I have heard it said that if the desire to write is not followed by writing, then the desire is not to write. This is what goes through my mind whenever I am approached about submissions to the Independent, which as anyone who frequents my established hangouts knows is often. I try to be gracious and encouraging, but sometimes I want to say, “Write something and send it to me. We’ll go from there if and when you do.”
Admittedly, the notion that putting pen to paper is the litmus for ones seriousness is a somewhat universal principle. One can demonstrate the degree with which they take any endeavor by either doing or not doing it, but writing has its own unique vantage on this.
I lament at times this old adage about writing being easy whereby it is stated that one just stares at a blank screen until their forehead bleeds. In my own case, I liken writing an article to the process of vomiting. First, there is the sweaty fever and dizziness, then the denial it’s coming, and eventually a succumbing to the inevitable. Finally, there’s the momentary relief from the release. Then repeat.
But that’s me.
For would-be writers, I thought perhaps I’d offer some insight based on my own experience from having worked in the craft for some time now. For the purpose of this exercise, I will be speaking to the would-be column contributor, but the principles have some transcendent value for sure.
I have often said that I believe every would-be-writer has at least one or two good columns in them. My experience in the matter has revealed that the writers who have it in themselves to produce a column consistently on a weekly deadline are few and far between, however.
At the outset, I will usually dismiss anyone merely showing an interest in submitting a column or letter and wait until they actually do. But I do realize there may well be a few out there waiting for the bleeding of the forehead to commence, so here’s a few things that help me.
First and foremost, have something to say. An opinion piece is not entirely encumbered by the necessities of a news piece, which is largely bound by the facts and only the facts. For the most part, I have found I have more to say than perhaps a news-writing structure allows for. My approach is to research and factually identify or report on a topic and then take a position on it. I would assert here that the ultimate goal of the columnist is to incite rigorous dialogue on a matter of consequence. I want people to think and engage.
Next, be informed on the subject as much as possible and, for that matter, be informed on as much possible, period. Taking a stand on a subject is likened to taking a side, but you will hear me paraphrase John Stuart Mill often that the one who does not know the inverse of their position knows little of their own, if any.
This means sometimes researching the other side, or the other sides if you will. It means corresponding with people and gathering information, statements, and quotes. This is what is involved when writing to be published. Anything else is tantamount to blogging or commenting on social media threads. I will sometimes challenge the would-be Facebook expert to submitting their thoughts to a place where a fact check and an editor’s muster must be suffered.
Next, you’ve got to be reading. A lot. Good writers are readers, and they read voraciously. If you do not, perhaps consider another endeavor than writing. You will not only broaden your knowledge of things; you will see writing in action and, by way of habitual exposure, begin to pick up things like a broader vocabulary and a sense of your own style. It cannot be emphasized enough: If you want to be a writer, you must be a reader.
Then practice, practice, practice. We are the byproduct of our habits, and writers are no exception. Writers write, and they write often. Period. As a routine, every morning I sit down early with a cup of coffee and crank out 1,000 words. I literally keep a journal in a Dropbox folder titled “One Thousand Words Daily.” I allow my mind to randomly construct sentences about anything and everything. It is a discipline likened to stretching or taking a few warm-up runs before the actual workout commences. The point is not to adhere to a subject but rather to simply get the fingers and mind working in rhythm. And oftentimes there is something useful for later work.
I apply a similar process to writing an article. This time, using a topic in particular, I commit to 1,000 words on the subject in no particular order. I just write until the word count hits 1,000 and then walk away. A little later, I print the page and review it with a highlighter in hand. If I have been diligent in informing myself on the matter, the story is almost always in those 1,000 words from lead to conclusion.
Then revise, revise, revise. As a general rule, I do not gauge an article’s completeness by whether or not I have added enough as much as by whether or not I have removed enough. And to this end, I will tell you that you must have an editor. Read the acknowledgments by almost any writer in a book and you will find them thanking their editors. A writer’s entire craft depends on someone experienced in the craft to read, edit, and offer feedback on drafts as they come along. Any writer worth their salt will tell you an editor is the lifeblood of their work. And get comfortable with pushback. If you and your editor agree all of the time, it’s likely one or the other is not doing their job.
If you plan to be serious about writing, you might also find yourself working with multiple editors, but have one close to you that you trust.
Now when it comes to a column, if you want to be published consistently, you have to be consistent. You will have a deadline, and people like your editors and your readers are counting on you. If you are working on a story that is not ready yet, which will happen for many understandable reasons, what will not be tolerated is missing that deadline. You should always have several stories in the works and in the pipeline, so to speak. Occasionally, you will have to go with one you may feel is less consequential, but that is far better than trying to publish only when you are ready. Save that for your book, and crank out your column, folks. Believe me, it works. This is not at all to say that you should ever simply fake it because you don’t have anything that week. Always do your best to produce quality work. What this does mean, however, is that there will inevitably be times when you are not ready, and having some of the aforementioned disciplines will help ensure that you are prepared to meet your deadline, even if your more robust piece is still not ready. This serves to benefit not just your editors and publications. It also is for your readers, who will come to count on your consistent work. Ultimately, it benefits you.
Lastly, never underestimate the market value of exposure, which is to say that if you want your work to be published and perhaps even fancy the notion of being compensated for it in various forms, you have to be submitting everywhere and often.
Sure, choose your genre and your ideal publications, (mine are The Atlantic or The New Yorker, perhaps Harper’s), but this brings us full circle to the irrefutable point that if your desire to write is not followed with writing, perhaps the desire is simply not to write.
If you’re passionate and informed on a given topic, the editorial staff at the Indy would be glad to consider your writing and possibly even help you get it ready to run in the Independent. Seriously.
See you out there.