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The "3 Rs" of Getting Published—
Reading, Writing, and Revising

Copyright 2001 by Patricia Anderson

 


You can't tell a book by its cover. Who hasn't heard that one a few times? When it comes to representing or acquiring a new project, many literary agents and publishers might also say: You can't tell a book by its proposal.

This may surprise those who have followed this site or taken one of my workshops. I have gone on at length about—and will continue to uphold—the importance of an effective book proposal. A well-planned and researched proposal that meets a professional standard will certainly capture the initial interest of at least a few agents and publishers. But don't forget that a full proposal includes a sample of the actual manuscript. If this is out of touch with the contemporary market, poorly thought out, clumsily written, and full of careless errors, then your proposal will most likely be rejected.

Alternatively, if you have carefully worked and reworked your sample, then this will make the crucial difference at first impression. Odds are that you will receive a request to submit your entire manuscript for further consideration. But if you think you're on your way to a contract at this point, think again. There are few guarantees in the publishing business, even in the rare event that you've produced a masterpiece. You can, however, count on this: If your full manuscript fails to measure up to the promise of the proposal and sample, then you will simply be rejected at a higher stage of the submission process.

In the end, rejection is rejection, and your agenda must be to minimize the number of them that you will inevitably receive. At the least, you want to ensure that your manuscript gets taken seriously by every agent and publisher that you approach. Before you submit your latest work, take the following refresher course in the "3 R's": reading, writing, and revising.

Reading

It is rare to find a writer who has not at some time been an avid reader. Often the desire to write in a particular genre begins with a love of reading books in the same category. Most romance writers, for example, have been—and remain—romance readers. The same generally holds true for authors writing in every other genre: mystery, horror, science fiction, fantasy, and so on. Similarly, authors of mainstream fiction and most kinds of nonfiction are typically well-versed in works that have commonalties with their own.

Reading can undoubtedly be an ongoing source of inspiration. But it also serves a pragmatic purpose when it comes to writing for publication. When you are in the throes of wrestling with some structural and/or creative dilemma, the work of more experienced, published authors can often point the way to solving the problem in your own project.

Instead of reading recreationally, read analytically. If you write fiction, take note of how published writers in your genre move plot along, change scenes, reveal character, handle flashbacks, build tension. If you write nonfiction, study how books in your field are structured, how research and sources are documented and/or incorporated into the main text, how the author creates and sustains interest, and how the techniques of fiction are integrated with more purely expository passages.

To apply the solutions of other authors to your own work need not be, and mostly should not be, a matter of mere emulation. Your aim is to learn from those who have gone before you and to adapt the knowledge creatively to your own purposes.

You also need to familarize yourself with such publications as the New York Times Book Review, Publishers Weekly, and Quill & Quire. These are standard items in public libraries and in larger bookstores and newsstands. There are also online editions of these publications, links to which can be found on the Helping You Get Published Links Page.

Even occasional reading of the news and book reviews in these trade publications will give you a sense not only of the publishing business but of the extent to which your work is original. If you find that you're writing in an overcrowded area of the market, then your challenge is to find a new twist or "hook" that will make your manuscript stand out from the rest. Keeping up-to-date with the trade will also help you position your book when the time comes to submit a proposal to agents or publishers.

Writing

Writers write—that's the bottom line. If you're watching TV, doing housework, daydreaming, talking on the phone about your great book, or any other activity that does not involve sitting or standing at a desk or table and using some instrument or machine for putting words on paper, then you're not writing.

Overcoming procrastination is mostly a matter of discipline and organization. Set aside a time and a place to write, make notes, and file them where they can be easily found. Writing is a way of life and must be integrated with the other apspects of your life, or you won't do it. See Memoir Writing Tips for further hints that apply to most kinds of writing.

Some writers find that self-discipline and organization are enough to get them started and to keep them writing. But many others wrestle with what they perceive as lack of inspiration or motivation or, as it is commonly known, "writer's block." Most of the time, that feeling of being blocked comes from listening to your internal critic or editor telling you that whatever words you write just aren't good enough. At a later point, you will need this critical sensibility to help you produce a polished manuscript. But it mostly works against you at the first-draft stage.

To get past the "block," many writing instructors advocate some form of free writing that is continuous, unstructured, and unencumbered by rules and negative judgements. But a few words of caution: While it is important to get past your self-critical blocks, be sure to do so from a point of basic knowledge of the craft of writing for publication. While free writing might unleash your creativity and allow you to produce page after written page effortlessly, don't assume that a pile of typescript necessarily adds up to an article, short story, or book. Virtually all saleable works of fiction and nonfiction conform to certain conventions of style and structure. Your job is to develop a basic grasp of these before, or while, you write. This will ease the inevitable job of revising your first draft, because at least you will have a rudimentary notion of where you should be going as you produce your next, more polished version.

Most university continuing studies programs, community colleges, and night schools offer courses in writing. Ideally, you'll find one that matches your particular interest. But don't dismiss the possibility of learning something useful from any writing course. For example, a course in novel writing will enhance your repertoire of techniques to liven up your creative nonfiction. Conversely, the basic research skills you might learn in a course on nonfiction writing can enhance the authenticity of your novel.

If you don't have the appropriate courses in your area, or if sitting in a classroom isn't for you, then read a few books on the craft of writing. There are dozens that you can find in most bookstores or check out from your public library.

Revising

Following the book trade, developing self-discipline, overcoming writer's block, learning your craft, and producing a first draft are all crucial to the process of writing for publication. But you are unlikely to get that much-sought-after book contract if you are satisfied with an unrevised first draft.

The thought of reworking a newly completed manuscript is a daunting proposition for many writers. But revising is as much a part of the creative writing process as the typically more exhilarating experiences of initial inspiration and finding your authentic voice. And more often than not, a well-considered revision makes the all-important difference between a manuscript that is merely promising and one that is publishable.

Revising can include any or all of: proofreading for basic errors such as typos, inadvertent omissions, and incorrect punctuation; copyediting to correct grammatical lapses and awkward or unclear sentences; rewriting anything from occasional sentences to extensive passages; deleting passages that do not serve plot or argument; restructuring the order of paragraphs, sections, scenes or whole chapters for logic, emphasis, plotting, suspense, and so on.

For hints on how to proofread your work, click here and see the sidebar, "6 steps to effective proofreading." If you're uncertain about the fundamentals of correct grammar and clear style, visit Elements of Style, the online version of William Strunk's classic primer.

You would be a rare writer if you only needed to correct small errors and grammar. Most first drafts will also require some rewriting and restructuring. If you don't feel confident about undertaking these levels of revision all on your own, you might want to hire a professional editor or consultant to do a manuscript assessment. But you can also pick up many useful ideas from published works in your genre and from the many books offering writing instruction and advice.

There is no quick and easy route to getting published. Achieving your goal ultimately comes down to perseverance, hard work, and firm adherence to the basics: reading, writing, and revising—the "3 R's" of producing a publishable manuscript.

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