Every once in a while I get people asking me if they could write for a living, and my answer’s always: “Why of course.”
Then they ask if they should make the switch from their current careers to writing, to which I’d say: “What. Why! Why would you do that to yourself?”
It’s not that I’m in any position to give out career advice. Eight years in various writing positions probably makes me an average minion at most, but since I’m like one of two writers in my entire circle of friends, the responsibility of pointing hopefuls in the right direction kinda falls on me.
And most times, that direction is away from the publishing industry.
Don’t get me wrong. I’d love to answer any writing questions people may have, and even spend time helping them work on their craft, but whenever the word ‘money’ comes up, it’s best to manage their expectations early, especially if they haven’t even written a single word before.
Look, if you’re in the same boat and you’re wondering if writing is for you, then check the list below to see if you fall into any of these categories. The moment you hit one, just close this tab and forget about it. Ready?
1. Your current job sucks and you’re looking for an alternative
All right, full disclaimer up front: this is exactly how I’d stumbled into writing for a living. But I had dreamed about writing for a long time. If you’re just looking for something else to pay the bills, and you weren’t enthusiastic enough about the work to do them in your spare time, then this is just going to end up like the job you currently hate, only worse.
2. You want to be rich
Yes, yes. You’ve read J.K. Rowling’s rags-to-riches story. You’ve seen 50 Shades top the sales charts. You want in on some of the Stephen King action. That’s like saying you want to get into acting so that you can work alongside Johnny Depp—possible but unlikely unless you’re already hustling toward that goal.
Writing pays peanuts, and if you ever make the mistake of freelancing, it might never even pay at all (clients ghost more than Tinder dates). Maybe pick up accounting or dentistry if you’re after the money.
3. You want to be famous
Yes, yes. You’ve read about J.K. Rowling’s sudden rise to fame. You’ve seen 50 Shades—no I think you get the point.
“People say, ‘What advice do you have for people who want to be writers?’ I say, they don’t really need advice, they know they want to be writers, and they’re gonna do it. Those people who know that they really want to do this and are cut out for it, they know it.”
4. You can’t handle rejection
Writing is like sales in many ways. You have a product, and you want people to pay you for it. But instead of rejections like “No thank you, go away,” you’ll likely hear “No thank you, go away, and your writing sucks!” If having people compare your hard work to stale diarrhoea bothers you, save yourself the heartache now and leave the crying to us.
5. Pssh, it’s just putting words together
Never have I been more acquainted with the Dunning–Kruger effect than with people who tell me they can bang out a 2,000-word feature in an hour, yet fail to understand the difference between ‘affect’ and ‘effect’. Yes, anyone can get started immediately, but that doesn’t mean you can whip up a word salad and call it an entrée.
6. You don’t like performing for a small audience
Have you ever spoken in a hall that seats hundreds, with only a couple of them filled? How about having written hundreds of articles but still getting only three visitors per day? Yeah, it’s not fun, but at least there are people interested in your work. So if attention’s what you’re looking for through your writing, then it really is going to be a sucky journey for you.
7. You can’t take uncertainty
There is a very real possibility that you’d pull a Van Gogh—that is you’ll produce great work, only to be appreciated after you’re dead. Maybe you’ll be a mediocre writer all your life, just barely skimming through the world of publishing. Perhaps you’ll never even get to work with an editor.
Or maybe you’ll be the next J.K. Rowling. I don’t know. You won’t know. We all won’t.
Still want in?
Truth is, no one’s stopping you from becoming a writer at the end of the day. The barrier to entry is so low that anyone with a paper and pen can call themselves a writer. Heck, I’m calling myself an author after only finishing—and not publishing—one novel.
You don’t need any formal credentials, ten years’ worth of experience, nor suffer from raging alcoholism. You can even quit your day job and start writing right now (don’t do this) if you wanted to.
But just like how anyone can pick up a DSLR camera and call themselves a photographer, you’ll also be afforded this very same luxury. However, the quality of your work can only be improved through experience. And the best way to do it is to write.
Yes, it’s cliché, but that’s really what it all comes down to. Think that autobiography about your life’s going to sell? Write. Want to be a travel writer? Write. Want to earn money remotely? Write.
Writing’s unique in a way that you gotta put in the work before you ever get the chance to earn. Only then does your journey to earning peanuts begin.
Of course, this isn’t all I have to say to budding writers, so here are a handful of other tips I have for you:
1. Quit your ‘no time to read’ bullshit
You’d be surprised how many people want to get into the industry without ever wanting to read at all. I used to think they were a myth too, until about the third time someone told me about their writing dreams. I asked them who their role models were. They said they only have stories to tell, not to read.
Try telling a boxer you’d like to start learning, but don’t want to get hit, or a musician that you don’t want to learn scales. See how silly it sounds? Get outta here with that crap.
2. Back your words up
Like I said, writing’s pretty easy to get into, so you have no excuse at all for not starting. Prove (to yourself) your desire to get into the industry by actually doing it. Decide what story you want to tell, then tell it. Don’t sit around waiting for permission to do so.
Also, don’t try looking for work without at least having written some stuff beforehand. You’ve got to show other people that you’ll be worth hiring, and if you’re not interested enough to write on your own time, what makes you think people would trust you with their work? Yes, people like this exist too.
3. The ‘how’ doesn’t matter
What’s the difference between writing longhand and typing? Which software should you get to write a novel? Is is better to write with music or not? These are all valid writing questions, but the honest answer is, it doesn’t matter.
I’ve written entire articles on my Blackberry once when I was travelling and was shoved a tight deadline. I wrote my entire novel longhand. I’ve outlined and I’ve pantsed, embraced the shitty first draft as well as the perfect first draft. It all doesn’t matter. What matters is you put words on paper. That’s it.
“If you don’t have time to read, you don’t have the time (or the tools) to write. Simple as that.”
4. Care enough about the craft
Writing’s not a high-school assignment. You don’t get to babble on page and call it a day. What’s the plural of ‘aircraft’? What do the different dashes do? How does UK spelling differ from US? Are manuscripts formatted the same way as online articles?
If you want to be taken seriously as a writer, you’ll need to have your finger on the pulse of these little details. Take five seconds too long to answer “Is this spelled with a single ‘l’ or double?” and your street cred drops instantly. I know because I’ve made that mistake. So you better not.
5. Just do it
Just start writing. Just clobber a story together. Just type up a draft in Facebook Notes, in Google Docs, Microsoft Word, whatever. The less time you spend asking, the more time you have to write. And ultimately, that’s where the bulk of your lessons are going to come from.
No matter where you are in your writing journey, the only important thing you need to know about the craft is that writing is better than not writing. It’s why three out of these five points basically say the same thing.
You’d think that this is an encouraging post, that I’m trying to get more people into the industry. That I’m encouraging people to pick up the craft. But that’s not it. This is just merely highlighting some of the realities of writing, and if you feel even an inkling of doubt after reading this piece, then maybe this isn’t the thing for you.
But some of you will still have this intense desire to work with words, no matter what anyone says. You won’t need encouragement, nor will you need another how-to article. You’ll have this blind faith that somehow this is the thing you’re meant to do.
And if you’re one of these people, then I say take the leap of faith.