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Want to write? Read this

Want to write? Read this

By: Oliver Horton

I’m the editor of Disorder magazine, and here is my advice for aspiring writers.

Submitting a story is trial by fire. The editor and sub-editor besiege your words and usually win. Expect any piece to go to three drafts, which is nothing to be ashamed or afraid of. So when something slides through clean it's even better than hearing "great job". To contribute write to submissions@disordermagazine.com

1.   Follow the brief

Disorder commissions to 800words or 1200words. Win your editor’s heart and supply to within 10% of the maximum word count. I once had a story rejected by the New York Times for being 400 words too long, eg 30% over the count. Someone’s going to cut the copy, may as well be its author; more control that way.

2.   Get to the point

Dear reader has limited patience. While TV cartoons such as Family Guy possess the agility to start on one topic before reorganizing towards the episode’s theme, they have familiar, beloved characters and a team of writers who are all better than you. As the wily editor played by Cary Grant (look him up) asks in His Girl Friday, “Who’s gonna read the second paragraph?”

3.   I, Problem

Only interject yourself into the article if you have something worth saying. The reader already knows you are there; your name is top of the page. The “I Problem” is like holding up a sign behind a television reporter that says “hi Mum”. The reader is interested in the topic, not you. Want to bang on about yourself? Save it for your blog.

4.   Show, don’t tell

This rule is borrowed from screenwriting but goes for magazines too. Don’t say a conversation is exciting; capture the excitement. Don’t tell us someone is funny; reveal a funny moment. Hunter S. Thompson didn’t write, “I was driving to Las Vegas with my lawyer. This was not going to be boring.” He wrote, “We were somewhere around Barstow on the edge of the desert when the drugs began to take hold.”

5.   Be consistent

If you’re going to misspell “Maasai”, try to misspell it the same every time. Then the sympathetic editor will think you have a false grip on that word, which is better than coming off as slapdash. Better yet, scan your copy for words that may bite you in the ass. And always triple check names.

6.   Don’t repeat yourself

Young writers seem inclined to repeat info between text and quotes, saying the same thing two different ways. Pick the best way and cut the rest.

7.   Develop structure

Don’t let your interviewee’s ramble dictate what happens in your story. Figure out the chapters: four chapters of 300 words = 1200 words. Decide what goes in what chapter. Maybe throw in a splashy opening line for each part to invigorate the overall pace. With proper structure, excess words drop away.

8.   Cut your sentences

This isn’t school. This isn’t a poetry workshop. This isn’t a science dissertation. Say what you need to say and full stop. Look at each clause and ask, is it necessary? If you’re drifting past 25 words per sentence ask, where is the meat in this puffy sandwich?

9.   Read your own work

On Disorder, the sub-editor, a proofreader and yours truly read every piece in the print edition. Play fair and read your own article four times (since the minimum I read any piece is twice). Some editors read every line with a ruler underneath to stop from skipping ahead, because the brain sees the sense and overlooks the errors. You’d be surprised.

10.  Take time

Screenwriters such as the Coen Brothers (The Big Lebowski) park a script for three, six, more months and return to it fresh. That’s sensible for 100pages and a multi-million dollar screenplay. For your coupla pages a 24-hour layover will give you perspective.

11.  Add furniture

Being a pro scribbler is about more than tacking “Ends.” on at the end. Look at the presentation in the relevant section. Headline? In Disorder, most are people’s names, but still I wrote 15 headlines for Winter 2016. Pullquote? It’s the only thing many flickers (magazine readers) read. The sell? Promote the story in two lines. We’ll probably rewrite it but – hey! – show you’re willing.

12.  Get pics

If Disorder is not shooting your topic, for the love of god source pictures: hi-res, 300dpi. Pictures pimp words.

13.  Apply changes with wit

Don’t just stick in or take out an editor’s comments. Review again each sentence, paragraph and article as a whole. Changes within the piece alter a story’s shape.

14.  Take criticism

If an editor is giving you pointers they are showing you respect. Be grateful and learn. The reverse is true of rejection. If an editor shows less than good manners in dismissing your idea then chances-are he/she is a tool. Or really busy. But more likely a tool.

15.  Read Keith Waterhouse’s On Newspaper Style. It’s the bible.