If you told me ten years ago that I could trade words for money, I’d have asked you to keep your ‘you can do anything’ speech to yourself.
Maybe it’s because I grew up without the internet, or maybe the industry was fraught with gatekeeping, but that’s probably why I’d stumbled from one bad career to another without giving writing a second thought.
It took going through multiple disasters before I finally took a chance in writing. And the rest, as they say, is history. Or was history. Shit, I sell words for a living and I still can’t choose between the two tenses.
How to start peddling your words for that moolah
I never thought I’d say this, but back in my day, internet content was something people made for fun. The term ‘social media executive’ still sounded like something out of Star Trek, and actual, paper newspapers were still the primary way Malaysians got their news.
In fact, the only gateway I had into the writing industry was through Jobstreet (a Malaysian job portal). Today, though? You can email an editor and start on your first assignment within the week. But I digress.
So you want to start writing? Here’s the secret: just google it. Look up any websites that interest you, then search ‘how to pitch to publications’ and you’re golden.
But it’s not just about starting, right? It’s also about the journey. And I can tell you that writing for a living can take to you to some pretty interesting places.
Here’s a rough journey I had taken, propelled solely off the power of words, and if you’ve been considering doing the same, perhaps you could find this list helpful.
A quick disclaimer
I believe that there’s passion, and then there’s the gift.
Having been a hairdresser, insurance salesman, auditor, and even a roadie, I have to say that writing is the only career to date where I show any semblance of competence, but it’s taken me a decade of mistakes before I could come to that conclusion.
And thus, I’ve safely concluded that writing’s my gift, though it might not be the same for you. I suggest you exercise your own judgement when it comes to your own pursuits.
Because maybe you’re fated to sing for a living. Or to heal others. I don’t know. As long as you don’t spend too long in futile pursuits. I’d tried that for six years as a hairdresser, and I sometimes wish I hadn’t wasted all that time for nothing.
Also, writing isn’t just about writing
A lot of my opportunities today come in the form of referrals, and weirdly enough, a lot of them don’t have anything to do with writing. It’s funny how life works sometimes, but it’s also important to note that all this is because of writing.
So you could end up selling courses bit. Maybe you’ll have to organise cables in the server room, or lead the product team.
You need to be open to change, because if there’s one thing writers need to get used to, it’s that our skillset is so broad that we’d inevitably need to take on new responsibilities.
Having said all that, let’s get started on your possible futures, roughly based on my past.
This may not be the same for everyone, but it is the most typical way to get your foot in the door.
There are tons of content mills, freelance markets, and corporate blogs to work for, so there’s no quicker way to get a taste of selling your writing than by… well… being a writer.
I myself got my start in a publishing house that handled pullouts for the local newspapers. Here, I learned how to write about things I didn’t really care about.
Because there’s only so much enthusiasm you can harbour for a certain university’s newly-launched diploma course.
But I joined the industry when print was still the rage, and I’m still grateful for that. It’s taught me to be more careful, because there’s nothing worse than immortalising a typo in the newspapers (we had an in-house sub, so the newspapers rarely vetted through the articles).
Words like ‘pagination’ and ‘bleed’ will filled my vocabulary which, for you, in today’s era, would be the replaced by the likes of ‘keywords’ and ‘alt text’.
The job may not pay well, and you may put out more than you’re worth, but if you have no idea where to start, being a writer is always a great way to get your feet wet.
Once you have some experience under your belt, you can go on and write for actual news outlets. The best part about being a journalist is that you can flash your name card in exchange for media perks.
I myself have been treated to gala dinners and product launches (we’re talking goodie bags and champagne here) just because we were expected to cover said events in our respective publications.
And if you think writer’s block exists, then be prepared to shatter that illusion. Being a journalist is the equivalent of being a line cook in your path to becoming a Michelin-star chef. It’s gritty, it’s a lot work, and it’s not for everyone.
That means you’re going to have to deal with one-hour deadlines, stick your neck on the line for possible scoops, and probably write about things you really don’t care about (having to cover business when you write for the tech desk, for example).
But you want to earn your chops? Journalism will whip you in shape pretty damn quick.
3. Travel writer
If you don’t think that anyone in their right mind would ever pay someone to travel, then you and I would be very good friends, at least circa 2014. But just because you can’t imagine it doesn’t mean it can’t be true.
Thanks to the portfolio I’ve built up to 2014, I was in a good position to seize a travel-writing opportunity when it presented itself.
Who knows? You could be next. You could become a regular National Geographic contributor. Or you could end up maintaining a successful travel blog.
Whatever it is, I just want you to know that your dream writing gig could be out there, just waiting for you to be ready.
That’s what I’d learned in this era of my writing career—to always hone my craft, because there’s no telling when Lady Luck will show her generosity. And when that happens, you’ll want to be ready.
Sometimes you won’t truly write. Sometimes you’ll branch out a little. And while your main job description could be something like ‘produce engaging copy’, you might eventually end up doing things like ‘proofread Comms’ press releases’.
Remember what I said earlier? You have to be open to change. And the only reason I picked up SEO and social media marketing was because I remained open minded during my time in a tech company. Thanks to that, I now know more about about e-commerce than I care to.
Sometimes, your extra responsibilities might include picking up sales calls, giving tours to prospective clients, emceeing the monthly PR events, or even handing out flyers (yes, that was my ‘copywriting’ duty once).
But like the crime author that learns about anaesthetics or the best places to shoot somebody without killing them, you’ll also learn the peripherals of your job, such as how to craft an e-mail campaign or how to use Google Analytics.
And you know what? We writers are prime candidates for picking up new careers because of our wide knowledge (as opposed to deep).
Finally, you can complete the circle and share your knowledge with others. My latest gigs involved teaching students in Malaysia and Singapore how to write.
Also, I’m now mentoring ten aspiring journalists in a volunteer programme in collaboration with the European Union.
Who knew that writing could manifest itself into all these opportunities?
You, too, could one day give back to the world. Perhaps you’ll go down your very individual path of being a poet on Instagram, or becoming the world’s biggest book blogger, before laying down a path for those aspiring to be like you.
Because if there’s one thing I’ve learned about writing, it’s that you can definitely end up in some pretty interesting places just by the power of your words alone.
So what’s your journey?
There you have it, your possible writing futures based on my own timeline. And we haven’t even covered fiction either.
So why am I writing this? Because I never really had any literary aspirations growing up. I grew up without the internet, remember? Back then, all I ever knew about writing was that it was only considered a pastime.
Had I come across a blogger who’d shared their experience, I suspect I might’ve joined the industry sooner, and gotten a decade-long head start to boot.
So here’s my encouragement to you, young writer. I hope you realise that not only is it possible to sell your words for money, but you can have a heck of a time doing it too.
Just maybe don’t do it for the money.
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