So You Want to Be a Writer? Part 2

[My second essay for The Dillydoun Review – it’s about a 5 minute read for anyone interested in the business of writing and publishing (primarily fiction).]

You’ve done the work, you’ve written and re-written your story or manuscript multiple times, and you’re ready to submit your work to a publisher or agent. 

But how do you know your work is ready?

It can be difficult for a writer to turn a critical eye to their own work. It’s easy to overlook flaws or mistakes when you’re the one who created them. 

I’m talking about things like word choice, grammar, plot holes and dialogue. Do you have textual crutches you fall back on when you write, easy phrases you don’t realize you’re using? Are there phrases or words you repeat throughout your manuscript which, while they seem fine to you, might drive your readers crazy?

There are limited strategies for sussing out these sorts of problems, and like most things in a creative endeavor they can be highly subjective. 

Honest critical feedback is key to improving a story or manuscript, and to improving writing skills overall. Unfortunately, while honest feedback is your best friend, your best friend probably won’t give you any.

So how as writers do we critique and edit our own work, or find someone else to do it? 

I’ve adopted three strategies for addressing this problem. 

First, my go-to process was created by Samantha “Sam” R. Glas on her exceptional blog “Writing Like a Boss.” 

Sam has condensed a masterclass into a single post with “10 Warning Signs of Amateurish Writing & How to Fix Them.” 

Number 7, “Unnecessary Word Choice,” includes a list (from Writers Write) of filler words you can cut from your manuscript, words you and your readers will never miss. 

This may seem elementary, but the first time I used #7 to review a draft of a new novel, I found I’d used the word “just” over 400 times. It’s excessive, even for a sci-fi epic clocking in at 110k words.

400 edits because of one word. There were more I had to remediate, like “now” and “sort of.” It took a while, but it was worth it. I learned from it, and I now perform this “checklist” review for all of my work. It’s objective, simple, and effective. 

It has enabled me to approach my work in a new way and I’m finding fewer issues over time as I learn to check my bad habits while I’m writing.

But this won’t help with things like plot holes, ineffective dialogue, or other problems related to your story or writing style. 

For that, you need a human, which could be a costly endeavor but doesn’t have to be. 

This is where a manuscript swap, my second strategy, comes in handy.

The best thing I ever did with my first sci-fi novel was to share it with a fellow writer.

We exchanged manuscripts, then sent each other feedback. He called out critical problems I’d overlooked, and I was able to fix them with a series of edits, the removal of a chapter, and a change in sequence for a few other chapters. 

Seek out fellow writers and give this a try. You may not agree with the feedback you receive, but at least you’re getting feedback, and all it costs is time. 

Speaking of cost, this need for critical feedback has created business opportunities within the publishing industry, some of which are legitimate, some of which are not. 

I’m not going try to list all of the illegitimate businesses in the industry. Winning Writers has put together an awesome resource for this purpose, and I urge you to review it before you spend money on anything writing related. Writing communities on social media can be a good resource, but always consider the source. 

One special piece of advice for novelists: Be wary of vanity presses masquerading as publishers. There’s nothing wrong with self-publishing, but some businesses exist for the sole purpose of fleecing writers. Be sure to check out “The Best Self-Publishing Services and the Worst: Rated” created by The Alliance of Independent Authors. Combined with the information from Winning Writers, this can save you money, time, and a lot grief.

If you’re ready to pay for author services, pay yourself first by leveraging the existing research. 

If you’re not there yet, consider paying reading fees instead. 

What are reading fees and why should I pay them?

Great question, and it’s the third method I use to improve my writing. 

Th exception here is novels. Never pay a reading fee, an edit fee, or any other service fee associated with publishing your book to someone claiming to be a publisher or agent. I mean it, never. Don’t do it. Save your money and spend it on a legitimate editorial services provider whose purpose is to help improve your book before you submit it to a publisher or agent. (NOTE: Some publishers offer editorial services, but they make it clear these services are not part of the submission/acceptance process.)

For everything else, a reading fee, for those who don’t know, is exactly what it says, a fee charged in exchange for reading your work.

Let’s say you’ve written a short story and you’ve made all the revisions you think it needs. You find a literary journal you like and you click the “Submit” button. You’re re-directed to a submission management platform, like Submittable, and prompted to set up an account and possibly provide a credit card to cover submission fees. 

This is totally legit, nothing wrong here. There are several platforms used by literary journals and book publishers to manage submissions and contest entries. Submittable is a popular one, and most of the submission opportunities (not all) require a fee or request a donation.

This is where you want to proceed with caution. The questions I always ask are:

 – What will I get in return for this fee?

 – Is this the right publisher for my work? 

 – How many times has this publisher rejected my work previously?

I’ve submitted numerous stories this way, but I’ve also submitted work via publisher websites and email at no cost. In the end, if you’re not comfortable with a submission process, the easy response is don’t do it.

I’m fine to pay reading fees, especially when the fee comes with an expedited response, say 24 hours, or it’s an entry fee for a writing competition, or, and this is the best, the fee includes an editorial critique of my submission. For me, this is a low-cost, high impact way to hone my skills. 

If you can afford reading fees, look for publishers who offer detailed feedback when you submit your work. It’s a fast way to get a measure of your writing from a neutral party. Some of these fees are as low as $5, and some range to $25 or higher. If a fee seems high, check out the masthead of the journal. You might find the fee is worth it to get insights from an experienced and talented editor. 

But take note, paying for feedback should never guarantee acceptance, and paying for an expedited response might speed up rejection. Always manage your expectations. 

Also, make sure your work is a match for the publisher by reading what they’ve already published. Otherwise, you may be wasting their time and your money. 

In some cases, a rejection letter will come with a note encouraging a writer to submit again in the future. In one case, an editor rejected my story because she didn’t connect with it, but asked me to submit something else if I had anything ready. I did, and the second story was accepted. It’s all part of the process. 

However, if you’ve been rejected multiple times by the same publisher, you should consider moving on, at least for a time. You’re not connecting with the reader and your money is better spent elsewhere. This isn’t terrible. I was rejected three times by one literary magazine, and each rejection came with feedback. I used their feedback to improve the stories and the revised versions were accepted for publication elsewhere. 

To sum it up, I use three methods to gain a more critical view of my writing. First, I take a “checklist” approach to find and fix flaws. It creates objective space between me and my writing. Second, a manuscript swap. It’s a quid pro quo that works. Finally, feedback in exchange for reading fees. This is another win-win. I receive actionable feedback and the editor/publisher can keep the lights on and get a cup of coffee. 

Above all remember, no matter what anyone says about your work (good or bad), take a deep breath, accept it as part of the learning process, then forge on. 

Footnote for scriptwriters: has a ton of scriptwriting competitions, most of which provide exceptional “coverage” (feedback) for an additional fee. These are expensive, so make sure your work is ready. They also host prose competitions for published and unpublished novels.