Ten Tips to Look Like a Pro, Even as a Newbie

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Usually, you never know when you’re making newbie mistakes until you’re not a newbie anymore. So let me pass you some tips to help you jump ahead. These are things I wish I’d avoided or see other new writers fall into:

 

1. Don’t tote around fancy writerly accoutrements. You don’t need a $300 monogrammed pen or a $40 leather notebook with a gold foil quill. You’ll be going through paper and ink so quickly that the pricey tools will bankrupt you. If I lay all my notebooks out chronologically, they devolve from Barnes & Noble $16.99 pressed- ower journals with my best handwriting to fat Five Star notebooks with scribbles from my Pilot G2 pen. You can get some fun supplies, but don’t go nuts.

 

2. Don’t format your work snazzily. Professionals let the work stand for itself. They use boring fonts like Times New Roman or Garamond. No fun graphics. No pink paper. My god—I didn’t think this needed to be said, but a poetry editor told me differently—no scented paper. Just naked work, memorable, powerful words that need no glitter.

 

3. Don’t use many adverbs. Adverbs (which usually end in -ly, à la “I ate the bacon frantically”) work like a crutch propping up your weak verbs. If a character walks heavily, why doesn’t he stomp? If she talks loudly, why doesn’t she yell? Why didn’t I gobble that bacon? Do a search for ly to find some (but not all) adverbs so that you can root them out of your writing. You’ll see I used snazzily I stand by that one.

 

4. Don’t make the grammar mistakes everyone else makes. Every professional should know their tools, and your tools are words, dots, and lines. Correct grammar doesn’t make a work art, but sloppy writing will make editors wonder how dedicated you are to your craft. It’s part of our job to know how a semicolon works, even if no one else seems to care.

 

5. Don’t bust out the SAT words. No one wants to read writing that’s like a word hunt for your AP English vocab list. Readers want a story that entertains and moves them. Shiny words serve a purpose on occasion, but don’t go Scrabble champion on us. Use the words humans use.

 

 

6. Don’t try to win the writing lottery. Instead of hoping to be discovered, work to be worthy of publication. Some writers write one story, send it to the New Yorker, and then get discouraged by the rejection. Start from the bottom and practice your way up.

 

7. Don’t talk too much about writing. Every word you say about being a writer puts more pressure on you to produce written words to prove it. If you keep a low profile at first, you’ll feel freer to experiment and take your time, without the people around you asking whether you’ve finished that book yet. You can mention writing, of course; just make sure you’re writing more than you’re talking.

 

8. Don’t trash other people’s work. There’s a difference between critiquing art and dismissing a published author’s years of effort. It’s easy to rant about why so-and- so’s best-selling work sucks. It gives you a quick feeling of power and superiority that can be as addicting as any other form of gossip. If you don’t like something, you can steal this phrasing I learned from an artist years ago: “It doesn’t suit my aesthetic.” Then move on to what does. Of course even some established writers talk trash, but the writers I admire most talk up their peers.

 

9. Don’t be afraid to present yourself as a learning beginner. The vulnerability of starting might make you scared to ask questions or embarrassed to share your work. But you’ll never learn, and you’ll never improve, if you don’t face the exposure of those first wobbly steps as a writer. One time in class, when the teacher mentioned the three-act structure, I had to fight embarrassment, raise my hand, and admit that while I had heard of it, I didn’t really know what it was. I learned that day.

When you’re ready to share your work, you don’t have to apologize for it. I used to be self-deprecating every time I handed something in for a workshop, until someone said, “Stop doing that. It’s not helping you be a better writer.” Own where you are, and work to get where you want to be. Give your beginning dignity.

 

10. Take yourself seriously. Don’t put quotation marks around the word writer. Don’t say you’re kind of trying to maybe be a writer. Don’t aspire. Write.

 

 

 

Image by Tony Ong

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