I’ve been a professional writer for nearly two decades now. Sometimes I was a part-time freelancer while working another career. Other times I concentrated on a single book project. However, for the last six years I’ve been a full-time freelance writer, paying the bills by writing article on food, travel and parenting, while simultaneously authoring books, including my travelogue-memoir Freak Show Without a Tent: Swimming with Piranhas, Getting Stoned in Fiji and Other Family Vacations (#shillalert). If you’re crazy enough to want to follow a similar career path – yes, a little madness is a job requisite – these are the 11 things you absolutely need to know first.
- Writing is damn hard work.
Don’t ever let anyone tell you otherwise. There’s a reason why it’s shown only in quick montage scenes in the movies. It’s a time consuming, agonizing process full of stumbles, complete falls, flameouts, set backs and unexpected obstacles. Even on the best of days, when I’m hitting all my deadlines, pouring out what I think is primo prose and feeling in the zone, there’s the little voice in the back of my head reminding me that this success is only temporary. The good news is that though there will always be difficulties, you will get better at making sure little issues don’t become big headaches, while learning how to surmount obstacles with more speed and grace.
- Be comfortable with rejection.
When you’re first starting out, you will get rejected. A lot. Sometimes it will be in the form of a brief note – usually after you follow up with the editor multiple times – though sometimes you’ll get some substantive feedback along with a gracious ‘Thanks, but no thanks.’ However, rejection will most often take the form of silence. Don’t despair. Don’t think your idea or your work sucks. Don’t think you’re a bad writer. Oftentimes, it’s just the wrong story for the wrong editor at the wrong publication at the wrong time. Be persistent. You need to find the right place to tell the right story for the right person at the right time. That’s why I keep a running file of every story I’ve ever pitched and never throw any out. Some have taken me years to sell. I still get rejected sometimes and it still stings sometimes, but I’m confident enough now to know that I’ll find the right home for the story eventually if I try hard enough.
- Practice makes perfect.
It sounds obvious, but it’s true. The more you write, the better you will get at it. Do it every day if you can. Some days will be better than others. Some days your writing will be so awesome that you’ll find yourself doing a silly dance, in your underwear in the center of your home office. I am guilty of this and am glad no one has witnessed it. On the other hand, some days will be complete crap, leaving you completely demoralized, sobbing in a corner while you nurse a cocktail. Or five. My only advice is to keep writing. It will get better, even if that process takes years. I remember the first time I wrote a story that I felt was a story, not just a string of semi-related sentences that met the word count my editor was seeking. I had been writing for five years at that point. I’m still learning how to be the best writer I can be and I don’t ever expect that process to stop. That’s part of what makes this work so exciting and fulfilling.
- Read. A lot.
Find out what you like about what other authors’ turns of phrase, what works on the page, what makes a story sing and then steal, steal, steal, but work to make what you take your own. We all stand on the shoulders of giants.
- Never work for free.
You’re providing an artful, professional service and you deserve to be compensated accordingly. You should only take an assignment if it pays well, furthers your career or feeds your soul. If the assignment meets one of those criteria? Great. Two? Fricking fantastic. Meeting all three? The Holy Grail.
- Be passionate about what you do when you step away from the keyboard.
The best writers aren’t just writers. They’re travelers, chefs, hikers, stargazers, amateur archaeologists, surfers, inventors, marble collectors, whatever. Bring those passions into your work. The reader can tell when you’re emotionally invested and deeply knowledgeable about a subject, and it will make your work jump off the page.
- Find your niche.
Don’t say, “I just want to write.” Figure out the fields you want to cover. Then consider whether there is a sustainable market for a constant stream of articles. If there is, can you compete with the writers already covering that market? Or can you become a go-to writer for a newer topic that’s not being heavily covered now, but will be in the future? If the answer to those two questions is no, you need to seriously consider writing about something else.
- Always be professional.
Yes, you’re an artist, a sensitive creative soul who pours their heart into their work. But you’re also the sole proprietor of a business, so act accordingly. If you get a reputation for blowing your deadlines, being tough to reach, a bad communicator, personally difficult to work with or unable to deliver the goods, there’s only one person to blame: yourself. Think of yourself as a company and you’re the CEO, CFO, the head of HR, and every other employee rolled into a single entity. The buck always stops with you. Every complaint and issue is aimed squarely at you. On the upside, you’re also the sole beneficiary of the praise you’ll occasionally receive if you do your job well, but don’t expect a lot of that. This isn’t kindergarten – editors don’t often hand out gold star stickers or pats on the back.
- Self-motivation is key.
Yes, you will have editors emailing and phoning you frantically if you don’t get a story in on time, but that’s a last resort for motivation. You don’t want that to happen. You should figure out the scheduling and rhythm that works best for you – and stick to it. Don’t let yourself off the hook. Get your work done on time.
10. You will need the support of your partner.
If your spouse/significant other is not comfortable with your decision to be a writer and the attendant risks, it will rip your relationship apart. I couldn’t do what I do without the support of my wife. When I first told her that I was going to quit my comfortable job with benefits in the middle of the Great Recession to write full time, she told me, “I love you, support you and want you to succeed.” And then she added, “If you screw this up and the rent check bounces, you will wash dishes to make ends meet if necessary.” That little motivational speech inspired me – and continues to inspire me – to work even harder, so I didn’t fail her and, later on, our son. She continues to provide emotional support and is always ready to give me a pragmatic pep talk or a metaphorical slap across the face if needed.
- Join a writer’s group.
They can help you hone pitches, find home for stories, edit pieces and provide motivation when you need it most. If you don’t find a good one in your area, there are plenty of virtual communities online. Possibilities Publishing oversees a Writer2Author program, which provides online support and classes for writers (#anothershillalert).