Thursday, April 11, 2013

How to Make a Living as a Writer

How did you turn writing into a legitimate career?

This is one of the questions I get asked most frequently by readers, friends, other aspiring writers, etc. First, I'm no expert. I just know what worked for me. And, frankly, it still surprises me sometimes that I managed to pull off getting a paycheck doing one of those "dream" jobs that little kids (including me) always say they want to have when they grow up. (Maybe next I can be an astronaut?)

What is it that I do, exactly?

Currently, I write full-time for an Internet marketing agency (e.g. I write web content and blog articles all day for our various clients. It's a few different shades of awesome or tedious, depending on the day.) My professional background before my current job included journalism and a couple different public relations gigs in the fields of education and nonprofits. My ultimate dream? Write books that people will actually buy, and/or make a decent living off this blog. (Baby steps, you know.)

Like I said, I'm no expert. I still have infinite room to improve as a writer and grow my career. But I can tell you what works for me, in case this career path gives you stars in your eyes and a flutter in your little literary heart. So for what it's worth...

1. Write. A lot.
This one is obvious. Do you keep a journal? Do you blog? Do you write letters and e-mails to friends? Writing is like any skill -- you can't get better unless you practice. I once heard about another writer who would get up in the morning and write for the first 15 minutes of her day. She just wrote whatever was in her head during that half-awake time of day. Later she'd go back and comb through it for any gems she could expand into something bigger.

2. Read. A lot.
I once had a journalism professor tell me, "You learn to write by reading." To this I say, "Amen and glory hallelujah." As a child, I'm pretty sure I checked books out of the library by the truckload. My personal library is maybe my greatest material possession, aside from my gray jersey sheets that I'm obsessed with. I love when I'm reading a well-written book and I find myself talking, thinking and writing with better words and more magical sentence structures. I'm a firm believer that what you read will get ingrained in your head and ultimately flow into your writing. So go pick up a quality book or newspaper. Go.

3. Ask for what you want.
I didn't have a lucky break anywhere along the way when a high-profile talent scout discovered a personal journal I'd dropped in a park and hunted me down to hand me a paycheck. (Except now I want to write a book with that exact plot line, and it would probably involve me falling in love with the talent agent in the end.) (No stealing.) But seriously, nobody is going to hand you a writing career. You have to work for it. You have to put yourself out there. Like I said, start a blog. Grow an audience. Enter writing contests. Look into writing columns for your local newspaper or favorite magazine. Check out freelance writing gigs on sites like craigslist and flex jobs. Network like crazy at local meetups or bigger writing conferences. It all started for me when, on a whim, I walked into the newsroom of my university's newspaper at age 20 and told them I wanted to be a reporter. My first assignment was to interview the maintenance staff about the upcoming lock changes on the doors in the student center. (So glamorous!) Also, don't turn your nose up at writing for free, at first. Getting published to build up your resume is compensation worth accepting.

4. Don't be afraid of rejection.
One of my favorite quotes comes via Ray Bradbury: "You're afraid of making mistakes. Don't be." Suppose you take my previous advice and start putting yourself out there, but nobody seems to want what you have to offer. Suppose you are told no 99.9% of the time. Suppose some editor, somewhere, told you that your writing is just not the bee's knees after all. So what? If this is really what you want, there's no sense in giving up. Keep trying. Keep dreaming. Write for the pure joy of it, paycheck or no paycheck. And besides, with every rejection you're just learning one more way you can improve. Even if a critique is harsh, glean some good advice from it so you can write better next time. (And gosh, if this paragraph couldn't just double as dating advice, am I right?)

5. Find your voice.
Not to be confused with the Hilary Duff movie Raise Your Voice. (Though, you can watch whatever you want. I'm not here to judge.) Finding your unique, personal voice as a writer is as important as it is for a professional singer to do the same. One of the best compliments I ever received back in my newspaper days is when a fellow student came up to me and said, "I loved your column! It was like I could hear you talking as I read it." Too often we get caught up in sentences and punctuation and our writing comes out stale and robotic. Try talking about the article before you write it. Just record yourself, rambling about the topic, verbally. Then write down exactly what you said. You can clean up the grammar and sentences later. (Chances are, your own natural pauses and rhythm will tell you more about placing commas and semicolons than a book on grammar ever will.)

6. Be patient.
This goes along with asking for what you want and not being afraid of rejection. Like any career, writing takes time. Building a following and an audience takes time. Getting your name out there takes time. Getting to a place where you can afford not to shop at the dollar store takes time. (Actually I will probably always love the dollar store, let's be real about that.)

And there you have it. 

My little snippets of advice, for what it's worth. Any questions? Other suggestions from fellow writers? Ideas for what I should eat for lunch because I'm suddenly very hungry?


karajean said...

I never found the time to comment on your post about writing a children's book but it made me so excited and happy for you! And just a tad "why haven't I done that yet?!?"

Anyway. We pretty much have the same job, and I agree about it being awesome + tedious. I call it dream-job-adjacent. I won't do it forever but I love it for now.

This post is pretty great, too. Lots of wonderful advice.

Myke said...

This post has inspired me to read (even) more Steinbeck. (And write more too.)

Something that has improved my writing greatly (in my opinion) (even though I don't get paid to write) is picturing a very specific audience when I write, usually one person.

Sierra said...

Looove this. My biggest problem with all my writing classes is that I'm expected to sound a certain way and I'm like, "No. Pass." You won't get anywhere if you sound like every other person out there.

Also, stealing your book idea.

Tia said...

You are a great writer! I definitely love your voice and style of writing--it is easy to read and articulate, which can be a challenging combination!

Tyson J Oliver said...


Megan said...

This is so great!! I remember we talked about how our dreams and education was very similar. But you are obviously a lot more successful with achieving your dreams :) So this advice is so great for me! Thank you so much for sharing your tips!

B said...

I don't really have any goals to be a writer but I think it is so true that reading when you want to write is so important! I love to read, I can't imagine a day going by without reading! And I just get obsessed with books! It is also the best way to expand your vocabulary too, so that is a double plus!