on writing

The 8 Not-So-Secret Secrets to a Writing Career

Jules_Verne_in_1892Building any career is a challenge, but a career in the arts is twice as challenging. Why? Because on one hand one has to develop his or her craft, and on the other one has to build a business. But “challenging” and “complicated” are not the same thing; in fact, the basic steps that will lead you from writing hobbyist to professional writer are pretty simple.

If they don’t seem so, that might be because an entire industry thrives on convincing aspiring writers that with this one little piece of magic juju, available at this amazing price for a limited only, you too can be a professional writer. And if you don’t attend my seminar or read my book; well, you’ll never be a writer. If you want to spend your money on that stuff, then feel free. I hope you get something out of it.

Are the suckers gone? Cool, now I’ll tell you the 8 incredibly simple truths of building a writing career:

  • Write. A lot. Too many people people believe that they are qualified to write professionally because they are able to cobble together a sentence. This is a bit like assuming you’re an Olympic marathoner because you know how to run. Bipedalism is a great place to start, but getting into Olympic shape requires thousands of hours of practice.

Getting into professional writing shape is no different. Write anything and everything—keep a journal, offer to write the department newsletter, write a poem, spend some quality time with your tweets. Just write.  A lot. You’re  in training. Act like it.

  • Read. A lot. Let’s go back to our Olympic marathoner for a moment. Imagine him or her saying, “I never watch other runners. I never talk to them, either. I don’t want them to taint my vision of running.” Crazy talk, right? We learn from the best, and we learn from the worst. Read everything you can, but read like a writer. How does this fit together? Why is this story working, or not working? Why do I feel happy, sad, or angry? You have to be a reader in order to be a writer, there’s just no way around it.
  • Submit. A lot. You’ve heard it before and it’s true: You’re going to get a lot of rejections. Most of what you submit won’t ever make it out of the slush pile, but that’s okay. Submit work less with the expectation of publishing and more from the perspective of training your professional writer muscles. Submitting work allows you to practice approaching editors, writing pitches, working with tools like Submittable, and accepting that those boilerplate rejection letters really aren’t a personal attack. You’ll develop a process both for tracking your submissions and for following up on them. In other words, submitting work forces you to start behaving like a professional, and that’s a great first step out of hobby land.

It’s a valid point, but then again it isn’t. That Olympic runner put in thousands of unpaid miles; your favorite ball player played gratis for the first half of his life. In this context, writers have more in common with athletes than plumbers. We need to do our roadwork in order to get strong—we need to serve our apprenticeships. Write for free, write a lot, and eventually you’ll be paid to write provided that you….

  • Don’t argue with your editor. Every magazine and website has a style guide. It has a tone, a look, a feel. Hopefully when you submit your work you’re sending it to publications with similar sensibilities, but “similar” and “exact” aren’t synonyms. Even if you’re accepted for publication, your editor likely will need to make changes to get your piece in sync with the magazine’s style guide. Accept that. Don’t ruin a relationship over a comma. Editors want to work with writers who make their jobs easier. Maybe someday you can be a diva, but not today.
  • “Yes, I can do that.” Okay, you have a couple of bylines under your belt. You’re on your way. That editor who you very carefully didn’t piss off with an all right/alright debate asks you if you can give her 2,000 words on Botswanian beekeeping by Tuesday. There is only one answer to this, and it isn’t “I don’t know anything about Botswana,” nor is it, “Can I get it to you Thursday.” The only answer is “Yes, I can do that.” Be useful. Make your editor’s job easier and more jobs will come.
  • Don’t miss deadline. Practice this one on your own. If you’re keeping a journal, set yourself a goal (page a day, etc.) and stick to it. If you’re a blogger, pick a date and time that you’ll post and meet it. Missing deadline is like not showing up for work, and professionals always show up for work.
  • Stop planning and start doing. Workshops, writer groups, and how-to books and articles are great, but if you want to make the leap from writing hobbyist to professional writer you have to stop talking about it and just do it. The not-so-secret secret to building a writing career is doing the work: Write. Submit. Repeat.

These eight little bullets won’t turn you into Stephen King but they’ll get you working, and once that happens who knows how far you’ll go. Just don’t forget to send your old buddy James a postcard from the big time. You’ll always know where to find me: right here, finishing up another article on Botswanian beekeeping.

portrait of Jules Verne public domain / Wikimedia Commons


Categories: on writing

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