Getting Started: Try This

The first step in becoming a professional writer is deciding you want to be a professional writer. The second step is developing a small body of work. If you want to write fiction, you need some short stories to sell to print and online magazines. If you want to write nonfiction or ad copy, you need a few articles or blurbs to show what you can do.

I’m going to assume that, if you want to become a professional writer, you aren’t one yet. This likely means you have a regular job. Maybe a wife, kids, commute and house to take care of. You can’t devote all your time to making this happen. That’s life…but it doesn’t mean you can’t make your portfolio happen.

Try this.

On Monday of next week, sketch a simple outline of a story or article. For fiction, write a sentence or two about each character and each major part of the tale. For nonfiction, write a note describing each paragraph in your essay or copy structure, and some lines about where you’ll go for further research.

On Tuesday, write the  “sketch draft.” This is the simplest written form of the story. Any time you get stuck, write in parenthesis a note about what you want to have happen and move on. “John looked into Stella’s eyes and said (something eloquent about loving her).” or “(Put actual statistic here) out of 100 Americans say they fear a terrorist strike in their local area within the next 10 years.” Get it all down.

On Wednesday, focus your efforts on filling in those parts you skipped the day before. Look up the the statistics, scan through scenes in books and movies you liked for inspiration about how to handle those tricky scenes. At the end of the day, you’ll have a working rough draft.

On Thursday, rewrite the whole thing by looking at the printed rough draft and retyping from scratch. This process lets you look at each sentence, tweaking and repolishing as you go. When you’re finished, read the story out loud to yourself. Take notes about spots that were jarring, repetitive or weak. Sleep on it.

On Friday, fix the things you noticed when you read it aloud the night before. Once you’re finished, run a spell check and have somebody else proofread it.

On Saturday, walk away. You’re done. If you want, have a friend critique it…but no more fiddling until somebody else suggests something concrete.

Each day should take no more than an hour or two — time you can give yourself if you really want it. If you do this each week for a month, or every other week for two, you’ll have a body of four respectable pieces. Most writing clients want just two samples when considering you for a job. Fiction magazines want you to send just one.

Presto…instant portfolio.

Thanks for listening.

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