Writers Write and So Much More

“So, you’re just writing now?”

My lunch companion’s question was innocent enough. After all, she knew that I’d just quit a part-time gig teaching writing at a public high school.

I swallowed hard and calmly said, “Yes.” While conversation moved onto holiday plans and my daughter’s college applications, my mind kept coming back to her words: Just writing.

Why hadn’t I jumped onto the table, flailed my arms about, and shouted what I truly meant to say: Yes! I’m writing – and so, so much more!

I am certain that my friend was in no way belittling what I do, but I’ve heard it before. People have this weird – almost romantic – perception that writers spend their days curled up in comfy chairs, sipping tea, and waiting for inspiration. Not exactly.

The working writers I know are equal parts wordsmith and hustler. They work days, nights and weekends. Even when they’re not working, they’re working – scouting for ideas, looking for connections, polishing sentences until they’re bright and shiny.

Think writers just write? Think again. These are just some of the behind-the-scenes tasks writers tackle on a regular basis:

Brainstorming

I have notebooks in my car, my purse, on my nightstand, in the den – all for the purpose of capturing ideas.

Ideas are born everywhere and they’re slippery little fellows, so you must act quickly when you sense one. Inspiration for articles, books, characters, settings and plots can come from anywhere: A conversation overheard in a coffee shop, an episode of a 1970s television sit-com, the way rain bounces off the window sill.

Creating a backlog of ideas is an important part of writing. Of course, not every idea becomes a story, but without ideas a writer would have nowhere to start.

Researching

Research varies, depending upon what kind of writing you’re doing. Writing a book about the United States’ first African-American astronaut? You’ll soon find yourself up to your eyeballs in old news clippings, scientific journals, and official NASA documents.

Writing a fictional short story about a young girl living in London in the 1840s? You’ll need to research popular girls’ names and clothing of the era. You will have to learn how people got around the city, which neighborhoods existed, what the political and social climates were like, what the economy was like. Even when creating fiction, research is necessary in order to create a realistic storyline and believable characters. Imagine that your young English girl loves hearing the chimes of Big Ben, but alert readers know that couldn’t be because the landmark wasn’t completed until 1859. Those readers are going to begin to question everything about your story. A lack of research makes for an untrustworthy author.

Writing/Rewriting

Once enough research has been done and you know where you’re headed with your story or article, you can begin writing. Production varies greatly from day to day and writer to writer. In his autobiography, American author and humorist Mark Twain wrote that when he was finishing Following The Equator in 1897, he was writing an average of 1,800 words per day. In an interview published in 2002 in The Paris Review, English novelist Ian McEwan said his daily production was considerably lower, at around 600 words per day. If you land somewhere in between these literature legends and are able to write 1,200 words per day, it will take you 75 days to complete a 90,000-word manuscript, IF you don’t get stuck or frustrated or sidetracked. And that’s just the first draft.

Even Stephen King, who has published 56 novels, writes three separate drafts. In his book On Writing, he explains that he writes a first draft, then lets it sit for a month or more while he works on other projects. After a four- to six-week brain break, he rereads his manuscript, paying close attention to theme, character development and plot holes. He then writes draft number two. Kings sends his second drafts out to beta readers and uses their feedback to create his third draft.

Three drafts is just the beginning for many novelists. Perhaps it’s not the entire manuscript that needs rewriting, but rather a chapter or two that require eight, nine or more revisions – it’s not unheard of. Even if you’re not working on a book-length project, the process of polishing your work is both crucial and time consuming.

Pitching

Once your manuscript is ready, it’s time to figure out how to get it published. Writers spend hours reading trade publications and doing online research to find agents who might be attracted to their work. Are these agents accepting new clients? What kinds of manuscripts are they looking for? How do they want work submitted? Some writers are lucky and connect with the very first agent they query. Others must go through the process over and over, until they land with an agent who believes in their work. And, even then, there will likely be more notes and more revisions before the manuscript can be sent off to editors.

While waiting to hear from publishers, most writers dig in on their next projects – another book, magazine articles, business writing to cover the bills. Those clients don’t often just present themselves. Writers must contact publications and corporations in search of paying work. The pitching never ends.

Marketing

Websites lend legitimacy to a writer’s career and body of work. Maintaining and keeping those websites up to date takes time. There are blog posts to write, reader emails to answer, client proposals to address. Now, more than ever, writers must also engage on social media – connecting with readers, fellow writers, agents and publishers. It all takes time.

Speaking/Teaching

Many writers supplement their income and boost their profile by speaking to community or school groups, doing readings at bookstores, or teaching classes at colleges or through writers’ conferences. I find that sharing my love of writing feeds my soul and makes me more energized, more proud of the work I do. Of course, those speaking engagements don’t schedule themselves. Writers must work with schools and conference leadership to find the best fits for their talents. And, of course, a day away teaching means you probably won’t reach your writing goal for the day, which means your first draft or revision will take even longer to complete. Tradeoffs are part of the game.

Reading

Even when it looks like a writer is relaxing with a good book, she’s working. Reading widely is some of the most important work a writer can do. It’s important to sample the classics, know what’s new and hot, and understand the most popular works in your genre. I try to read my way through the National Book Award finalists and Michael L. Printz honor books each year. Sure, I enjoy this task, but I also recognize that well-read writers are better, stronger writers.

So, yes, I am just writing right now.

I am crawling into my comfy chair to sip tea, send out a query, edit a chapter, research legal defenses for my law-breaking protagonist, update my website, answer reader emails and plan a workshop – all before I begin the actual task of writing for the day.

 

Here’s Something Every Writer Needs: Proofreading

You’ve written something – a novel, an email, an essay – and it’s important. Really important. So, before you hit send, I beg you: Proofread like your life (or job) depends on it.

Everyone makes mistakes. Unless you’re a reporter working on deadline, chances are you have the few extra minutes necessary to proofread and edit before your mistakes become public – and embarrassing.

My first job was as a newspaper copy editor. By the time stories got to me, they’d already been edited, so I was providing a final proofread. I caught lots of mistakes. I single-handedly stopped the newspaper from printing articles about “cork prices” (corn, corn, corn) and “barbecuing children” (make that chicken, please). I am sure I missed mistakes too, but none were as big and bad as these infamous proofreading fails:

Chalmers Roberts, who documented the history of the Washington Post, wrote about a headline the paper printed in 1940 on the first page of its early edition: FDR IN BED WITH COED. The President was actually in bed with a cold. The newspaper reportedly caught the mistake partway through the printing process and destroyed the offending copies before they were distributed.

In 2012, The (Centralia, Ill.) Morning Sentinel published this correction: “Due to a typing error, Saturday’s story on local artist Jon Henninger mistakenly reported that Henninger’s band mate Eric Lyday was on drugs. The story should have read that Lyday was on drums. The Sentinel regrets the error.”

Banner Travel Agency bought a $230 ad in its local Yellow Pages to promote its exotic vacations. Instead, thanks to a lack of proofreading, the ad touted “erotic” travel. In 1988, the Travel Agency successfully sued Pacific Bell for $10 million.

To ensure that your next email, tweet or blog post doesn’t contain the kind of error that makes it go viral for all the wrong reasons, follow these important steps:

1) Spellcheck. It’s a good first step, but it’s only a first step. Spellcheck doesn’t know whether names are correctly spelled and it doesn’t know if you’ve used the correct word. Use it, but don’t rely entirely on it.

2) Print it. Somehow mistakes you didn’t see on your computer or phone screen become glaringly obvious when they’re printed out. Take the time. Don’t just glance over the copy, really proofread it, line by line.

3) Read it out loud. Sure, you may sound loony if you share work space, but you’ll be amazed how many mistakes jump out at you when you hear them as well as see them. Reading aloud is also great for catching punctuation problems and words you’ve repeated over and over.

4) Get a second set of eyes on it. After you’ve done your first few read-throughs, ask a trusted colleague or friend to proofread your document, too. You know what the text is supposed to say. Someone who is not so familiar with it may find mistakes you’ve overlooked.

5) Double check names of people and places. You may spell Pflugerville or Skaneateles correctly the first time, but make sure those spellings don’t morph on the second or third mentions. When I worked for a newspaper in Iowa, Terry Branstad was governor. Within a single news article (pre-copyediting) I saw him referred to as “Brandstad,” “Branstand” and “Brandstand” – and his name isn’t even particularly difficult. Check, then double check.

6) Proofread everything. Reviewing body copy is important, but so are headlines, subheads, and captions. A mistake in the copy in an annual report is a sin; a mistake in a 72-point headline could be career-ending. And, just because your company always adds the same boilerplate template to the end of every news release doesn’t mean it’s error-free. Proofread it all.

7) Do the math. Anytime your work includes numbers, make sure they add up. If you say you’re going to offer “5 Quick Tips,” make sure there really are five tips. If you’re reporting on budgets or percentages, check and recheck your math.

8) Look at the big picture. If your copy is part of a newspaper,  newsletter or website, make sure the layout doesn’t create a mistake. Do articles continue on the pages they really say they continue on? Do links work? Even if everything in your copy is perfect, consider whether its placement is at all odd. A newsletter article about witches, for example, may make people shudder if it’s placed under a photo of your city council.

9) Walk away. Often deadlines don’t allow you to delay proofreading but, if you have the luxury of a little extra time, take advantage of it. If you finish a document a day early, wait to proofread until the next morning. Fresh eyes are more likely to detect errors. Even if you only have an hour to spare, get up from your desk and walk around. Clear your head before you dig back in to begin proofing. Time away really does make a difference.

10) Remember: Proofreading and editing are not the same. Proofreading catches typos, spelling errors and missing punctuation. Editing is more in-depth, focusing on content, structure, clarity and flow. Most writing will benefit from both.

If you’re a notoriously bad speller or you don’t know a colon from an ellipsis, hire a professional proofreader, editor or writer to do the work. The money you’ll spend is an investment in making sure you and your business are portrayed in the best possible light.