Equipping Writers for Success
The Writing Life
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by Isabella E.C. Akinseye
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Finding the Root Cause
While some articles only need to be tweaked and adjusted to make the mark, others need to be given a totally new direction. But before you go tearing your precious piece into shreds, take a moment and reread the rejection letters. What are the editors saying and, more importantly, not saying? An article may have the perfect fit, but there might not be any room for it to be published. Other times, the language and style used might not be suitable for the intended audience. Has something similar been published before or recently somewhere else? When no feedback is provided, why not give the piece to members of your writers' circle to read and critique? This could be done anonymously, so they remain as objective as possible. You should also allow some time to pass so you can reread your work with fresh eyes. For a fee, you can have your work professionally assessed by a number of reputable literary agencies that charge reading fees or offer editing packages. All these tips can help you get to the possible root of the rejection. With new insight, you can then adapt your article and resubmit. If all that still fails, then you should consider doing the following:
Words are not just meant to be read, they are also meant to be heard. There is a huge market for audio material ranging from audio books to spoken word poetry. Perhaps that poem of yours is better performed as a rap. You could explore your new made-up words that are hard to express in written form but are easily spoken.
I remember an exercise I once did on a writing course. It involved descriptive writing: creating a setting and appealing to all five senses. It did not have a real narrative. I forgot about it until I was approached by a lady who worked with children who have had problematic childhoods. She wanted to record some mental exercises that would help them to relax, stir up their imagination and still have fun. She already had material for us to record but I suggested that we used my descriptive piece and infuse it with the exercises. It worked and she loved it.
When it comes to stories, you can be flexible in the way you tell them. The important thing is how you adapt them in order to attract new markets. Your true-life story could be embellished and expanded into a fictional story. You can even change the ending and let your imagination run wild. Another example is to consider dramatising the story. Perhaps your memorable Christmas experience would make a punchy one act play. A self-help article could become animated through the introduction of music, dance, costumes and special effects through a short video. Always bear in mind that each new genre poses its own pros and cons and this could affect the message you are trying to pass across. Before you begin to consider rewriting to fit a new genre, first nail down the essence or gist of your piece and decide what you are willing to compromise on and what you are not.
If your true life story includes other people playing major parts, you have to be careful when fictionalising it, as merely changing names and the setting might not be enough. In some instances, it is advisable to get the permission of people who might or might not be comfortable with the way you portray them. For the writer, this presents a creative challenge to retain the essence of the characters while finding a way to make the story more generic without losing your unique treatment.
Sometimes, the barrier between you and a successful submission is the wrong target audience. New and experienced writers must always do their research, and this goes beyond reading submission guidelines and sample material. It is also about following some unwritten rules. Different markets in different countries have their own stance on what is acceptable and appropriate for a specific age range. It might be okay to talk about sex in Young Adult novel for a more general market, while religious markets might be totally against it.
Correctly Gauge the Readers' Ability
When it comes to writing for children, the content is just as important as the style and vocabulary used. A difference of one or two years could mean the difference between preschool reading and early years 'school' reading. Even if the story has the same appeal to both groups, the comprehension levels are different and the choice of words must match the reading level. In this case, it is very helpful to go through similar books for a particular age range and make notes on style, sentence construction, picture/text ratio and subject matter.
Explore Multiple Audiences
It's also possible that an article you wrote might have multiple audiences, some less obvious than others. I wrote 'How to Be a Student Writer' with a broad audience of writers in general in mind. Yet after multiple submissions to more general markets, I decided to adapt the piece as a literary workshop for students at my alma mater. Here, I broadened my target audience to both non-student and student writers. I realised that the article was too basic and too specifically targeted to what might only be a small minority of the readers of a general writing publication. Another way to repurpose my rejected piece might be to submit to student publications or rewrite it with a teacher audience in mind.
Prune the Extras
While I have discussed embellishing and expanding pieces in this article, sometimes the opposite is required. Writers for younger children have the hard job of making every word count. This requires simplifying the story and sticking to only the parts that actually drive the plot or concept further. For a nonfiction self-help piece, you might be trying to advise on too many areas, which could cause the reader to lose interest.
If narrowing your work down makes you struggle for words, it means that you still need to do more research. Go beyond the traditional media of books and consult audio-visual sources, websites, magazines, films and newspapers, just to mention a few. But be careful not to put too much emphasis on sources that have not been/cannot be verified and those that have not stood the test of time. It is better to use them for illustrative purposes or to show another perspective. When it comes to the academia market, Wikipedia does not cut it. You are better off scrolling down the page and researching the sources cited in the article.
What happens when you have put all these tips into practice and still have no success? You have to think out of the box and innovate. This could mean identifying a gap in the market and creating your own niche genre, or merely spinning the wheel in another direction. A problematic submission that you are passionate about and believe in could force you to exploit new media. It might mean assembling your target audience physically or in cyberspace and then finding a unique way of sharing your material. If you are able to sustain the momentum and generate enough demand, you will not only be grinning to the bank but more importantly, you will become a specialist in the field.
Keep It for a Rainy Day
A writing sample is helpful to a jobseeker. It is always good to have them, even better when they are published. However, some writing samples can have become dated and no longer be as relevant as they were when they were written. I was once commissioned to be a guest Arts editor in Arik Wings, the in-flight magazine of Arik Air. I interviewed a film director as well as five authors and did a review of Sade's new album 'Soldier of Love'. Only the interviews made it, even though I was still paid for all three. I was later told that some advertising had come in and my review had to be sacrificed. So when it comes to markets in need of music reviews, I now have a solid one in the kitty. In the future, it could also serve as a reference point for a more general piece on Sade as a group and its music.
If all else fails and you still want to get that rejected piece out there, consider self-publishing. This can be done free on the internet on a personal blog, Facebook or a website you run. You could also invest your money and self-publish in print, audio, audio-visual and e-book formats. You can go through reputable self-publishing firms or do the work yourself or a hybrid of both. This might be your best bet when it comes to personal stories such as memoirs, biographies and family history, which are unlikely to attract a publisher unless you are a celebrity or known public figure or have done something extraordinary. The downside is that it might cost you a lot of money and the only reward is the satisfaction of sharing your story -- but for some writers, this is enough.
Never Give Up
In a writing life, rejections are as common as a cold. In the newbie days, a lot of your learning (even after doing courses) will be on the job and the most valuable lessons you will learn are about getting up, dusting yourself off and soldiering on. But even for the experienced writer, new markets pose new challenges and no matter how far you have gone, you never get 'there.'
A rejected piece forces a paradigm shift. It is about seeing solutions and new ways of pushing your creative boundaries where others see problems. So before you start a new writing project, why not revisit your old work and get inspired as you make repurposing your rejections one of your writing resolutions?
Isabella E.C. Akinseye recently graduated with a BA Education with English and Drama from the University of Cambridge, where she wrote for The Cambridge Student, became the editor of Aspire magazine and had her opinion piece published in the international digital edition of the Times Higher Education. Her work has appeared in True Love West Africa, Rivulet, TW magazine, Exceed, Beyond Weddings, NEXT newspapers, Style House Files and TIEC Group, among others. She lives in Nigeria and is currently working on her first book.