Knowing When to Break or Bend the Rules By Carol R. Cool

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Attending my first Christian writers’ conference five years ago, I heard all sorts of rules: Always send an SASE. Write what you know. Study several issues of a magazine before querying. Query the little publications first. Write for free to get clips. Nurture your contacts. Anyone willing to work hard can be a writer.

It was this last bit of advice that first made me question some of the others. I happen to believe in natural talent. Not that I don’t believe people can learn the mechanics of writing, but I don’t think study or practice alone can make a great writer. In my mind, you either have writing talent or you don’t. And if I didn’t, I knew I didn’t want to work that hard trying to acquire it, if it could be acquired at all.

To find out if I “had it,” I took advantage of every critique available to me at the conference, whether paid or free. Some of the comments focused only on the mechanics-helpful, necessary, but not what I was there to discover. Then I met Jo. I had paid for a critique with this writer whose name I barely recognized and quickly knew I had received my money’s worth. Jo asked the same question the others did-What did you expect from this critique?-but actually appreciated my answer-“I wanted to see if I was any good, because I’m basically lazy, and if I don’t have some natural ability, I’m not interested in working that hard for a modicum of success.” She found that refreshing.

Later, I would send Jo a card with a quote from Flannery O’Connor, her favorite author, that said, “Everywhere I go I’m asked if I think the university stifles writers. My opinion is that they don’t stifle enough of them.” I began to wonder if one reason writers’ conferences, magazines and books say anyone can write if they keep studying the craft is because wannabe writers are big business.

In any case, I would bend the rule. I would only work hard at the craft of writing if I first knew I had the spark, the voice, to succeed. The favorable comments I gleaned, even from editors who rejected me, convinced me I had it. Now I was free to try.

Jo would help me bend another rule-Write what you know. Here’s how I would now rephrase it-Write what you’re passionate about, even if you don’t know a lot about it yet. Jo sent me off to write a list of articles I wanted to write, not that I necessarily thought I could write. Some passions emerged, including one for helping middle class people like myself get involved in social justice concerns, without feeling guilty that they weren’t doing more. I learn as I write, interviewing different experts, researching statistics, mining the web and my friends’ experiences for service and volunteer ideas.

Jo told me to totally break another rule-Query the little pubs first. “Start with the big guys,” she said, “If they reject you, then start working your way down the list. But why sell a great article to a small pub when a big publisher might be interested?” The smaller pubs are more likely to accept reprints than the big guys, so they may later take the same article. Jo also told me that one clip from a well-respected magazine was worth multiple clips from the little presses. She was right. Based on her recommendation, I sent a query to a major Christian magazine and had a full-length article accepted. That one clip worked wonders for me at other publishers.

Some other rule bending or breaking I’ve learned on my own. The write-for-free rule never made sense to me. If I was any good, I deserved to get paid for my writing. WritersWeekly.com turned the rule on its head and made it “Never write for free.” I have bent that rule on occasion: I choose to write for nonprofits I am volunteering for because I believe in their mission. I have also allowed articles to be reprinted in England and Slovenia without pay so I can say I am internationally published. I decided the tradeoff was worth it to me.

I bend another rule simply because of time constraints. No one who is both working a job and freelance writing has the time (and probably not the money) to read several issues of a magazine before querying. But some time on the Internet perusing the website, checking out the types of articles and skimming one or two for style is usually enough to know if a magazine is a fit. (An evening at Barnes & Nobles or Borders could accomplish the same thing.) For one magazine, I never saw a printed copy until I received the issue with my feature article in it.

Now I use a great worksheet I received at one writers’ conference that allows me to evaluate a magazine in about 15 minutes. It includes things such as whether articles use subtitles, who the reader is, what percent of articles are freelance written (use the masthead to check author names against in-house staff members), whether articles are in first, second or third person, whether they generally use quotes or statistics, how often sidebars are used, and how many articles are written on certain topics. Evaluating one issue this way will tell you the general format for the magazine (the Christmas issue may be an exception). It also gives you an inside edge for your query of things to mention, such as sidebars you wish to supply or who you will have quotes from.

So I break and bend rules as necessary. Every time I hear a writing rule, I first ask if it makes sense for me. Some I keep; others I toss. Most I modify to fit my style, my circumstances, and my life. Doing so is helping me find my way into new markets and expanding my freelance writing success.

Carol R. Cool resides in Bear, Delaware, where she is a pastor’s wife, a copy editor, and an internationally published writer. Her magazine credits include Discipleship Journal, Moody, Prism and Christian Home and School. She is currently at work on a book on social activism for nonactivists. She can be reached at coolcopy43 at aol.com