This has to be the number one thing that most beginning writers struggle with ? getting that first article, story, or book published. Before you start thinking that it's just too much work, or you just don't know the right people, let me fill you in on how easy it can be. While my personal experience won't work or apply for everyone, it is a good guide for getting your foot in the door as a published writer.
Step One: Be Passionate About Something!
What got me started was passion! I had something that I had a lot of experience with and was very passionate about. Being in the computer industry, I was thriving on anything having to do with computers. But, I was also passionate about flying airplanes. Thus, I was very excited about Microsoft's Flight Simulator.
Now, did you notice the key words with my situation? They are "experience", "passionate", and "excited". The best writers are those who are passionate about the topic that they're writing about. What are you excited about? What do you have a lot of experience with? What are you passionate about? If you can answer those questions then you know what topics you can write about.
Step Two: Find Something To Write About
Since I was spending a significant amount of time with the Flight Simulator product, and I had a background in real-world aviation, I soon discovered that it was possible to use the maps and charts for real flight, and use them for navigation in the Flight Simulator world. I was sure that many other Flight Simulator fans knew this as well. But, did real-world pilots know this? Could real pilots gain further instruction and sharpen their navigation skills with Microsoft's Flight Simulator? Right away I knew that I had a potential article idea and a potential market ? Aviation Magazines!
When you are passionate about something, you tend to come across ideas and concepts that others may not have thought of before. Maybe you're a mother with 5 kids at home, and you come to the realization that you always seem to get them all fed, cleaned, and in bed at the end of the day. How did you do it? What tricks have you picked up that other mothers might want to know? Or maybe you just want to share your emotional struggle of how to deal with such a large family? I'm sure there are many moms out there who would love to read about it.
Step Three: Write!
I now had my article idea ? the world of Flight Simulator through the eyes of a real-world pilot. While I was still excited about the article, I sat down and wrote out what topics I wanted to cover. I wanted to start out with a flying situation that sounded like I was really flying and was getting into some bad weather. Then when the flying got really tough, I would pause the simulator, and then introduce how the product helped to sharpen my navigation and situational awareness skills. Once my theme was in place, and my main topics were decided upon, I started writing. When I was done, I had a nice 1300 word article ready for submission.
This is where most hopeful writers stall out! They convince themselves that no one would really be interested in hearing what they had to say. They just can't seem to find the time to sit down and write. Or, they sit at the computer but can't seem to come up with the right words. Ah, good old writers block! Many a book and article have been written about how to get started. What worked for me was just forcing myself to start writing. I would sit at the computer until I finally had something. This can take 5 minutes, or it can take an hour or more. The point is ? don't get up until you've written something. You find that once you get started, it's hard to stop. And after you've done it a few times, you'll discover that it gets easier to just start writing as soon as you sit down.
Step Four: Target Your Market and Get the Guidelines
Now that I had my article written, I was ready to start submitting. I went to the newsstand and purchased 5 different magazines about aviation and flying. I then looked for the column in each magazine that said who to contact for article submissions and guidelines. I knew that the top of the market magazine in the industry was "Flying Magazine", so that's the one I wanted to target first. I contacted them and got a copy of their writer's guidelines. I soon discovered that they wanted double spaced type, in a text document format, and that it was to be submitted in printed format with a SASE (Self Addressed Stamped Envelope), for sending it back if they didn't want it. I also took an extra step and contacted Microsoft to see if I could get some screen shots on slides, to include with the article. Within a week, I had everything ready to go.
Find out who the big players are in the publishing industry for the market that you are targeting. Read their publications. Get a feel for the type of articles they publish and get a copy of their Writer's Guidelines. Format your article (story, etc.) to meet the required guidelines and be sure to prepare the SASE. Be sure that you include a nice cover letter with your article, addressed to the Editor. Introduce yourself and use a short paragraph to highlight what your article is about. Don't write any more than 2 or 3 paragraphs in your cover letter. Editors get tones of submissions and they like them short and to the point. Now you're ready to submit.
Step Five: Submit, Submit, Submit!
I sent my article off and then waited, and waited, and waited. After about 2 weeks I received my SASE back, with my article inside, and a very nice rejection letter stating that the article was not within the scope of their required topics. My heart sank! My first rejection letter. (Actually, I wish I still had it so I could show it around.) But, I didn't let this get the best of me. I made a new Cover Letter, a new SASE, and sent the article off to the next magazine on my list ? Plane and Pilot Magazine.
You will receive rejection letters! That's just the way it works. But don't take it personally. All editors are people (contrary to popular belief by some writers). They have likes, dislikes, mood swings, and deadline pressures. If you get the dreaded rejection letter then just select the next publisher on your list and try again.
Step Six: The Contract and the Big Wait
Several weeks after I submitted my article to Plane and Pilot Magazine, the editor called me to inform me that they were interested in the article and that they needed to get a contract to me. We exchanged fax numbers and before the end of the day, I had an accepted article. And payment would be sent out when the magazine went on the stands. Now came the big wait. Then around six weeks later I received my check. I made over $350 for my published article! This was it! I was now a published writer. My foot was in the door. Little did I know what this would soon lead to.
The publishing rights that are requested by the publisher are usually outlined in the Writer's Guidelines. Most are for First North American Serial Rights, which means that they get the first right to publish but after that you can resubmit to other publications, but only as Second Serial Rights. Most magazines will have a lead time of anywhere from several months to six months till publication. They have to line up their advertising, time to send to printing, photos, etc.
Around six months after my article was published, a new version of Microsoft's Flight Simulator came out. A friend of mine called me from a computer store to tell me that a quote from my article was on the back cover of the product box. Needless to say, I was totally thrilled to have my name plastered on every box of Flight Simulator. I contacted Microsoft to thank them for the free advertising. This lead to a discussion about doing some testing of the next version, which then lead to a book deal with Microsoft Press. Then shortly after the book came out, I became a regular columnist for a gaming magazine, on the topic of Flight Simulation products. All this from getting my Flight Simulator article submitted.
So, all it takes is making a few steps in the right direction. Do the writing, and then submit, submit, submit! Who knows? You might just be the next big columnist for Mother's Magazine, Off-Roading, or any other specialized market for your passion.
Find your passion, and write!
Timothy Trimble is a award winning, freelance writer, and software developer. He has written a book for Microsoft Press and over 35 articles for significant computer industry trade magazines. He is the Blog publisher of The ART of Software Development which can be found via his web site at http://www.timothytrimble.info