Note: Okay, so I’m recycling this one. It first appeared on May 10, 2007. In the past few days, it’s gotten a few comments. And since I’m thinking about writing — being in the middle of a book revision for my 70th book — it’s the kind of thing that I would write now –that is, if I had time to write. But I do have time to recycle, so here it is again. If you’ve already read it, why not read it again? I did and I liked it better this time around. – Maria
Some advice for people who want to make money as a writer.
I’ve been writing for a living since 1990, when I quit my day job to become a freelance writer. Since then, I’ve written 68 books and literally hundreds of articles about using computers and other topics.
One thing that amazes me is the number of people who claim they want to be writers but can’t get something as simple as grammar even close to right.
I’m Not Perfect, But I’m Okay
Okay, so here’s my disclaimer: I never claim to have perfect grammar. On the whole, my grammar is pretty good — certainly better than average — but this isn’t because I study grammar. It’s because I read a lot and always have. I believe that reading teaches good (or decent) grammar simply by example.
I use Microsoft Word with the spelling checker turned on (mostly to catch typos, but I admit my spelling skills have slipped over the years) and the grammar checker turned off. My grammar skills are better than the checker inside Word and I consistently find errors in its preprogrammed logic when it’s turned on.
My opinion: Anyone who must rely on a computerized grammar checker to get grammar right should not pursue a career as a writer.
(Allow me to digress for a moment. Back in the early 90s, when I was struggling to make my writing career work, a friend of mine was working as a temp for a company that hired out people with computer expertise. She encouraged me to check out the temp company and sign up. I went to their office in Manhattan with a copy of my first book in my briefcase. Silly me: I thought being a published author would help me get my foot in the door. They made me fill out a form that had the same exact information as my resumé — I never could figure out the bullsh*t of making a person rewrite his resumé on an application form — and then gave me a grammar test. Yes, a grammar test. They wanted to see if I could write. I guess carrying around a 450 page book with my name on the cover wasn’t enough evidence for them. So I took the test. And can you believe it? I got one of the 20 questions wrong. It was the old who’s vs. whose. To this day, I still struggle with that one. In case you’re wondering, they never called me. And I admit I’m pretty glad about that. The whole experience was completely demeaning.)
An Example of a Wannabe Writer Who Needs Help
A while back, I received a communication from a blog reader who wanted to be a writer. Here’s what she wrote:
Thanks for sharing how you make it as a writer. I have always had the dream of being a writer, but just never seem to get with the program.
This is America so I ask my self why not write. I really don”t have a style of my own yet so it will be easier for me to do things the way that publisher want them done.
I just need a topic, or an area of intrest. I heard it said that after you get a topic you will write. (Hope this is true.)
I draw your attention to the second paragraph’s first sentence. Not only does this wannabe spell myself as my self, but she’s completely screwed up punctuation in the sentence, leaving the reader to figure out what she means. The disagreement between noun (publisher) and verb (want instead of wants) could be a typo, but I can tell you right now that publishers don’t want typos.
The third paragraph (also with a typo in the word intrest which should be interest), also has a grammar problem. Can you spot it? Think about it.
Take My Advice
If you want to be a professional writer — that is, if you want to write and get paid for it — you need to understand the basic rules of grammar.
Here are three tips for improving your grammar:
- Read. Read a lot. Read good quality writing. There’s plenty of it online, on quality publications such as newspaper Web sites, Slate.com, Salon.com, and numerous others. All of these sites have editors who check the grammar, spelling, and punctuation of the writers. Don’t read just blogs. The average blogger is not a writer and very few blogs are edited. Worse yet, many bloggers have their own “style” that shuns standard grammar and spelling.
- If you still think you need help, read a grammar or style book. Lots of people like the Elements of Style by William Strunk Jr. and E.B. White. (I prefer the illustrated hardcover version.) But there are lots of other books out there. The Elephants of Style by Bill Walsh is lots of fun and very educational. Go to a bookstore (you know, the place you hope to find your name on the cover of a book) and check the Reference or Writing sections. You’ll find plenty of options.
- When you finish writing something, read it out loud. Unless the language you’re writing in is not your first language, grammatical errors should jump off the page at you as you read them. Simply said: Your writing should sound good when you read it aloud. That’s not just grammar, either. It’s also the rhythm of your writing, the combination of long and short sentences. That’s something that comes with a lot of experience as a writer.
Don’t worry about developing your own personal writing style. It’ll come to you — if you don’t try to force it. Learn the basics first.
Then just write, write, write — until you get it right.