I Make My Living As a Writer. And So Can You.
I am a writer. This has been true for over 16 years now, and much longer if you count all the unpaid writing work I did for the high school yearbook and my college newspaper. But despite all those years of experience, it’s only been fairly recently that I’ve fully come to own those words. I. Am. A. Writer. I know things about what it takes to make it. To never have a full-time job yet manage a comfortable life. To hustle for work and get it done. To create book-length works. Taglines. And everything in between.
For a long time, I would’ve hesitated to tell anyone that being a writer is a good thing. I would’ve told you how hard it is, how stressful it is to never know where your next paycheck is coming from. Blah, blah, blah. I’m over that now. I’m ready to tell you it’s great. And if you decide to start today on a similar professional journey, you can get past all the complaining a lot faster than I did, but you have to be smart about it.
Here are some tips.
Take it seriously. I’ve had a lot of people say, “You could work on the beach!” Um, no. I guess that’s true in theory, but if you’re really focused on work, you’re not pulling out a laptop on the beach. You’re treating it like a job because it is a job, not a vacation.
Keep track of everything you’re doing and build a portfolio. I’ve had so many pieces published online over the years that are no longer live or accessible. I should’ve been grabbing screen shots and PDFs of everything, all along. Learn from my mistakes. You only get hired if the person signing off on your invoices knows you can do the work and do it well. To prove that, you need clips. Save everything.
Try many different kinds of writing. There are several kinds of writing assignments that really pay the bills (there are definitely more than three, but these are the three I’m familiar with): technical, curriculum, and marketing writing. For many years, I wrote curriculum (think lesson plans, k-12 text book pages, test questions, test guides, etc.). It felt like the right fit for me for a while, because I was always a straight A student who loved school. But after a decade plus, I started to really get bored. Actually, I got bored sooner than that, but I wouldn’t let myself admit it. Then, I got the opportunity out of the blue to do marketing writing for a B2B agency and advertising writing for another agency. I am still doing it now, and I love it. You gotta try stuff. Don’t settle for writing jobs that you kind of hate. You’ll hold yourself back and severely limit your income, because you’ll always hesitate to take on more work.
Commit to continuous education. This means read books in general (and it definitely counts to read good fiction), but you need to push yourself a little. Read career development content about writing, even when you get comfortable with your skills. Listen to personal development podcasts. Talk to other ambitious people about what they’re doing that’s working…and not. Some writers go to conferences, participate in writing groups, and pursue mentorships. Yes, yes, yes. If you want to be paid like a lawyer, you have to be extremely good. You can’t dabble.
Exercise. Writing is lonely and cerebral. You need to get moving every day to balance that out. I myself love to take long walks. The best plan would be to take walks with a friend. Walk with me!
Control your expenses. This is true mainly in the beginning of your career, but is a good policy for life in general, too. To make it without a steady job, you have to be very careful about your spending. Get an old Honda Civic if you feel you have to have a car. Live with roommates. Don't worry about fashion, or if you do, go thrifting. Etc.
Get curious. My first real writing success happened because of curiosity. I was hired by Match.com to write articles for them, because I answered a help wanted ad online and did a passable job on a test assignment. But instead of just settling in to that role and riding it out, I asked myself, “I wonder how long personal ads have been around?” I started doing some research to try to answer the question, and found archived, searchable newspapers on the internet from all over the English-speaking world. I dug up personal ads from the 1800s, and even further back than that. Even though I was not a good writer at 23 years old, my curiosity opened a lot of doors. I got my first book deal and literary agent out of the project, and my current literary agent signed me thanks to my relationship with that first one. I got published in The New York Times, and got to appear on Good Morning America! Open doors with your curiosity, and try to ask questions no one else is asking. Look places others aren’t looking. I have so much respect for the Atlas Obscura folks, because they’ve turned this life philosophy into a very cool business and publishing juggernaut. Hire me, Atlas Obscura. You're amazing!
You do you. I’ve wasted so much brainpower feeling inadequate because my strengths as a writer are different than others’ strengths. For example, angsty YA got really popular about ten years ago, and I thought I should be writing dark and controversial content to attract readers. But I’m not a very dark or controversial person. The books that touched me the most when I was a young reader were The Babysitters Club books. And the biggest success I’ve had was when I wrote authentically as myself, creating The Teashop Girls in the wholesome, realistic, and kind style of Ann M. Martin. Don’t waste time thinking about what other writers are doing, unless they’ve inspired you in a genuine way—in a way that you can see yourself building upon. Dig deep into yourself and write in your own style, from your own heart. There’s power in that.
This is such a quick blog on a topic I could talk about for ages. If you have specific questions, get in touch with me! Writing is a wonderful way to make a living, and I’m so grateful for all the support and help I’ve had along the way.