Thursday, January 10, 2008

The Writing Life: How Writers Get Published

By JJ Murphy

As I look back over this past year and resolve to reach new goals in the coming year, I think about what the writers I respect have written about the craft of writing. Natalie Goldberg, Anne LaMott, Peter Elbow, among others – every one of them writes more words than we readers see.

I recently dug through ten years worth of journals. Most of it was junk. The naturalist in me is disgusted at the waste of paper. The writer in me knows that I’d have nothing in print if I had not written all that junk.

Every writer I respect creates notes, brainstorms, etches out rough drafts, rewrites, reorganizes and revises before their work is published. I’m convinced that this is one irrefutable fact of creating readable work.

Here are a few other discoveries that guide me through the process of turning an idea into a written work:

1. The hand-eye-brain connection. I take notes on what I read and hear. Writing out what I think I understand about a subject is one way to help internalize that knowledge. Imagine my surprise when I read Robert Bly’s statement, “The next step in getting ready to write copy is to type up your notes. … by filtering the information through your brain to your fingers and onto the typewritten page, you gain more familiarity with your facts.” This is also useful in creating compelling fictional characters. The more deeply the reader connects with a character, the better the experience.

2. Write the maximum words possible. One technique is to write about your topic for 5-10 minutes, read what you wrote, pick out the main theme and write on that theme for 5-10 minutes. Repeat this process and you end up with a picture of what you understand about a topic. This is useful when developing your ideas and creating rough outlines or drafts. Freewriting is a way to let the words flow; it is a lot like warming up before strenuous exercise.

3. Don’t edit your early drafts. Let the writing flow without interruption or distraction. Don’t cross out or erase, just keep writing, redundancy is part of the process. Spelling and grammar are not the point. The idea is to get all the words out while your passion and excitement are high.

4. Use both sides of your brain. Once you have written something, take a break. Natalie Goldberg calls this composting. Other writers talk about letting your subconscious mind work on the piece. Writing is more than a physical and intellectual act. There’s an element of the craft that happens on a different level of understanding. In order for you to really internalize the piece, you need perspective; shifting your focus helps establish that perspective.

5. Exercise daily. Writing is a full-body experience. Writing involves your sense of sight, sound, smell, taste and touch. For me, hiking and writing are intertwined. When I am fit I can hike for miles or write for hours. When I’m stuck hiking a mile or writing a sentence, it can be daunting. Even on the one or two mile days or the one sentence days, I make the effort.

6. What do you want to say and to whom? What you include in the content of your work depends upon the reader. Once you know your subject and your point of view, can you state these in one sentence? Does the opening paragraph tell your reader what to expect? Is the language appropriate for the intended audience? Do you expect your reader to take action as a result of your written work? Is that clear to the reader?

7. Test out your work. Once you think you have a final draft, find a critique group or sample of your intended reader to read your work. Pay attention to weak areas, gaps or responses that surprise you. Use that information to fine tune your writing.

8. Submit submit submit. Whether you submit one article or hundreds, your work will be rejected more often than it is accepted. A New York Lottery ad says “You’ve got to be in it to win it.” If you don’t send the work out, then no one will have a chance to see it.

9. Write because you love to write. There will be times when you cannot face another rejection. There will be times when you stare at a blank screen or blank page. There are times when you will question your motives for writing. Successful writers - whether published or not - all have a burning need to write. Every writer I respect has shared that they would write - even if they never publish. Indeed, I have read some profound work that may never get published. The writing is compelling, passionate and worthy of publication. But unless you are a publisher, someone else has the final say on whether your work gets published.

JJ Murphy is a nature writer, blogging hiker, locavore curriculum creator and tree-hugger currently based in Harriman, NY. Visit for more information on JJ's writing services and her favorite places for gear and supplies.

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