License to Write

What have you been reading lately?  For me it’s been building codes, textbooks, and practice problems – oh my! Tomorrow morning I’ll roll my suitcase full of manuals into the structural engineering licensing exam where I’ll sit among a sea of hopefuls to battle first a morning of multiple choice questions and then those four dreaded seismic afternoon problems with only my scientific calculator as a weapon.  And did I mention I passed the first portion of the exam a year ago and am still struggling to pass the second portion?  It’s an excruciating rite of passage, but an essential one in the structural engineering industry.

The pass rate for this licensing exam hovers around  twenty-five percent, and yet even on my third attempt at the seismic portion of the exam, I find this pursuit far less intimidating than publishing a children’s novel.  At least in structural engineering there are clear guidelines on the material covered in the exam, ample resources to help prepare for the exam, and every single structural engineering hopeful I know has passed the exam . . . eventually.  I can’t say any of those are true for the publishing industry.  Why is that?

Structural engineering, like many other professions, has a specific series of filters to weed out unsuitable candidates long before licensing exam day.  High school GPA and ACT scores are required for acceptance into an accredited engineering university.  Core engineering courses are required for acceptance into a structural engineering department.  Competitive internships are required to gain experience.   A Bachelor of Science degree in Structural Engineering, and in many cases a Masters Degree as well, are required to obtain employment in the industry.  Passing the Fundamentals of Engineering Exam and working for four years under a licensed structural engineer are required to submit an application to sit for the licensing exam.  And even after all that effort, an applicant (or her generous employer) must pony up some serious cash for the exam fee to show she’s serious.  I’ve invested fifteen years of my life and more tuition, code, and exam fees than I care to tally in the pursuit of my structural engineering license.  But I walk into that exam room tomorrow with a one in four chance of passing and the confidence that I’m qualified to keep attempting the exam until I succeed.

What are my odds of becoming a published author?  Probably too dismal for anyone to report them.  Or maybe even impossible to calculate given the volume of submissions to countless agents and editors.  We live in a world where everyone thinks they can write a novel, and anyone who does manage to complete a manuscript is free to submit to their heart’s content with absolutely no filters.  But as a result the publishing houses became so bogged down with queries that many no longer accept un-agented material.  Which of course caused the queries to flood every reputable literary agent with hundreds of submissions per day and create an opportunity for non-reputable people posing as agents to exploit writers.

Maybe a License to Write should be required before submission, if for no other reason than to reduce the volume of submissions and make sure writers are truly ready before making that first submission.  Any published author should ace an ACT style exam testing grammar and reading comprehension, so why not require such an exam prior to submission?  Publishing professionals always emphasize the importance of not submitting your work until it’s been critiqued and polished.  So why not require a reader signature sheet to prove someone other than the writer has read the manuscript?  Writers might actually appreciate the feedback from an exam or a reader on which skills they need to work on prior to submitting.  And in a submission process that provides little or no feedback, passing a few filters may give prospective authors the confidence they need to keep honing their skills and submitting their work year after year until that wonderful  publishing contract arrives.

If there were a License to Write, I’d sit for the exam in a heartbeat.

About Jennifer Kay

Jennifer Kay is a KidLit author and Structural Engineer. She has a VCFA MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults, is an SCBWI Rockford Network Rep, edits the SCBWI IL Prairie Wind, and belongs to Mystery Writers of America. Jennifer works as a writer, freelance editor, literary agency reader, and creative writing teacher.
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