As a high school senior at age eighteen, I knew I wanted to be a professional writer. The problem was, I didn’t know anyone who was a professional writer. I didn’t know any editors or literary agents or publishers, either.
So, I committed a terrible mistake and tried to make it on my own.
As I tell my college writing students today, “Freelance doesn’t mean you work alone, and it doesn’t mean you work for free.”
Although I majored in English in college, my literature teachers knew nothing about copyright laws, manuscript marketing, book proposals, or movie options. As a result, I sent out manuscripts to a wide variety of publications with large and small circulations, and I spent years getting mostly rejections slips and not knowing why. Finally—more by fool luck than on purpose—I had a chance meeting with a literary agent who took pity on me and agreed to spend ten minutes reading some of my sample manuscripts.
The man was absolutely vicious. He pulled out a red pen and bloodied my pages as he admonished me, “No, no, no! Never type your titles in all capital letters. Never leave a right or left margin that isn’t at least one inch wide. Never have two speakers use dialogue in the same paragraph.” On and on he railed and slashed and criticized, all the while rolling his eyes and shaking his head at my incompetence.
That was simultaneously the saddest and the happiest day of my writing career. It was devastating because I could see that for years no one had looked at anything I’d written and considered it professional. However, it was joyful because at least now I knew what I was doing wrong, and I could start doing things right.
After that eye-opening experience, I immediately joined a writers club so I could be taught by people who were in the game. Additionally, I started attending writers conferences so I could network with editors and agents—the key people who could bring me into the big leagues of publishing.
In time, I became a newspaper columnist, then a successful magazine freelance writer, then a contributing editor with five magazines, and finally the author of dozens of books.
The writing business is not all that different from other businesses. Here are the keys to success when you start out:
- Establish a network of contacts—via referrals or internships or club memberships—who are already successful in the field you want to enter.
- Find mentors who will offer advice, critique your work and give feedback, and guide you in setting your career goals.
- Seek guidance from distant experts by reading books, listening to audio training recordings, and viewing educational videos.
Even the Lone Ranger had Tonto. Don’t go it alone. Get connected.
This micro lesson is adapted from Finding Success with Your Dream Writing Projects by Dennis E. Hensley, Ph.D. , with Diana Savage (Bold Vision Books, 2017). All rights reserved.
Want a great place to connect with other writers, hone your craft, and even meet Doc Hensley? Join Splickety in February at the annual Florida Christian Writers Conference. If you’re a pastor, you can get $100 off with code PASTOR at checkout.
Don’t miss Doc’s flash fiction piece Forward Progression!
Dennis E. Hensley, Ph.D., is a professor of communication at Taylor University and a columnist for Christian Communicator magazine. His more than 60 published books include Finding Success with Your Dream Writing Projects with Diana Savage (Bold Vision Books) and Jesus in the 9 to 5 (AMG Publishers). He is a recipient of the Elisabeth Sherrill Lifetime Achievement Award for Writing and Speaking and the Indiana University Award for Teaching Excellence.