to be a writer. Most of us carry an image of what a "real" writer is like -- how such a person lives, works, and thinks. That picture often isn't helped by interviews witih writers who talk about getting up at 4 a.m. to crank out 50 pages of a novel, or who write eight hours a day, or who carry a journal everywhere, or who live in New York, or whatever. That image is often enough to convince us that we must not be "real" writers ourselves, and that we can't expect to find publication in "real" magazines until we are.
A real writer is a person who writes. If you have been placing material in nonpaying markets, you are a real writer. You have stepped out of the ranks of countless wannabes who talk about writing but never actually do it. Furthermore, you are a "published" writer, whether paid or not. But perhaps the most important thing to realize is that those nonpaying markets aren't doing you a "favor" by accepting and printing your offerings. You are doing them a favor by giving your work away for free.
So consider doing a favor for the rest of the world. Take a deep breath, and resolve that "someday" is going to become "today." Research some paying markets (no matter how small), and start submitting to those markets. Yes, you're going to get rejected ("real" writers do) -- but you're also going to get accepted. And those acceptance letters may prove the best therapy in the world.
The third most common (and most destructive) mistake beginning writers make is failing to submit to any market, high or low. I call this the "Novel in the Sock Drawer Syndrome" -- the writer who hides away years of work and never dares to send any of it out.
Again, this is rarely a writing issue. I know several "sock drawer" writers -- and all of them are excellent. It's not lack of skill that prevents such writers from approaching the market. It is fear -- but the exact nature of that fear varies from writer to writer. For some, it is fear of failure: One's rosy picture of a bestselling novel could be all too easily shattered by a string of rejections. For others, it is fear of success: What if I sell this work and never come up with anything worthwhile again?
Some writers consign their work to the sock drawer because of lack of personal support from family and loved ones. They are told that you have to have "connections" to get anywhere in writing, or that "someone like you" could never expect to crack the big New York markets. Some are actively discouraged by family members who think writing is a silly or frivolous hobby, or that the writer should be spending more time taking care of the needs (or demands) of others. Some are discouraged by overly competitive or critical family members, people who can't seem to bear letting the writer "shine" (or "outshine") themselves. Some are pressured to put aside writing and "get a job."
To many writers, sending out a manuscript and getting a rejection would seem the final confirmation of all those discouraging voices. They were right all along! I don't have what it takes, I should stay home and take more care of my family, or go out and get a real job, or forget such high-falutin' notions, or realize that I don't have nearly the skill and intelligence of my significant other. Even if one doesn't quite believe this, one still realizes that any rejection will simply add fuel to the dissenting voices of unsupporting unbelievers -- so why take the risk?
Writers who live in this type of environment die a little inside each time those negative voices persuade them to postpone or deny their dreams. The risk of exchanging a well written legacy for a poorly written tombstone is very real. If this describes you, I have but one suggestion: Get on the Net. Join a discussion group, an e-mail list, a critique group, a newsgroup. Find a community of writers whose voices won't bring you down, and among whom you may find kindred souls who have experienced the same difficulties (or fears) that are keeping your dreams on the sock drawer. Now, like never before, writers have the opportunity to break out of isolation and find support across the Web and across the world. It's a powerful, and empowering experience.
And who knows? With a little bit of encouragement, you may find yourself on the way to Redbook!
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