I’ve opened many conversations with my editors by sharing a local story I overheard or relating something I saw that was so remarkably stupid that I had to bounce the idea of writing about it off him/her; most of the time I’m told its okay, go for it. I’ve gained the enviable position where editors often tell me to send the column, don’t bother sharing the in between details because the story will speak for itself, or not.
The reason I share this tidbit of info with you is because a reader sent me an email referencing a column I wrote eons ago about homeowner associations. He accused me of unfairly picking on home-owner associations and those who serve on them. I got the person’s phone number via an email request and we discussed his comments. As anticipated, he couldn’t produce one shred of evidence or offer a tangible fact that I’d misstated or misrepresented anything, but he did, in fact, get my attention. So let me share with you some additional insight into what I’ve learned about writing for publication.
Writers are a quirky bunch, we share some common fears and concerns, and readers make us or break us. We’re always looking for ways to gain and keep your interest in every column. Do we make that happen every time? Of course not, but that doesn’t mean we intentionally missed the mark with you; we probably hit dead center with someone else. On that note I’ll stress one point: find writers who generally resonate with you, and read them tirelessly, send them a note now and again-good or bad, and occasionally fire off a memo to their editor. I occasionally have chance meetings with long term readers of my column and encourage them to share their thoughts and interests with those who manage the newspaper; how else are those folks going to learn what you want and prefer to read if you never tell them.
So how did I become a writer? Mostly by default while in the military; for some reason I liked to write and most others around me didn’t. Places where manual typewriters (hey, I’m old) were used most often had shade or air conditioning rather than being in a hand dug depression in the ground or in the mud, and that was appealing and I took advantage of it whenever possible. The more I wrote the more often I was offered the chance to do so, and so the story unfolded. Along the way I learned to take a few risks as I honed my skill at the keys by adding some personal interjections to spice things up a bit. Sometimes they soared, other times they crashed. Nonetheless, I was hooked on writing and I accomplished it in large part during my free time regardless of what my primary job happened to be. I always had a pen and notepad in my pocket, and discovered that we can often find time to do what we really want to do regardless of the circumstances.
I learned some invaluable lessons about writing along the way and I’ll share some of the more memorable ones with you in case you get the urge to put your thoughts on paper.
1) Learn to say yes more often than no when an editor asks you whether or not you’d like a particular writing assignment. You may know exactly zip, zero, nada about the topic, but somewhere out there the information is lurking and it’s your job as a writer to find it and make the story happen with factual interest.
2) Do a lot of research, and then do some more. Getting information is one thing, getting the right information and getting it correct on paper is the key to success and longevity in the writing business. Regardless of whether you’re writing one article for a neighborhood newsletter or turning your interest into a lifelong craft, doing your best to get it right every time is the only viable option. Being honest and candid with your readers means you have nothing to remember; fabricating something just to fill space will tie your mind in a knot.
3) The things and people we write about are most often experts or have significant knowledge on the subject we’re covering, so use these valuable sources for information. Computers are invaluable, but they’ll never replace people for interest and realism. Technology is a tool, humans, on the other hand, are a never ending supply of information, irrational behavior and perpetual writing material. Watch them closely for writing material and outright humor—humans are hilarious, sometimes.
4) Write it one time, and then put it aside. The first time I complete a column is never the way it hits the editor’s email inbox. But be realistic; rewriting your material can go on forever if you aren’t careful. After checking your work for spelling and grammatical errors, factuality, content, and readability you’re basically done with it. Trust me, the more often you read what you’ve written the greater your urge to tear it apart and make it better. We evolve, and so do our writing abilities and attitudes, but our style should be set early on and left alone. The process I use in writing today has, hopefully, improved over the way I performed it years ago, but my style and mindset have remained on a relative steady course. It’s not that my attitude and interests haven’t changed, merely the fact that my mechanics and instincts for interesting writing and connecting with people has evolved.
5) Finally, but of importance, remember how powerful words can be and how difficult it is to retrieve or undo them once they’re in publication for public consumption. Be vigilant before clicking the send button. Trust that you’ve done your best, given the story everything you had and move on to the next one.
If you want to write then stop procrastinating about it and start putting your thoughts on paper. Stop worrying, your editors and readers will cause that to happen for you soon enough.