Writers think and talk a lot about the idea of “paying dues.” We dread getting rejection letters while acknowledging that receiving them is “paying our dues.” That is, the rejection letter is a part of the path to publication. We ask ourselves, “If I don’t send my work out to be critiqued, am I really a writer?” Getting those rejections is proof that we’re trying.
Another way of “paying dues” is the constant effort to improve as a writer. That might be taking one or more writing classes. Or, perhaps it’s trying a new writing form like the short story or novella. Each plunge into these waters is another step toward calling oneself “a writer.”
A less commonly practiced way of paying dues is by giving service to the writing community. What does that mean, exactly? Well, literary writers who have achieved a certain level of distinction may be asked to edit an anthology or issue of a literary journal. Or, they might be given a chance to teach a master class.
Some writers think about what they might do if or when they get a chance to edit an anthology or judge a special issue of a literary journal. But, those service opportunities don’t have to wait until later in a writer’s career.
Many literary journals and genre magazines actively seek volunteers to read their slush piles. A quick Google search this morning (July 14) turned up about a half-dozen such opportunities. Some made it clear that readers could not submit their own work to the publication during their readership, but I don’t think that’s necessarily a problem. If there’s a magazine or journal you really want to see your work in, wading through all their submissions as a reader can only help you hone your knowledge of what works and what doesn’t.
Serving as another writer’s beta reader is another great way to improve as a writer while also paying your dues to the literary community. I’m not talking about critiquing a chapter or two in a writing group. While that’s paying one’s dues, it’s only a starting point.
Being a good beta reader is a much bigger time commitment, but it can offer huge rewards. A good beta reader reads the entire manuscript (usually in a short period of time) and gives feedback on what sections of the book bog down or are unclear.
I served as a beta reader for a fellow les-fic romance author. Seeing the errors in that manuscript helped me catch similar flaws in my work. That author has offered to beta read for me if I’d like, and that kind of reciprocity helps build a stronger writing community.
Another option is volunteering as a judge. I served as a judge for the Golden Crown Literary Society’s 2016 Goldie Awards. The books were a mix of self-published titles and books from small presses within the les-fic community. The judging guidelines were detailed and required the judges to really examine each book carefully for craft, suitability to its category, and the writer’s choices as an author. It was a great experience.