So you want to be a writer in Malaysia
Great. Another top-ten things article. Here’s a stick. See that dead horse? Go ahead. Have a go.
Despite the cliché, there’s a reason for all this trite. If you’ve ever asked me what it takes to be a writer in Malaysia, what courses make the best gig magnets, or what laptops produce the best word diarrhoea, then this piece is for you.
Why should I care about what you have to say?
That’s a great question! Besides having been in the industry for some six years, I’ve also bounced around within the different genres, which includes lifestyle, business, tech, property, travel, press releases, newsletters, formal letters, and even Manglish articles.
These works span across various mediums such as magazines, books, newsletters, and online portals—done on both a full-time and freelance basis. You could also check out my occasionally-updated portfolio here.
I’m far from literary acclaim, but I might have some tips that could help the aspiring writer get their foot in the door.
So, on with the list!
1. You don’t need nothin’
First things first. There are no pre-requisites to becoming a writer in Malaysia. None. Nada. Zip. There isn’t a checklist you have to tick before you gain access to the industry.
You don’t need a degree in Mass Communication, an MFA, nor one of those fancy Macbooks. That Moleskine won’t magically produce stories, and that creative writing bootcamp won’t be the silver bullet you’re looking for.
Heck, you don’t even need to be that good with English. I’ve seen journalists who primarily wrote for Malay or Chinese newspapers comfortably hold down jobs in the local dailies.
You know what you need? An interest in the written word. That’s it. You have to be interested enough to want to know the differences between an en dash and an em dash, as well as write stuff for the sake of it (not unlike this article).
Why am I so sure about this? Because I got my first writing job with nothing but a blog post and a Diploma in Accounting.
So if you’re thinking of going back to school just so you can switch careers, stop. There are tons of unfilled vacancies available today. Try applying for some and go from there.
2. Competition will be stiff
Building on the previous point, because the barrier of entry is so low, you’ll always have competitors from every industry, ranging from disillusioned corporate comms executives to lawyers abandoning the bar.
The world is filled with people who can write, as well as those who think they can. It probably doesn’t help that many of them would do it for pennies, especially with the going rate we have in Malaysia (which is around MYR0.50 per word the last I heard).
Much like how anyone can just purchase a DSLR and call themselves a photographer, you’re going to have to deal with people stringing a few sentences together and undercutting all the effort you’ve put into honing your craft.
The only way around this is to just get good. That’s your responsibility as a writer. That, and don’t ever write for free.
3. There’s no perfect time to start
“I’ll start writing for real once I quit my job.”
“I’ll work on my novel after I complete a creative-writing course.”
“I’ll need to live an exciting life before I’ll have stories worth writing about.”
I gotta admit, I’ve often put off work in hopes of revisiting them during a more appropriate time (which will never happen, by the way). It always feels like the time ain’t right, especially when you’re staring at a blank page.
Want to write a short story? Start the first sentence now (after you finish reading this entire article—and clicking the Like button—of course). Can’t find the time to start building your portfolio? Try squeezing in a few sentences at a time during your lunch break.
I submitted my job application one day before my one-month trip to Thailand (which is another story of its own). What would’ve happened had I decided to delay my application until after my trip?
I wouldn’t have gotten my first writing gig. That’s what.
4. You won’t get to write what you want
Ever harboured dreams of spending your days writing the next Lolita, or perhaps a feature article worthy of the Pulitzer?
Yeah that’s not gonna happen as a writer in Malaysia. Not unless you’ve saved up a year’s worth of expenses so you can spend the time writing anything you want. More often than not, you’ll be churning out piece after piece just to stay ahead of your expenses.
Only have 1 hour to complete another top-ten things article? You best get on it if you want to make rent. Client doesn’t believe in rewriting? Well now you have a bunch of first drafts lurking in the local magazines, ready to tarnish your name to the next reader.
Of course, you’ll still be able to write anything you want in your own time, but until your random musings pay the bills, stick to the bread and butter formats.
The bulk of your time will probably be spent on researching topics that bore you to death, but nobody said that pursuing your passions was going to be a bed of roses.
5. Freelancers are basically loan sharks
If you’re looking to work on a remote basis, then I’ve got good news for you. Writing is one of the best-suited skills to turn into a freelance career. That means having the freedom to set your own hours, being able to work in your underwear, and no more rush-hour commute.
The downside? Late-paying clients. Not only do clients take forever to pay, they also tend to suffer from amnesia from time to time.
If you’re someone who dislikes confrontation—like myself—then boy do you have a tough time ahead. And as a writer in Malaysia, there’s nothing much you can do short of taking someone to court.
But are you really willing to go through all that hassle for a few hundred ringgit? As if you’re not already short on time to churn out another listicle… or short on money to get legal help.
So learn how to set up contracts to protect yourself, and if push comes to shove, perhaps you could take a lesson or two in red-paint debt-collecting (just kidding don’t do this).
6. There are more opportunities than you think
Besides the endless vacancies I see on LinkedIn alone, there are so many avenues available for turning words into money. It’s important to note that the publishing industry, especially in Malaysia, is not closed off to just a select few.
Perhaps you’re looking at an established travel magazine and thinking, well, they probably have all the stories they need for years. Wrong. One thing I’ve always noticed during my time in various publishing houses was that editors were always short on stories.
Of course, it’s a given that they wouldn’t just commission any writer that sends them a pitch, but show them you’ve done the legwork—send in a query that matches their style and article length, propose your method of completion, have a swanky portfolio ready—and you’ll, at the very least, get a rejection email with a reason why.
Do this often enough, improve through feedback, and you’re bound to find an editor that appreciates what you have to offer, which might result in a long-term professional relationship.
7. Nobody cares about your favourite works
As a writer, you’ll probably have a favourite niche. It could be poetry, fan fiction, biographies, short crime stories, or even epic fantasy novels.
Most of them won’t translate well onto your blog.
So you earn a living churning words for your boss, toil after-hours to produce your magnum opus, then make the mistake of sharing it on Reddit, or to your spouse.
After the barrage of mehs and ohs, you’ll be left with an unedited manuscript and another bucketload of uncertainty. But your day will come. One day, you’ll have a fan who loves your work, and their one-lined compliment will make everything worth it.
Until then, assume that nobody cares.
8. Progress is hard to measure
At least in the sense of prose. Sure, you can count likes, read visitors’ comments (if any), or compare your acceptance- versus rejection-letters ratio.
But there’s no concrete way to measure your progress. Like, how do you even know your sentences today flow better than the ones you wrote last year?
Typical grammar improvements aside, how do you judge what makes a sentence beautiful? What makes a story great? Would the same story make you feel the same had you read it in a different mood? What is the meaning of life?
There’s really no set method to improvement, other than trusting in the process and practising as much as you can. And if you’re the type that needs constant feedback on whether or not you’re on the right track, things can get pretty frustrating.
9. Nobody knows shit
Even the greats. There, I said it. Stephen King is famous for his quote “The road to hell is paved with adverbs.” You know who uses a lot of adverbs? Stephen King himself. I know this because I’m a big fan.
You know who else uses a lot of adverbs? J.K. Rowling.
See where I’m going with this?
Throughout your journey, you’ll come across colleagues, editors, and bosses who’ve developed their own personal styles. One colleague might abhor the passive voice, while another person might be adamant against starting sentences with conjunctions. And they’d both be right.
But get this, what works for others might not work for you. You’ll have to discern things on your own. If an editor wants you to write a certain way, do it for the sake of work, but hold on to your values and your own voice as a writer.
And when you become an editor one day, keep this in mind when it’s your turn to dish out the advice.
Also, notice how I started the past three out of four sentences with a conjunction. Yeah, fuck you, Max.
10. Just do it
This advice is constantly thrown around in the publishing world, but I’m going to say it again: Just write.
Because in the end, the only thing that makes a writer is someone who writes. You may have been born with a silver typewriter, but if you’re not actually putting words on paper, then you’re basically not a writer.
Despite your talent, you’ll definitely lose out to the less-gifted wordsmiths who work hard to improve their craft.
It doesn’t matter if you’re an aspiring author, travel writer, or someone who’s just looking for their first byline. You could do much worse than write, and when in doubt, just write.
Oh, and don’t forget to read too.
I’m writing this article because up until I was almost 30, I had no idea that you could actually make a career out of writing. I’d always thought you had to have special connections—or at least be an English major—to be a published writer, and I’d thought all writing jobs were contained to journalism.
Little did I know about all the other awesome careers, such as copywriting, scriptwriting, ghostwriting, SEO, and even chatbot-conversational copywriting!
So, if you’re reading this article with an inkling of desire to write for a living, rest assured that getting into the industry isn’t all that hard. It’s just the accompanying struggles and self-doubt that’ll do your head in.
Now be a darling and wake the dead horse up. I gotta share a doobie with it so I can ride my high horse and give people self-righteous writing advice.
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