Practical Advice for Writers
Developing yourself as a writer
- Keep active within your local writing group scene. Writing groups can benefit people in terms of feedback and encouragement. Have a regular group but also try and get along to other groups, see what sort of things they offer, meet the people involved. Get as many different possible opinions on your writing.
- Sign up to an online writing forum. These are basically extensions of the “physical” writing groups, with people all around the world joining together to comment and assist each other in writing. There are a lot of different forums on offer, so try a few until you find one that suits you. These can be a great means by which to get in-depth comments on your writing.
- If possible, attend a writing course or a writing weekend. There are no prerequisite qualifications for writing but these sorts of courses can provide many useful pointers as well as giving you the time and space to get on with some serious writing. It’s also a great way to meet fellow writers and hear directly from published authors or established writing tutors.
- Have an opinion on your own writing. Listen carefully to feedback but don’t be afraid to ignore it when you feel it is wrong. Writing is all about subjective opinion and if there’s something you really feel strongly about, keep it in or keep it unaltered. Having a sense of your own strengths and weaknesses as a writer is important.
- Try out lots of new things. Have a crack at all sorts of genres and styles. It’s tempting as a writer to stick to what you’re good at, or what you feel comfortable in. However this doesn’t really push you as a writer and you might just have a hidden talent for another type of writing. Until you give things a go you’ll never know.
- Be sure to read widely. The more styles and authors you take in, the better your sense of what constitutes quality writing and what it is that makes it good quality. You may also find yourself developing ideas as you read, which is always a positive for a writer.
- Try to attend local writing events, such as workshops and readings. Both are valuable chances to meet established writers and find out more about their process and how they achieved publication. Most writers are very happy to answer these sorts of questions and are very approachable people.
- Try to keep an eye on what is being published, and in particular what is being pushed. A quick wander around Waterstone’s will give you an idea, or keep an eye on the bestsellers lists. Having an idea on current marketing trends could give you the edge over other writers when it comes to making your approach at just the right time.
- One very under estimated part of getting published is that of networking and getting to know other writers and publishers. Many writers begin their story of their first publication with “I was talking to…” or “A friend of mine put me on to…” The days of writing being a solitary activity are over, and if you meet some publishers, agents or writers, opportunities may come your way. You can do this at events around your region and also around the country.
Dealing with Agents
- Again, advance research is very important. Do look for an agent that represents your kind of work – in many cases agents or agencies express what genre and style of work they are looking for upfront. If they don’t, look for a list of authors they represent and this will give you an idea of the kind of material they are looking for.
- Don’t be shy to call the agent to briefly discuss the project – in fact this is likely to enhance your chances. Also, if the agent is not looking for your sort of work, or is not taking on new clients, you’ll be saving yourself a lot of postage!
- The typical approach letter to an agent gives a few brief details about your history in writing and also a very short introduction to the work you are sending them. No life stories please!
- The submission itself should comprise a synopsis and a two or three sample chapters of the work, do check their websites about what their particular criteria is for submission. Never send a whole manuscript as the whole thing will not be read – if the agent would like to see the entire manuscript they will normally ask after reading the sample. The synopsis should be no longer than a page and sum up all the main plot points without going in to too much detail. Synopses tend to be very bare bones, covering the key events in the story. This gives the agent a flavour of what the book is all about and whether the content of the book would be of interest to publishers.
- Don’t be too passive about your submission. Most agents will give the standard time for a response. If you haven’t heard by then don’t be shy to chase it up. Don’t be aggressive about it, but you do need to show you are keen and committed.
- Agencies in particular can have quite a high turnaround of staff, so if you are rejected initially, try again in six-months time. Approach a different person too – agents are all different and have individual tastes and opinions. You might well have more luck second time around.
- The next phase is important. Typically if an agent is interested in your work they will invite you in for a meeting to discuss it further. It’s not an interview as such but it is important that you give the right impression and that you get on with them. If you find there is no rapport between you it may be best to look elsewhere. If one agent has expressed an interest it’s very possible that another one will, so don’t feel obliged to take up your first offer. Your agent will hopefully be with you for years, so make sure you do get the right one.
- Once you have an agent, they will be working very hard for you. However, getting an agent is no guarantee of publication and if you do feel that things aren’t working out don’t be afraid to talk to your agent and perhaps look elsewhere.
Dealing with Publishers
- The most important thing of all is to research the press you are approaching. If you haven’t done this it will be instantly apparent to the editor/ publisher. Most publishers have websites where you can easily look up what type of material they publish, what genre or style it is in or indeed whether they are even looking for new authors. If possible, try and read at least some of their material. This makes a great difference to your chances.
- A substantial history of publication in magazines and anthologies will greatly help your case. It shows endorsement of the quality of your work and also demonstrates that you are a serious writer devoted to your craft.
- Most publishers do not want to receive entire manuscripts out of the blue. It is general procedure to write a letter of enquiry detailing something about yourself, about your work and about the project you are proposing. If the publisher is interested they will let you know and ask you to send some of the manuscript in. Some publishers will have submission ‘windows’, periods where they are accepting submissions, and it is worth checking on their websites for information about this.
- Some of the smaller publishers have a “reading period”, where they will only accept and read manuscripts for three or four months of the year. Ensure you are aware of when this is, as anything outside of this period will simply not be considered. Also check they are happy to hear from new authors. Some publishers prefer to commission work rather than dealing with submissions.
- Many small presses do have specialities, so be sure to use this to your advantage. If you have a genre piece be sure to seek out genre publishers, as it will have a much better chance there than with a more general publisher. Also bear in mind if your work is of interest to a particular culture or age range, look for publishers with an interest in that area.
- Professionalism is very important when dealing with anyone involved in publishing, from small publishers through to agents and major publishers. Simple things like laying your work out as requested, typing it up in a readable font and sending in the correct number of pages are essential. If you don’t treat the people you are dealing with in a professional manner, you won’t receive professional treatment in return.
- If offered a deal, bear in mind that small presses cannot compete with the big boys in terms of fees, advances or royalties. However, the value in actually being published and having a book to call your own will go far beyond the financial rewards. It is extremely difficult to make a living out of being published in small presses.
- Be sure to keep the local media informed of your work and see if you can get some coverage. Be sure to look for an angle, for example if you’re a horror writer you might make an extra push around Hallowe’en or if you’re a romantic poet you could focus around Valentine’s Day.
- See if you can get involved in events in your local area. Keep in touch with venues and any literature development officers or agencies to see if there may be openings in their programmes. Public events can be a great way to earn extra cash, as well as sell some copies of your book.
- Developing a speciality can really help you to get work beyond the pure act of writing. Perhaps you could perform poems accompanied to music, or specialise in children’s work, prison work or mental health work. If you can develop expertise in an area you give yourself a great head start.
- Try to keep in touch with local bookshops that may be able to stock your book. Each copy sold will go a small step towards persuading your publishers you should have a second book or beyond.
- Be conscious of potential working opportunities around you. There may be other writers or artists in your area looking to collaborate, or you may be able to find suitable opportunities through local arts organisations. It may also be possible to get paid work writing short stories for anthologies, or magazine articles, to supplement your income.
- Try to develop as a public speaker. This is a skill that doesn’t always come naturally to writers but increasingly writers are depending on public readings, lectures and workshops to supplement their incomes. Practice at home or run sessions for friends or family. If you can develop a reputation as a great speaker that will go a long way towards getting you work.
- Even if you can’t get that second book with the same publisher, be sure to try other major publishers as well as smaller publishers. It is important to keep your name in the limelight and if you can develop a reputation as a solid seller you’ll be most of the way there. Having that first book out there can also be a big help when looking for an agent.
Writers and Artists – Listing of all agents and publishers in the UK
Duotrope – Award winning resource for writers, lists all publications which are currently accepting submissions
Poetry Library – For magazines, competitions etc
Writers Forum – For competitions
National Association for Writers Groups
Arts Council England – Development and funding agency who invest in artistic and cultural experiences
Arvon Foundation – Creative writing courses and retreats
National Association for Writers in Education (NAWE)
Literary Consultancy – Editorial and manuscript assessments for writers
The Word Factory – National organisation for short story excellence
Poetry Society – Organisation to promote the general appreciation of poetry
The Writers Guild – Trade union representing professional writers in TV, film, theatre, radio, books, comedy, poetry, animation and videogames.
The Society of Authors – The SoA is a trade union for all types of writers, illustrators and literary translators, at all stages of their careers.