“The pen is mightier than the sword” is a quote that I’m sure every writer has heard at least once in their lives, and if they’re anything like me, has hundreds of knickknacks emblazoned with that very saying as a way to inspire them as they go about their writing journey. Where the saying falls short, however, is that in its attempt to inspire writers, it fails to explain how to make your pen mightier than any swords people may throw at you.
As a fifteen-year-old journalist, the question of how do I become the writer that I want to be has been one that has driven me during these years of attempting, and failing, and succeeding at being a published author. I’m here to offer some tips that I’ve learned during my five years of publishing my writing, especially if, like me a few years ago, you have no idea how to start down your road to one day (hopefully!) winning a Pulitzer.
1. We need your voice and story to be heard… because YOU have a story that NO ONE else does
How many times have you heard the saying “We are all unique and special in our own way”? Yes, I know it’s incredibly cheesy and undoubtably a favorite saying of corny principals everywhere, but the saying is so lauded because it’s true, and it’s especially true in writing. Every experience you’ve had can make for a good story, no matter how “common” it may be, since only you have your specific view on a situation, that’s informed from the way you live your life. Use those experiences to author a story that no one else can! In fact, in my eight years of schooling I racked up quite the list of experiences to write about relating to disability advocacy, some of which were examples of allyship and others of apathy. Those contrasting experiences led me to author this piece, on how teachers can support disabled students.
2. Read, read, and read some more!
Growing up, I was quite the bibliophile, preferring to escape to a world of typed letters rather than play outside with a soccer ball. On my good days, I could make it through an entire novel in a night (though it definitely wrecked my sleep schedule). Each of these novels put their own spell on me, made me hungry for just one more chapter. Now, as I continue down my writing journey, I aspire to craft things that leave readers hungry for just one more chapter, and, while a journalistic piece doesn’t have “chapters,” that need to keep readers engaged and invested in the story you are telling transcends across all forms of writing. How do you do this? By reading of course! When you examine a story similar to the one you are writing, take notes on why you sought out that particular article. Is it because you find the structure compelling and a good style to try to emulate (but not copy, remember tip #1 about being unique) or do you like the way the author played with words to create something new in the reader, whether that’s feelings or creating a new perspective they hadn’t heard before? When you look at other pieces that evoked in readers what you want your piece to achieve, you can realize what worked for them, and, well, what didn’t work so well, so you can use that insight in your piece — and you would never have known any of that insight unless you read, read, read!
So, you’ve listened to tips #1 and #2 and you think you have a unique idea that you’ve read up on and can offer a unique piece to the news cycle. That’s great! Now, your next step is trying to get it published! Gulp. Take it from me, I know how scary it can be to pitch things and put yourself out there, especially if you don’t have any “big name” publications or even any publications at all. You should still pitch anyways! I’m not going to lie to you and say that having prior publications aren’t helpful — they are, because they show an editor an example of your best work, but they aren’t everything. If you have a good idea and think you should be the one to pitch it, then do it!
A note on what I’ve learned you should include in a pitch you want to be successful (this is not proven obviously, pitching is always a gamble) which I’ve compiled from various editors. The first thing I’ll tell you regarding pitching is to ALWAYS READ THE GUIDELINES FROM EACH PUBLICATION. And, yes, I know this sounds like common sense, but it bears repeating because it’s so important. Guidelines are there for you to follow them, and by following those guidelines you stand a higher chance of getting an acceptance, since you aren’t making silly mistakes that could’ve been avoided had you just read the guidelines. OK, now that we’ve gotten that general reminder out of the way, writers should always attempt to make their pitch like a movie trailer, so it will entice editors to want to read your full draft. My last thing that you should include in a good pitch is always why you are the person to write whatever story you are selling, so that any editor knows the uniqueness (tip #1 coming back in full force!) that you can bring to the story.
4. Find a community
Writing can often feel like a solitary activity, since often, my creative process includes staring at a blinking Word cursor until I have an idea, or (more often than not) I realize the creativity isn’t flowing for whatever reason, and I have to try again another day, which can often feel isolating because, aren’t I the only one going through this?
As a disabled person, I’ve often felt isolated from the writing community at large since the community isn’t very accessible to me. That all changed when I found that a lot of writers interacted in or created communal spaces on online social media platforms (like the Disabled Writers Twitter page). In these online spaces, I’ve found people who have had similar experiences to me and can empathize and support me through the highs and lows of writing. In terms of disability, I’ve also found this community helpful because community members are willing to talk about their experiences being a disabled journalist, and how they advocate for accessibility in their workplace. Through this community I’ve learned that it’s OK to ask for communication to be done over a different format, for example, and that it’s always good to advocate for what you need.
5. Write when you are able and willing to, don’t be fooled by ableist productivity standards
There’s a common myth that all emerging writers should write thirty minutes a day. I emphasize in my prior statement that it is a myth that you have to write for thirty minutes a day. If that system of structured writing time works for you, then by all means, keep it up, but you in no way have to do that — in fact, it’s my recommendation that you don’t. By forcing yourself to write for thirty minutes a day, you are putting your creative brain on a schedule, and often, creativity and good ideas don’t work like that. For me, good ideas feel like a lightbulb lighting up the dark room of writer’s block, and by putting yourself on a time frame, those good ideas don’t come because you want them to come. In addition, this thirty minute a day phenomenon is rooted in the ableist idea that “we all have the same twenty-four hours” and for some disabled people like me, that just isn’t true, because we have health issues or wheelchair repair appointments or pain that inhibits our ability to be productive in the same way as our non-disabled peers, and that doesn’t make us any less of a writer than them. Write when you have an idea and are able to, not when anyone else says you should be writing.
Anja K. Herrman is a fifteen-year-old disabled writer. Her work has appeared on the Easterseals national blog, Magnets and Ladders, Rooted in Rights, Imagine World as One magazine, Input Magazine, the Huffington Post and The Letter Writers Collective. Her work is also forthcoming in HelloGiggles, and her work has also been recognized in the Ann Friedman Weekly. She is also the winner of the 2019 VSA Primary Division Playwriting Competition at the Kennedy Center and was a Top 5 finalist for the 2021 Sarah’s Inn Youth Voice Award. You can connect on Instagram at @iamakh2044, Twitter @anjakherrman, or via email at anja521 at icloud.com