Last week I had the pleasure and opportunity to speak to an animal science class at my alma mater, Penn State University in State College, Penn. I was asked by my former undergraduate adviser to speak on the topic of writing in agriculture, as this was a writing-intensive course.
I decided to share my ideas here in my blog because writing is an important communication tool nearly everyone could use more effectively.
I was honored to have the chance to share some of what I have learned over the past four years of writing professionally for agricultural publications. As this was my first time speaking specifically on the topic of writing to a group, I was nervous of course… I have never been a fan of public speaking.
I decided to focus on what I have learned over my short time as an ag journalist and tips I have found helpful along the way. For any aspiring ag writers who may read this blog, I offer up the following 12 tips on how to get started in the craft.
- WRITE! When it comes to being a writer, you either are or you are not. If you write, you are a writer. If you do note writer, you are not. Quit talking, dreaming, aspiring. Write! "Aspiring is a meaningless, null state that romanticizes Not Writing," says best-selling fiction author Chuck Wendig. So take that word “aspiring” and chuck it out of your vocabulary right now. Pick up pen and paper, open a Word document, start a blog. Whatever you do, start building your writing portfolio and habit today.
- Always aspire, er work, to be better. Realize you will never know it all. Take a writing class. Read books on writing. Most importantly never stop learning or improving your art.
- Attend conferences related to your subject of interest. Find out who the big players are for the publications you want to write for. Introduce yourself to them. Don't forget to get their business card or contact info and be sure to send them a thank you email a few days later. Following up with them keeps you in their mind and establishes the relationship beyond your first meeting.
- Join a media or writers’ group. This will help you to make industry connections both locally and globally. In addition, you will have a pool of seasoned veterans to serve as mentors.
- Know your audience. Have an avatar of your ideal reader in your mind. Write in a way that he/she would understand your subject. Have an idea of the knowledge level of your readers and how they will use the information you are presenting. Become familiar with their stances on the topics you are writing about. This will help you to determine whether they will agree or disagree with you and if further supporting evidence is necessary.
- Pay attention. Stay aware of what is going on in the industry and/or your particular segment of it. You can do this through a variety of ways. I use social media and email news alerts for topics of interest the most.
- If you are unsure of your readers’ viewpoints on a topic, ask them for feedback. I use Facebook and Twitter to do this quite often. It has provided some valuable story ideas and discussion every time.
- Expect criticism. As a writer, you publish your thoughts and opinions for the entire world to see. That takes grit. Not everyone is going to share your viewpoints. To cope with this you must learn to do two things – keep the useful parts of which will help make your writing better, let the rest go. As Seth Godin says, if it didn't work out, if readers were not receptive, chalk it up as a first draft. Then take that experience, learn from it, and go create better art.
- Do the work. Writing is a craft, and as such, something you only get better at by actually doing it. So write, write, write. Finish what you start and keep writing. Finding your particular style or voice will take time. It's just part of the deal.
- Education isn't everything. Degree or not, you're not going to get published unless you can actually write. College might help you to become a better writer. But here again, writing is still one of those things that requires you actually do the work and put in your time. So write, my friends, write!
- Read … critically. Dissect it. You don't learn to write just by simply reading. You learn to write by writing. However, reading critically and understanding what the author was doing can teach valuable lessons to improve your own writing.
- Realize it won't be easy. Do the work anyway, keep writing. But don't quit your day job yet. I have been at this for four years now and I'm still not writing freelance full-time. It's definitely on my list of goals for the near future, but I realized from the start that this was a skill I was going to have to build slowly. Overnight successes don't exist in writing. What matters is the work.
The last thing I'd like to mention, yet something I didn't put in the list, however, is mindset. For me, mindset was the single most powerful thing I changed that propelled me into becoming a serious writer. The mindset I speak of is "amateur versus professional." When I finally learned to take my craft seriously and look at myself as a pro, doing the work got easier. And when the work got easier, the ideas and opportunities started coming easier.
The truth is there is no one true path to becoming a professional writer. I’m just offering some advice from my own experiences.
I wish you the best of luck on your path. Hopefully the suggestions I shared will help. In the end, remember, it's the work that counts.