High Hopes – Avoiding Common Mistakes
by Margaret Terhune
Beginners are by nature inexperienced and prone to making mistakes. Part of any learning process involves working through trial and error towards achievement. Novice writers are no exception. There are, however, many common mistakes the beginner can avoid. I have grouped these into three main categories: not researching enough, not writing enough and not revising enough.
Any writing course worth its salt will teach the writer to research both the manuscript’s material and its ultimate destination. As far as the text goes, levels of fact-finding will vary depending on the subject. A non-fiction piece must be thoroughly researched, with all sources listed in a complete bibliography. Fiction writers should research the background to their story, unless the author is writing about something very familiar. For example, it’s hard to depict a cattle auction if the closest you’ve come to a cow is a hamburger. Ask questions, consult experts, take the time to get the little details right.
Editors complain that authors frequently send out manuscripts with no regard to the specialty of a particular publishing house or magazine. Research the publishers before you send them your work. Visit libraries, book stores, book fairs, writing conferences and write down lists of publishers who produce work in a similar genre and vein to your own. Consult the Writer’s Market listings for details of submission procedures. Write or phone publishers for their submission guidelines. Many list their guidelines on-line for immediate accessibility. Pay attention to limitations: if a publisher or journal doesn’t accept submissions during a specific time of the year, save yourself the postage and don’t send them something until they’re reading again.
The most important thing that a writer can do is write. This may sound obvious, but many beginner writers spend too much time preparing to write, thinking about writing or explaining why they don’t have time to write. Writing, like any craft, improves with experience. Manuscripts don’t fall from the sky – at least they don’t in my neighborhood – but must be produced. Writers who spend the majority of their time in classes or at conventions won’t have the time to put what they learn into practice. Writing courses and conferences are wonderful tools for support and knowledge but cannot become the full extent of a writer’s experience.
The final area for mistakes is in the revision process. Many beginning writers do not revise their work thoroughly but send it out full of errors. After writing a piece, put it away for a short time then go through it for spelling and grammatical errors. Run a spell check, but verify everything yourself again. Spell checks don’t pick up many common spelling mistakes or missing words. Leave the piece alone again for a longer time. When you feel ready to look at it with a fresh perspective, examine the work line by line for mistakes and also for content. Read it aloud. Which parts need amplifying? Which parts need shortening or cutting? Often the revision process calls for a complete re-write; this is all part of writing. Take the finished product, check it for spelling and grammar mistakes once more. Be sure to check your cover letter for mistakes, too, as this is the first thing the editor reads. First impressions are all-important in the busy world of publishing.
With a little extra effort and attention to detail, the new writer can avoid many of the common mistakes described here. Remember, only through practice and patience can a writer perfect his or her craft.