As someone who’s been “in the game” for more than two decades, I often get approached by younger, less experienced journalists for advice on how to be a professional writer.
While I’m flattered by the requests for advice — and I’m beaming with pride at the sheer number of women that are trying to join the industry today (in numbers that are far greater than when I was first starting out, so YAS GIRLS!) — I often wonder how many, if any, women understand what’s really involved in the business of writing. Contrary to what you see in the movies, writers don’t live very glamorous lives — and those that do only get those glamorous lives after years and years of hard work, dedication, cultivating — and maintaining — the right relationships, and saving much more than you spend.
So here’s a list of five things to keep in mind if you want to be a professional writer.
1. You need actual writing skills
Hello, I'm a professional writer. I will take a sabbatical to a beautiful small town in Maine to write the work I feel will both define my career and save it. While there, I will either murder everyone or be murdered by everyone.
— Jody Houser ✒️🗯️🎲 (@Jody_Houser) January 3, 2019
If you want to be a professional writer, it goes without saying that you need to have actual writing skills. A degree in writing or journalism is nice, but not required (none of my degrees are in writing and/or journalism, and I’ve done just fine). Understanding the basics of grammar, syntax, spelling, punctuation, active vs. passive voice, and story synthesis are the absolute least you need to do.
2. You won’t get your dream job straight out of college
There are writers. And then there are professional writers. Over my career as a writer and editor, I've noticed one key factor that enables writers to perform their craft professionally. I've said it before, so you won't be surprised to hear: It's th https://t.co/ps9L1JrGuH pic.twitter.com/jfPYp4UorT
— TAWG (@TAWG_CT) January 4, 2019
I’d love to be able to tell you that you’re going to come out of college/university with a six-figure job offer, in which you will sail off into the sunset and live happily ever after at the ripe old age of 21, but the reality is, you’ll be lucky to get employed in your chosen career in any sort of capacity when you get out of college. And if you’re one of the lucky few who does get a job offer in your chosen career, expect it to be little more than scullery work — the fact is, no one cares how well you did in your classes; they care about how well you can do the work. A writer with no experience and no credentials doesn’t merit a six-figure salary, no matter how talented s/he is.
3. You’re going to have to take on other jobs
Finding and protecting your writing time is among the hardest things a writer – even a professional writer – has to do. And yet it is essential. You can't be a writer if you don't write. #TenWaysToProtectYourWritingTime
— Joanne Harris (@Joannechocolat) December 27, 2018
Before I was able to write, full-time, I worked as a legal assistant in a law firm, temped at several other law firms in data processing, did retail in a CD store, and even worked as a waitress and dishwasher in my mother’s restaurant. (Nothing will humble you like working for family.) And I say that with a sense of pride, because each and every one of those jobs brought me one step closer to making me realize my dream. When you have bills to pay, and you can’t go to your Mommy & Daddy to pay your bills, and you live in New York, you have to do what you have to do. And there’s no job out there (that’s legal, of course — I’m far from suggesting you break the law in pursuit of a check) that you’re too “good” for. Ever.
4. You need to know a lot about a lot of things, and research what you don’t know
Anyway, all bodies are real bodies. Being thin or having an eating disorder or a breast augmentation or a small bosom doesn’t make you less real. And if you are a professional writer, you should say what you mean instead of blaming others for “misunderstanding” your words.
— Cora Harrington (@lingerie_addict) December 30, 2018
In a perfect world, you’ll only be assigned to write about things you know like the back of your hand (in my dream world, that subject was rock music). In the real world, however, you’re going to serve on several professional beats if you want to be a professional writer. Throughout the course of my twenty-plus year career, I’ve written about hard news, basketball, football, professional wrestling, A-list celebrities, reality stars, rock music, rap music, country music, race relations, LGBTQIA issues, restaurant reviews, recipes, software & technology, travel, and pretty much anything else you could think of. And, because I speak Italian and Spanish fluently, some of those articles were in Spanish or Italian. Whatever I didn’t know, I had to research and fact-check, because there were some serious consequences to face if I didn’t get it right (and, I’m pleased to say that in my twenty-plus year career, not once have I been threatened with — let alone been at the receiving end of — a slander, libel, or defamation suit, despite the screeching and screaming of a certain toxic fandom that has no grasp on reality). And you’re going to have to do the same thing — if you want to be a professional writer, but don’t want to do any research, find another profession.
5. No matter the struggle, it’s all worth it in the end
READ THIS ENTIRE THREAD.
If you have professional aspirations to write/direct/produce, then this is a fantastic thread and mirrors a lot of experiences, certainly my own, especially around the idea of readers and reading being THE cornerstone of a great writer's education. https://t.co/EdsDRUQUsn
— Joe Carnahan (@carnojoe) January 3, 2019
To be a professional writer is to have a front-row seat to history, and a press pass to see the world. If you’re lucky enough to be one, embrace it — because there are so many more that would kill to have even half the opportunities you have.
Do you want to be a professional writer? Tweet us your thoughts at @Fuzzable!