Mistake No. 50: Only talented writers sell

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.

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