If you’re like most writers, your career probably hasn’t gone precisely as you planned. Unlike in some professions, like engineering or health care, there really isn’t a step-by-step progression for writers, and measurements of success among writers vary greatly.
Though my degree is in English Literature, I never planned to be a writer. But as the media manager at a nonprofit with a very small staff, I did everything from ghostwriting articles and editing books to writing scripts for on-air talent. I became a freelance writer in 2010. Overall, I’ve found working as a writer to be thoroughly enjoyable and fulfilling.
My one piece of advice is to become a specialist — but in more than one area. That sounds like an oxymoron, but it’s been the key to my success. For example, if you specialize in the area of higher education but no one is looking for higher ed writers right now, you’re in trouble. Build a portfolio based on a variety of topics, so you’ll always have relevant clips to show potential clients.
We asked eight other professional writers what advice they’d give to new writers.
“You can’t think of successful writers as ‘talented’ people who possess ‘gifts’ you don’t have.”
Gail Allyn Short, a journalist and freelance writer based in Birmingham, Alabama, who has written for local, regional and national publications, admits that some particularly “gifted” writers do exist, but says that most successful writers simply work hard. “They spend more time writing and more time pitching than others in the biz,” she says.
Gail says you can’t control whether your pitches are accepted or rejected. So, she suggests focusing on what you can control: how hard you work on every pitch and assignment. The key is to outwork the competition. “Write every day. Pitch like crazy. Read. Then write some more.” And when you fail, she says, learn from the experience and keep writing.
“I always knew that writing skills would help my career, but I never realized that they would be the basis of my career.”
Jimmy Daly is a B2B content writer and marketing director at the content agency Animalz. “Career counselors encouraged me to explore teaching and journalism,” he says. And while both of those avenues were interesting, he says, neither felt right. “Soon after college, I landed a job as a marketing intern and was immediately given the chance to run an email newsletter and social media,” he says. “It never occurred to me that strong writing could be applied in a business context.”
Jimmy says he fell in love and has never looked back. “My career has been unconventional. I can’t imagine a career counselor encouraging someone to hop around jobs and industries without a clear path forward, but that’s exactly what I’ve done,” Jimmy says. “I still don’t know exactly where I’m going, but I do know that writing will be at the core of it.”
“Being a writer is hard work.”
“It's usually not just a matter of sitting down and putting pen to paper. There's planning and preparation, usually a lot of research — and battling writer's block can truly be problematic at times,” says David Bakke, an Atlanta-based finance writer for MoneyCrashers and Investopedia.
He also says he didn’t realize when he first started out that you have to manage your time effectively to be a successful writer. “It's not like you can just go ahead and start typing whenever you see fit. You need a schedule in order to stay productive,” he says.
In addition, David says, he wasn’t told that doubting yourself is a part of being a writer. “It doesn't matter if you're a blogger, if you write fiction or nonfiction or anything else. The thought is always going to seep into your head: Was what you just put together any good?”
Finally, he says, writers have to work well with editors — editors who you rarely get to choose. “That means that your definition of quality work might not match up with theirs.”
“The best practice is to learn all the rules, then forget about the rules and find your own true voice.”
Suzanne Gerber is a writer in Sarasota, FL. “Don't try to copy anyone else's style, and only speak the truth, even when it isn't popular,” she says. And, if you’re reporting, she recommends triple-checking your data. “In this day and age of fake news, we need our journos to write with integrity.”
“Everyone always wants to make writing out to be this crazy dream, but it's absolutely doable — you just have to be willing to do the work.”
Heather Rose Walters is a Los Angeles-based writer and the editor of HER Magazine, “My career counselor never told me how possible it is,” Walters says. But “you also have to be willing to put in time writing about things that don't interest you in order to get to the writing that thrills you."
While you might not start off getting paid to write about your passion, Heather says, you can build your portfolio by writing about whatever’s available. “Put yourself out there. Practice your pitch,” she advises. “Be willing to do the hard labor of writing whatever you can in order to earn a living, and you'll be able to inch closer to whatever the 'dream' is. If it really matters to you, just don't give up.”
“Don’t settle (on payment) and be prepared to bend (on topics).”
“When I was starting out, I discovered those two seemingly opposite rules for being a successful writer,” says Laurie Esposito Harley, a writer, editor and poet in Girard, Ohio. She found that people often try to hire writers for outrageously low rates. “I’ve seen jobs that offer $1.00 per 500 words. Imagine how many words you would need to write just to pay the rent.”
Laurie says you should find out what your work is worth and refuse to accept less than that. “It’s a matter of quality, not quantity, especially if you get a byline.”
And while you shouldn’t bend on your worth, she advises new writers to be willing to explore new topics. “I once got paid to write about creamed corn. You won’t always be offered the exact topics that you’d like, but there’s no better way to learn than to just put yourself out there.” Along the way, she says, she has learned about a variety of new and interesting topics, and also learned new skills in web design and graphic design.
“Being a writer allows you to exercise two key job skills: discipline and creativity.”
Rachel Montañez is a freelance writer based in Orlando, Florida. “Sometimes you'll work for a publication that provides article topics, and other times you'll create your own,” she says. But in both cases, she says, writers need to come up with new ideas that will resonate with their readers. “Journaling, keeping track of interesting resources and doing voice recordings when you have a creative moment are all great ways to beat writer's block.” Rachel says writers also need discipline to meet their deadlines and to stay focused as they write.
“There is space in the business for everyone.”
Lyra Mariner is a London-based writer. “As long as you have something to say and you work on your craft, you will find a place at the table,” she says. She encourages writers not to view fellow writers as the competition. “They are your teachers, your peers and your collaborators.”
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