Since starting this blog last year, I have regularly been asked about how to become a professional writer. Mary, one of my keener subscribers (see – I didn’t forget you), recently raised the topic again and prompted me to think some more on it.
For many, the article that follows may seem negative and discouraging. That is not my intent. I merely want to illustrate the harsh realities of the grit, learning, commitment and – let’s face it – luck that goes into convincing someone to actually pay you for your words.
Harsh Reality Number 1 – Writing is Like No Other Job
I achieved the goal of professional writing last year, a few weeks before I started this blog to discuss my experiences and observations. But, and I really do stress this, I had been working towards this goal since approximately the age of twelve. That’s about a clear quarter of a century of plodding away at my amateur scribblings and working in other industries – from dirty factories to bland offices – as I waited for the stars to align correctly. So, for those of you who have only recently decided to pursue a career in writing, don’t expect it to be as easy as applying for any other job you’ve held.
Writing is definitely not a regular job. Sometimes, it can seem like it. I travel to the office every morning and work from my cubicle next to the marketing department, across from accounts and a floor above the sales team. But when trying to get a writing job, the differences become apparent.
Finding work as a writer is more akin to launching a career as an artist. It takes more than just knowing which way to hold the paint brush or pencil coupled with a determination to succeed. It takes talent – and I’m sorry, but that doesn’t come with an easy course at the local adult education centre.
What is the lesson here? Follow your dream, but be prepared that it may take time, persistence and heartache. Also, be prepared that it may never happen.
This leads to the next point.
Harsh Reality Number 2 – Supply Far Outstrips Demand
It is commonly said that 95% of professional actors are out of work at any one time. Similarly, there are thousands of artists devoted to their craft but unable to turn their passion into a bank balance. For writers, a similar figure is probably true. All of the creative professions are popular career paths. So many children grow up with dreams of being an actor or a painter or a writer, before giving up and becoming a postman instead. But many will continue to follow the dream and remain disappointed. Supply and demand.
Even among those who have achieved the right to put their dream profession down on their passport application, the road isn’t smooth. Not all writers have a full time job. For many it is a shuffle from commission to freelance commission, an article at a time. You can also look at the books in your local store and be sure that most of the names you see on the spines are still working another job waiting for their publisher to call them back. It is one thing to get a first piece of writing published. It is another thing entirely to keep the flow of work and money constant.
I am incredibly lucky as I have a regular salary to do what some of you are begging to do. I don’t have to worry about whether I have enough work next week to pay the rent – unlike my fiancé who runs her own salon. But her situation of an up-and-down income is far closer to most writers. In fact, for many writers, down is more common than up.
Some artists may get work as illustrators or graphic designers or – heaven forbid – a seaside caricaturist to the tourists, as a way of keeping the rent flowing while their oil-splattered canvases are pushed to one side. Actors may get simple ‘fill-in’ work as extras or may be lucky enough to find ongoing contracts as a drama teacher. Far too many actors finish up in a theme park inside a giant chicken suit. A friend of mine once told me the story of how he got talking to the guy inside a kangaroo suit in a touring children’s show. The actor admitted to having spent three years at drama school before finding himself in a hot and stuffy foam costume jumping around trying desperately not to knock over the toddlers. Training and qualifications are not necessarily the golden ticket to an acting career. The same goes for art and writing.
For writers, I guess the equivalent would be taking one of those paid blogging jobs that are advertised all the time. These are the jobs where you pump out ten or more generic short blog posts a night for a few dollars each that are sold onto people with no idea of the importance of quality content. Or there are those ‘paid’ blogging jobs that rely on advertising revenue to provide an income, the writer’s equivalent to commission work. Not recommended for someone looking to keep the eviction notice from the front door.
The lesson? There is absolutely no guarantee of obtaining a regular income from writing, no matter how talented you are or how much preparation you have put in. Be prepared to start anywhere and compromise your dream to stay paid.
Harsh Reality Number 3 – Are You Really a Writer?
I’ve been a member of many writing groups online. By far the most illuminating for me were the forums at Project Greenlight Australia. (You can read my previous post on my experiences in the competition.) The range of skill on show was immense, but it was very easy to work out who stood a chance of achieving their dream and who would forever remain convinced that the world just doesn’t recognise their ‘genius’. Writing is about more than having ideas and stringing words together (although I’ve come across some aspiring writers that have trouble even with that). Professional writing means understanding how words work, what structure is, how to shape tone and atmosphere, pace and meaning.
Above all, writing is about clarity. If the reader has to ask you what you meant, you’ve failed as a writer. This was a common issue among some amateur writers at Project Greenlight. If someone were to suggest they had difficult understanding the events of Act Two, for example, the writer would imply that it was the reader’s fault for not understanding. A failure to get the message across to an averagely literate person is ALWAYS the writer’s fault.
I have a shelf at home bulging full of ‘how to write’ books. Books on the structure of screenplays. Books on how to build a dramatic storyline. Books on crafting a killer final act. Books on character, story arcs and the seven basic plots. Books on grammar. Books on the evolution and history of the language. Books on modern usage. Books on the techniques of successful writers. Books on copywriting. Books on proofreading and editing. Books on formatting. And there’s more, I’m sure of it.
I have read every single one. Some of them twice.
Does reading a lot of ‘how to’ books make me a writer? No. But if I want to repair my own car, I don’t open the bonnet and assume because I can drive that I can tune the engine. Just because you can read or write to a high-school standard doesn’t mean you can ‘Write’ write. Filling journals of your heart-felt poetry at home, or having a hard-drive full of great ideas for films that only make sense to you, doesn’t make you a writer any more than cutting my own grass and weeding the rockery makes me a landscape gardener.
During Project Greenlight, I came across many people who felt their enthusiasm and high school English education were enough to make them writers. These were often the same people that would sneer at discussions of structure or pace, believing these complex ideas were not for them. What I suspect is that these people dismissed the tools of a true writer, because to admit they are important would mean admitting to themselves that they weren’t ready to be a writer.
What is the lesson here? Follow the rules of the masters – whether in grammar or structure or pace or format or anything. The rules exist because they work. If you can’t describe how the plot beats of your script fit into the three act structure, can’t define onomatopoeia or explain the difference between a simile and a metaphor, you need to hit the books. Amateurs should never avoid the rules and only the most gifted of proven writers can – sometimes – break the form. Ignorance of the rules is no excuse.
Harsh Reality Number 4 – You Need to Write for Free Before You Can Write For Money
So, how did I get this job? What quirk of fate allows me to spend my entire working day playing with words at a keyboard for a salary?
Last year I was working as the office manager in an employment agency. After ten years of success in that field, I really felt I had delayed my quest for a more creative career for too long. I applied for everything in the media and creative industries. In my time, I’ve worked as a cameraman, video editor, radio presenter, nightclub DJ and promoter, so I certainly had a number of possible avenues to pursue.
I achieved a number of very different interviews before the one that changed my life. I had responded to a small ad requesting an ‘editor’ for an online marketing company. Specifically, they needed a copywriter for search engine optimisation purposes. For those of you that don’t know, search engine optimisation involves crafting the copy on websites around very specific words and phrases in order to rank higher in Google and thereby attract more customers. Don’t worry – before I attended the interview, I had never heard of SEO either.
In the interview, we discussed a wide range of topics. How would I approach different clients? Was I good at researching topics I knew nothing about (after all, I would be writing whatever websites were needed). But I think one thing sealed the deal for me.
My future boss indicated that he had received a number of applications for the role, but that a large amount contained basic errors of spelling or grammar and a great deal more were unable to back their skills up with concrete samples. On the other hand, I had spent a weekend building and writing this very website to help in my search for a job and I had included a link in my application.
The employer was able to follow the link and read exactly how I write. He was able to sample a few pages of web copy and gauge my approach to online writing. The website included PDFs of other writing samples; scripts, a short story and links to other websites I had a hand in producing. Of course, he liked what he found and offered me the job.
This is what I mean by working for free before working to get paid. These samples demonstrated my abilities as a professional writer. Now, understand I didn’t give him a portfolio of poetry, or links to a cheesy Stevie Nicks fan club site. The work I used to demonstrate my ability was work that appeared professional, even though I had completed each piece as an amateur. Everything I write, amateur or not, has always been treated with the seriousness and attention to detail of a professional job.
Formatting and layout are crucial with this. If you’ve ever written a movie script, you should already be aware of how anally-retentive professional script-readers are when it comes to formatting. The wrong indentations or a failure to use CAPS for certain directions can be enough to see your script filed in the shredder, regardless of whether you have written the most amazing Act 3 ever committed to foolscap. The same is true across all writing.
The lesson: A professional writer behaves like a professional writer long before being paid to be a professional writer.
Harsh Reality 5 – There’s More to Writing Than Writing
I started the job a few days later. I was shown to my work station, was given a description of my duties and then was told that, until customer copywriting orders started arriving, I was to help completely overhaul the existing website while writing articles and blog posts on issues concerned with online marketing and ecommerce. Remember, I knew nothing of SEO and all the other techniques online marketers used, but I was now required to not only write the pages of a website selling these services, but also to write detailed and informative articles on the subject.
So I did what a writer does best if he isn’t writing. I read.
Every lunch break I was buying and reading industry magazines. Every spare moment I had, I was visiting social media sites, such as Sphinn, that specialise in online marketing. I subscribed to more blogs than I could conceivably read in a week. I created this very blog as an extension to the original website so that I could practice the principles I was reading and test them out for myself. I knew that merely regurgitating the facts I read elsewhere would be meaningless. I needed to know these things first hand by doing.
In the evenings, I was still at the PC, either reading, Sphinning or coding the website. Very soon, I was submitting my own articles to Sphinn and was encouraged by the response. By January, I not only had the blog off and running with a number of subscribers, but I began writing on these topics for Nett Magazine, a new small business ecommerce title released in Australia in December.
I went from ignorance to authority on the topic of online business and internet marketing in weeks. The boss was now coming to me for advice on how to improve the link structure of the site. My name was becoming recognised in the online community.
As a result, I no longer carry out customer copywriting jobs. We have employed a young journalism graduate to deal with customers as I have inadvertently created a brand new role within the organization – that of Marketing Communications Manager. And I got a whacking pay rise to boot. My duties are pretty much as you would expect. I blog and write articles to build brand awareness of Netregistry and its subsidiaries, while creating and running the new social media campaigns we have implemented as a result of my work.
Without all this additional research and commitment and sweat and experimentation, I would not be in this job. If I hadn’t thrown myself into working every moment I had with a passion to fully understand and become an informative voice in the industry, I probably wouldn’t have lasted in the industry longer than five minutes. Anyone can turn up to a job at 9 and leave at 5. Anyone can claim that it is up to other people to train them or provide guidance. I chose to create the writer I wanted to be, with no half measures and plenty of sacrifices along the way.
The lesson? Be a writer 24×7. Always reading, always learning, always observing. Your writing is only ever as good as the information you have to impart or the unique perception you have. Make sure your message is worth writing about and live it with a passion.
So there you go. I know that’s not as simple an answer as some of you were hoping for. I can’t provide you the number of an employment agency for writers. I can’t give you any shortcuts or back doors into your dream. A writing career is a result of determined graft and nothing else; no courses, no contacts, no books and no tricks can replace that. Having said that, the courses, the books and the contacts are all necessary too.
And a massive dose of luck.
As I said at the beginning, I don’t mean any of this to be demotivating – merely realistic. If you read any of the above and felt intimidated by the truth, then maybe you need to very carefully think about whether your dream is best left that way. But, alternatively, if you are destined to be a writer, you will overcome adversity and stick at it with the gumption to do the things I did. Just remember, there are no guarantees and always have a second job.