Tools of the Trade

As in any profession, writers need the proper tools to do their work. You may like to write your stories or articles in longhand on a legal pad, or you might like the hefty clacking of the keys of a manual typewriter. But when it comes time to submit your work to agents and editors, you need the equipment that will make you look like a pro.

Computers and the Internet

A handful of professional writers still cling to the old-fashioned typewriter. But the proliferation of relatively inexpensive home computers and cheap Internet access has made such equipment the industry standard for publishing these days. Indeed, so many publishers — of newspapers, magazines, and books — now prefer to receive assigned material electronically that you put yourself at an unnecessary disadvantage if you don't have a home computer and an e-mail account.

Your personal computer doesn't have to be fancy. You need a good word-processing program, a good-quality printer, and a reliable Internet Service Provider, or ISP. The industry standard for word-processing software is Microsoft Word, although some publishers will accept material in other formats. Word is not typically included in the software bundles for most home computers, so you may have to purchase the program separately or upgrade the software package when you buy your computer.

Incompatible word-processing programs can result in formatting errors and, often, simply lines of gibberish. If you aren't using Microsoft Word, you may have to convert your material to a text-only file when you submit it. This ensures the recipient will be able to open and read the file, regardless of which program either of you is using.

Ink-jet and laser printers deliver a quality hard copy of your material, and they also are fairly inexpensive. Unless you plan to use it for other things, you don't need a color printer. The only acceptable design for submitting your writing is to use black ink on white paper. It is the easiest combination to read and the most professional. Colored inks and papers — even for your letterhead — are hard on the eyes and will immediately brand you as an amateur in the eyes of agents and editors.

Likewise, your ISP doesn't have to have all the expensive bells and whistles. You need a reliable way to send and receive e-mail and to do Web-based research when warranted. Some ISPs put limits on the size of e-mail attachments, as well as on the amount of server space you have for archiving e-mail, so take that into account when selecting a service.

Office Supplies

Most agents and editors judge materials based on the content, and not necessarily on the way they are presented and packaged. But presentation and packaging can reinforce your image as a professional — or as an amateur. And, in the highly competitive arena of publishing, aspiring writers need every edge they can get.

Start giving yourself that edge by selecting good-quality supplies. Use a 20-pound, white typing paper with some rag or linen content for all your submissions, even your letterhead. For query submissions, use a good-quality, white number 10 business envelope; enclose the same kind of envelope, folded in thirds and paper-clipped to your query letter, as your SASE. For submissions of more than five pages, use a 9 × 12 or 10 × 14 manila mailer; again, enclose the same kind of envelope, folded in half, as your SASE.

Always print all of your materials — queries, cover letters, proposals, and manuscripts — on one side of the page only. Printing on two sides may save you a few pennies on paper, but it will annoy the agent or editor and make it more difficult for him to read your submission.

Most word-processing programs have a mailing label function, and your submission will look most professional if you use typed address labels. If you must handwrite addresses, use block letters to ensure readability. Remember to include your own address on your SASE.

Aside from mailing labels, your own handwriting should appear only on the signature line of your query or cover letter. Always sign in pen, never pencil, and use black or blue ink for a professional look. Avoid red ink; studies have shown that people react negatively to red, whether on graded tests in school or in your signature. Other colored inks, like green, purple, or pink, may look whimsical and fun, but they are not appropriate for professional communications.

Your Reference Library

Every writer needs her own reference library. In addition to a good dictionary, a good thesaurus, and a good style guide to resolve grammar and punctuation questions, your library should include an up-to-date directory of potential markets. It may also include inspirational books about the writing life and how-to guides like this one, as well as general references like encyclopedias.

Other titles in your library will depend on what type of writing you do or want to do. If you're mainly writing historical fiction, a guide to the latest scientific discoveries probably won't be of much use to you. On the other hand, a book describing everyday life in the 1800s might be indispensable. No matter what your genre, there are countless books available that can be of enormous help in developing your career.

Finally, your personal reference library should include writer's guidelines and sample issues of the publications you hope to break into. Many magazines include their guidelines on their Web sites, and most will send you a hard copy in exchange for your SASE. Sample issues usually can be ordered for a small fee.

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