A couple of weeks ago I received a message on LinkedIn asking for some tips on how to break into a writing career. In this case it was because of this article I wrote, but people have been asking me this for years. So, if you’re wondering about how to become a writer, then this post is for you.
I have been making a living as a writer for years. Many years. I am very old.
I don’t write novels or short stories. I’ll probably never have a bestseller, and you know what? You probably won’t either. But you might make a living. Everyone thinks they can be a writer. It’s like being an actor or a rock star except that it’s easier to actually make a living as a writer, and there’s no acting or rock starring in it. So, it’s nothing like being an actor or a rock star. I don’t know what I’m talking about. You should stop reading now.
No but really, you might make a living, even a really good one, and the sort of living most people (you) might make writing is the sort of living I can tell you something about. I can’t tell you everything, but I can tell you where to start. Start here. Good luck.
Here’s what you should do if you want to become a professional writer:
Start blogging or create an online magazine or something.
I once suggested this to a guy who wanted to get more writing work and he looked like I’d suggested he cut out his own kidney with rusty scissors and put it up for sale on eBay.
“But who would read it?” He asked, confused.
“Maybe nobody,” I replied, shrugging. What am I, a fortune teller?
“But why would I write for nobody?” he asked.
Here’s the thing. You need something to show. Otherwise, how is anyone going to know whether you can write or not?
You create a blog around whatever subject it is you’re an expert in, and you write on it, and you write on it some more, so that when you need something to show, you have it.
“Do we still say ‘blog’?” My business partner asked the other day. “It sounds so dated.”
FINE. Create your own online magazine or book or whatever. Just write, to prove that you can. Nobody is going to hire a writer who doesn’t write anything, and why should they? The world doesn’t owe you an audience. This is not some totally unfair you-can’t-get-work-without-experience-and-you-can’t-get-experience-without-work catch 22. Experience is freely available for you to get yourself. If you can’t figure out how to get it, you don’t deserve to work as a “writer.”
Maybe people will read it and maybe they won’t and that’s not my problem. It’s yours.
Pick your target.
The thing about being a “writer” is that you have to write about something. Yes, you can write poems, novels, and short stories, but there’s a good chance then that you will be forever relegated to literary magazines with small audiences and even smaller budgets, and unless you can write that bestseller you won’t make a living.
So pick the thing or things you want to write about – cars, food, pop culture, fashion, careers, birds, careers for birds – and hone your craft writing about those specific things. Then when a fashion magazine or birding website is looking for a writer you have a portfolio of work on that specific interest. Nobody can write about everything and nobody should.
And don’t write about writing. If you’re reading this, you don’t know enough about writing to tell others how to do it. I don’t either, really, but I’m comfortable with people calling me a fraud.
Understand that your job is to sell a product.
There’s a persistent misconception among writers that their job is not to sell a product but to tell a story. It’s the sort of thing one imagines the plucky heroine of the 1980s movie shouting at the evil cigar chomping newspaper publisher as she fights to get the whistleblowing story into print – “My job isn’t to sell newspapers! It’s to tell the TRUTH!”
But that’s not true. Her first job is to sell newspapers, because a newspaper’s biggest priority is to sell newspapers. It’s also to tell stories – and in some cases those stories are the truth (depending on the paper). But mostly it’s to sell newspapers. OK, this was more relevant back when people actually read newspapers but the movie probably wouldn’t have the same impact if it were about a blog.
My point is that it’s not about your writing or the story you want to tell so much as it is about how that story will help sell whatever it is the person you’re writing for is trying to sell. Understand that most writing jobs aren’t going to be for magazines like the New Yorker and are actually going to be for blogs and websites that are tied to products people are trying to sell, like pet food or diabetic socks*.
Writing is just like any other job – you have to bring value. Or you’re not worth it.
It might seem unfair that writers are also expected to be salespeople, but that’s the way it is. If you can’t convince someone that what you have to say will bring value to their magazine, blog, TV show, or whatever product it is they’re trying to market, they don’t have any reason to hire you.
This is where your own blog/magazine/whatever helps you, obviously, along with the fact that you have focused your interest and expertise on a few choice topics. Your dog-centric blog makes you a perfect candidate to write for that pet food company. You also have to get on social media and connect with influencers in related industries. Networking, both on and offline, is a huge part of marketing yourself. This also solves the question asked a few paragraphs ago about who is going to read your blog. Market it yourself and people will read it.
Most jobs go unadvertised so you have to approach the people you want to write for and say, “Hey! I want to write for you and I can help you sell stuff. Here’s my portfolio of work that proves I’m an expert in the topic you need me to be an expert in. Hire me.” Or some variation on that. You should probably reword it a bit, which should be no problem for you because you’re a writer.
A few more tips: add to your skillset. You’re more marketable as a writer if you can edit, do some coding, use photo editing software, understand SEO and analytics, and push your work on social media. If you don’t understand how and why these things will come in handy, you will eventually figure it out. Or so I assume.
Now go write something. I hope this post was helpful. If it was, please share it on LinkedIn and Twitter and say something nice about it. If you hated it, go talk about it on Google Plus. Nobody uses that thing.
*These are not socks with diabetes but socks for people with diabetes. If you don’t know this that probably isn’t the gig for you.