It's usually with much hesitation that I discuss work with new acquaintances; it's not because I'm not happy with what I do or that what I do is top-secret, but rather because when I do make small talk about work, I'm usually met with a glazed expression and a polite nod, a smile that doesn't quite reach the eyes. But not this time; this time, I was met with a commiserating nod and engaged smiles before these hearing their own stories of writing and editing.
It was brilliant.
There were a few in attendance who hadn't yet made their mark, and the conversation addressed how to get to that point where you are a successful freelance writer. What I've recognized as an editor and also as a writer is that it can be incredibly difficult to break into writing. It's a specific skill set to write for magazines, much different than writing for school.
School is important, and I don't mean to downplay a solid education in proper methods of writing and editing; this education provides a solid foundation, but not all the answers. Because in real life, writing (as with most everything) never follows all the rules.
I spoke with one new acquaintance about "where do you start?" when you start writing? I think that any experienced writer has struggled with this one for a while, but what works for me is to start where you are. Do you have a bit of story bursting out? Start there. If it happens that this is in the middle of your tale, you can add the beginning later.
Because when you are writing there are no rules to how you do it; there is only doing it.
I don't mean to sound glib; when I progressed from technical writing to writing service articles and features for magazines, I struggled mightily. I'd sit there with my notes and my research and my snippets of quotes and text and the point that I was trying to make and I would want to cry and run and hide from being overwhelmed.
The starting is the hardest part.
In one particular article, I think I used an entire notebook trying to start writing that damn story. I couldn't find the right way to start it. I turned to my editor to share my distress (i.e., whine and complain) and she gave me advice that would change my life: just start writing.
I'm sure at the time it was out of frustration that she shared these words with me as I was perilously close to busting my deadline and she needed her article; but I started writing, I pushed all my research aside and started at the place that was personal, the lead-in that spoke to my own connection and interest in the article, and that was it.
I finished that piece in under 30 minutes.
Three days of struggling with the first sentence and 30 minutes.
Point being? If you're struggling for where to start? Just start. Nobody needs to know that it was really the paragraph before the conclusion where you began writing; just let it flow out and then edit it or reorganize it after you get it all out.
As an editor, I've often felt like a dream killer when approached by new writers; fresh out of college, without any professional experience, these writers are excited to start working. Unfortunately, writing for college and writing for publication are much different, and there needs to be some kind of mentorship, some kind of in between education that has to happen to teach these untested writers the finer points of writing. But time is a hot commodity and one that I don't have in excess (and from speaking to others in the industry, that's not uncommon). Mentoring new writers, helping them to grow and learn the finer points of writing for publication, is not something that I've been able to do. Perhaps some day this will change.
I can offer some advice, however. Are you a new graduate looking to start freelancing? Here are a few quick tips to get you started:
- Forget the rules. The rules you learned in school will inform your writing and serve you well, but get them out of the front of your brain. They don't belong there. Writing is an art, no matter what kind of writing you do. Rules don't belong there. Trust that you will remember all of the things you learned and you'll apply them when you need to, but don't think too hard about it.
- Get personal. Especially in magazines (which is my area of expertise in particular), that conversational yet professional tone is what engages the readers. And your voice is what makes you unique. Don't strip it out of your work; hone it and trust it.
- Don't get hung up on the details. If you keep telling yourself you don't know how to start your article or how to end it with a punch, you'll never start it. Let your research simmer in your brain and find the connections; sitting there talking yourself out of being effective is ... well, ineffective.
- Learn effective stress-relief techniques. Writing is stressful. Research is stressful. Editing is stressful. Seeing your byline is glorious and makes it all worthwhile. But you need to learn to let the stress roll off your back. Understand that you will be edited (I've never EVER published anything that wasn't) and when you are working with a magazine, the editor's voice usually trumps the writer's voice if there is a conflict.
- Network with like-minded individuals. This cannot be over-stressed. It can be difficult to connect with editors and other writers, but it's very necessary to connect. Make connections. Be nice. People like nice people. But be yourself, too. Nobody likes fake people.