Only talented writers sell (Mistake #50)

There are a lot of perfectly competent but otherwise fairly unremarkable writers earning a decent living from words.

There are a few poor writers getting by as well.

If you’re scratching your head, unconvinced, thinking that you rarely see average or poor writing in print, I have to declare a possible unfair advantage over you – I’ve spent a number of years working as a sub-editor.

A sub-editor is an in-house corrector of grammar, errant spelling and punctuational bloopers: a fact-checker, a layout tidy-upper, an article beautifier, a feature polisher; someone who takes what the writer provides and checks and prepares it for printing.

During those years, I viewed a lot of what’s called ‘raw copy’ – the work the writers submit, all of it accepted for publication and usually commissioned. And while most of it ranged from okay to brilliant, some of it was poor, and occasionally awful. The standard of writing, I quickly learned, did not always tally with the standing or reputation of the writer. Some unknowns wrote beautifully. And some ultra-successful people wrote badly – including one very well-known journalist and broadcaster.

I also soon realised that it rarely mattered. Another key learning was that the business was a team sport, and that the best sub-editors (among whom I certainly did not count myself) were hugely talented professionals, who could fashion a diamond out of carbon (or worse): what you see in print is almost invariably an improvement on what writers submit. It rarely mattered because provided the required information was supplied, the sub-editor could usually sort out any other issues. And if the sub-editor could sort out any other issues, the editor would usually be happy.

As a non-fiction writer, you are primarily a provider of information. It’s great to present that information in a readable and logical and entertaining way, free of error and with a bit of panache thrown in – but it’s not usually a deal-breaker if you don’t succeed 100% in every respect.

If that sounds sacrilegious, then I’m not suggesting you abandon all rules of good English and article craftsmanship – the more work the sub-editor has to do, the more likely he or she will moan about you to the editor, who may then think twice about asking you to write for them again. And if you’re submitting speculatively, then sloppy and careless work will count very much against you and is far harder to get away with than if you’re submitting work you’ve been commissioned to do on the basis of an idea or outline.

But I want to move you away from any notions, if you harbour them, that it’s All About The Writing: all about committing your unique style or signature flourishes or favourite expressions onto the page, and all about editors being interested in buying those things. It’s only a tiny bit about that.

What else is it about, then? If you have absolutely stunning ideas which an editor can’t say no to – well, bingo, it’s about that. If you’ve got connections with celebrities or other notable people – bingo, it’s about that too. If you’ve an obsessive and nerdy interest in a subject – the more niche the better, quite often – then bingo again, because you can possibly provide material few others can supply. Ideas, research, facts, communication, information, originality, contacts, curiosity, shrewdness, persistence – these are all more important to you than fine writing.

Do I then think fine writing unimportant? Is this post advising you to stop trying to improve your writing? No and no. A lot of previous posts should demonstrate that, I hope. If you write with style and fluency as well as accuracy people will remember you and may be more likely to use you and read you next time. And there’s nothing like that proud glow you feel when you construct a truly beautiful sentence or piece of writing – every writer should savour this moment when it comes, as it’s one of the joys of doing what we do.

But the skill of fine writing develops slowly, and over time – a lot of time. It’s quite organic, partly sub-conscious. And it’s not something to agonise over or think about too much at the beginning. Your key concern when you’re starting out should be to work towards selling some pieces of non-fiction. And all I want to do with this post is to stop you thinking, should you think it, that you’re not yet a good enough writer to do that – a common notion among beginner writers.

Because, in fact, you almost certainly are.

Comments 9

  • I wholeheartedly agree. I often say at workshops, "If you can string a sentence together, then it's possible for you to be published." The most crucial element is that you can convey your idea.

    If the idea is brilliant, then the editor, or sub-editor will tidy things up. But, as you point out, they won't do it forever. Writing is about continuous learning. Anyone interested in writing for publication has to be continuusly looking for ways to improve their work. And they are the writers who go onto succeed and flourish.

    A great way to learn is to sit down with your published piece and compare it with the text you submitted. Look for the changes and work out why the changes were made.

    Once you accept that you are good enough, then you're ready to accept that it is possible to become a better writer too.

  • This is interesting as I've recently done an 'editorial exercise' for a (volunteer run) magazine – the articles in the exercise were genuine submissions that needed so much polishing – and had indeed been published in their polished / revamped form. I found it hugely insightful seeing what actually comes to an editor's desk and felt reassured that my submissions are actually quite well presented!

  • @ Simon – Thanks, and spot on with the 'convey your idea' point. Less sure about the comparison between submitted copy and printed copy – yes, it's valuable, but it's important beginners know that changes are made for all sorts of 'innocent' reasons, that may not reflect on their work, too. A future post on this, I think…

    @ Lucy – yes, it can be an eye-opener! It's very useful – I learned a lot during my time sub-editing. Would always advise anyone to leap at the chance to do it – even as work experience – as it's such a useful thing.

  • This post has been so inspiring! I've written for businesses and done freelance work for a while now, but I've always dreamed of having one of my books published.

    Recently, I've decided to stop putting my dreams off, polish one of them up, and go for it! Thank you for such a thought inspiring post!

  • Glad it helped, Elizabeth. But I suspect you're a more than competent writer already – so you have nothing to worry about! Go for it.

  • Alex, thanks for this very encouraging – and generous – post! As someone who's got a 'gap' for at least the next few weeks before having to return to the 'day job' I'm really going to make the effort and try to earn some money from writing, so this was just what I needed to hear!

  • Great to hear, Helen – pleased it gave you a boost! Have a productive few weeks – if you manage to not be too distracted by the tennis (am personally fearing a fortnight of barely lifting a finger…).

  • Thanks for that really encouraging and insightful post. I had a few articles published in Christian newspapers last year along the 'niche/nerdy' route; it's safe to assume, as the subject was the religious aspect of the historical vegetarian movement. I've only begun to dip into the real craft of writing recently and have been a bit concerned at the difficulty of producing consistently 'clean text' (which we see everywhere in print) in all that much quantity, when I spend longer than I would if writing for pure pleasure.

    Maybe the Church press is too cash-strapped to afford sub-editors but I feel encouraged by having had submissions published verbatim. I do intend to broaden my horizons considerably although 'fluency' is something that I'd still imagine to be quite a challenge without a 'nerdy' passion for a particular subject to fall back on should an intimate knowledge of subject matter be lacking.

    Anyway, I'm amazed at the extent and calibre of precise, insider advice throughout the blogsphere, so there's no excuse for anyone not to progress these days! I shall return…thanks again.

  • You're welcome: glad you found it so useful. It was one I'd all but forgotten about! Curiously, I had a rude tweet from someone recently apparently taking exception to a line I'd written in a more recent post which said something like 'most people can write'. Some people want it to be about talented writing – and want publication to be reserved for such people who can produce it. It doesn't work like that…

    Thanks for the comment. I wish I knew more about the church press to comment on its editorial staff but am afraid I don't!

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