You take a deep drag on your cigarette and another swig of coffee. It’s long gone cold, but you can’t get up to make another cup because you don’t want to disrupt your flow. You have no idea what time it is and you don’t care. All you know is that you’ve got to keep going until the words don’t come out anymore or your eyes refuse to stay open.
You watch the characters move and interact in the movie that’s playing inside your head. Your job is simple and complicated at the same time—you have to make sure that their stories are told, that their messy, human lives are translated into neat black rows of text on the page.
If you dream about being a writer, you might imagine that this is what your life would look like. And for some writers, it does. But there’s much more variety to working as a writer than you might imagine.
I recently moderated a panel at my alma mater, Reed College, called “Writing for Life” and had the opportunity to chat with four other writers: Chris Lydgate (Editor-in-Chief of Reed Magazine), Dylan Rivera (Public Information Officer for the City of Portland Bureau of Transportation), Roger Hobbs (author of Ghostman), and Ruth Werner (author of A Massage Therapist’s Guide to Pathology). Here are a few things that came up during our discussion about starting—and maintaining—a career as a writer.
1. Understand that there are all kinds of writers and ways to write
This may sound obvious, but there’s not just one way to “be a writer.” You can be a journalist, an author, a freelance writer for magazines, a textbook writer, a magazine editor, and even a content marketing manager (to name just a few). Each of these jobs involves a steady diet of writing and editing, and each has its own particular demands.
For example, being an author generally means that you work for long bouts (or what Roger refers to as “binges”) on your manuscript, but it might also involve intense periods of research. In Ruth’s case, this involves learning everything there is to know about a particular disease or condition. For Roger, it often involves staying up for 17 hours at a time when inspiration strikes and subsisting on coffee and cigarettes.
My job as a content marketer means that my deadlines are small and frequent. It also means that I work in an office (most of the time) where chain smoking is frowned upon (all of the time). Dylan has learned that even though he has an office job with regular daytime hours, he does his best writing in the evening.
If you want to learn more about a particular type of writer, look for people in your network who use that job title. Check with your alumni office to see if your school has any graduates who are doing the type of writing you’re interested in. See if you can chat with them or do a little job shadowing. Copyblogger also does a cool series, “The Writer Files,” about various writers and their habits and techniques, which can give you some good ideas about how to approach your work.
2. Accept that facing rejection is (almost) part of the job description
Many of the writers on the panel faced rejection early and often in their careers. Roger spent seven years sending manuscripts to editors and nothing came of it. Chris thought he found his first big break at a newspaper he’d been freelancing for, but didn’t get the job. I worked as an unpaid intern for far too long and couldn’t convince my employer to pay me. But instead of letting these rejections stop us, we learned from our mistakes and found a new approach.
Chris discovered that instead of applying for a job, he had to “campaign” for a job, so the next time an opening came up, he made sure to speak with all the staff he knew at the paper, tell them how much he wanted the job, and ask them to put in a good word for him. Guess what—he got the job. Roger discovered that maybe starting with a full book wasn’t the right approach, and adjusted his target to the “smaller but still bloated” goal of getting his writing published in the most prestigious publications he could think of. And after some trial and error I eventually discovered writing jobs that would pay the bills.
3. Take the time to discover your niche
When you’re first starting out, it can be difficult to know exactly what you want to write or who you want to write for. But if you take the time to uncover your specific niche, this can make your work so much easier.
When you’re freelancing, it can feel like your entire life is a hustle and you’re constantly competing against hundreds (if not thousands) of the same people to get work. But if you’re able to establish yourself within a particular community or develop expertise on a certain subject, you’ll find that people start to approach you. Ruth Werner majored in theatre and literature. But after graduating, she discovered the topic she was most passionate about was—somewhat surprisingly— science. She was able to translate her understanding of human anatomy and pathology into a textbook for massage therapists, which led to other writing opportunities within this specialized realm of study.
Dylan Rivera happened to take on the transportation beat at The Oregonian in the same week that a bridge collapsed in Minneapolis, so he quickly developed expertise on the topics of engineering, transportation, and infrastructure. He established his authority on these topics, people began to seek him out, and the transition to his current role became possible.
Writing often involves taking a complex subject and breaking it down so that the average person can understand it. If you have expertise in a particular subject (the more challenging or obscure, the better), you can earn a reputation, and people will begin to approach you to share your knowledge.
One of the examples that came up in our discussion was food writing. It’s pretty easy for anyone to write a restaurant review, but it takes a lot more research and understanding to write about food policy (like the topic of GMOs, for example) and the politics and business interests that surround it. If you take the time to really learn about a complex subject, you can set yourself apart from all the other writers out there.
4. Realize that being a good writer means making someone else’s job easier
Writing and editing are not necessarily the same skills, but they do complement each other. One of Chris’ responsibilities as Editor-in-Chief at Reed Magazine is assigning stories to writers. When he does this, he constantly has to ask himself whether he would like to assign something to a writer who he knows will do a good job, but will probably miss their deadline, or a reliable writer who will certainly meet the deadline but turn in work that requires a lot of editing.
Ruth Werner also mentioned that she considers it her work as a writer to make the editor’s job easier. She knows what her editors are looking for AND she consistently meets deadlines, and this means that she has earned her editors’ trust—and a steady stream of work.
Different editors are looking for different things, but as a writer it’s your job to learn what your editor considers to be a solid draft. If you can learn what your editor wants and deliver that on time, you will be a rare minority, and may find that editors start reaching out to you to offer you work.
Now that you’ve got some practical tips to help you establish yourself as a writer, there’s not much left to do but go out there and start writing!
Homework time! Part of being a writer is learning how to look for stories. Read other writers’ work and observe what they do. Listen to people speaking around you. (Yes, maybe even eavesdrop a little.) Dive deep into topics that interest you and learn everything you can. And, of course, actually sit down and write. If you can’t find any editors who will publish your work, start your own blog.