There are few creatures on earth more easily exploited than the aspiring writer. And I'm not talking here about the genuine article, the budding scribe just out of college with a useless degree but the talent to make a career of it. I'm talking about your social worker friend who's perpetually twelve pages into a novella about her cat, the people you'd feel bad for laughing at if there were a literary version of "American Idol." And oh, what a thrilling show that would be.
But instead of Paula Abdul, aspiring writers have Writer's Digest to provide their unqualified encouragement. You too can be a published author! This is the month you'll quit your job! You are a shining star and please renew your subscription today!
Like any one-time aspiring writer (success is rarely total, but I haven't had to put on pants for work in almost a year. I think that qualifies), I used to buy the occasional copy of Writer's Digest in hopes that it would help jumpstart my career. Looking back, I can't say it did. Looking at the June issue, I can see why.
To begin with -- and really, what more needs to be said than this? -- Writer's Digest is amateurishly written. To extend the "American Idol" metaphor, most of the authors come off as probably being the best from their high school, but not really ready for prime time. The most cringe-worthy moment belongs to contributing editor Kevin Alexander in "This Writer's Life," who makes some horrid attempts at humor while telling of his brief career as a blogger. Ever meet one of those "funny guys" who doesn't actually say anything funny? Kinda like Dane Cook? That's Alexander.
The look of the magazine is on par with the writing. Most of the art inside is yawningly unimaginative -- lots of simple headshots and photos of book covers. But nothing is worse than the cover photo, which features a freakishly red Sara Gruen, author of "Water for Elephants," looking like she just pulled herself out of bed and hasn't had her morning Zoloft yet. This is the kind of picture you remove from the family photo album when Mom isn't looking. I don't even want to see the shots they rejected.
Of course, the real reason people buy Writer's Digest is for the advice, so perhaps the rest of its shortcomings are forgivable. And some of what's here is helpful. A list of useful Web sites for writers is informative and practical, and Q&As with successful authors are encouraging, at least. But features on the best places to write in major American cities and famous ways to get over writer's block are passable bathroom reads at best. And do we really need more tips from agents on getting your manuscript read? If you don't already know not to send a children's book to a historical nonfiction editor, well, I hate to be cruel, but you're probably not being shortlisted for a Newberry anytime soon.
Do I sound discouraging? I don't mean to be. It's just that reading Writer's Digest, like listening to Paula Abdul, fills one with the need to inject some reality into the situation. You want to be a successful writer? Try this: Take some copyediting classes. Study hard. Start freelancing for whatever magazine or publishing house will have you. (It's not hard -- just call a few weeks before any major holiday and tell them you're a freelance copyeditor and you're available. They'll book anyone once.) Do a good job, parlay that into some steady gigs, and work those contacts. After you've established yourself, try writing for them. If you're any good, they will use you. Congratulations; you're a professional writer.
And please, renew your subscription to Magazine Rack today. Time is running out.
Published by: F+W Publications