Craft and Time Management

December 13, 2007

If you plan to make writing your career, there are two skills you must acquire and hone: Craft and time management.

You won’t get out of the slush pile and onto a contract if you don’t have craft along with imagination and good story-telling. Editors, agents, and their assistants who read queries and submission packages will throw your work in the trash and send you a form rejection if you do not learn the basics of spelling, grammar, and structure. There are too many other writers just as talented as you are who have bothered to learn the craft. They will get contracts; you won’t.

Do not rely on spell check and grammar check. They are wrong more often than they are correct. Buy the books and study on your own. Read Strunk and White’s Elements of Style, and re-read it, cover to cover, before any major revision. Go to a university bookstore and buy a basic grammar book. Work with it. Hone your craft.

One of the most common mistakes that makes me froth at the mouth is the misuse of “its” and “it’s”. Once you are past third grade, such a mistake is inexcusable.

With the apostrophe, it is a contraction for “it is”. Without the apostrophe, the word means that the noun following the word i-t-s belongs to whatever the i-t-s refers. If this is one of your common mistakes, every time you use i-t-s, check it when you revise. If you can say the sentence using “it is”, then you use the contraction. If you refer to something belonging to whatever i-t-s represents, you use it without the contraction.

“Their”, “they’re” and “there” is another of the most common mistakes. “Their” denotes belonging to them, whoever “them” is in your story. “They’re” is the contraction for “they are” – again, test the sentence and see if “they are” is appropriate. “There” is a place, such as “over there”.

Grammar check misuses the two above examples more often than anything else I’ve experienced. Do not count on it. Read and revise manually before you submit.

If you can’t spell, don’t shrug and say, “I can’t spell.” Learn how to spell. Learn the basic rules of spelling, such as “i before e except after c,” and those little rhymes learned in elementary school. When you misspell a word, look it up and learn how to spell it correctly. Build your vocabulary and your spelling. You can either learn as you revise, or you can set aside ten minutes to learn “a word a day”.

Read guidelines before you submit. I see more and more guidelines, especially for e-zines, which are poorly written and have errors in them. I no longer submit to them. Often, I see that they specifically ask you to submit something with incorrect grammar or structure because that’s the way they’ve set up the e-zine. It’s their e-zine (yes, I checked the use of both i-t-s and t-h-e-i-r before posting); they can set up whatever guidelines they wish. However, if you choose to submit, be aware that you are submitting in a format that is not standard manuscript format. Don’t assume because you’ve seen it in the guidelines for an online publication, you can submit the same format to a traditional publisher. When you regularly submit in alternate formats without thinking, you’ll find your skills slip. Keep an awareness of the standard format and of alternate formats. This is your job, not the editor’s or publisher’s.

Now on to time management. The blunt, bottom line is that if you don’t learn how to manage your time, you won’t make a living in this profession. You have to be better at time management than Joe or Joanne Public who sits in an office all day and juggles home and family. You have to schedule your writing time as though it is a second job. Using the excuse that you’re not making any money at it right now doesn’t work. You won’t make any money at it until you make it just as important as your day job and more important than the housework.

And anyone who tries to prevent you from taking the time you need to write by saying, “You’re not making any money at it anyway. Don’t waste your time” needs to be eliminated from your life. Period.

You will never “have” time to write. You have to make it.

When you’re not on contract, you can get away with not writing for days on end. You can truly get away with it for months and years if you have another person’s income to rely on and don’t have to pay the bills with your writing. That is a luxury; appreciate it while you can. Once you have contracts and deadlines, you have to meet them. It doesn’t matter if there’s a big project at work; it doesn’t matter if you have three sick kids at home. If you don’t meet your deadlines, don’t turn in polished, professional work on time, pretty soon, you won’t get any more contracts, and you’ll have all the time in the world not to write.

If you keep a log for three days of the ways you spend every moment of your time, you will be shocked at how much is wasted. You will be shocked by how much potential writing time you lose. But at least you’ll get ideas to restructure you day to work it in. Remember, if you want this to be your business and not your hobby, you have to approach it with as much of a business head as a creative one. Shrugging your shoulders and saying, “I’m a creative type” will mean you stay in the non-paying markets and maybe get published once every other year.

It always comes back to the question I ask whenever people come to me for coaching or teaching: How badly do you want this?

Only you can answer the question; but if you want it badly, you’ll acquire the skills needed to make this your vocation.

–Devon Ellington


One comment

  1. Great post!!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: