Getting Started as a Writer Part 2: Breaking In
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For most people, “becoming a writer” means first and foremost getting published. And really, getting published for pay. That first sale is a watershed moment for the fledgling writer, a moment of validation that you have something to say that other people want to hear.
These days, getting published is less and less of a challenge – but getting that first paycheck can be harder than ever. The Internet has opened up a huge range of opportunities for people to publish their work free or for insultingly low rates – blogging, article sites, search engine optimization, and so on. While these can be great ways to start building a reputation for yourself and even earn a couple of dollars here and there, they simply are not the basis of a strong writing career, and the low barrier to entry makes it hard to feel like you’ve made much of an accomplishment.
National markets – whether websites, magazines, or book publishers – with editors, production staff, and marketing departments are what we’re usually looking for in terms of publication, and they tend to pay something at least within the ballpark of a decent amount – something we can feel positive about. Unfortunately, these markets are highly competitive at the best of times, and getting more so as an increasing number of publishers fail or scale back in response to tough economic times – not just the recession, but increasing postage costs and paper costs have hurt publishers at the same time that audiences have increasingly turned to free entertainments on the Internet.
All that said, there is still a large market for professional writing. Every magazine on the newsstand, every book in the bookstore, and almost every A- and B-list website on the Internet needs high-quality professional content and is produced by someone willing to pay good authors to produce it. And the good news is, once you get past the first couple of sales, you can start to relax – first of all, you’ll feel more comfortable about your own marketability, and second, you’ll have a growing body of “clips” (samples) to impress future editors with.
Start at the top
The process of getting into print has several purposes for the budding writer. One is to give that sense of validation, and the hunger for this often drives writers to make un-smart decisions early on, like publishing for free or low pay for too long under the guise of “paying dues”.
A more important function of early publication is to see where you stand in the writing field – how good are you really? This is a lot more important than validation, at least as far as your career is concerned, as the less time you waste publishing beneath your level, the sooner you can earn the freedom to follow your muse wherever it leads you.
So my advice is this: send your first pitches or submissions to the highest-level outlets you can find. That is, if you’re writing about politics, pitch Harper’s or Atlantic Monthly or The Nation; if you’re writing about sports, pitch Sports Illustrated; if you write short stories, pitch The Paris Review. You will probably get rejected – which isn’t such a bad thing in and of itself, as failure usually teaches us pretty important lessons. If/When you are turned down, turn to the next highest-status outlet in your niche, then the next-highest, and so on down the “totem pole” until you get a piece accepted.
The idea is to start at the highest possible level. If you don’t have any clips yet, refer editors to your blog, or ask some respected bloggers in your niche if they could use a guest post by you (most will accept, since most don’t pay anything and have little to lose) and use those posts as clips. If you’re submitting finished manuscripts, don’t worry about the lack of clips – have a great cover letter and a great opening, so your material can speak for itself.
This takes time, and may well engender a bit of disappointment (though if you keep telling yourself you’re querying top markets you aren’t likely to get into, the sting of rejection might be more manageable). But far too often people who start with the no-pay, easy markets stay there for way too long, uncertain of themselves and unwilling to move out of their safe zone – even when their writing merits much wider attention (and more pay).
Next Time: Building on the first sale to create a platform for yourself.