A few weeks ago, I was introduced to two of my fiancé’s college friends for the first time. They asked what I did for a living, and I joked that I like to say I work in advertising, because there are no follow-up questions (this is a brilliant idea I got from a friend of mine who is also a writer). True to form, I was asked about 10+ questions after saying what I really do, to which one of them eventually smiled and said, Oh, is this what you mean?
Yes, that was what I meant. And though I don’t mind fielding questions from inquiring minds, it is interesting that people find professional writing to be such a mystifying thing. Not to burst anyone’s bubble, but it is just a job, and a fairly unexceptional one a lot of the time. You sit and crunch numbers people need, I sit and write things people need. I think the intrigue comes from the fact that growing up prior to the digital age, we were taught that writing wasn’t a feasible career simply because there were so many people competing for limited space in print publications that were only distributed so often.
That’s not the case anymore. Writing for a living has more potential than it ever has, especially if you’d like to work remotely. Despite this, actually doing it is not just sitting in a coffee shop for a few hours, taking a pretty photo of your table, writing some words and calling it a day (though I do see how it can seem like that). So here is a debriefer on everything you wanted to know about what it’s like to be a professional writer, whether you were hoping to do it yourself, or just wondering how we make it happen.
1. Where to work.
I personally work for a handful of publications and have agreements with each to either write daily, weekly, monthly or quarterly.
I write everything from entertainment to local lifestyle to poetry to emotional intelligence at work. I like to diversify my day: it keeps things interesting, and I always put my “touch” on it (I relate most things back to EI). Finding your niche is good, being able to write well about a lot of different things is better, and being able to write every day, multiple times a day is best (and necessary).
It is possible to be employed full-time as a writer (I once was!) but I have found that what I do now is significantly more lucrative and frees up a lot more time. You can be also “freelance” but still have contracts and agreements set up for the sake of consistency – just be mindful of overlapping non-compete clauses, if you have any.
2. How to pitch.
Editors need stories. Publications need content. Getting into one of them means appealing to their needs: either for expertise or page views.
If you’re trying to just overload a publication’s backend with potential pitches, your messages are probably being lost in the void. Find editors on social media, get their contact information, and develop relationships.
Most importantly, scan their published stories and get very familiar with what they are looking for. Ask what editors are interested in if they decline your suggestions, and appeal to them with your other experience (I write about [this] for [here], I’d like to do the same for you).
3. When to write.
If you sit around waiting to feel inspired, you will be waiting forever.
Most of the work of being a professional writer is actually the opposite of the fever dream you’d imagine it to be: it’s just being strict enough with yourself to get up and do it every day. Over time, you’ll find that it’s actually doing the work that yolks the inspiration out of you… just starting opens the floodgates.
I wake up every morning, shower and eat breakfast and begin. I’m usually done by mid-afternoon. Find a routine that works for you and stick to it, even on the days when you really don’t feel like it. Doing something you “love” doesn’t mean you’ll love it all the time.
4. Why you get paid.
Print publications get money from advertisements, which you see when you’re flipping through the pages of your favorite magazine, or in blocked off newspaper columns. Online, publications get money from ads, or advertorial (sponsored content) wherein they partner with a brand to create specific work that promotes or mentions the product.
Most people get paid either by the article, by the hour, by month or by page, depending on the circumstances.
You get paid because you are bringing in work that draws an audience – which makes the publication money. If your work doesn’t get a lot of views, it may still be amazing – but it’s fiscally not worth anything and you shouldn’t expect to be compensated for that which you aren’t producing. The same is true for literally every field and job in the world, people just get overly sensitive about their “art” and think its an affront to their identity if they aren’t compensated regardless.
5. What it’s really like to do it full-time.
Most of the time, it’s business as usual. Sometimes, it can be really, really cool, like holding your book for the first time, or getting into a publication you never could have dreamed of. There are pros and there are cons, like literally everything else you could possibly do.
The only difference is perhaps that what you do at work each day is broadcasted to sometimes everyone you know, and most of the time, a whole lot of people you don’t. That’s definitely something you have to get used to, but over time, it becomes second nature. You start to realize that you are clarifying your voice, and you have the potential to make an impact. I believe that the people who really make it far are the ones who recognize that, and decide to use it for good.