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The Writing Life: Don’t Be a Hack, Part 1

2012 December 4

Don’t Be a Hack: 30 Things I Learned about Writing and Editing Professionally Before I Turned 30

by Deborah Carver

 

This Writing Life series called “Don’t Be a Hack” is intended for an audience of young writers who would like to work professionally in writing, editing, or publishing, especially since I see a lot of young writers who seem to be quite clueless about the whole fairly straightforward business. Apart from the hair-tearing process of writing, the creation and publishing of new material itself is not a mysterious endeavour. The aim of this column is to demystify that process and, hopefully, make you a better and more employable writer.

I am a writer. Most of the time I get paid to write. I have been working professionally in writing, editing, and publishing since I was 21. I’ve been an intern at major publishing houses, a copy editor at a small publishing house, a graduate student, a teacher, a freelancer, a publisher of an independent publication and, now, a magazine writer and editor at a global media and events company. When I am not getting paid, I write essays to advance my career and assuage my curiosity; I write fiction to soothe my silly soul.

I’m turning 30 next month, an arbitrary milestone, but round numbers are internet-friendly and make me feel wise. In honor of that wisdom, what follows are some things I have learned about writing professionally so far:

1. Prioritize. Subtext matters less than text.
2. Every word should flow into the next word; every sentence should logically precede its successor; and every paragraph should have its place between the others.
3. Knowing which ideas fit best in each medium is a skill you can’t stop honing.
4. Formatting is as important as grammar, syntax, precise language and specific details.
5. Every part of every sentence matters to at least one of your readers.
6. “This is” and “There are” are imprecise ways to begin sentences and even worse ways to begin paragraphs.
7. Commas and greengrocers’ apostrophes don’t matter as much as every other entry in the stylebook.
8 The only book on grammar you’ll ever need is the Chicago Manual of Style, with other stylebooks to supplement. If you know Chicago, then you’re good to go.

9. The boring proofreading job may not be what you want to do right now, but you will be an intensely better writer after a year of copy editing.
10. Making your deadlines matters almost as much as writing well. Respect everyone’s time and meet your deadlines, and if you’re not going to, give adequate notice that your work will be late.
11. Make it a point to figure out exactly how long it takes you to complete certain writing tasks — how long does a press release take? A blog post? A short essay? Having those times down, from adequate research to finishing touches, is crucial to writing professionally.
12. It’s not all about revision. Sometimes you can get it mostly right in the first draft. Sometimes you can’t. But for god’s sake, read it over one last time before you send it to your editor.
13. No matter how many times you read it over, you will miss something. Every time you miss something, you learn something new.

14. Find four specific subjects that make you happy and write about them regularly. Know who else is writing about those subjects. Watch what they’re doing. Expand and contract and keep going back to those four subjects.
15. You’re not in college anymore. The niche that makes you happy will not be feminist media criticism, close reading of pop song lyrics or anything resembling liberal arts papers you wrote in college. It’s not that pop and feminism aren’t important; it’s that you’re writing about those subjects like a student.
16. Literary magazines don’t make much sense to me, what with the intense competition and the fact that they don’t pay writers, but I’ll let them slide. However, anyone who pays any amount of money to enter a writing contest or submit their work anywhere is a total sucker.
17. Know how to do more than just write. You will be a better writer if you can also change the ink in the printer, write a budget, identify several audiences for a piece of work, resize a photo, find an image that you can use legally, develop a basic website and create a good-looking email newsletter. Writing for social media is not nearly as important as all of the above.

18. You don’t have to write every day— I don’t– but it’s a good idea to set aside time for your own writing every week. I try to write my non-day job writing for six hours a week, and those are the best six hours of the week.
19. Ask why something is good as often as you articulate why something you don’t like doesn’t work.
20. Know the difference between taste and skill.
21. Writing is almost never solitary. Pick up the phone, leave the house, visit the scene, go out of your way to learn new skills and ask questions, no matter what you’re writing.
22. Read all sorts of writing, by people with all sorts of backgrounds. Diversify your consumption of creative work. Know what you think about all of it, and what others think about all of it.

23. The more often you write on the internet, the more people will be annoyed with you.
24. Take the energy from the juicy details of your every day and put it into your sentences; you don’t need to include the details themselves.

25. Workable idea generation is half of the battle. If you don’t have at least three good ideas every day for pieces that you could be writing, or if you at any point say to yourself “I don’t know what to write,” then you should probably give up your dream of being a writer.
26. The other half of the battle is writing consistent, thorough, publishable work.
27. You aren’t your own worst critic. Someone else knows exactly what’s wrong with your work with a precision that you can’t. But you can learn how and when to take that criticism to make improvements in your work.
28. You can make money from your writing if you have supreme confidence in it and you are writing about subjects that matter. This advice goes double for all the women writing out there.
29. Let them notice what’s great about your writing before they notice what’s wrong with it.
30. The stories that surround you will consume you and your readers infinitely more than the stories that come from within you.

In the coming months, I will go into some of these items in detail. I will also discuss, generally, how not to be a hack writer. I hope you will tune in.

 

Deborah Carver is a writer and editor who lives in Northeast Minneapolis. She can be found on twitter at @fightwithknives, on tumblr here and occasionally publishes essays through an email list at deborahcarver.com. She will happily take feedback and questions at: deborah carver at gmail dot com.