From the archives



'Jim Shorts' on writing

Here are some of my favorite columns on writing.

How to break into a publisher's office

It is hard "breaking into" the writing market, but not impossible. One problem is supply and demand. There are simply more articles being written than the market can bear. (About 1 percent of articles and book proposals submitted to publishers are actually printed.) But you can break through if you will work at the craft of writing:

1. Read. Read. Read. Read "how to" books on writing at your public library. My book, Communicate to Change Lives is available by calling Wesley Press at 1-800-4-WESLEY or ordering at It includes advice on the proper form and etiquette for submitting manuscripts. Also read books that contain good writing such as Annie Dilliard, Madeline L'Engle, and C. S. Lewis, and Philip Yancey.

2. Take a course at a nearby college or university. You'll receive the kind of feed-back and critique that is so necessary.

3. Attend one of the regional or national writing conferences. "It's not what you know, but who you know" in writing also! Conferences allow you to show your writing samples to some of the top magazine and book editors in the country. Plus the workshops are invaluable.

4. Join a writer's club or critique group. Your public library should know the active groups in your area. You'll receive helpful critiques and encouragement.

5. Research what the market is buying. Writer's Market (Writers Digest Books, annual), which is available at most public libraries, lists hundreds of markets. Always send for a writer's guide and sample copy before submitting. Magazines are much easier to break into. In fact, I'd suggest you do not attempt a book until you've established a good publishing track record in magazines.

6. Don't quit your day job! If you want to make money, become a greeter at Wal-Mart rather than a writer. Fewer than 5 percent of writers actually make a living at it. Writing offers great satisfaction, but little money.

7. Most of all, be persistent as well as patient. Persistent because the majority of your (and my) articles and proposals will be returned. But, because I'm persistent I've had over 1,470 articles and fourteen books published--in spite of hundreds of rejection slips. And be patient. Most magazines take up to three months to respond; books up to six months. Editors, unfortunately, are too busy to be able to tell you why they can't use your material, so don't ask. I realize that is frustrating--to new and old writers! And remember, it takes ten years to become an overnight success!

Copyright © 1997 James N. Watkins. All rights reserved.

A not-so-glamorous day in life of an author and speaker

July 1, 2013

Today I don't have any articles or books to write. No international—or even local Optimist Club—speaking engagements. I forced myself to at least get out of bed at 6:15 am after listening to heart-breaking news on the clock radio. So, I'm up, I'm dressed (if you consider gyms shorts and T-shirt "dressed"), but no reason to take a shower as a noon meeting was cancelled.

I'm dutifully sitting at my computer in my office answering email, but mostly mindlessly surfing the 'net for something to stimulate a Hope & Humor post. (I think I'm simply overwhelmed at all the ways it seems culture is coming apart at the seams, so don't feel very hopeful or humorous right now.)

I'm trying to convince myself that this is all part of the manic/depressive rhythm of being a writer and speaker. For every day of exhilarating writing, there's a day of immobilizing boredom. For every exciting speaking engagement, a day where I just mutter to myself.

So, I'll take my anti-depressants, have my time alone with God—although He seems to be taking the day off as well—and do some prep for a conference coming up mid-July. In just two weeks, I'll be introduced as an award-winning author and international speaker with the tag line "hope and humor." That cracks me up! But Romans 5:5 is what keeps me from truly cracking up: "And hope does not disappoint us, because God has poured out his love into our hearts by the Holy Spirit, whom he has given us." Gotta believe it!

And, who knows, maybe this will eventually turn into a "Hope & Humor" post.

Copyright © 2013 James N. Watkins. All rights reserved.

Ten great things about being an author

I have in my right hand, direct from my home office in Corn Borer, Indiana, today's category: Ten great things about being an author.

10. No heavy lifting. Since no physical skill or strength is required to be a word jock, your career isn't over by age 30 like most major league athletes.

9. It's cheaper than collecting antique cars or Longaberger baskets. For the price of a ream of paper ($3.95 at Office Depot) you can write an epic novel or two nonfiction books. (Lincoln's Gettysburg Address was written on the back of an old envelope.)

8. It's one of the few occupations you can perform in your underwear without the vice squad breaking down your door.

7. You can get your picture in the paper without the vice squad breaking down your door.

6. A chance to speak your mind long after you're dead. All those authors from American and English Literature class had met their final deadlines long before you read them (or scanned the Cliff Notes).

5. It's a great soapbox. Instead of annoying just your family and friends with your rants and raves, you can annoy thousands of people with your rants and raves.

4. On election day, you can vote more than once—legally. An editorial, a letter to the editor, even an email note, can sway readers' votes, so get out and vote—repeatedly.

3. You can receive notes like this email from last week: "I am a 38 year old mother of four: two teenagers and two under the age of nine. I am writing to let you know how much your writing has lifted my spirits."

2. It's the closest thing to God's "creation ex nihilo"—creating something out of nothing; using words to bring order out of chaos.

1. And now writers have their very own holiday.

Yep, my friend John Riddle has single-handedly created the national I Love To Write Day.

Apparently it's not that difficult to create your own holiday since this month also celebrates Saxophone Day (6), National Bittersweet Chocolate With Almonds Day (7), National Pizza With The Works Except Anchovies Day (12), Operation Room Nurse Day (14), Use Even If Seal Is Broken Day (24), and Square Dance Day (29). And don't forget Veteran's Day (11), Thanksgiving (fourth Thursday), and my wife's birthday (24).

Unfortunately, we writers have to share the 15th with National Clean Out Your Refrigerator Day.

According to the official press release, over 11,000 schools nationwide have already signed up to celebrate the day. Riddle writes, "One million authors, writers, editors, reporters, journalists, teachers, librarians and other volunteers will help celebrate I Love To Write Day. On that day people of all ages will be encouraged to write something: a poem, a love letter, an essay, a letter to the editor, start a novel, finish a novel...the possibilities are endless."

So don't forget to celebrate national I Love To Write Day on November 15. But, please, if you serve refreshments, avoid anything from the National Clean Out Your Refrigerator Day!

© 2002 James N. Watkins

Top ten column-writing secrets revealed

Writing a weekly column isn't exactly like creating something that high school students will be required to read 100 years from now. It is, however, a challenge coming up with a fresh, insightful essay every seven days--or at least some ink spots to fill 10 inches of column space.

So, I have in my right hand, direct from my home office, today's top ten list: Top Ten Column Writing Secrets.

10. Eat cold pizza for breakfast

Wash it down with large quantities of Diet Coke. After three cans, I can type 470 words per minute but unfortuwythdly nonr ofit makerigh anv senze aftcher tke thirddddddd . . .

9. Travel

I had great fun filing these columns from India ("The Land Without Toilet Paper"), as well as southern Africa and the Caribbean.

But some of my best ideas have come while stuck in traffic in downtown Chicago in August with a stick shift with no air-conditioning and two kids in the backseat waging a fight to the death.

And, of course, anytime I fly, I always come back with new column ideas. You can read "Top Ten Things Not to Say at Security" at

8. Get married, have kids

Dave Barry provides positive proof that marriage and raising children is a source for hundreds of columns, thousands of dollars, and even a Pulitzer Prize. However, he's also on his third or fourth marriage and is buying baby diapers with his AARP discount card.

That's why you won't find Lois mentioned in many of my columns. I love my wife and I want to stay married to her.

Kids, on the other hand, provide a great—and printable—source of humor. (You can read all about them at

7. Read

Read everything: fortune cookies, warning labels, airline magazines, junk mail, movie credits, etc. etc.

Recently, I was waiting in the foyer of a restaurant and noticed a marker board sign that should have read PLEASE WAIT TO BE SEATED. Someone had erased the second S, making me wonder if I was on the menu.

The best comedy, however, comes from the Department of Political-correctness. After reading about Native Americans being offended by use of "Redskins" and other "Indian" terms in sports, I got thinking, where will this end? Is my state going to be forced to change it's name to "Native Americana"?

6. Pass a kidney stone

I keep reminding students at writers conferences, "nothing terrible happens to authors, just terrific anecdotes."

So, when I experienced the sensation of having a Greyhound bus overloaded with passengers on their way to a Weight Watchers convention parked on my lower back, I knew I had a great column. You can read it all about it at

5. Tackle a home-improvement project

For example, I don't believe in paying a repair technician $50 per hour when I can fix it myself. What do I have to lose? It's already broken, so I really can't do too much more damage.

Such was the case with the "simple"—watch out for that word—task of removing the bathroom stool so the tile crew could install new floor covering. And I'd save $50 by doing it myself!

Eventually I had to bring the City Water Department in on the project, but it did make a great story which has appeared in several magazines and in a book. You can read about it at

4. Use your column for shameless self-promotion

I'm not above using excerpts from my 14 books for columns, and then shamelessly mentioning that they are available at my online bookstore. And if you have a Web site with your best (?) columns archived, you can make references to it through out the entire column.

3. Don't be afraid of people thinking you're crazy

Henri Nouwen writes of the successful communicator:

"He does not allow anybody to worship idols, and he constantly invites his fellow man to ask real, often painful and upsetting questions, to look behind the surface of smooth behavior, and take away all obstacles that prevent him from getting to the heart of the matter. The contemplative critic takes away the illusionary mask of the manipulative world and has the courage to show what the true situation is. He knows that he is considered by many as a fool, a madman, a danger to society and a threat to mankind."

2. Have a friend who is even crazier than you

I enjoy having lunch with a fellow columnist who wishes to remain anonymous (I'll call him "Michael Fraley"). Michael describes his mind as "a box of kittens" and he never ceases to get my brain cells firing on all neurons. Most of our brainstorms, however, aren't fit for print such as low-tech terrorist "Amish bin Laden"!

1. Create a top ten List

If all else fails, simply slap together a list such as, oh say, "Top ten column-writing secrets revealed." (And, of course, top ten lists can be found at

© 2002 James N. Watkins

Write advice

ACW Press: ethical, economical self-publisher [off site]
American Christian Writers: Christian Publishing 101 [off site]
Communicate to Change Lives
Writing online
Writers on Writing
Copyright © James N. Watkins

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