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Holly Day
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9 Things to Remember If You're Serious About Being a Writer

May-June, 2008

A little while ago, I was sitting around and assessing my life as I often do these days, and I came to the realization that I had been working as a professional writer for almost exactly 22 years. This June, in fact, marks the 22nd anniversary of my first magazine publication, Chicago’s Howling Wolf. Now, the great thing about this realization is that I could look around at my life now and see how much I must have fucked things up along the way, because believe me, this is not at all how that cocky, fresh-faced 15-year-old published writer I was pictured making a living as a seasoned professional writer.

So with this assessment, I came up with a list of "Things I Should Have Done" to shoot back in time to the earlier me to use as a guidepost. Maybe someone else out there can use this list to avoid some of the pitfalls I stumbled into myself.

  1. Don’t major in writing. I tell this one to my writing students all the time. If you spend all your time thinking about, talking about and breathing in the craft of writing, and nothing else, you’re going to run out of things to write about pretty damned quick. Read a book if you want to know how to write well. Major in physics or become a government spy, and I guarantee you will never run out of cool shit to write about.
  1. Take as much work as you can handle. Never, ever, ever turn down work, if at all possible. If you’re working on a project and someone offers you a second one, take it—if it's a matter of giving up a little sleep or relaxation time to get them both done. Every time someone asks you to write something—especially if they’re going to pay you for it—take it, because you never know how long it’s going to be until the next job comes along. However, don’t completely give up on sleep. While writing is lots of fun when you’re sleep-deprived, sometimes the writing suffers. During a two-month period in my life when I wrote two to three articles every single day, by the end of it my brain was totally fried. My writing suffered, and it's likely that I lost work as a result.
  1. Never admit you can’t do something. If someone asks if you’ll write a 1,000 word article about underwater hotels, for God’s sake, say you can—because, really, who knows more about underwater hotels rooms than you after a couple of hours of Internet research?
  1. Listen to how people communicate. My best writing research came from hanging out with homeless people by the beach when I was a teenager, inhaling their conversations. People say the coolest things, easily as cool as the stuff bumping around in your head.
  1. Don’t take yourself too seriously. This is a big one for me, and every time I forget this one it bites me in the ass. No matter how many times you get published in magazines, no matter how many books you’ve had published, there are going to be at least a billion people out there who have no idea how you are. If you want a humbling experience, walk into a Barnes & Nobles and look at all the brand new books published by people you’ve never heard of and will never read. And these are just the books published by major publishers. There are just as many small presses putting out books by the megakilo, written by people with a readership base of 10.
  1. Don’t take rejection seriously. Your writing is going to get rejected. Period. To put this in perspective, by the time I was 17 years old, every square inch of my bedroom was wallpapered with magazine rejection slips. Every morning, I woke up to see all the people who hated my writing. I recommend this practice, because once you get past the idea that you’re going to get rejected, and you still want to keep writing and sending your work out, your on your way to getting something published. Even after 22 years with 9 books and over 4,000 poems, short stories, and articles published, my acceptance rate for submissions is 1 piece accepted for every 10 sent out.
  1. Don’t stop working. Continue to check in with your contacts. You want the people who know who you are to know you’re still writing, so that they will keep assigning you work when it comes across their desk. You can stop actively asking for a work, if you need a break, but don’t turn work down if it’s offered. I was once so paranoid that a column was going to be taken away from me by an over-enthusiastic intern that I had my husband bring my laptop to the hospital immediately after having a C-section, and wrote, edited and emailed in the column with an IV drip in one arm and 24 staples in my stomach. Grrr!
  1. Don’t limit your options. When I first started out on my writing path, I only wrote poetry and fiction and thought journalism was for preppy geeks. Man, if I had known how much easier journalism was than poetry or fiction, and how much more it paid, I could have skipped the whole secretary-who’s-secretly-a-writer part of my life. I could have just been a journalist who also wrote poetry and got to write full-time. 
  1. Always follow directions. You’ll save everyone a lot of hassle if you learn to accept that a 500-word-count limit for an article doesn’t equal a 700-word story, no matter how brilliant your writing is. Don’t fight with your editor over this one, because you’ll never win. If an editor wants submissions saved in .rtf format, or as scanned-in .jpegs, or even mailed in through the post office, just do it.

About the Writer

Author Holly Day lives in St. Paul, Minnesota and has authored or co-authored a variety of books including "Music Theory for Dummys," "Composing Digital Music for Dummys," "Insiders' Guide to the Twin Citites" and "Shakira, People in the News."

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