My Biggest Mistake as a Beginning Writer



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I knew at 18 that I wanted to be a professional writer. The problem was I didn’t know any professional writers. I also didn’t know any editors, agents, or publishers. So, I made a terrible mistake. I tried to make it alone.

I majored in English, but my teachers knew nothing about copyright laws, marketing, book proposals, or movie options. As a result, I sent out manuscripts—and spent years getting rejections.

Finally, in a chance meeting with an agent who took pity on me, I learned why.

Rookie mistakes
The man was vicious with his red pen. “No! Never type your titles in all capital letters. Never leave a margin that isn’t at least one inch wide. Never have two speakers use dialogue in the same paragraph.” On and on he bloodied my pages.

That was the saddest, yet happiest, day of my writing career. It was devastating because I saw that for years no one had looked at anything I’d written and considered it professional. But, it was joyful because now I knew what I was doing wrong and how to fix it.

Becoming a professional
I joined a writers club to learn from people in the game. I attended writers conferences to network with editors and agents. In time, I became a newspaper columnist, then a successful magazine freelance writer, then a contributing editor to five magazines, and finally the author of six novels and 46 nonfiction books.

The writing business is not that different from other businesses. To succeed:

  • Establish a network of people already successful in the field
  • Find mentors to offer advice, critique your work, and guide you
  • Seek guidance through books, training tapes, and educational DVDs

Even the Lone Ranger had Tonto. Don’t go it alone.

React: What is the biggest benefit you’ve gained from being in a critique group or from being involved with a group of writers?

Among Dennis E. Hensley’s many books is The Power of Positive Productivity (Possibility Press, 2005). He is a contributing author to Writers on Writing (Wesleyan Press, 2005). Hensley is director of the professional writing major at Taylor University and has spoken at more CWG conferences than anyone. Visit him online.

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9 Responses to My Biggest Mistake as a Beginning Writer

  1. Mindy says:

    If it weren’t for my critique group, my first chapter would still be 37 pages! The writers in my group, and more specifically the woman who runs the group (who’s been in the field more years than I’ve been alive), have taught me more than I can recount in this reply post.

    The two most important nuggets of wisdom I’ve gleaned with them are no info dumping, and to edit like it’s someone else’s work. My first chapter is now nine pages long, and much more powerful than the original. I’m also no longer afraid of the red pen.

    My writer’s group has taught me what it is to tell a story, and for that I’ll forever be grateful.

    • Mindy,

      That’s a great illustration of the value of critique groups. Thanks for sharing.

      What I have enjoyed the most is having a reader’s reaction to what I’ve written…a reader who isn’t my wife or my best friend.

      The honesty that can be shared, knowing that we’re all seeking the same thing (to honor God through our writing), is invaluable.

  2. Totally understand. At least the first part of this. I’m you at 18. Only it took me some years to start the pursuit of this secret passion. Now I’m 50. Thanks for sharing.

  3. I am going to go do a search right now on what writing clubs or groups are available in my area. I, too, am sadly lacking in professional writing contacts.

  4. Abigail Taylor says:

    I enjoyed your sharing abour your experience on becoming a writer. You offered helpful hints, so thank you very much. Abigail

  5. I joined CWG-Greenville group this month. I want to find a group in the Shelby, NC area, that I can chat with on a more personal basis. I have a couple blogs that I maintain. But my desire is to be able to communicate my ideas in a way that will impact lives. I am a retired school teacher and have much time to give to research and writing. Thank you for your tips. I have already learned things that will improve my writing. Again thanks.

  6. pedro vargas says:

    how do I decide what subject to write about and what beginner courses should I take?

    • CWGadmin says:

      Hi Pedro,
      What subjects interest you? What do you feel passionate about? Do you like to read novels or nonfiction? Your answers can help you determine how to focus your writing. As for a good foundational course to take, consider our Writing Essentials class. You’ll be personally mentored by a professional author handpicked by Jerry Jenkins. The course lasts four months and covers such topics as presenting yourself as a professional, finding the right audience, and capturing your ideas.

      If you have any other questions, please email us at or give us a call at (866) 495-5177.