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Steps to become a successful writer


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You love to write, and perhaps you’ve even had some of your work published, but you just can’t seem to get your career as a freelance writer of nonfiction off the ground. Here are some flight lessons:

  1. Focus

    Nonfiction is an enormous universe. Map out a very small segment of the cosmos. Do you enjoy writing creative nonfiction — long articles and essays with a narrative flair that reads almost like fiction? Or do you have a more practical bent, tending toward how-to articles or procedural guides? Perhaps you’d like to write reviews of books or video games or software or appliances. Narrow your topic field; you can always widen your scope later.
  2. Adopt

    What are your favorite Web sites or magazines or books? Are there writers whose styles inspire you? Find the publications that publish the kinds of content you like to read, and study the writing techniques on display. Don’t strive to imitate; use this step simply to help you find your niche.
  3. List

    Create a short directory of publications or publishers to target. Assuming you’re just starting out, list targets more likely to publish writing by a beginner, but don’t be afraid to include a couple more high-profile publications. And don’t neglect what’s right under your nose: community newspaper(s), local magazines, and Web sites that publicize your region’s businesses or cultural and natural assets.
  4. Compile

    Collect some of your best writing — published or otherwise — that represents you well and matches the type of content those publications are looking for.
  5. Contact

    Go to your publisher directory, look up the URL for publication Web sites, and search for submission guidelines. If there are none, send a request for guidelines to the editorial department’s email address or the information address.
  6. Pitch

    Come up with proposals for a few articles or essays you’d like to write, match them to various publications, and send them in. Alternatively or in addition, submit completed articles on spec. (“On spec,” short for “on specifications,” means tailoring an already written piece toward a specific market and offering it for publication.)

    The strategy of writing on spec has its detractors, but it’s a good way to break into the writing market, and even if the piece itself is turned down, it may demonstrate to an editor that your pitch is worth a look, or that you might be a good match for an article they need a writer for.
  7. Persevere

    Repeat step 6. If your pitch or your spec article is rejected, send it to someone else. If you strike out five or ten times, retire the idea, call in another one, and start another round with a new batch of publications. (Wait a few months before circling back around to those that turned you down previously, but never delete them from your directory.) Repeat.

    You may get an acceptance or an assignment on your first try. (It’s happened.) You may get turned down once, or ten times, or a hundred times. Don’t give up. If you want it bad enough, you’ll get it, eventually. Your goal is not to hear “No” a given number of times, but to hear “Yes” once, and then once more, and then once more after that, etc. An unpublished writer is a writer who has given up.
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