Start at the Top

Author Gillian Crow offers some advice on submitting your writing, from contacts to niche markets, and the motivation to think big.

You’ve written your first masterpiece – whether it’s a short story, an article or a novel – and you’re thinking about how to get it published. You’ve read the advice: start small, approach your local paper or indie press. That way, you’re more likely to have your work accepted.

Well, that’s not what happened to me.

Let me explain. I was following a weekly column in ‘The Times’ that featured guest writers – a freelance opportunity, in other words. Not that I was seriously thinking of joining their ranks myself; but I was in the middle of a secretarial course, with access to a typewriter (remember them?) for the first time in my life. I had always wanted to write; now I had the skill and the tools to make it possible.

Then, one week, an article in this column really incensed me. It needed someone bold enough to write a reply. So I did. I scribbled some 1,000 words – that seemed to be the right amount – typed it up the following day, and posted it.

I was not surprised when, the following Saturday, my piece did not appear. But a few weeks later, there it was, gracing one of our most prestigious newspapers. My name joined the ranks of illustrious contributors; and ‘The Times’ rang me to suggest I submit more articles in the future.

So: I had started at the top. Miraculously, it had paid off.

And now I must add some caveats, as well as encouragement. You don’t get anywhere by being ignorant. I had, unwittingly, done my research: I knew this was a possible opening; I had judged its size – there’s no point in writing 2,000 words when the publication keeps a 1,000 slot available. I was familiar with the particular paper’s style – not the chatty approach I’m using here but something much more formal.

I also knew how to write good English, with no spelling mistakes or grammatical howlers; and I had learnt in my secretarial course how to present a manuscript.

You don’t get anywhere by being lukewarm, either. I was passionate about what I wrote – that first article was born out of anger as much as anything. Of course, I toned down the anger into reasoned argument. Being rude doesn’t get you very far if you’re a beginner.

It was also timely; that is, the subject matter was seasonal, and I penned my piece some weeks in advance of the season. Magazines in particular begin planning their Christmas editions back in the summer. If you send in something in December, it had better be looking towards Easter or the summer holidays.

As for encouragement: well, one article does not make a career; but it did set me thinking about writing further pieces, and doing some systematic research into a range of publications. A word of warning here: never, ever write an article that criticises a publication’s advertisers. This is where a magazine or paper makes its money. It will never publish anything that might jeopardise its income. I once submitted a travel article that railed against tour operators who used night flights. The reply I received from an underling was that personally she agreed with me – but they could not possibly upset their bread and butter advertisers.

Writing is a lonely business. I joined a local writers’ circle, where gentle criticism was helpful, and meeting other writers spurred me on to try other types of writing. On a fine day it’s easy to shut one’s computer and go for a walk; but then, if you’ve got to prepare something for your next meeting… Writers definitely need spurs.

Eventually I branched out into books. For a long time I had been thinking about penning a biography of a man who wanted nothing written about himself during his lifetime. I knew him well, had notebooks full of quotes and information, and had even started drafting some text. But how would I get a publisher to take a chance on a book by an unknown?

And then I was lucky to be invited to a dinner that the man’s own publisher also attended. This was a priceless contact, which eventually enabled me to clinch a deal for the book despite not having much of a track record. The old saying is certainly true: it’s not what you know but who you know.

Not everyone will have such opportunities; but do make the most of any that may come your way. If you ring your hobby magazine with good ideas often enough, the editor will get to know you. Don’t be a pest; but be interesting.

You will see from all this that my success has been largely due to finding the right niche market and being there at the right time. Personally I’m not one for competitions. What do they attract? Hundreds, perhaps thousands of entries. Find your niche market and your competitors may number in single figures.

And don’t be afraid to start at the top! If your writing is good enough, and pitched at the right level, then you’ll succeed.

Gillian Crow is the author of four non-fiction books, has written for national press, and is a member of the Society of Authors.

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