John Scalzi’s Utterly Useless Writing Advice
People wrote me: “Hey, as long as you’re reposting old crap, why don’t you repost your “Utterly Useless Writing Advice”? Well, okay.
I’ve made some minor changes to get certain personal facts up to date, but otherwise it’s the same cranky bit of advice it was when I wrote it in 2001. I do have the urge to write something else about writing, but inasmuch as I actually have real writing I need to do, it’s going to have to wait.
Anyway, here you go.
People are always asking me for advice on how to become a writer, because they assume (ha!) that I am a successful writer. My psychological and egotistical needs being what they are, I won’t argue this point. I am, in fact, a fairly successful writer, if you define success as “making a good living doing nothing but writing.” I do make a good living; I don’t do anything else for a living but write. (If you define success as “being Stephen King,” of course, I’m a miserable freakin’ failure. But let’s not.)
I’ve been a professional writer since June of 1990, when I got my first paid writing job as an intern for the San Diego Tribune, where I wrote music and concert reviews and other entertainment pieces. That was the summer before my senior year in college; when I got back to college, I wrote freelance entertainment articles for the Chicago Sun-Times. After college, I got — far more through an amazing stroke of luck and the fact I was dirt cheap than by my own talents, let’s be clear — a job as the movie critic for the Fresno Bee. I did that for five years, after which I joined AOL as its on-staff writer and editor. AOL laid me off in 1998 (this is a polite way of saying I was fired, since it was a layoff of one) and I became a freelance writer. I’ve been doing this ever since.
Being a freelance writer is interesting and not really a good thing for people who don’t enjoy a permanent sense of panic. Be that as it may, it’s done very well for me both financially (as a freelancer I make a healthy multiple of what I ever made working full-time for anyone) and careerwise, since I now write fluently on quite a number of subjects, including entertainment, humor, personal finance, online media, science, politics and even food and gardening.
I write for online clients and for offline clients. I consult with marketing companies on writing and creative issues, and have worked on marketing campaigns for very large corporations and financial institutions you’ve definitely heard of. I’ve had several books published, contributed to others and have more in the pipeline, and I look forward to writing books off and on for the rest of my professional life.
In short, I’ve reached a point in my career where I do feel confident about my ability to make a living writing, and I feel confident sharing some of my thoughts and experiences on the matter.
So: What follows is exactly that: My thoughts on the writing life — largely from the freelance writing perspective — and how to live it. Bear in mind that these comments are based solely on my own thoughts and experiences and may not jibe with anything else you’ve heard anywhere from anyone else. Also bear in mind that I may be completely full of crap. On the other hand, and I say this as dispassionately as possible, I make a buttload of money doing what I do, so I must be doing something right. If you can figure out what it is, please be sure to tell me.
(So how much do I actually make? I’m not going to give a dollar amount. However, I will say that the $1.6 trillion tax cut and tax rate flattening George W. Bush proposed at the beginning of his administration would have profited me somewhat more than it would most people. That should give you the ballpark range (it’s also not an endorsement of that particular tax cut, incidentally).)
This document is going to be in Q & A format, with questions arranged in the order they come into my mind. Therefore there’s a possibility this document will be somewhat disjointed and rambling. However, you’re getting all this information totally and absolutely free, so, you know, deal. If in reading this document you don’t find a question answered that you would like to have answered, drop it in the comments, and I’ll try to answer it.
1. I want to be a writer. What do I do?
DUH. You write, dummy.
2. No, no. I mean, I want to write professionally.
Oh, well that’s a totally different thing.
Let’s be clear. Anyone who is even marginally literate can be a writer — all it takes is the desire to express yourself and the means to do it. One of the fairly neat things about the online medium, for example, is that it allows people to express themselves in writing easily to a bunch of other people, in the form of online journals and other such things. Even those folks who don’t have such exhibitionist streaks can still sit down with a paper journal or even just a clean sheet of paper and write out their thoughts. There is no great science to being a writer; as I said earlier, you simply write. And hopefully you enjoy the process.
Writing professionally is something else again. The vast majority of the time, when you’re writing professionally, you’re not writing for yourself, you’re writing for an audience — specifically (most of the time) an editor who is looking for writing of a certain nature or function, and in a more general sense to a larger readership that is looking for something specific: A technical document or a science fiction story or a poem or a recipe or some erotica or a movie review or an investigative report on tires or whatever.
You may from time to time hear the line from writing instructors that one should always write for one’s self, but I think that’s just a load of crap when it comes to writing for money. A lot of times when it comes to professional writing, you may be writing something you have absolutely no personal interest in whatsoever — you’re writing what you’re writing for someone else who has a specific need for the content you create. This is not to say you shouldn’t have an interest in doing a good job or creating eminently readable content no matter what the context. It does mean that when you are writing professionally, you need to be aware of who your intended audience is and what they’re looking for.
Or, to put it more succinctly: Writing professionally is a business. If you want to write professionally, you have to approach writing in a professional manner — which is to say, you have to approach it with the intent of actually making money doing it.
One: It takes work. Lots and lots and lots of work.
Two: Sometimes, work sucks.
Three: But you do it anyway because that’s your job.
The previous three rules, incidentally, work for all writers, whether they write on staff or write freelance.
3. But I don’t want to write stuff I don’t want to write.
Then don’t become a professional writer. Keep being a waiter or executive or student or bum or whatever you do now and work on the Great American Novel or (anything else it is you want to write) on the weekends. There’s no reason you can’t write and do something else that pays the bills at the same time (I’ll be coming back to this concept more than once) and just write whatever you want.
That crack about writing the Great American Novel on the weekends isn’t really a crack, either, since that’s exactly how I wrote my first novel. Writing on the weekends actually can work. My point is, if you just wanna write what you just wanna write, don’t make writing your profession — make it a side gig or an avocation or a hobby. Nothing wrong with that, honest.
If you want to make writing your profession, accept the fact that it’s going to be easier to make a living as a writer if you’re open to doing writing work that isn’t romantic and appealing and exciting, but needs to be done anyway, and needs to be done to certain specifications that you may not have any personal interest in at all — i.e., accept that sometimes writing isn’t this holy and uplifting thing we’ve all hoped it would be, but just a damned job. Accept it, deal with it, and do it — and do a good job.
Writers — professional writers, even — apparently have a hard time dealing with this. I’ll let you in on a secret: One of the primary reasons I am as successful as I have been as a professional writer is I don’t take my frustrations out on my clients and editors. My clients and editors tell me that one of the things they absolutely freakin’ hate about writers is that they’ll ask a writer to do something in a certain way, and the writer just won’t listen. He or she will want to do it another way, and will then get all pissy and moody when they’re told “no.” Because they’re creative, you see. They have this vision. And it should be respected.
No. No. No.
Not that I mind, of course. It just means more work for me, since I listen to my clients and I have no ego about the writing process — save doing the job that needs to be done, and doing it right and quickly. I let the client know that I have opinions, and I offer them if they’re interested, but when they’re not, I don’t take it personally. It’s a job. It needs to be done.
Look. This isn’t to say that you can’t get professional work only writing what you want, and that you can’t ever get writing work without sacrificing this idea of writing as a sacred mission. People do it. But typically, these people also eat a lot of Top Ramen, especially when they’re starting out. And Top Ramen sucks after the fifth or sixth day (trust me). Making a living writing will be a lot easier if you’re ready to approach writing as a business rather than (or at least in tandem with) a life mission. Suffering for one’s art is all very romantic, except when it’s actually happening to you.
4. You’re just trying to scare us all off of writing.
Yeah, that’s it.
No, actually, it is — in the sense that I think those who want to be writers should have no illusions about the career track they want to engage in. People who aren’t writers tend to think that those of us who are just farting around all day and then just bang out some text in fifteen minutes and then go out for coffee. Maybe other writers do that, but I sure as hell don’t (for one thing, I don’t drink coffee). I work, damn it. I work hard, I work a lot, and I do a lot of writing that’s not typically what you’d call “fun.”
Yes, it’s my personal choice to do it, one that’s not going to be right for everyone. But the compensation, monetarily and in terms of personal lifestyle, is worth it. And it’s been my experience that those writers who have an outlook similar to mine tend to do better (i.e., make more money) than those who don’t. Take it or leave it.
5. Okay, we got it — writing professionally is endless pain and suffering.
Well, no. Sorry to sound so strident. Writing professionally, even at its worst, still beats the hell out of lifting heavy objects off the back of a loading dock for $10 an hour. Let’s not kid ourselves, here: It’s not a hard life, relative to what other people have to do. This is no doubt part of the reason so many people want to be professional writers.
And I don’t want to give the impression that I don’t enjoy myself writing professionally. I like most all the writing I get paid to do. Some of it is more creative than other parts of it, but most of it is interesting, and which is not isn’t unbearable — indeed I find it relaxing and enjoyable because the process of writing it is interesting in itself. I like most of my clients and editors, too. The vast majority of them are normal, reasonable people who are just trying to do their own jobs as best they can. Work doesn’t have to automatically mean “drudgery” and a Dilbert-like corporate Hell mentality. It really is a matter of how you approach it.
To sum up this rather long-winded portion: Writing professionally is actual work, for better and worse. If you can accept this fact, you’ll be better off mentally to do well as a professional writer.
6. Fine. I’m mentally prepared for being a professional writer. Now how do I do it?
Well, okay. Let me make the following assumption here: That, in fact, you can write your way out of a paper bag. If you’re not sure you can actually, you know, write, you have no business trying to be a professional writer — go practice or take a class or do whatever that you need to do so you feel comfortable actually putting your work out there for other people to see. This is not the document in which I bolster your fragile ego and affirm your status as a real live writer. Go deal with that yourself. Somewhere else. Preferably away from me.
I’m also making the following assumption: You’re just starting out. Because, really, if you’re already a professional writer, you know all this stuff already. Right? Right?
Okay. Let’s start with beginning writer strategy number one, which works well for everyone, but especially those who want to be freelance writers:
a) First, buy a Writer’s Market. This is your Bible, Koran and Torah from now on. This book features just about every single market for writing that exists.
b) Write an article on whatever you want to write about.
c) Open up your Writer’s Market, find a magazine or other market that buys articles on the subject you’ve written on, format your article to that market’s specifications, and send it off with a cover letter and an SASE (the Writer’s Market will tell you how to do all this).
d) Forget about the article until it is either accepted or rejected.
e) Repeat steps a) – d) ad infinitum.
Alternately, you can switch steps c) and b) by finding markets that publish the sorts of articles you may be interested in writing, and then writing those articles according to their specifications. It’s really up to you. The point is — start writing, start sending out articles, and keep at it.
(You can give your material a slightly better chance of being accepted if you at least initially write articles on a subject you know something about; for example, if you’re a veterinarian, write articles about pets. If you love to knit, write articles about knitting. If you’re an accountant, write about changes in the tax laws. And so on.)
(Bear in mind that some magazines and sites prefer to be queried first — that is, they want a proposal for an article rather than an article itself. This is not difficult to do, and again, your Writer’s Market can show you how to do this. If a market wants a query, give them a query — don’t annoy them by not paying attention to their requirements.)
Here’s why this approach is useful: First, it gets you used to writing on a regular basis. Second, it gets you used to sending out material and continuing to send it out (and sending it out according to specifications — don’t ignore this since editors throw out anything that’s not to format specifications. No joke. You may think it doesn’t matter, or that you’re a special case, but you know what? You’re wrong). Third, once you’ve started sending out work, assuming you’re not an entirely incompetent writer, sooner or later someone is likely to accept something, and you can use that writing clip to help you get more work.
(What’s beginning writer strategy number two? Show up at a local newspaper (that would be a dinky little paper, not like the Los Angeles Times if you live in LA) and offer your services as a writer and reporter, cheap. They may throw you some demeaning crap no one else wants to touch and gradually move you up from there. This technique is useful if you want to work as a journalist, as it will get you used to how a newsroom works, what deadlines are all about, and what sort of crap journalists have to put up with day in and day out — which includes but is not limited to bad pay, a shrinking market and the ever-present specter of being bought-out, replaced, or shut down. It’s actually a lot of fun once you get used to it.)
Now, let’s answer some questions here.
7. What if I send something out and it gets rejected?
What do you mean “if”?
Take this now and engrave this in your brain: EVERY WRITER GETS REJECTED. You will be no different. The rejection is not personal. Unless he or she mentions something specifically about it, the editor is not rejecting you as a human being or your right to exist on this planet. He or she is merely rejecting an article you’ve submitted. That’s all. That’s it.
If you can’t handle the idea of rejection, you’re really in the wrong line of work. It’s just part of the business.
Articles get rejected for the following reasons:
a) They’re not suitable for the magazine or site, i.e., you didn’t do your homework and submitted something off topic for the magazine. This is a rookie error and why you should buy and actually read your Writer’s Market, you dumbass.
b) They’re on topic, but not of sufficient quality.
c) They’re on topic, and of sufficient quality, but the magazine already recently ran something like it or has another article like it in the pipeline. This happens not infrequently.
d) It’s on topic, of sufficient quality, and the magazine hasn’t run something like it before, but the editor is simply a butthead and doesn’t want to buy it. This also happens not infrequently.
e) Everything is perfect and the editor loves it, he or she just has no place for it right now.
When an article is rejected by an editor, don’t assume it’s crap. Just find another market that accepts articles along its line, and send it out again. And when it gets rejected again, send it out again. And so on and so on until either someone buys it or you run out of places to send it to. Only then do you toss it out or put it aside to try again at some other time.
8. Should I send material out to the big, big markets, even if I’m just getting started?
I don’t see why not. The worst they can do is say no, and if they don’t say no, you’ve made a sale to a big market — something you can use as ammo when selling articles to other places. And the big markets typically pay better, too, so that’s always a benefit.
However, be aware that the bigger and better paying sites get correspondingly larger piles of submissions, so it’s automatically a lot tougher to place material. Theoretically many of these markets are open to beginning writers, but there’s a big difference between theory and practice. Sending an article to big markets may do nothing more than keep you from sending the article some place you might actually have a chance of being accepted. You need to decide whether it’s worth the time.
9. Hey, an editor tells me that he’ll accept my article if I make a couple of changes. What should I do?
DUH. Make the changes. An editor knows his magazine or site, and unless it drastically changes the thrust of the story (i.e., turns it from a positive to a negative review, for example, or turns you from a conservative to a flaming liberal), there’s very little point in being difficult.
This last piece of advice is a lot more difficult to take if it’s a creative or fiction piece, but suck it up and deal with it. Remember: When you’re writing professionally, you’re writing for an editor somewhere along the line. Editors exist (so far as you know) to ask for random and inexplicable changes to your work, and in return, they give you money. That’s the drill.
10. I’ve sold an article! I’ve sold two! Should I quit my day job?
Hell, no. Don’t be an ass.
People who want to be writers look on their current jobs like they’re chaining them down. If only they could break free of these jobs! Then they could write all the time! And be free! Oh joy!
Crap on a stick. Fact: Most people couldn’t write all the time, even if they were free to do so. Even full-time writers (i.e., reporters and such) aren’t writing every single moment of the work day; they’re doing other stuff, including (yes) avoiding writing — because once writing is actual work, one desires to run away from it from time to time. I sure as hell don’t write all the time, and this is my day job.
Another Fact: Most writing pays for crap (more on this soon). Quitting your day job to write full time, especially if you’re writing freelance, means you take a HUGE salary drop, no matter how little you’re making now. And if you’re just starting off, it’s hard to make sales — so you’ll be doubly screwed.
My suggestion: If you’re starting off as a freelance writer, do it in your spare time — after work and on weekends. Don’t ditch your day job to become a writer; let your day job support you as you work on perfecting your craft. It’s a risk-free way of building that writing career (also, if the writing career doesn’t pan out, you don’t have to come crawling back at reduced pay and status). Most beginning freelancers don’t have enough work to keep them busy anyway — they just spend most of their time worrying about how the hell they’re going to pay their bills.
But, I hear you say, that’s extra time I’m working! Yeah? So? If you weren’t working on writing in the evenings what would you be doing? Watching Friends, or Survivor or playing video games or some crap like that. Yeah, you’ve got the time, pal. You just have to decide you want to do it.
So, when should you quit your day job? This is easy: You should quit your day job no earlier than when the amount of money you regularly and consistently make from writing exceeds your current day job income by 30%. That’s right, you ought to be making more as a writer than you do from your day job in order to quit.
Why? Because the minute you quit your day job, you lose your employee benefits, your 401(k), and your employee contribution to your social security taxes. You have to pay for all of that yourself now. The minute you become self-employed as a freelancer, your tax burden jumps at least 15% (self-employment tax, don’t you know), and you have to file quarterly.
You have to earn at least 30% more than what you make from your day job in order to live like you do did off your day job income. This can be ameliorated somewhat if you have a spouse or significant other whose health insurance or benefits you can latch onto, but no matter what, you’re still taking a big hit.
Here’s the deal: Unless you’re working at Burger King getting people their fries, you probably won’t make as much writing as you do at your day job. So unless the thought of continuing work at your day job fills you with such a suicidal horror that you want to slit your wrists the moment you slip into your cubicle, don’t quit. And if you do quit your day job, think about getting a different day job that has all those cushy benefits and 401(k)s, one that doesn’t make you want to perforate your skull with a power nailgun.
Don’t ever quit your day job unless not quitting your day job starts cutting into your total income potential. Really, that’s what you should consider.
Remember also that many famous writers wrote books and columns and whatnot while holding down day jobs. Grisham and King had day jobs (lawyer and teacher, respectively). Scott Adams kept his cubicle job until he was a millionaire. Wallace Stevens, a Pulitzer Prize-winning poet and my personal favorite example of day-job-ness, was an insurance executive until the day he died. And so on. Day jobs don’t keep you from writing. In fact, in a lot of cases, a day job can keep you writing, building your craft and your clip file while keeping you and your family fed.
Give it serious thought before you let your day job go.
11. What’s this about writers being paid for crap?
It’s the sad truth. Typically writers get paid crap for their contributions to magazines and web sites. This is especially true for freelancers (actually, salaried writers, on a per word basis, also don’t get paid so hot. But they get dental and stuff, so that makes up for it). Crack open your Writer’s Market and you’ll notice that most magazines pay 20 cents a word or less for articles, and often much less — and if you’re writing fiction, this pay scale drops dramatically.
Online sites are even more stingy; even top online sites like Salon pay only as well as mid-range print magazines or newspapers (don’t even think of selling fiction online for actual money). If you’re writing poetry, you can pretty much forget ever getting paid more than beer money, online or off.
Yes, there are a number of magazines that pay $1/word or more, but (no offense) your chances of getting into one of them as a new writer are pretty damn slim.
Okay, but what if you get a job as a real life reporter or journalist? Heh. Starting journalist pay is in the low 20s, and that includes for grads of Northwestern and other prestigious journalism schools. That’s as of 1999, and trust me, that number hasn’t moved much for years. I know this because my first full-time job at the Fresno Bee paid me $24,000 in 1991 — and that was so far down the pay scale that on a week by week basis, they had summer interns getting paid more than me the first year I was there. Also bear in mind that most of the “best” starting salaries or journalists come at the larger papers — if you’re at a small local daily, you can expect rather substantially less.
From low beginnings, journalism salaries reach — well, not exactly great heights. If you work in a large city and you have several years of experience under your belt, you can reach in the $50k to $80k range, but again, most journalists aren’t working in big city newsrooms; their salaries are somewhat smaller: In the 30s and 40s for longtime writers. Again, this ain’t bad, especially when you factor in benefits, but relative to other professionals, like lawyers and doctors and MBAs, this is manifestly lower.
Now, there was a brief shining moment when online sites pushed journalist salaries into the $80k and $90k range, and even starting writers were making $50k. But then investors starting asking when these sites were going to start making money, and when it became clear they weren’t, all those nice journalists with their nice sky-high salaries suddenly found themselves laid off. You won’t see those levels again anytime soon.
Here’s a spot of good news: Once you’ve done your time and developed a reputation as a really good writer, you can see your income go up — way up. Really. But it does take time, you really do have to do the work, and you really do have be good. You also have to work like a dog. However, until such time as that happens, you’ll need to resign yourself to lousy pay no matter how you slice it.
(Bear in mind that none of this applies if you write for the Harvard Lampoon. In that case, you start making $360,000 a year as a writer on some sitcom as soon as you graduate. That Ivy League education is paying off!)
(Hey, yeah, I hear you say, what about screenwriters and TV writers? They get paid a lot! Well, yes, some of them do — most of them, however, don’t. At all. And unless you’re already in Hollywood, sliding your script to a producer under a bathroom stall with a vial of coke as a bribe, you’re probably already too late. Sorry.)
Why is writer pay so low? Supply and demand. There are more people who are writers, and who want to be writers, than there are writing slots to be filled, either in terms of articles or in terms of staff positions. This is of course especially true at the bottom, where as a starting writer you will be. Near the top, as previously mentioned, things clear out a bit. But it’s a long way from bottom to top. In this regard, it should be noted, writing is no different than any other desirable business field, although the entry-level pay sucks more than most. Only actors and musicians get paid less and exploited more.
There’s also the matter of the writer “mystique” which works to the detriment of writer’s pay — simply put, so many people are so desperate to be able to call themselves “writers” that they’re willing to put up with low pay or even no pay in order to have that coveted title. This is again due to the idea that being a writer means you’re part of something greater than yourself, that it’s a calling, that your voice is being heard by the masses, blah blah blah, crap crap crap. Since you’ve got a lot of people who are writing-proficient willing to put up with lousy awful terrible pay, writing pay remains terrible.
Bear in mind that it’s not only con artists who follow this theory: The New York Times famously pays a pittance to contributors to its op-ed pages, on the theory, presumably, that they should be honored to appear in the pages and spread their message to the World’s Most Literate Audience. Yeah, whatever.
Again, this is a compelling reason not to quit your day job, since whatever day job it is almost certainly pays more than you’ll be able to make from writing for the first few years — even if writing was the only thing you did.
12. Well, if writers get paid crap, how come you apparently make so damn much? You’re not, like, famous or anything.
Reason Number One: I’ve been writing professionally since 1990. Years of writing does count for something. Also bear in mind that for the first six years of writing professionally, I wasn’t making that much at all — a newspaperman’s salary during a recession (it wasn’t bad, just not a lot). After that, I benefited to some extent from the wage inflation within the dotcom industry, and currently, I’m benefiting for a decade’s worth of contacts within the industry and a solid track record of output all that time (i.e, I’m not generally known for being a flaky, temperamental sort, at least when it comes to work). So there you have it: Time and effort count.
Reason Number Two: As a writer, I’m very flexible: I have significant experience in a whole bunch of different writing areas. Writing isn’t just “writing,” after all — just as doctors or lawyers specialize, so do most writers. This is generally an excellent strategy, but it’s also worth your while as a writer to expand your reach once you’ve developed a core competence. In my own case, I started off writing entertainment and humor, which lead to my position at AOL. While there, I got experience writing on online issues and also business-oriented writing, both in terms of personal finance and in terms of marketing. Those sidelines have since become an important part of my writing repertoire, enough so that while I am still actively involved in writing entertainment, it’s now more of a sideline to these other sorts of writing.
More importantly, I’m still adding to my repertoire — I wrote a book on astronomy, for example, which will add more opportunities to write in the area of popular science. This range comes in extremely useful, because when one sort of writing slows down, there are still opportunities to find work in other areas. So as a writer, flexibility helps quite a bit.
Reason Number Three: I’m not a writing snob. I won’t just write certain types of writing — I’m a slut, I’ll write anything if you pay me. This is related to being flexible, quite obviously, and it’s also rooted in my desire to try different things. For example, some of my most profitable writing gigs involve writing marketing materials. A fair number of writers get snippy about writing marketing stuff, but you know what? I actually think it’s kind of fun. It’s fun to try a new medium of writing, it’s fun to set a goal and try to hit it, it’s fun to learn how this stuff works. And of course, writing marketing material pays really well, so it’s also fun to spend the money I make off it. Some writers may hold up their noses at my largely indiscriminate writing proclivities, but that’s fine. More work for me, more money for my family.
So if you want to make what I make — do your time, learn to write a lot of different things, and don’t turn down work just because it’s not “cool.” See how easy it can be?
(Ironically, even “famous” writers don’t make tons of cash. Sure, you’ve got King and Grisham and Rice and so on, and there’s a nice patrician class of opinion columnists and what have you who are socking the bucks away. But that’s the top 1%. Below that the upper ranks are comfy but not cushy. Even lower-rung best-selling authors aren’t notably rich — when your royalty rate is 10% or less, you have to sell a lot of books to see any real money at all (trust me on this). Well-known national columnists, while making more than the average Joe writer, don’t get paid excessively either: high five figures or very low six figures. You can have a nice income if you’re a writer (eventually), but if you want to be really super duper ultra rich, you might want to try being famous in some other line of work.)
13. Don’t you worry you’ll spend so much time writing for others that you’ll never write the stuff you want to write for yourself?
Every now and then, sure. And to be very clear, I do think it’s extremely important for writers to make sure they do some writing that’s actually important to them. Because if all you do is write for other people, you’ll probably become crabbed and irritable and no damned fun to be around. Writing what one enjoys keeps one mentally fresh — and it’s fun besides.
The important thing is to find the balance of writing for work and writing for one’s own personal enjoyment, and it’s something that can take some time to figure out. Certainly I’m guilty from time to time of piling so much work on my plate that I don’t have time for fun writing, and when that happens I end of up feeling moderately miserable until I’m in a place where I’ve got all that work cleared out (on the other hand, if I didn’t have paid writing work to do, you can bet I’d be pretty damned miserable then, too).
In my own personal experience, I’ve found that I’m happiest when I have a healthy amount of paid work and a couple hours a day to do personal writing. The reason for this is I tend to be “creative” a couple of hours a day, after which point my brain needs a some time to rest, recharge and think about whatever it is I’m writing creatively. So for the rest of the day, I do my paid work. The two don’t interfere with each other, and indeed can complement each other, with what I’m doing creatively causing me to approach my paid work from a slightly different perspective and vice-versa. And of course, much of your “personal” writing can also have professional goals — if you’re writing a novel, for example, you’ll probably want to try to sell it after you’re done.
Your ratio of professional to personal work and the set up of how you write both will be different then mine, obviously. You’ll figure it out eventually. In the meantime, I wouldn’t advise obsessing about whether you’re losing your soul by writing too much stuff for other people and not enough for yourself. When it comes right down to it, if you really want to make the time for personal writing, you’ll do it.
14. Is there anything you wouldn’t write for money?
You bet. I wouldn’t never write marketing material for a product I found morally questionable, so, for example, no sweet rich cigarette money for me. I wouldn’t write anything counter to my own political or personal ethics, so this means you won’t see me writing direct mail for conservative politicians, warning their constituents about the evils of, say, gay marriage or pro-choicers. I won’t write in a medium that I find personally offensive, which means you are unlikely to find me writing unsolicited e-mail marketing pieces. I’m unlikely to write porn, because I couldn’t write it without busting up. I wouldn’t write anything that I felt I clearly lacked the knowledge base for or, alternately, felt I wouldn’t be able to pick up quickly enough to turn out a reasonable product. So there goes my career writing about cricket.
Bear in mind that I say this feeling relatively comfortable that saying “no” to any of these sorts of writing would not impact my overall ability to make a living and pay my bills. If I were a beginning writer and writing a unsolicited e-mail marketing piece meant the difference between eating Top Ramen or eating real food for a change, I might cave. But in a general sense, life’s too short to do things that make you feel dirty or vaguely ashamed of yourself. There are other ways to make money.
15. Hey, you mentioned earlier that you had contacts in the industry. How did you get them? And more to the point, how can I get them?
“Contacts” is a term which calls into mind shadowy types that have mystical powers to get you writing gigs and hot dates with supermodels. It’s not like that all, especially the part about the hot dates. My contacts are just all the people I’ve met along the way. Most of these people I met when both they and I were younger and in positions far less advantageous than the ones we’re both in now. Over time, people move up, and they remember people they’ve worked with before. That’s pretty much how it works.
If you’re interested in cultivating contacts of your own for fun and profit, here’s what you do: Be nice to everyone. Really, that’s the best way to do it. When you work with someone, help them do their job (usually this is accomplished simply by doing your own job in a competent manner). Don’t adopt a superior attitude to anyone — you’ll be surprised how quickly today’s peon becomes tomorrow’s boss (and how long their memories are). Thank people when they’re helpful. Be useful. Don’t talk about them behind their backs. Don’t stab them in the back. If you think someone is good at his or her job and you’re in a position to help them advance, do it. People do remember those who have done well by them, both professionally and personally. Being a decent human being pays off.
Being nice, incidentally, is not the same as being an ass-kissing yes-man. Insincerity has a pungent stench that will hang about you all your career, so be careful about using it. One can be generally nice and still not roll over and take it up the wazoo from some crap-flinging monkey of a co-worker or editor. Related to this, you should have a certain line beyond which you will take no more crap from anyone, nor let anyone take additional advantage of you. This line is useful for one’s self-respect and one’s ability to do work. No job in the world is worth taking more than one’s fair share of crap. However, my experience has been that most people are in fact normal folks just trying to do their job. If you help them do it, and do so in a pleasant, professional and engaging way, it’ll pay dividends.
(Also remember that being the nicest person in the world won’t mean a thing if you can’t, you know, actually do the job. So work on your professional chops first, and on being nice second.)
16. I have no contacts! I know no one! What should I do?
Please refer to beginning writer strategy number one back at question number six. Look, people, not having contacts doesn’t mean you’ll never get work. I didn’t know anyone at the first four major writing gigs I had; the only thing I had going for me was the work I was able to show them. Work counts. It counts at least as much as contacts, especially at the beginning.
17. What do you think about writer’s unions, associations and conventions?
I’m officially neutral on them. I think they can be very useful for new writers in learning many of the ground rules of writing as a career, and can be especially helpful when legal or contractual matters crop up. Local writer associations are useful as social and professional entities as well. Additionally, many national and local writers unions and associations offer useful benefits to members, such as health insurance. This alone can make joining a very good thing for freelance writers.
However, personally speaking, I’ve found very little use for them. For whatever reason, I’ve had very few problems negotiating contracts on my own or finding suitable work, both as a full-time salaried worker and a full-time freelancer, and I’ve not had problems meeting and cultivating contacts. Writing conventions and seminars haven’t been very useful to me; typically I find a much more useful experience is simply to go out and get the actual professional experience in whatever field I’m curious about. And also, I’m cheap and I refuse to spend money for dues unless I feel I’m personally going to receive a direct net benefit. While I’m politically pro-union in a general sense, on a personal level I’m apparently not at all.
The above should be read with the understanding that I am exceptionally egotistical and confident in my abilities to the point being irritating to other writers, and also that I tend not to be a “joiner” of organized groups. The only writing organization I had any ambition to join is the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America, of which I am now a member. I didn’t actually expect it to do anything for me when I joined, and to that extent I have been not at all disappointed with its performance. I get to vote on the Nebula awards, though, and that’s nice.
(Note: In July, 2010, I became President of SFWA, so you may assume from that fact that I found it to be a useful writer’s organization for those it serves. Hey, it’s been most of ten years since I originally wrote this; I’m allowed to change my opinion here and there.)
So: If you think it’s going to be useful to you, join a writer’s union.
18. You write online and offline. What are the differences between them?
There are none.
I’m serious. A lot of people talk about how different the two mediums are, but it’s mostly wishful thinking. Online writing tends to be shorter, and it has the ability to take advantage of hyperlinking, which print cannot. But that’s it, and both of these cases, it’s not a hard and fast rule, since I’ve read lots of Web writing which is not notably short, and a lot of articles that did not include hyperlinks. Lots of writers who work online also learn HTML or other web-based presentation systems, but that’s not directly related to writing per se. One can get along perfectly well without learning it, especially these days, when word processing programs can format your text as a Web page for you.
In both the online and offline mediums, you ultimately have to do the same things — you have to write coherently and intelligently, and you have to make your editor happy. If you can write in one medium, you know 95% percent of what you need to know to work in the other, and what little there is that is different is not difficult to learn.
A number of writers I know seem to prefer to work in only one medium and not the other. I think that’s kind of dumb. Inasmuch as there’s no real skill set difference between two, why not write in both? Woody Allen once joked about the great thing about being bisexual is that it doubled your chances of a date on Saturday night; the same thinking applies to offline and online writing. Currently (April, 2001), my income is derived 75% from online work, 25% from offline. I’m not willing to chop off a quarter of my income (or three quarters, if I go the other way) in some misguided belief that one needs to concentrate on one medium rather than the other.
(Why is my income majority online, you ask? It’s simple — I’m lazy, and online work is easier for me to find, thanks to contacts and online job banks. However, were the online world to vaporize tomorrow, I don’t have any doubt I could begin building up my income writing offline, using writing skills and experiences I cultivated in my online writing.)
19. Do I have to go to New York or some other large city to write? That’s where most of the writing opportunities seem to be located.
Oh, I don’t know about that. Certainly the highest-profile magazines and writing outlets are in New York and other large cities. But magazines are located all over the map. And unless you’re submitting to a region-oriented magazine or want to work for a local newspaper, you typically don’t have to live where the writing market is located. Yes, there’s something to be said about being able to have face time with editors and magazine and newspaper staffs, but it’s not absolutely essential.
I think you should move to a large city to write if you actually want to move to a large city, period. If not, don’t. Living in one particular place to write is becoming less necessary, especially now that the online world means people are just an e-mail or instant message away from each other. I speak about this with some experience; I currently live in a dinky little town on the far western edge of Ohio called Bradford, Ohio — population just under 2,000. When I moved here I was worried that living here would have some impact on my ability to get work, but it really hasn’t at all. I may be lucky in this regard, but I think anyone who is committed to finding writing work these days can find it now matter where they live.
Now, if I were 21 and just starting out, I’d much rather live in New York than Bradford, Ohio. Oh. MY. God. There’s no debate on this. But now I’m in my thirties and I have a family, I’d rather live here. I have a brand-new 4-bedroom house on five acres of land, and what I pay monthly on the mortgage wouldn’t even get me a crappy one-bedroom in Manhattan. My kid gets to play in a yard the size of a New York city block, which (for me, at least) seems like a better idea than her actually playing on a New York city block. No offense to New Yorkers.
Point here: You can write from anywhere, especially these days. So live where you want.
20. I’m a college student who wants to grow up to be a writer. What classes should I take?
Take whatever you want. If you know you want to be a writer, then you’ll probably write at every opportunity anyway; taking classes on how to write are of secondary utility to actually writing. Given the choice between a class on writing and, say writing for the college newspaper, I’d suggest writing for the college newspaper and freeing up that class time for something else. Professors and other writing teachers may disagree, but you know what? I make more than almost all of them. Who are you going to believe. Now, if you have no clue how to put a sentence together, best hie yourself to a writing class, and that damned quick. But most people who really want to write tend to have that bit down.
Far more important than sitting around discussing your writing quirks with other students is actually learning about as much as you can about as many things as you can. Why? Because having a wide range of knowledge makes you a better writer — it makes you more able to write about a number of topics, it allows you to make connections between disparate fields of knowledge and thus uncover new ideas (which you can then write about). It also makes you look more intelligent to the men/women you want to impress. But most of all, learning about a bunch of different things teaches you how to learn — an utterly invaluable skill when it comes to writing, which often requires a lot of research and/or the ability to quickly learn stuff about a subject as you go along.
One of the things that they never tell you in high school is that your undergraduate college degree doesn’t count for a whole hell of a lot — if you’re going to be a professional worker of any sort, you typically do more work on the subject in graduate school, and these grad schools like to have a nice range of students. This is why you’ll often see English undergrads in MBA programs and biology majors in law school. If you want to pursue writing on an academic level — which really is optional for a professional writing career and not at all necessary if you actually go and do real writing for real magazines and newspapers and such like (ahem) I did — there are several very good graduate writing programs, and of course tons of journalism schools. All of these take students who have all sorts of undergrad majors. Worry about it then — and in the meantime use your undergraduate years to learn a lot about a lot. It’ll pay off in the long run.
(My major? Philosophy. Have I ever used it professionally? Yeah, right.)
Okay, I’m done talking now.