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Louise M. Gouge:

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Monday, November 30, 2009

For the Aspiring Writer

I received a lovely email from a high school student who wanted to know about careers in writing and editing. Here is my response:

Dear Nicole:
Thank you for your nice letter. As a college professor, I love to see high school students thinking seriously about furthering their education in preparation for a career.

Writing books is an enjoyable career that requires four things: grammar skills, an active imagination, some life experience, and a broad world view. Add to that the discipline needed to sit alone in front of the computer and hammer out the story, and you can see it's not an easy job. But the rewards can be tremendous.

Your grammar in your email is quite good. Keep adding new words to your vocabulary and don't fall into the bad habit some of my students have of using abbreviations in school papers that should be used only in emails and text messages.

Prime your imagination by jotting down story ideas as they come to you and save them all. Some will be good, some not. Some will inspire stories to write now, and some will be for future use.

Life experience is not limited to adults over 30. It can be anything from a kindergarten memory to a tour of duty in the military to a visit to a grandparent in a nursing home. Experiences give you something to say that will hold the interest of a reader. Write your memories of these meaningful experiences in a journal.

Developing a broad world view means you have studied humankind and learned what motivates people of various races, religions, and ethnicities. This sounds like a lot, but if you continue with your education, these things will come. An English major will bring you into contact with many great authors of the past and present. A liberal studies degree will take you into many areas of knowledge. Journalism, history, psychology, and political science are also important areas of study.

In addition, you can begin now by reading great works of literature. My favorites are Charlotte Bronte's Jane Eyre and anything by Jane Austen and Charles Dickens. Leo Tolstoy's War and Peace, Herman Melville's Moby Dick, and Nathaniel Hawthorne's Scarlet Letter all provide windows into the past and inform us about the human condition. Popular fiction of today can be fun to read but might not provide the depth a serious aspiring writer should seek.

Regarding a career as an editor, you'll need all of the above, too, because you need to know at least as much if not more than the people writing for you.

Actually, I'm not an editor but a freelance copyeditor. That means people send their manuscripts to me to “correct” before they submit their work to editors. I polish the grammar and offer suggestions on characterization and story structure. One literary agent who refers clients to me calls me a book doctor. I like that.

I hope these thoughts are helpful to you. I remember long ago writing to a truly famous person (I'm not famous!) about a career I wanted to enter. She wrote me the loveliest letter in response that greatly encouraged me. Although I didn't go into that career, her kindness stayed with me, and I hope this response to you pays it forward just a little.

Louise M. Gouge

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