Writing, as a career, offers a range of personal rewards. It enables people to express themselves, as well as to entertain, inform, and influence others. With only a few tools--paper, a typewriter, a pencil, and often a personal computer--a writer can have an impact on the surrounding world. But most authors spend hundreds of hours perfecting their skills before they can sell any of their works.
There are two main kinds of writers, staff writers and free-lance writers. Staff writers are professional writers who work for a salary. Many earn a living as newspaper reporters or columnists. Others work as technical writers, who express the complex ideas of engineers and scientists in words that a nonexpert can understand. Many staff writers prepare documents for public agencies. Others work as editors for book publishers, magazines, or newspapers.
Free-lance writers get paid only if a publisher buys their work. Free-lancers write most books--both fiction and nonfiction--dramas, poems, screenplays, and short stories, as well as many magazine and newspaper articles. Many staff writers create free-lance material in addition to their regular work.
This article discusses the chief types of free-lance writing and tells how to submit works for publication. For some information on how to write, see A Guide to Writing Skills in the Research Guide/Index, Volume 22.
Preparing for a writing career. A person who wants to be a writer should set aside some time to write every day. Learning to express ideas clearly and effectively in writing takes a great deal of practice. Many experienced writers keep a journal. A journal can serve as a storehouse for information, observations, and ideas. It can also be a place to develop new material.
Beginning writers should read the many kinds of writing encountered every day and pay special attention to what they find most interesting. News items, feature stories, textbooks, cookbooks, repair manuals, poems, essays, short stories, novels, and plays differ in their methods of organizing and presenting material. A beginning writer who reads widely and carefully will develop an appreciation of different writing approaches and styles. In time, the writer can acquire a more flexible approach to his or her own work.
Successful authors write about subjects they know and understand. They sometimes take weeks or months revising or refining an article, poem, or story. Beginning writers usually benefit from finding one or more friendly critics who will read their work and discuss its strengths and weaknesses with them.
High schools and colleges offer many learning opportunities for young writers. Composition and literature courses can be helpful. Creative writing and journalism courses may further assist a beginning writer in developing his or her skills. Many students work on literary magazines, newspapers, or yearbooks published by their schools. They may write stories, edit articles, or gain other valuable experience.
Free-lance markets include book publishers, magazines, and newspapers. A reference book called Writer's Market lists the name, address, editorial needs, and policies of more than 5,000 magazines, publishers, and other literary markets. It also provides general information about methods of preparing a manuscript and the legal rights of authors and publishers. Writer's Market is revised annually and can be found in most public libraries. Articles in such monthly magazines as The Writer and Writer's Digest also offer helpful tips on how to write and sell manuscripts.
Some magazines welcome free-lance material. Many editors send a free copy of their magazine and a list of editorial guidelines to anyone who requests them. These materials can help free-lancers decide whether the content and style of their work would appeal to readers of a publication.
Some writers hire a literary agent to find markets for their works. An agent reads a client's manuscript and suggests ways to improve it. The agent then tries to sell the manuscript to a publisher. If the manuscript is sold, the agent receives a commission of 10 to 15 per cent of the author's income for that piece of writing. Beginning writers should try to sell their own works. Many agents work only with writers who have been recommended by editors or professional authors.
Nonfiction ranks as the largest market for free-lance writers. Book publishers buy about 10 times as many nonfiction manuscripts as novels. In most magazines, nonfiction articles greatly outnumber poems and short stories. Nonfiction articles range in length from a few hundred words to book length. Long articles may be serialized (published in installments) in a magazine.
Several kinds of publications accept nonfiction from free-lancers. General-interest magazines contain articles on current, popular subjects that appeal to a wide audience. Such magazines attract many professional writers. Readers of specialized publications share a common interest, such as a hobby, a political viewpoint, a specialized technical subject, or membership in a professional organization. Many beginners succeed in selling articles to these magazines, which attract relatively few well-known writers.
Writers should choose a topic that readers want to know more about. They may also select a topic that they care so much about they can make their readers care also. The writer should then choose a format (form of presentation) suited both to the subject and the kind of magazine that might publish the article. A beginning writer usually works up a topic and a way of presenting it alone. Later, the writer and an editor may cooperate on its revision. A free-lancer who writes about money might offer an article called "How to Find a Part-Time Job" to Seventeen. Another article, called "Stretching Your Food Dollars," might be sent to Family Circle. A writer should always use reliable sources so that the article presents accurate information.
Payment for nonfiction material varies widely. Specialized publications with a small readership usually offer lower payments than general-interest magazines with large readerships. Payment for a magazine article ranges from less than $100 to thousands of dollars. Book publishers usually pay authors a royalty (commission) of 10 to 15 per cent of the book's price for each copy sold.
Fiction sold by free-lance writers includes short stories of various kinds--adventure and confession tales, mysteries, romances, science fiction, and Westerns. Markets include many general-interest publications and fiction and literary magazines.
A writer who wants to write a novel should first concentrate on writing the novel and then be concerned with selling it. But the writer may find it helpful to read other novels being written today and be familiar with books being issued by various publishers. In this way, a writer can learn which publishers are most likely to buy a particular kind of work.
Some writers submit an entire manuscript to a publisher. Others prefer to submit only the first few chapters of a novel, plus a one- or two-page summary of the plot. The length of time it takes editors to respond varies. A writer may inquire about the manuscript if there is no response after two or three months.
Poetry is one of the most challenging types of writing. It is also one of the lowest-paying. Some magazines only pay poets by giving them copies of the issues in which their work appears. Others pay a dollar or, more rarely, several dollars a line. Reading widely in modern poetry will stimulate many ideas. However, poems are not written by formula. Poems must come from the poet's own language, imagination, and experience.
Scriptwriting. Writing scripts for plays, movies, or television can bring great financial rewards. However, scriptwriting is an extremely competitive field in which relatively few people succeed. Scriptwriting can be less personal than other forms of writing. It may turn into a group project, with the actors and directors contributing to the completion of a script. Most plays produced on Broadway in New York City are written by established authors. Some off-Broadway and regional theaters have special programs to encourage the work of talented young playwrights. But most beginners have their works performed in school or community theaters. Many play producers and theaters list their interests and needs in Writer's Digest and such specialized publications as The Dramatists Guild Quarterly, Information for Playwrights, and Scriptwriter News.
Most professional and amateur productions pay the scriptwriter a percentage of the total box-office receipts as royalties. Royalties of 5 to 10 per cent are common. Other forms of payment include buying the rights to the material and payment per performance.
Many motion-picture screenplays and television scripts are written by free-lance writers. Free-lancers should hire an agent to sell such material because movie and television producers rarely deal directly with an author. The size of the royalty depends on the writer's professional reputation and the quality of the script. Such publications as Daily Variety, The Hollywood Reporter, and Scriptwriter News help writers by reporting trends in the film and television industries.
Literature for children includes adventure stories, mysteries, and articles about folklore, nature, science, and famous people. Many children's magazines also buy quizzes, puzzles, and riddles. Articles and stories published in children's magazines are usually no more than 1,500 words long. Authors usually receive payment of about 4 cents per word or a single payment that is generally less than $100. Free-lance authors write nearly all of the juvenile books published yearly in the United States. Most publishing firms that specialize in children's books prefer to receive complete manuscripts.
Preparing and submitting a manuscript. All manuscripts should be neatly typed or printed from a computer. They should be on good-quality white paper, usually 81/2 by 11 inches (22 by 28 centimeters). The typist should doublespace and leave margins on the top, bottom, and sides of every page. Each page should be numbered, usually centered at the top of the page or toward the right margin. Often the first page is not numbered. The title and author's by-line should be centered halfway down the first page. A by-line shows the author's name as he or she wants it to appear in the published article or book. The writer should put his or her complete name, address, and phone number in the top corner of the first page. Many writers also put their last name by the page number on succeeding pages in case the manuscript gets divided up in an editor's office.
A writer may enclose a cover letter that briefly describes his or her qualifications for writing about the subject. A writer offering a literary work may wish to include just an introductory letter. Some editors prefer that free-lancers send a query letter that summarizes the manuscript before submitting the entire work. A writer should always enclose a stamped, self-addressed envelope for the editors to use to return the manuscript.