A funny thing about being a writer is that your job is expected to be made up of a more mystical substance than most. But it’s just writing. It is just a hobby or a job like any other.
Telling people you are a writer is like telling them you’re distant cousins with Kim Kardashian — people tend to think this is a very interesting thing when it is, in fact, not. Social norms go out the window and you find yourself trapped in a conversation where you’re answering the same invasive (yet banal!) questions you always get asked: What do you write? Do you make any money? You should write a story about my life? I’m working on a novel, do you want to read it? A useful trick I’ve picked up along the way is that I just tell people I work in advertising (I do, kind of) because absolutely no one has any follow up questions when you say you work in advertising.
As much as I think writers love being the center of attention (cue Bukowski’s line: “Hey, baby, when I write, I’m the hero of my shit.”), I hate being the center of attention irl and I hate the idea that writing is an elusive profession made out of a different material than being an ad excec or a shoe salesman. I’ve been a full-time employee of Thought Catalog for four years now. At times I’ve worked on publishing as many as 5 traffic oriented articles to the site per day, at other times I’ve worked on sponsored content, editing work for other people, writing books, ghostwriting articles, writing poems, journaling, fiction, social media content and just about anything else that requires stringing a few words together.
I’ve learned that writing is more like other careers than it is an island unto itself. The same advice applies: work hard, practice, put the hours in, be nice to people, get lucky if you can, if it doesn’t work try something else, look at what people who are successful in your industry do and listen to what they have to say about getting to where they are. I’ve compiled all the industry-specific advice (and some favorite quotes!) I can think of here, but there’s no magic formula and what you really need to know you already know.
1. You’re never going to remember it later. I get ideas for articles or little snippets of poems all the time when I’m walking around, working on something else, watching TV, trying to fall asleep, or exercising. No matter how stupid it seems or how sure I am that I’ll remember it later I write it down in iNotes either on my computer or on my iPhone. I have a 10/10 failure rate in telling myself “I’ll remember it later” and pressing on with whatever activity I’m currently doing. Amy Poehler says she wrote her book Yes Please half on the iNotes app and I believe it. It’s a writer’s BFF.
Learn as many keyboard shortcuts as you can. Write in Google docs instead of Word. Don’t edit your thoughts as they come out, edit them after you’ve captured them in their natural state. Organize your writing life so there is as little time as possible that takes place between the moment your brain thinks of something and the one where your hands have worked it onto the screen.
“I wrote this book after my kids went to sleep. I wrote this book on subways and on airplanes and in between setups while I shot a television show. I wrote this book from scribbled thoughts I keep in the Notes app on my iPhone and conversations I had in my own head before I went to sleep. I wrote it ugly and in pieces.” — Amy Poehler, Yes Please
2. You have to actually want to write. People put pressure on themselves to write or to build a career as a writer because they think they need to in order to live this interesting, intellectual life they want to. But there are smart, interesting people in every career path that has ever existed and those people are a lot happier because they aren’t pressuring themselves to make something that was once a hobby their income source. If you like writing, write. If you don’t love the process of writing and you don’t love the process of doing it for hours every day you have to tell yourself that you can’t only be in love with the outcome — some overly idealized vision of what your life would be like as a writer. Don’t sacrifice your quality of life and your happiness because you want a fantasy.
3. Similarly, You don’t have to want to be Hemingway. See also: please don’t try to be Hemingway or Elizabeth Gilbert or any other writer you admire. People can tell when you are trying to be smarter or deeper or different in any way than you really are. The best writing will come from your voice. Write the way you think // write the way you are.
I feel this pressure also when I talk about being a writer because people assume I want to be Hemingway or Someone Important and sometimes I just like the creativity involved with writing a Bachelor recap or the part of my brain I have to access to write the kind of funny listicle a million people read. Just because something is entertaining, doesn’t mean it’s not art or that it’s not worth creating. Life is hard! People deserve to have engrossing entertainment created for them.
4. A really good example of this is Cat Marnell whose 400-page addiction memoir How to Murder Your Life I read in 24 hours because I couldn’t put it down. Critics want to hate on people who aren’t trying to impress them, but — are you writing to impress people or are you writing to reach people? Are you writing because you have something to say and the voice you say it in is wholly your own?
“I knew I was going to be annoying. But I was thinking of the narrators I like most in this world, like Cher from ‘Clueless.’ Once I let go of what I thought a book should be, that’s when I found this voice that was grounded in pop music. I love pop music. I love Britney Spears albums.” — Cat Marnell, The Washington Post
5. Lots of ‘shitty’ writers will be more popular than you and make more money than you. Do you know how rich the authors of Twilight and 50 Shades of Grey are? Do you know that Danielle Steel has sold over 800 million books? This is because they write things lots of people want to read. Learn from them and learn how to be happy for them.
6. To reiterate the above: you are not entitled to readers because you’ve written something ‘good’ or ‘important’. Attention is a scarce resource in the digital age. You have to constantly ask yourself what you are doing to earnreader’s attention — how are you making your work so good and so interesting that people will deem it worthy enough to stop scrolling?
7. This is also the open secret to making money as a writer: if you can capture people’s attention, you can make money as a writer. The more of people’s attention you can capture, the more money you can make.
“The best filter isn’t BuzzFeed, or The Atlantic, or whatever. The best filter is money. That is how you say ‘I love you.’ This is America. This is a capitalist country. We say ‘I’m sorry’ with money. We say ‘I love you’ with money.” — Elizabeth Wurtzel, Elizabeth Wurtzel: “Nothing’s Off The Record”
8. In general, it’s very hard to make money as a writer! Your favorite writers are probably not rich! Cheryl Strayed was in 80k of credit card debt when she wrote Wild and she was considered “successful” before the book came out. If you want writing to be your career, read Scratch for a sobering take about the realities of making money in this industry.
9. It would be wonderful if all writers were paid big bucks for their work!But most writing doesn’t make big bucks so it’s hard for publishers to pay big bucks. Publications lose money on most freelancers. It’s not something personal about you or your worth or your talent as a writer, it’s about the industry and how money is made. I’m a silent observer of soooo many writing communities where the writers have absolutely no clue about money — they genuinely think publishers/editors are just being mean for not offering them $500 per essay.
“Assume an editor pays a writer $100. Taking as a random decent example a $5 CPM, the piece would need 20,000 pageviews to make that $100. That doesn’t take into account the editor’s salary, the salaries of any developers, or any other costs beyond getting letters into a Word document. (In particular, the people selling the ads tend to get paid more than all the rest of those people.) In any event, a person can’t afford to do much reporting or spend too much time writing if he or she is only getting $100 a story and planning to make a living. The likelihood of that story breaking out in any meaningful way is pretty low.” — Noah Davis, I Was Paid $12.50 An Hour To Write This Story — The Awl
10. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t write, it means you should keep your day job. People will tell you to “follow your dreams” but consider your overall quality of life. Do you like having money? Do you like not being stressed out all the time? Think about the kind of life you want to have and what kind of writing career would fit into that without having to win the writing career lottery.
11. Be protective of your professional relationships. The internet is public even in closed Facebook groups where you think everyone is your friend. I’ve seen people post an editor talking about a job opportunity and writers shit talk the editor in a Facebook group with 10k people in it. People notice that stuff and no one wants to work with someone who makes them feel bad. Don’t shit talk editors, don’t shit talk other writers.
When you email a writer or an editor (or anyone), be respectful of their time. Don’t email someone to ask a question that you can Google the answer to. Don’t email them something so unspecific that the recipient will have to spend time thinking about what it is, exactly, that you are asking. Reach out to your favs and ask for help, but be short, reasonable and specific. Also, don’t give editor’s contact info to other writers unless you 100% vouch for them (and in that case, you should probably just do an intro email anyway).
Similarly, let other people be protective of their professional relationships, they’ve worked for them. You don’t get to have the same opportunities as someone who has worked for them even if you’re pushy enough to ask. Amy Poehler has a good chapter in her book about people handing her scripts, not understanding that people get opportunities because they work hard, not because they email someone else who has done the work. From, Yes Please: “Good or bad, the reality is most people become ‘famous’ or get ‘great jobs’ after a very, very long tenure shoveling shit and not because they handed their script to someone on the street.”
12. Don’t ask someone for their thoughts on your work unless you are prepared for them to give you criticism. It’s just rude to say “what do you think?” when you really mean “tell me I’m smart and talented and don’t need to improve in any way whatsoever.”
13. Being rejected doesn’t mean you are bad. It could mean you aren’t a good fit for that agent or that publication, or that their roster is full, or that they’re in a bad mood, or that they’re looking for someone with a bigger social media following. Or it could mean that your work isn’t good enough — yet, but you have time to improve. It’s a fantasy to be perfect out of the gate or perfect after a few years, but mastery takes a lot of work and it takes working every day at it.
“Fuck my dreams of hearing ‘It’s perfect’ on the first try. I need to hear ‘It can be a lot better.’” — Ryan Holiday, ‘F*ck Your Dreams’ (And Other Painful Things You Have To Hear To Be Successful)
14. You don’t have to “make it” by a certain age. It would be wonderful if we were all child prodigies who knew exactly why they were put on this earth by the age of 15 and gained critical and commercial success before turning 18, but that’s not the way life works for 99.9% of people. And I think that’s a good thing, it’s fun to chisel away at this problem for a few decades. It’s fun to have to work at mastery. Many of my favorite writers are old ladies, maybe I’ll be like them in a few more decades, or maybe I’ll just have a satisfying life trying.
I’ve spent a lot of time realizing that instant success without trying very hard is not something that makes people happy, as appealing as the idea sounds. Happiness comes as the result of conflict, resolution, and growth — as the result of having to work at something.
15. I don’t know if this is controversial but I consider accuracy to be overrated when writing non-fiction. I have a rule that I never publish anything about someone that would make them out to be some kind of enemy so I get pretty liberal in changing details to make sure people in my life aren’t identifiable. I also just change things when it feels like it would venture too far from the story I am telling to be more accurate. I want to speak my language to the reader and sometimes wandering off into fact-giving territory is just a distraction.
16. Going for a walk outside is the solution to pretty much all writing problems and frustrations.
17. Perfect is the enemy of good. The kind of writing you get out on the page is better than the kind of writing that is just in your head. Write it down. Publish it. Edit it or learn from it later, but getting hung up on the details is how you get sucked into procrastinating, missing deadlines, and having low output. If the quality is bad you’ll still be learning how to do it better. You learn more from the writing you do than the writing you plan to do.
18. Along these same lines, deadlines are your best friend. If you don’t have external deadlines, set them for yourself.
19. Being a writer means that for better and for worse, there will always be an upside to every sad and catastrophic thing that happens to you: you can use it for your art.
20. The more I read, the better I write. Everyone says this because it’s true. All my best work has come after I finished a really good book.
Here are some books I’ve found helpful regarding different aspects of writing, creativity and publishing:
And a few books I’ll share less so because they were instructional about writing but because there were aspects of the writing that were like Yes! This is how I want to write. This is close to what I want to say. This is what I want to do some day. I am at home in this person’s writing. (I also think it’s valuable to keep track of quotes and books that “just feel like you”).
On a smaller scale, every good article I’ve read about writing and being a writer can be found here.