We can all learn from our mistakes. But that learning is dependent on the recognition of errors we’ve made – and often we don’t see them. An obvious example is a spelling mistake: it’s invisible to us because we think we’re spelling a word correctly. Spelling wrongly feels just like spelling rightly.
Sometimes we do see an error, and correct it, or at least try an alternative way, and if that doesn’t work, try another way – until the desired result is achieved. Such trial and error is memorable: we’re unlikely to make the same mistake again. Trouble is, it’s inefficient and time consuming.
Some take courses, some buy ‘how to’ books, some take editorial work experience. These can help, but some aspiring non-fiction writers still struggle. Are their unknown mistakes holding them back?
It was on this assumption that I launched the Mistakes Writers Make blog in 2010, now supplemented by ebooks focusing on identifying and addressing such mistakes – be they in writing, marketing, research, grammar, finances, punctuation, editing, or anything else.
I’ve been a non-fiction writer for twenty years and a writing advisor/tutor for ten. I’ve seen most of the mistakes to be made in this business and I’ve made dozens myself. Here are five which may be holding beginners back …
#1 “I want to be alone”
Think you need to chain yourself to the keyboard, take a vow of silence, the phone off the hook, and hang up a ‘Do Not Disturb’ sign at the door to your garret?
Writing non-fiction shouldn’t be a solitary pursuit. One of its pleasures is the interaction with people whose paths you might not ordinarily cross: editors, press officers, researchers, librarians, experts, spokespeople, fellow writers, and members of the public.
In non-fiction you need these people, because they solve the problems you will encounter. Having doubts about the quality of your article? Ask a more experienced writer – he’ll give it to you straight. Can’t find an expert in whatsits to interview? Ask the press officer at The Whatsit Society – she’ll fix you up.
#2 “Here’s what I think …”
You’ll be aware of the advice to write about what you know – and what can you possibly know better than your own mind? Many beginners choose writing because they “can’t wait to tell the world what I think”, and so writing opinion may seem an obvious attraction.
But there are problems. While the moral value of your opinion is equal to anyone else’s, the market value won’t be. Editors tend to pay for the views of experts, long-standing journalists or top commentators. The odds are stacked against you as a relative novice, and a rejection of your opinion can sting badly.
Mostly, readers are selfish. It’s a harsh truth, but they aren’t much interested in what you think – merely in what you write for them or about them. This article is, I hope, interesting to you precisely because it deals with your possible mistakes, not mine.
Look outside of your head for ideas. You may want to tell everyone about your favourite albums, but readers have more pressing concerns, and would like you to give them advice about reducing their cholesterol, or where to go for an affordable adventure holiday, or what to do with their savings, or how to make an attractive hat stand from recycled tin cans.
#3 “I don’t have time to read”
Then “You don’t have the time or tools to write”, according to one Stephen King. I hear the ‘no time to read’ excuse a lot. No time to read – but plenty to write? Then take half of your allotted writing time and dedicate it to reading.
Reading inspires ideas and broadens your mind. It fills you with questions and inspiration – lifeblood to any writer. It makes you more interesting, which will eventually make you more readable. Reading is fuel to your writing fire.
Read anything. Article ideas lurk everywhere: local newspapers, national newspapers, blogs, books, ebooks, Twitter streams, Facebook posts. Cereal boxes, road signs, ‘lost cat’ notices on lampposts, cosmetic ingredients. Classified ads, notices in windows, legal small print, junk mail. Catalogues, phone directories, dictionaries. Glossy magazines, free magazines, women’s magazines, hair magazines, computer magazines, car magazines, yachting magazines …
#4 “But I can’t write for a yachting magazine!”
I often recommend niche magazines to writers because they are targeted by fewer established journalists. While they may pay modestly, they can be desperately short of fresh material.
It matters not a jot that you know nothing about yachting, or hair, or bodybuilding, or crochet, or poultry farming, or whatever it may be. You’ll be researching. You’ll be speaking to people who do know something.
Get to know some of these publications inside out. Devour them. Inhale their content. You’ll learn almost too much, will really get into them, and feel inspired to contribute to them. For this to happen, you have to love reading, love words, love learning – and have a curious and creative mind. Surely that must be you? Challenge yourself to come up with ideas for every such publication. Begin to cultivate the idea that any publication is a potential market for your work. Commit to that belief.
#5 “This one’s for everyone!”
This article is for aspiring non-fiction writers. Others may have come along for the ride, but I haven’t (I hope) lost sight of my target readers, nor stopped writing for them at any point.
It’s a common mistake to do just that.
You, too, need to first know who your reader is. If you have a publication in mind, you must understand who its readers are. Inhaling that content I mentioned will help, but study the advertisements too – in several issues, not merely one.
Once you know who they are, do not get sidetracked and address others. If I were to abruptly start talking about haiku here, I would be turning away from the readers I hope to have captured in my introduction, and addressing aspiring poets who aren’t likely to have reached this point.
I do understand the beginner’s urge to write for ‘everyone’ and to communicate with the masses. That’s honourable. Problem is: the masses aren’t reading. A select few are reading. Every website, every journal, has a specific demographic – a tiny fraction of the billions on the planet.
Speak to them. If you speak to them well, they’ll want more, and will tell your editor to ask you for more. Ultimately, readers need information, often practical information, solutions to problems, and answers to questions about their needs, interests and concerns. Offer this, and you’re already ahead of the pack.
(c) Alex Gazzola
About 50 More Mistakes Beginner Writers Make
This sequel to 50 Mistakes Beginner Writers Make moves the aspiring writer of articles and other non-fiction forward to the next level. The first book gave the reader a good grounding in the theory of writing for magazines and newspapers, and introduced the basics – generating ideas, approaching editors, researching markets, crafting articles, revising work and much more. This second book in the series elaborates on these concepts, looking at article ideas in far greater depth, as well as the business of writing (contracts, copyright, money …), dealing professionally with editors, improving all-important editing techniques, and equipping the reader with the key skills required to make a living from the written word. Other subjects include readers letters, interviewing and research skills, dealing with rejection … and dealing with acceptance!