From the banal to the profoundly beautiful.
Always sign your covering letters. Obvious, yes. But amazingly simple to overlook. And it makes you look mindless to the editor.
Always, always, always, always ad infinitum include return postage. It is not passé, it is not a dying formality. Publishers don't want to have to foot your postage bills when you're sending in work they haven't asked for in the first place, and they appreciate the courtesy when they've asked for it, anyway. Some editorial offices mark on your covering letter if you have actually included return postage, so even the editor will know if you've been professional enough to cover the expense for them. If you find international (or even national) postage rates crippling, just send enough for a two page response letter and include only a #10 envelope. Don't forget the IRC (international reply-paid coupon).
Build, or pay to have built, your own web site. This one's a double repeat. It's worth the time to teach yourself HTML, which is ridiculously simple, because you can then maintain your site and change it to your heart's content. If you've got an email account, your email provider likely provides 1 to 5mb of free server space to host your web site, too. Check into it. If they don't, there's free sites like Geocities to consider.
Get business cards -- even if they're do-it-yourself pre-printed stock ones. Hey, I've been using these el-cheapo cards for years, and they're just as effective as the high-gloss, four-color cards that cost an arm and a leg.
Always have something out there. The more the better. A query, a submission, anything. The fastest pick-me-up after a rejection is to get that sucker out there again. And get a few more queries out there while you're at it. Even if the latest rejection was a soul-mauling one, nothing but nothing will get you back to a positive frame of mind as quickly as sitting down and planning your next dozen or so submissions, and getting them out there now. And for those days when you just feel blah about your writing and your progress, go over the submissions you've got out there (you do keep a list, don't you?) How are they progressing? Query the ones that have been out there long enough to deserve a reply by now -- phone, if you've got the confidence, otherwise, a quick letter. Do any other potential markets for your work leap out at you? Query them, too.
When researching a new magazine market, ring that magazine's advertising department and ask for their readership demographics to be faxed or mailed to you. These documents, compiled by professional print circulation measurement bureaus, and designed to coax advertisers, give the freelance writer a snap shot of the typical reader. Write or pitch your article with the reader in mind -- you'll have instant audience (and editor!) appeal. Plus, when you get to speak to the editor in person or on the telephone, and can display a knowledge of their target readership, you'll be telling the editor you're a professional who does their research.
Learn how to use your word processing program's outlining feature. This is an invaluable aid for brainstorming and structuring articles, and you can use the outline and fill in the blanks when you come to write the article up. Plus that original outline can be used as a support document when you pitch your article. It's already typed up, so printing it off and slipping it in with the query letter is no problem.
Can't figure out if you've slipped out of the viewpoint character's perspective? Re-write the offending paragraph or page in first person viewpoint, using your perspective character as the first person. If you've written something that isn't in the correct perspective, it will leap off the page at you.
Use the colored font feature on your word processing package to change narrative exposition to one color, action sentences to another contrasting color, description in a third, and so on. Reduce your page view down so that you're viewing a whole page at one glance -- or even multiple pages on one screen. Study the distribution of the colors on the page. Is there an overwhelming trend of one color? Is that trend appropriate for the type of fiction you're writing? PS: A majority of narrative exposition is not appropriate for any of the popular fiction genres available today.
Be in this game for the long haul. People do sell their first book, yes, but the odds are against it. However, persistence is the most common weapon in a successful author's arsenal. You're not a failure until you quit.
Editing & proofing
When proofing your work, read from the last page to the first page. This way, you don't get caught up in the narrative and forget to check for typos.
If you absolutely adore a passage of writing, it's a sign that the passage probably needs to be cut. Sorry, but you're more than likely hanging onto that piece of prose because you like it, not because it serves a function in the story or article.
Teach yourself how to edit on-screen. This will save you more than 100% in time. If you find you can't keep track of where you've been, use your word processing package's revision tools, that allow you to visually correct your work, and automatically make the changes when you're finished.
Teach yourself to compose straight onto the keyboard. Learn to type with a freeware typing tutor if you can't get enough speed out of two fingers. The investment in time will more than pay for itself in the long run.
Write your first draft as if it were the final one. Don't fall into the laziness of letting poor sentences remain in your work, to be edited out later. Aim, always, for the cleanest first draft you can manage.
Learn to plot your novels before you write them. If you're writing popular fiction, you'll end up having to do this anyway, as most established popular fiction authors sell their books by proposal. You may as well learn how to do it now. It will save you dozens of dead ends and wasted pages, to say nothing of time, and it will save you having to change your habits later, too. It will also teach you a lot about structuring a novel. A side bonus: You'll never suffer from sagging middles again.
Copyright Tracy Cooper-Posey (c)