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BY MARY J. NICKUM
Writing can be a form of personal expression, revealing what you think, what you know, who you are. So how could it then be that you, a writer, have committed a sin?
Have you gotten too close to your work?
You’ve worked hard; your boss likes most of your writing. But there comes a time in every writer’s career when introspection is necessary.
Is it time for you? This list of seven deadly sins for writers might help.
1. Deadly Sloppy Research. Nonfiction readers want accurate, reliable information. Nonfiction writers need to engage readers better than ever. After all, you are competing against 30-second commercials and TV shows that cover your subject. Don’t rely on your memory of something you saw on television; look it up. And use an authoritative source, preferably two or three. Never be satisfied with a random Internet search.
2. Deadly Prosaism. You want to present facts accurately. However, recitation of straight information put readers to sleep. Readers want more than just facts and figures. Include action sequences or quotations from experts, especially experts who have name recognition, to add color to any technical explanation or historical exposition.
3. Deadly Stereotyping. Avoid describing habits of people using conventional wisdom, no matter how well you think it explains a point. Never refer to a person’s race, creed or other characteristics that are beyond the person’s control in a way that could be construed as negative.
4. Deadly Carelessness. Editors will not correct a typo-laden manuscript. Even with self-published books, mistakes on every page annoy readers and make them suspect you are equally careless with facts. Don’t expect your word processor to do the proofing, either. Few computer spell checkers know the difference between “their” and “there.” Word processing and e-mail software can even create errors; so manually give your writing a once-over.
5. Deadly Lazy Marketing. Never just open a market database and start querying publishers in alphabetical order. Read the entries in full; publishers are disgusted with nonfiction writers’ ignoring of clear statements that “we publish only fiction.” Read your chosen publisher’s full official guidelines. And even if you’re self-publishing, have a clear idea of your anticipated reader demographic and where to find them. Remember, writers who aim at “everyone” never hit anyone.
6. Deadly Ego. Probably the No. 1 reason writers fail is that they expect their talent to absolve them of any real need to work. No author ever outgrows the imperfect first draft! Every writer can benefit from other authors’ input in the form of critique or collaboration. No successful author works in a vacuum.
7. Deadly Fear of Rejection. If a writer is paralyzed by the fear of rejection, the work never is submitted, let alone published. Every writer has experienced rejection at some time. It goes with the work. Relax and learn from it. Ernest Hemingway, William Faulkner and Edgar Allen Poe received numerous rejections, but they didn’t let that stop them.
The “sins” of carelessness are easily overcome, just take your time and exhaust your sources. A feeling of pride in your work is necessary, but don’t be narcissistic. On the other hand, the fear of rejection is more difficult to overcome. There is no easy solution or recommendation, except to submit your work with the understanding that it may not get published the first time out. If the same piece is continually rejected, take a hard look at it and consult writer friends who have had their work published. The editors rejecting your piece will usually not take the time to tell you how to improve. They are too busy and want to spend time with pieces that will be published.
The most important message is to keep trying and never give up. ♦
— A member since 2000, Mary J. Nickum is a retired librarian who is now an editor and freelance writer. Her primary focus is on science for the public. Nickum is editor-in-chief of the Intermountain Journal of Science and currently edits World Aquaculture magazine. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.