Showing posts with label learning to write. Show all posts
Showing posts with label learning to write. Show all posts

Sharpen your Skills: Write Articles and Short Stories

"If you want to write, write. Talent is simply not enough."
                                                                                 Jane Yolen

During my elementary teaching career, I recommended to parents of budding student authors as young as second grade, to encourage their children to write, even become editor, of their student newspaper. The idea came to me after reading up on Stephen King. King, as editor of his high school newspaper,  learned the basics about writing, which jump-started his career.

Some parents who knew of their young children’s propensity for the written word told me that they thought more in terms of fostering learning how to write much later, such as when it's time to prepare for college. Why wait? The Pathways to Reading and Writing program in the Loudoun County school district where I taught in Northern Virginia prepares students in the process of writing beginning in Kindergarten. In addition to the intensive reading segment of the program, students learn how to write independently.

Independent Writing:

Students engage in the writing process and produce pieces of writing in many genres, including narrative, informational, and opinion. They apply what they have learned during mini-lessons and strategy lessons. The teacher confers with each student on a regular basis to check in on his/her progress, offer feedback, and set new writing goals.                                                

Speaking from the experience of not knowing how to write when I first started some thirty years ago prior to teaching in Virginia, I didn’t let that stop me. My children were going to Catholic school at the time. I mentioned to a nun that I wanted to write but didn’t know how. She said you went to college, didn’t you? I said yes. She said, then you know how to write. But even if college isn’t in an author’s background, the desire to write can be. The desire to write that I felt in my heart and soul was stronger than my lack of knowledge. I decided to teach myself how to write, and I started with nonfiction—writing articles.

If you have a burning desire to write and want to find a place to begin, here is a road map you can follow:

  • First and foremost, know that nonfiction is easier to sell and publish than fiction. Editors receive fewer articles than stories and welcome nonfiction writers.
  • Get your hands on “how-to” books.
  • Make a list of subjects you know something about.
  • Think of publications you can write for. Start by reading several issues. Some examples:

        Church newsletter

        Free local publications found about town in grocery stores, book stores, gas stations, etc.

        Magazines: Research local and national magazines for submission guidelines on Google and at the library.

                Brochures: The sky’s the limit on companies that use brochures.

                Newsletters: Many local and national organizations publish newsletters. That’s one way I continue to keep my skills as sharp as possible. I’ve been writing a monthly post for Writers on the Move since 2013, and also became editor of two newsletters of organizations I belong to. For the first newsletter a few years ago, one of the members trained me and helped me learn Microsoft Publisher. The other newsletter is more current and has benefited from my experience.

                Online: Blogs are another way to break in. 

Lessons Learned

The two most important lessons I've learned seem simple, but realizing that this is what it takes took many years of experience. 

Desire: The writing bug bit me during a pause I took in my teaching career. That’s when I collected “how-to” books, made a list of subjects I thought I could write about, and published my first article in our local newspaper. Back in those days in the early ‘90s, newspapers paid correspondents for articles. My husband chipped in and took the photograph that went with the article. We've laughed about it ever since. He got paid more for his photo that took, say, a minute to take, and less than five minutes to upload, than I was paid for the article. You can guess how long it took me to interview the subject, transcribe my notes, and write the article. After getting my fill of writing articles, I went back to teaching. As soon as I left to retire, the bug bit me again, only harder this time. Now I see that the desire and need to write dwells deep inside and it won’t let go.

Persevere, Don’t Quit: Many editors lament about talented authors who give up too easily. Don’t let that be you. And when you land a good job, stick with it. One of the best jobs I had was being a stable writer for the library journal Biography Today. Assignments were of such personalities as Stephen King, Troy Aikman, and William Shatner, written with the help of a research assistant; unfortunately, not with interviews. My two children were still in Catholic school then. I was so thrilled with the writing job that I made the mistake of thinking I could take on more than one assignment while being a girl scout leader, volunteering at the children's school, etc. Trying to balance it all quickly became overwhelming. I missed a deadline and was asked to leave the journal. I have since realized that if I had taken on only one assignment at a time I’d probably still be writing for them.

Cutting my teeth on the many nonfiction articles I wrote laid the groundwork for the fiction I write today, first by publishing short stories, and now by writing and publishing books. However, the learning curve for writing fiction was steep. It’s taken many years to learn how to write fiction, and like all writers discover, there is always more to learn. 

  I suppose some authors can jump right in and become a success without going through a similar process as me. But for most, as Brian Cranston wrote in his memoir, A Life in Parts, we must “do the work.”

Introductory image: 

Linda's picture
book, illustrated by
Nancy Batra, is
 available on

Linda Wilson, a former elementary teacher, has published over 150 articles for children and adults, several short stories for children, and her first book, Secret in the Stars: An Abi Wunder Mystery, which is available on Amazon. Publishing credits include biosketches for the library journal, Biography Today, which include Troy Aikman, Stephen King, and William Shatner; PocketsHopscotch; and an article for Highlights for ChildrenSecret in the Mist, the second in the Abi Wunder series, is coming soon. Tall Boots, Linda’s second picture book, will be published soon. Follow Linda on

Using Anthologies to Study the Market

One piece of writing advice I hear a lot, and which I agree with, is that you must read.  But not everyone agrees on the particulars.

Some say you should read like a reader and others say you should read like an editor or a scientist, dissecting what you read to see what works.

Some say read, read, read your genre and then stop reading while you write, so you don't accidentally let whatever you're reading influence your own work too much.

Others say read, read, read all the time, in your genre and others.

I write short stories in a variety of genres, novels (fantasy and sci fi), travel essays, travel guides, and various other types of work.  But I have to admit that my reading habits are a bit more narrow.  I tend to mostly read novels instead of short stories.  I read travel guides to places I plan to travel, but don't read as much other travel writing as I should.  Part of this, of course, is due to limited time.

So, to make my reading of short work more efficient, I use the anthology approach.

Benefits of Reading Yearly Anthologies

Long-standing, well-respected anthologies are great because they collect some of the (subjectively) best fiction of the year from various magazines.  You don't waste time with mediocre stories.  You get a feel for what's current and what editors are throwing their support behind.  Go ahead and dissect these stories and learn from them.

Another valuable aspect of an anthology is that you see which magazine first published which story.  This is very useful for your own work.  You know the old advice about submitting to magazines:  read a few issues first to see if your work fits.  This is excellent advice.  Unfortunately, we don't always have time to read a few issues of every magazine.  Luckily, anthologies give you a shortcut.  Pick out the stories you like or that could be good matches to yours, then see which magazines they were published in.  Start submitting to those magazines. 

Some Good Anthologies:

The O. Henry Prize Stories, edited by Laura Furman.

The Pushcart Prize; Best of the Small Presses, edited by Bill Henderson.

The Best American Short Stories, edited by Heidi Pitlor and various yearly editors.  Obviously the yearly editor puts a slant on things, so some years may be more "best" than others.

The Best American series has other genre-specific anthologies, such as The Best American Essays, The Best American Travel Writing, The Best American Mystery Short Stories, The Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy, etcLook for your target genre to see if they have one that matches.

The Year's Best Science Fiction and Fantasy, edited by Rich Horton.  Also in the series, The Year's Best Dark Fantasy & Horror, edited by Paula Guran.

The Best Horror of the Year, edited by Ellen Datlow.

Many of these can be found at your local library as well as at online and brick-and-mortar bookstores.

You can read (and listen to) Melinda Brasher's most recent short story sale at Pseudopod.  It's a tale of a man who doesn't believe in superstition...until he has to.  You can also find her fiction in Ember, Timeless Tales, Intergalactic Medicine Show, and others. If you're dreaming about traveling to Alaska this summer, check out her guide book, Cruising Alaska on a Budget; a Cruise and Port Guide. Visit her online at

Writing Courses - Are They for You?

By Carolyn Howard-Johnson

I have been intrigued by a new product advertised in magazines like National Geographic, Time, Archaeology and the like. It is a series of courses offered by All are taught by accredited college or university instructors—mostly colleges we would be familiar with. Their ads always publish a complete list of the individual lecture titles and give the name of the professor.

These programs remind me of the ones I took a long time ago; we called them home study courses and everything was done by mail. I can remember typing up my lessons on a typewriter, folding them, and stuffing them into an envelope, licking it, and licking the stamps. Yes! Licking!

This month the ad featured a course called “Writing Creative Nonfiction.”  I haven’t bought it—yet. The CD course is $49.95 and the DVD is $69.95, so they’re frugal enough. Lots more frugal that most courses from accredited universities. The teacher for this one is a full professor from Colby College. And the name of one of the lectures: “Writing the Gutter—How to Not Tell a Story” caught my attention. I also thought the one called “How To Not Have People Hate You” might intrigue writers who worry—a lot—about that! Perhaps I would pick up some tips for the presentations I do for writers' conferences.

So, what’s keeping me from ordering the course? So, what is holding me back?

Time. I’m still in the final throes of writing the third full book in the HowToDoItFrugally Series. It is How To Get Great Book Reviews Frugally and Ethically: The ins and outs of using free reviews to build and sustain a writing career to be released this fall. I’m through the fun part and am struggling with the Index. So maybe I need a break? What do you think?

BTW, if you are interested in checking this course out, go to There may be some other fantastic ones that would interest you. The range of topics that would interest creative people is huge. And, if you buy one, let me know what you think, will you?


Carolyn Howard-Johnson, author of This Is the Place; Harkening: A Collection of Stories Remembered; Tracings, a chapbook of poetry; and how to books for writers including the award-winning second edition of, The Frugal Book Promoter: How to get nearly free publicity on your own or by partnering with your publisher; The multi award-winning second edition of The Frugal Editor; and Great Little Last Minute Editing Tips for Writers .  The Great First Impression Book Proposal is her newest booklet for writers. She has three FRUGAL books for retailers including A Retailer’s Guide to Frugal In-Store Promotions: How To Increase Profits and Spit in the Eyes of Economic Downturns with Thrifty Events and Sales Techniques. Some of her other blogs are, a blog where authors can recycle their favorite reviews. She also blogs at all things editing, grammar, formatting and more at The Frugal, Smart and Tuned-In Editor.

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