NON FICTION: Things You Should Know Before Trying To Write For A Living

Writing For Living Typewriter - David Klein

Photo: David Klein

First things first, I never actually knew I could write for a living, so why not start with that.

I grew up in a developing nation, pre-internet, so that meant you either went to university to get a job, or you sucked it up and applied for any vacancy you could that paid more than USD 300 per month.

I had worked as a hairdresser for six years, went back to college, became an auditor, then realised that people would actually pay me to write. Not a bad way to stumble into writing, though I did waste ten years of my life in the workforce only to start from scratch once more.

But hey, at least I found something that felt right for the first time in my life. Think of a penguin who’d ran a foot race all his life. Then imagine that penguin discovering that he can actually swim, that nothing was wrong with him, that he just wasn’t in his element all that time.

That penguin is me.

Now, eight years have passed since I’d joined the publishing industry, and I can safely say that it’s the best career I’ve ever had to date. I’d even managed to break into the fiction industry and get a book deal set for publication in 2021.

That isn’t saying much, seeing how my past jobs include being a roadie, an insurance salesman, and a cybercafe receptionist, but something-something glass half full.

Still, there are some things I wish I knew before I became a purveyor of words, and you know what? I thought I’d share them with you. So read on and learn that sometimes…

Writing For Living Dice - Erik Mclean

It’s really a game of chance sometimes. Photo: Erik Mclean

1. It’s all about luck

I think formal education rarely matters in this field, because look at me. I’m a hairdresser with an accounting diploma, and I’ve been blessed with great writing gigs thus far.

But I think the only reason why I got my first writing gig was because I wrote “My previous experience is irrelevant to this job, but I do know my Dickens from my Hemingway.”

Maybe the editor at the time was in the mood for humour. Maybe she already had her morning coffee. Perhaps a cheeky description was the exact thing she was looking for in a writer.

Would I have gotten the job had someone with a college degree applied? I don’t know. I don’t even know who the other candidates were.

I’ve also tried “Hey, I’ve noticed a couple of typos on your vacancy post, and I’ve corrected them in this application, and that’s the first of the many ways I want to contribute to your esteemed publication.”

The boss loved it.

A few years later, I tried the same skit again for another company, and the editor’s reply was: “You think you’re being funny, but those typos were from the job portal’s end, and I’m really doubting your application now because I need someone who’s a team-player and not a smart aleck who oversteps his boundaries.”

But that’s much like life though, isn’t it? You can work as hard as you want, and you can work out a magic formula to things, but there’s always going to be an element of luck involved, and there’s nothing you can do about it.

Speaking of working hard…

Writing For Living Work - Kyle Johnson

You best believe you’re going to have to put in the work. Photo: Kyle Johnson

2. There’s no room for mediocrity

Do you know what the barrier of entry to writing is? The ability to work a keyboard or putting pen to paper. You don’t need special equipment, fancy education, or even a healthy habit of alcoholism.

That means everybody you meet today—from the cashier at Starbucks to the disillusioned lawyer—could very well start writing for a living too, and they could be much better than you at it.

So you have to work on your craft. You can’t just drift through a couple of paragraphs and call it a day. Especially if you want to charge for it.

You’ll need to write, and you’ll need to read. You’ll need to know the less-exciting bits such as the differences between em- and en-dashes, and why there’s a hanging hyphen in there.

Then you’ll need to write some more. Not to earn money, but just to keep your gears oiled.

Writing is a subjective craft, but when it comes to its technicalities, you better know your stuff, because trust me, you don’t want to be that guy who writes “two aircrafts”.

I know because I’ve been that guy, and it wasn’t fun.

By the way, did someone mention subjective?

Writing For Living Eye - Amanda Dalbjorn

Remember that thing about the eye of the beholder? Yeah, that. Photo: Amanda Dalbjorn

3. Writing is subjective

And that’s how you’re going to be judged. Subjectively. One editor might love every word of yours that graces his screen, while another could hate you just because of the clothes you wear.

Your goal here is to find bosses—or an audience—that loves you for who you are.

And there will be someone who’ll love your work, no matter how bad you think you are. I mean, look at me. I’m a writer from a developing country with no relevant education or prior experience. If someone liked me enough to take a chance on me, you’ll be able to make something out of yourself too.

But go at it with the acceptance that writing is subjective. You’ll never be able to justify your work to someone that wants to hate it, and if they really want to, they could dissect your piece to hell and back, and they’d be right.

On another note, just because you hate someone’s writing doesn’t mean that they’re no good. Remember that if you ever become an editor or a boss.

But don’t keep your hopes up, because…

Writing For Living Chairs - Yangfan Gan

It really feels like you’re performing for an audience of none sometimes. Photo: Yangfan Gan

4. Writing is a performance art

That means it’s never really a solo activity. You’ll need an audience, and much like open mic night on a Tuesday evening, there might be times when only two people make it to the event, and you’ll still have to perform if you want to be professional about it.

That also means writing with a purpose. You can say you want to write for yourself all you want, but if you didn’t have any intent of showing at least one other person your work, then you’re basically journalling.

Writing for yourself is still good advice, if you interpret it the way it was meant to. Write something that someone like you would enjoy reading. Just because you enjoyed writing it doesn’t mean that you’ll like reading it.

And there’s a lot of trial and error involved in this process. You never truly ever find the perfect formula. You just have to keep working at it and see what sticks.

Which brings me to my final point.

A jar with

What my bank account looks like most times. Photo: Josh Appel

5. You should be willing to do it for free

I know it sounds silly, especially coming from an article about writing for money, but if you don’t love the craft enough to do it for free, then you’re probably not the best person to do it for money.

And I don’t mean using this as your business model, but maybe have a couple writing projects on the side, maintain a blog, or even write a book review.

You can’t just join the industry wanting to see your name on the newsstands, or looking to make a quick buck. In fact, you’d have a better chance of achieving both by failing an audition on America’s Got Talent than by being a writer.

I write every day, not because I get paid per word for everything I put out, but because I enjoy the process of creating something from nothing.

I’m not over-romanticising it though, it’s still a slog, but at least it’s a slog that I enjoy.

And we reach the end

I still have much to learn (such as how to get paid after your clients go bankrupt due to the pandemic), but I think I’ve reached a happy point in my career.

Would I do it any differently if I had to start over? No, because that was my path, my story, one that cannot be replicated.

And that’s the beauty of it. Because you can read a thousand more articles like this, and you can try and follow in the footsteps of others, but ultimately, we all have our own path to follow.

So you do you, and hopefully one day I’ll read stories about your journey too.


What about you? What did you wish you knew before getting into writing?

31 thoughts on “NON FICTION: Things You Should Know Before Trying To Write For A Living

  1. It’s interesting that you had such a varied career path before starting as a writer. I’ve always wanted to be a writer but I still don’t really know where to start. It’s nice to know that there isn’t one streamlined path and that even professional writers consider writing to be a “slog” sometimes. Thanks for the advice!

    • There really isn’t a set path to becoming one, though if I had to do it all over again, I’d write enough content on my blog just to have something to show my potential employers, then just apply for writing jobs out there.

      You’d be surprised how many people would hire ‘unqualified’ candidates, as long as they show some competency with the written word. Wishing you all the best in your journey into writing, and just ask away if there’s anything you want to know about the writing life.

      Thanks for stopping by!

  2. Great post, Stuart! I don’t write non-fiction (except for blogging) but I think a lot of what you say here could be applied to fiction as well.

    Love the penguin metaphor–unexpected but perfect!

    • Indeed! I think the luck factor applies more to fiction than it does non-fiction, because who’s to say what’s on the slush reader’s mind when they come across your manuscript?

      Haha, glad you liked that metaphor. I kinda put a lot of effort in that one. Thanks for stopping by!

  3. Hey Stuart! I’ve been a fan since stumbling upon your blog this year. And I absolutely love the 5 pieces of advice you shared here. One definite takeaway for me is to keep writing for free so as to keep honing my craft. But writing regularly to build up my skills is something I constantly attempt though not always successfully! I still cringe at some of the stuff I’ve written, and feel like some fraud trying to move from “fake it til I make it” to “believe it til I become it”. (Whispering tone: even drafting this response to you, I had to do a few edits! Haha…). Still, I hope you will keep sharing so freely with us, and I hope to keep learning from writers like you who are blazing the trail for novices like me! Thanks man!!

    • Eh? I thought I had you approved so it’s weird that your comments are not showing up straight away.

      Thanks so much for this thoughtful comment, Kelvin. You’re making great strides yourself, starting a writers group and posting so frequently on your blog. I feel that you getting sweet writing skills is inevitable. It’s bound to come with the amount of work you’re putting in.

      I love the support you’ve been showing, and appreciate you always having positive words to share. You take care now, and write on!

  4. I really like this blog post and the points you make here! I particularly agree about the fact that some of it is about luck at the end of the day! At the end of day, no matter how good you are, you need that slight bit of luck to get that first break! Thanks for sharing!

    Feel free to read some of my blog :)

    • Indeed! There are so many factors beyond our control, and they can all affect our results, so the best thing we can do is to do what we can from our end, and judge ourselves based on that.

      Thanks for stopping by!

  5. Love this.

    Got into writing because it was the only option I didn’t hate lol (parents wanted me to be an accountant – not that it’s not a respectable job but numbers). Somehow stayed on for 7 years. There are days that I love what I’m doing, but there are days where imposter syndrome takes over and I question everything and be like “everything you write sucks and no one is going to read it”. Still learning to have a little more faith in what I do. :P

    • Lol this is making me think that there’s an average time you need to spend doing something you don’t like before you’ll take the leap into doing something you want.

      I somehow wish I could reallocate my 6 years in hairdressing to writing instead, but I can’t complain since that job was a goldmine for stories.

      Yah, same here with the faith thing. Here’s to one day maybe not doubting ourselves so much and coming up with a piece of work that we can describe as “I’m pleased with how this turned out”.

      Thanks for stopping by, Eris!

  6. wonderful post, Stewart. I love reading about how writers get their start, and your is certainly a unique one. I always go for the humor too, so I liked your smart-alecky approach. Best wishes for continued writing success – and congrats on the publishing deal!

    • Aww it’s a great compliment coming from you, Jim. Am glad you enjoyed the humour because I’d worked hard on it, lol. Thanks for stopping by and dropping this wonderful comment!

  7. Your words are truly motivating. And relatable. I agree with all of these points. I am studying something that has nothing to do with writing. But that should not stop one from following their passion!

    • I do aim to be relatable, but I’m grateful that you actually found this motivating. Yes, I believe that our passions do have the tendency to announce themselves, no matter what our ‘main pursuit’ is in life, and it’s up to us to listen and go after it. Thanks for stopping by!

  8. Great post Stuart – 10 years before finding your calling? It’s a blink! (I’m not telling how ling it’s taken me, but it’s more than 10 and less than 100). When I first started writingI wanted to be Erma Bombeck Bombeck (or, more recently, Neil Gaiman). I wish I’d known that I couldn’t be her (or him) and that I needed to be myself instead. It’s taken me 10 years to come to THAT realization (and I still don’t know the purpose of a hanging hyphen).

    • Omg watching Neil Gaiman interviews and his Masterclass was the only thing that kept me through writing my first novel. I even bought a fountain pen just because he liked it, and I found that it’s become my favourite too.

      Yes, we should strive to be our best selves in our writing, but there’s no harm in being inspired by writers who move us.

      Thanks for stopping by, and for this great comment!

  9. Bless–a timely post for me. I’ve always enjoyed writing but for whatever reason never thought of doing it for a living. It was always a possible ‘side thing’, you know? But recently, after a deep self-reflection, I realized there’s nothing else I’d want to do for the rest of my life. Every time I write, it feels like magic. “still a slog, but at least it’s a slog that I enjoy”–so true.

    The path moving forward for me is still scary-uncertain but it’s posts like yours that help me get my mind back on track.

    • It is scary. I still feel scared till this day. But you saying there’s nothing else you’d want to do for the rest of your life kinda offsets it all. It’s the only reason one should be writing for a living.

      Am wishing you a great journey ahead, and no matter what, keep writing!

  10. Thank you for this…..I am also a writer but just published my free book on Wattpad which is very much surprising since I had not wanted to accept writing for a long time now. It sure is luck. Thank you for this again

      • Thank you…. I really cannot say the reason. I was always drawn back to it and when I do write it, I am most times not consistent so people began to stop following my story and I got pissed off at myself but thank God I am back now. Thank you so much

  11. Thank you for your blog. I read it because you liked mine. I really don’t write for money and probably wouldn’t get paid if I did. I carried on to read your entire article because I’d like to improve how I do write, I write as a 77 years old retired person who was challenged by his daughter to write a novel during lockdown to occupy my mind. I didn’t know where to start, but once I started the words just flowed out of me. I couldn’t stop. The characters came to life in my mind. I felt their fears and their joys. I’ve now started my second novel and, maybe the only people who will read it will be my wife, my daughter and granddaughter. It doesn’t matter to me as it does to you, but I wake each day now with a feeling of urgency wanting to re-engage with the new friends and family who live only in my head and on a desktop hard drive. Good luck with your writing. I wish you success.

    • Wow, thanks for sharing your story. It’s great that you feel the urgency to write, because for me, it’s just dread facing the blank page sometimes, lol. It’s awesome that you stopped by and dropped this lovely comment. Wishing you all the best too!

  12. Loved this piece of writing!
    I love to write, probably not the way you write, but more like educational writings. Although I am not professional and I don’t write for anyone.

    I just write because I love writing.

Got something to say?

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s