If somewhat medieval images of working with no pay, learning your craft just for someone else to make the big bucks come to mind, that’s a good thing. Because that’s exactly what it is to learn your craft—at least at first. But you’re doing what you love, right? You’re diving deeply into learning about language, narrative, style and structure, right? This is my biggest piece of advice to any new writer: if this is not what you love about being a writer, stop. Stop torturing yourself. Ask yourself why you’re doing it. If it’s not for the love of it, you will be a very unhappy person.
If you’re lucky, during your “apprenticeship” you will have another well-paying job. If you are very lucky (like I was) you will have a job in the editorial field as an assistant where you can learn and soak every bit of it up. No English teacher anywhere could ever have taught me as much as an editor I worked with for six years at a non-profit in the DC area. Working as an editor, you get to know the language intimately. Knowing the ins and outs of language, style, grammar, syntax, will serve you much better than know if you know how to use Twitter. Well, at first it will. Ultimately, it will be your writing that sets you apart with an agent or an editor at a publishing house—and the reader, as well.
Not all of us live in New York or Washington, DC, or even a big city where there are places that hire editors, let alone assistants. If you don’t, here are some ideas for ways you can apprentice yourself that may not be traditional, but will help you out:
- Find local writers in your area. Be very careful about this. Select a writer that is published and has similar interests to you. Ask if you can help or assist them in some way. Maybe you know more about technology and could offer help. Maybe they need a babysitter a few hours a week so they can write. Offer to help and ask if they could read your work. When/if they read it, don’t be defensive. Learn from it. You can also do this virtually. Agree to be a virtual assistant.
- Take a poetry class. No matter what kind of writer you are, studying poetry will enhance your writing.
- Study your favorite writers intensely. Analyze a paragraph, a chapter, and so on. On average, how many words are in their sentences? How long are their paragraphs. Just take notice of this. Or write something in the same style—just as an exercise. If you find you have questions about their technique, email them. It may start a great conversation. Writers love to talk about their own work.
- Start your own publication or blog. Give it professional deadlines and standards. Soon enough, if you don’t have high enough standards, a blog audience will let you know.
- Take on any writing assignment. I’ve written about everything from math education to life insurance. Take on a ghostwriting gig. Learn to write for education publishers. Get out of your comfort zone. I’ve gone from writing cookbooks to writing mysteries. Allow yourself room to grow, try new things, experiment with new genres and forms.
- Along that same line: write. You are writing, aren’t you? I had the chance to hear the fabulous and successful Jeffery Deaver speak recently at a conference. It reminded me that the best thing you can do as a writer is to write. As he said, and I’m paraphrasing, even if you don’t sell your first few manuscripts, it’s a part of the process. You are writing. Learn from each struggle, each rejection, and move on. Make that commitment to yourself.
- Learn a foreign language. Latin is the best—but any foreign language will force you to know you own language more intimately. (That editor I learned so much from had a degree in Latin.)
- After you sell your book—and you will if you keep at it—the apprenticeship doesn’t stop. You might sell your novel and the editor wants you to cut 30,000 words from your manuscript. And you will do it, of course, without complaint. And it will be one of the best learning experiences of your life.
Mollie Cox Bryan wrote the regional bestseller Mrs. Rowe’s Little Book of Southern Pies and Mrs. Rowe’s Restaurant Cookbook: A Lifetime of Recipes from the Shenandoah Valley. She is an award winning journalist and poet, who lives in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia with her family. Please visit her at www.molliecoxbryan.com