Four Ways to Apprentice as a Writer

One of the things that struck me as I read Stephen King’s On Writing (besides his reliance on the “S” word!) was his depiction of some of his first steps as a writer. Back then, a fiction writer could cut his teeth, so to speak, writing for pulp magazines (Weird Tales, Amazing Stories, etc.), weeklies (Saturday Evening Post, etc.), monthlies (including so-called men’s magazines), and so on, before “hitting it big” with a novel like Carrie.

I’m much, much younger than Mr. King—please believe me—but when I started writing for publication, there were similar steps a writer could climb: Sunday school take-home papers, devotional magazines, denominational magazines, national publications, and so on.

Unfortunately, many of those opportunities—which served some of us as a sort of apprenticeship as we wrote, learned, tried, failed, and sometimes succeeded—are gone today. There just aren’t as many incremental steps to publishing success as there used to be – for crying out loud, some of the publications I wrote for in the past now prefer pieces by Joyce Carol Oates (whatever).

But that doesn’t mean it’s impossible to learn, grow, and develop as a writer. Here are three ways to apprentice these days:

1. Read, watch, and learn.

Stephen King refers to devouring issues of Writer’s Digest (which has existed since 1921) in his youth. Today’s writer has many more options. For Christian writers, I suggest not only subscribing to Writer’s Digest but also to The Christian Communicator, which is published specifically for Christian writers and speakers. But wait, there’s more! Aspiring and accomplished writers alike profit from writers’ conferences which offer classes, workshops, editorial appointments, and more (such as May’s Blue Lake Christian Writers Retreat and the Blue Ridge Mountains Christian Writers Conference, where you can meet me!). There are also online learning options, such as the Christian Writers Institute (full disclosure: I’m the executive editor, until the boss, Steve Laube, fires me!), which offers 100 audio and video courses for writers at all stages of development. Or the Jerry Jenkins Writers Guild, which offers monthly or annual subscription options. And, of course, following blogs such as this one and author Edie Melson’s The Write Conversation blog will provide ongoing education and edification for anyone interested in writing and publishing.

2. Write for nonpublication.

A famous writer friend of mine (yes, I have friends, and some of them are famous) once told me that he never really wanted to write and publish anything but novels and novellas. So he decided that he would write his first four full-length novels for his eyes only. He figured that he would gain experience after a half-million words of writing that could then give him skills and confidence to write his first book for publication. And he did. He’s among today’s best-selling novelists.

That took a lot of determination, more than most writers have today (of course, it didn’t hurt that he had a glamorous and high-paying job before becoming a glamorous and well-paid author). But that kind of perseverance will serve any writer well.

3. Join a writers’ group.

Many writers have found great blessing and benefit from joining a writers group. One of the many good things about The Christian Writers Market Guide is the twenty-eight-page, state-by-state index of writers groups it provides. Some host their own conferences or retreats. Others, like the many Word Weavers International groups, provide a friendly forum for Christian writers to critique each other’s work and raise the quality of their writing, month by month.

4. Recruit a mentor.

Another of my writer friends (I keep telling you, I have friends; why don’t you believe me?) made a fast friend at a writer’s conference who was already a well-published author. So she asked the friend to mentor her—to read and critique her stuff, suggest paths and exercises for her development, etc. She has grown tremendously as a writer in a relatively short time, and probably more than if she had spent her time amassing publishing credits in Zombie fiction anthologies.

Writing for publication ain’t what it used to be. But then, even back then, it wasn’t what it used to be. And before that—well, you get the idea. But though the landscape has changed considerably over the years, there are still multiple ways—even more than I’ve mentioned above—to apprentice as a writer.


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