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John Sciacca Writes...

Features, Reviews and a Blog by John Sciacca

Random Thoughts (Blog)

Random Thoughts (Blog)

So, you want to be a writer?

Posted on September 5, 2011 at 8:00 PM

While I by no means consider myself an authority on the matter, I think it probably is safe to say that if you are reading my blog, that I have had more stories published than you have. Besides the 500+ blog posts I've put up here, I have had somewhere around 250 reviews, features, columns, blogs and miscellaneous other blurbs that have been published – and paid for – in a variety of different outlets both print and electronic over the past 12 years. And, as someone who “broke” into this writing thing, at this point I feel that I am somewhat qualified to offer some advice and suggestion in the ways in which you can pursue becoming a writer if you are so inclined.


First, I thought I'd share some advice that I heard over the weekend. While it wasn’t given about writing per se, it struck me as poignant and applicable and I immediately whipped out my notebook and jotted it down. (That’s your first bit of advice, children. Always carry a notebook – or something – with you where you can jot notes and thoughts down. You never know when inspiration will strike, and it pays to be prepared. Don’t lose one single bit of brilliance because you weren’t prepared to capture it on paper!) The advice was, “Thought leads to desire. Desire leads to action.” This is kind of “get ‘er done!” motivational version of Yoda’s little, “Fear leads to anger. Anger leads to hate. Hate leads to suffering,” warning about the road leading to the Dark Side. (Sadly, I have to report that becoming a writer will provide no Force powers, Dark or otherwise.)


So, if you’ve “thought” about being a writer, you probably have some kind of desire to do it. But you need to analyze what the root of that “desire” is before you go about putting it into action. First, what do you expect to “get” out of being a writer? Sadly, unless you have the next John Grisham, Nicholas Sparks or J K Rowling novel inside of you – and let me be the one to tell you, you probably don’t -- chances are that you aren’t going to get rich from it. Newspapers never pay well – in my experience – and magazines are routinely cutting page counts or disappearing altogether. The Web is where you have the best chance of being published – at least to start – and payment on the Web varies from nothing, to slave’s wages to enough to buy a decent meal, to enough to make a lease payment on your BMW. And while in 1776 Samuel Johnson may have said, “No man but a blockhead ever wrote except for money,” I would tell Mr. Johnson that times have changed, and ultimately, if you are thinking about becoming a writer for the money, then I’d suggest that you find a better use of your time. Do it well, and the money MAY come. But far better to do it because you love it, because you have something to say, because you want to increase your exposure and share your knowledge or just see what kind of reaction you get from people, but do it for some reason other than the money.


As much as the Web has taken away from writers financially, it has opened up the doors to a lot of new voices. Editors are *always* hungry for new writers and new material, and the Web has a voracious, black hole appetite that needs to be constantly fed with new content. Sites like Engadget and Gizmodo and others run MANY stories throughout a day, meaning that they need a lot of writers to fill in those blanks. That translates to you having a better chance now than ever before of being able to get something published.


So, how to you go about doing it? How do you take the “I want to be a writer” and turn it into “I AM a writer”? Or better yet “I am a PUBLISHED writer!”


Here’s what I know...


No training, no problem.

Writing is one of the few "professions" where you don’t need to really have ANY special training to be successful. Me? Never a day of college. No workshops, no “how to write” courses by mail or on-line. None of it. The extent of my writing “schooling” is 3 years of high school journalism. A lot of amazing writers have come from nowhere (not to say that I’m amazing, but, well, I DID get an e-mail saying I was awesome, so, you know...) and there is no reason why you can’t be one of them.


To quote Stephen King, “A writer writes.”

If you just woke up one morning and said, “Hmm, I need some coffee. And, PS, Self; today we’re gonna become a writer!” chances are you’ll suck. And you’ll likely quit just as quickly. Because sitting in front of that blank monitor can be pretty daunting if you don’t have something to say or have never practiced actually saying it. I’m not implying that you either ARE or you are NOT a writer, but, as the master said, “A writer writes.” Before I was paid a single penny for any writing; before I had a single reader for my writing; before there was even the idea of an Internet where unpublished stories could go forth and be merry; before ANY of that, I still wrote. Letters to friends, short and mid-length stories, the attempted novel. A writer writes. And if you haven’t been writing, then you need to get to it. Like any craft, writing needs to be honed through practice. Start a blog, start a journal, start some fan fiction explaining the ending of "Lost," start writing *something*. Because if you’ve never done it before, you probably need to work on it. And I’m guessing a lot.


Challenge yourself.

As an exercise pick something; a recent movie you watched, a vacation you took, a backstory to the jerk that cut you off, what the "Will work for food" guy does at the end of the day, whatever. Pick something and then write 500 words about it. And then do it again with something else. Then again. Then keep doing it. Then, let someone who will give you an honest opinion read what you’ve written. The really great writers can take those same 500 words and make you feel like you’ve read a 1000 worth of information. When you’re done, you feel like you not only know more about the subject, but feel entertained and slightly better for reading it. In the tech world, I think Dennis Burger and Geoff Morrison do a great job of this. But, respectfully, I don’t think anyone in the biz -- myself included -- does it as well as Brent Butterworth. Brent could make reading an article about a “prune colon cleanse” fascinating, and he has an economy of words that still delivers a wealth of information. Reading Brent makes me always think, “Damn! I’ve still got a ways to go before I get there.”


A writer also reads.

Amongst my writer friends, I don’t know any of them than don’t also read quite a bit. Trade journals, magazines, Websites, books, cereal boxes, whatever. Read. This will help you develop your vocabulary and find a sense of what styles you think work. Look up and read some stuff by Dennis, Geoff and Brent and get an idea how “good” writers phrase things. (Or, you know, just click through some of my 500 other blog posts. In fact, yeah, do that first.)


Be unique.

There are a lot of other writers out there, what is going to make your writing stand out? What do you bring to the table? What angle – or “lens” -- can you look at this story that is new and different than anyone else who has told it and offer a more interesting perspective? You’ve had unique life experiences and encounters and that’s what you need to bring to your work. Here’s an example. When Bill Clinton was president, he played a lot of golf and there were a ton of stories about the president golfing. Stories analyzing his swing and his course management and his play style and his equipment and blah, blah. Ultimately, they were pretty much all the same story with different supporting characters and in different locations. When he played at my golf course, I pitched a story on working with the Secret Service and the arrangements and backend required to host the president for a round of golf. This was an *entirely* different take on what could have been just another Clinton golfing story. It sold to the first person I pitched it to.


Know your reader.

Who will be interested in reading this story and why? Are they interested in deep tech, fine-detail, obscure minutiae, and a bombardment of facts and figures, or are they looking for an amuse bouche taste of the subject to just sample the flavor of a subject? Do they want snarky and edgy, or a “just the facts, ma’am” approach? Will they be impressed by big words and complex phrases? Do they want a lot of personal experience or a sterile observation? Ultimately, you’ll be more successful if you know and write to your target audience.


Know who to reach out to.

If you want to get something published beyond your own blog, then that will mean reaching out to…someone. Generally, the editor-in-chief is not the right guy, but someone below him. Magazines often have a separate features and reviews editor. Every magazine has a masthead that lists the editors, generally with an e-mail address. Websites have some kind of "contact us" section. If you’re not sure who to reach out to, then the EiC can be a good starting point, asking if they can direct you to the correct person. Remember, that first story is your foot in the door; it is your resume starter. It is your ability to tell the NEXT editor that, "Yes, I have been published” and when they ask for a sample of your work, you’ll have somewhere to point them to.


Have a quick sales pitch prepared.

When you get the opportunity to present your idea, you'll need to have a simple, effective description – “pitch” -- of your story that can be quickly given and understood verbally or in an e-mail. An editor is not going to want a flowery 500 word synopsis of your life and experiences and other things you’ve written and blah, blah. They don’t know you, they are busy, and they just want to hear the bullet. Assume he gets hundreds of e-mails daily and that you have one minute of his time to capture his interest and impress him. Make your pitch short, sharp and captivating. My initial pitch to Home Theater mag was, “Dolby Digital is brand new and no one is talking about it. I want to review Dolby Digital Laser Discs and describe the best audio demo scenes.” That was it. I got a call back within 24 hours. If they’re interested after that initial encounter, then you can hit them with all the other stuff. Or maybe not.


Hit your word count.

The best 2000 word story in the world doesn't help an editor who only has space for 1000, or, more likely nowadays, 500-800. This is where the economy of words and being able to say more with less becomes so important. When I’m writing for publication, I almost always have to go back and make big cuts; triaging the parts that I feel are most important and sacrificing the best. Finding ways to keep the important ideas -- and still maintaining your unique flavor and style -- is a real trick. Admittedly, this is less of an issue for on-line pubs where word counts are generally not an issue, but even still, most outlets are probably not going to let an unknown writer submit some magnum opus.


Make sure you meet your deadline.

I can’t emphasize how important this is. You want to develop a reputation, and you don’t want it to be one of, “You’ll be waiting on this guy.” If you ever want to write for them again, don’t turn your stories in late.


Like a good chili, let it simmer.

While you do NOT want to miss a deadline, don’t be in a pants-on-fire rush to turn a story in either. Write it, read it, edit it, read it again. Let it rest a few hours, read it again. Kill those stupid mistakes like typos and simple grammatical errors. Things like having your “it’s” and “its” correct or showing that you know how to use “their” and “there”. I try to let a story “rest” overnight before turning it in and almost always when I’ll look at it again after some time away from it, I'll find something that needs a change or tweak that helps it read better.


Have another set of eyes.

Not so much anymore, but for the first few YEARS, Dana read EVERYTHING before I turned it in. She was the perfect editor because she knew nothing about the tech that I was describing, and if she came away not understanding something, it needed to be reworked. Plus, she would often catch things that I missed and would occasionally offer a better way to phrase something. Call this a pre-edit, and for a new writer, it is a great crutch to lean on.


Stay in touch but don't pester.

If they have all of your contact info -- and if they've been able to get in touch with you in the past -- then they do and they'll get you if they need to. Follow up once after a week, then once again a week later. If you haven’t heard anything back, well, take that as a subtle “thanks, but no thanks.” Here’s the good news: You’ve already written your story AND your pitch so it will be easy to move on to the next guy. Also, this might be a good opporunity to take another look at it; could be it needs some tweaks.


For more about my thoughts on writing, you might learn a tip or two from the post I did titled, “12 things I know about blogging.” It offers some other tips -- 12 of them to be exact -- that may or may not be of any use. If nothing else, clicking on the link will raise my page views total, so there's that.


Now, go forth and write! And if you find success, please let me know about it!

Categories: September 2011, On Writing

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Reply Richard Fregosa
2:58 AM on September 7, 2011 
Funny you should post this...

As we twittered with one another about this, the timing couldn't have been better as I'm preparing for my blog to go live tomorrow, and I spent *years* toiling over this whole process and the masochistic act that writing can be.

For the most part, I like the bullet points you've laid out, which reflects what a lot of writers advise (which must mean it's good advice if you keep seeing it pop up over and over again)

An adjunct to the whole "carry a notebook" point, I have amended my personal version to be "carry a smartphone" and here's the reasons:

1. I have quicker constant access to my phone.

2. I can jot my notes in my phone just as easy as I can in a notepad (and in my case faster - as I have horrible penmanship), and my phone backs up my thoughts to the interwebz on the off chance I might lose it or break it.

3. My phone shares Item 2 to my other writing utensils (laptop and iPad)

4. If I'm driving I can save my notes as a voice recording (writing and driving = bad juju)

5. Blog Specific - My phone lets me work on my drafts "live" on my blogging site

"Hit Your Word Count" is in my opinion, the most important point in this whole posting.

Writer, edit thyself - It's too easy to just go for it if you don't have any word caps and push for sheer volume as a means of being impressive. In reality it invariably just drowns out your message.

Find a copy of Strunk and White's "The Elements of Style" and keep it handy - and live by Rule #17: Omit Needless Words

See You in Indy,

Reply JR
10:51 AM on October 18, 2011 
Great advice, John! And, you were an awesome high school journalist! Although you might not have gone to college, you definitely were self-motivated in the area of writing, and would continually push yourself to better your stories. So don't sell yourself short! (I remember your desire to be a writer since the days where you would bring in a "short story" of 200 pages to read "at your leisure" !!) I also chuckle, though, at your advice to "be able to say more with less" because I recall those words as my main, consistent comment to you...back in the day!
Keep writing! And, I will keep reading! :-)