30 Years of Being a Professional Writer

On the same day that “Smells Like Teen Spirit” was officially released as the first single off of Nirvana’s Nevermind album, September 10, 1991, I started my first post-college job: Film critic and feature writer for the entertainment section of the Fresno Bee. I had done freelance work before — indeed, I paid for a lot of my senior year of college by writing for the Chicago Sun-Times and New City magazine — but September 10, 1991 was the start of my full-time paid career as a writer. Since that day 30 years ago now, I have never not been a professional writer; it has always been the way that I supported myself and my family. At this point, three decades in, I can’t imagine doing anything else for a living. I suppose I’m stuck, now. You may imagine I am all right with this.

Thirty years on I do not have the writing career I thought I would have when I started out. I’ve said this before and I think people disbelieve me, but: I had no intention of being a novelist, or, at the very least, I assumed that if I were to write novels, that they would be a nice occasional side hustle. What I hoped for at the time — and what I assumed would be the case — is that I would write for newspapers all my life. The gig at the Fresno Bee would lead to gigs at other newspapers, and eventually I would land up at the New York Times/Washington Post/Los Angeles Times/Chicago Tribune as a daily columnist, riffing off local and world events like idols such as Mike Royko or Molly Ivins. Twenty-two-year-old me fully expected an entire career of daily deadlines and 800-word bursts of opinion.

And, I’m not going to lie, part of me is sad I didn’t get that life. Not too sad, because, well. Hello, welcome to Whatever, which I have been writing at for twenty-three years come Monday. But I loved working at newspapers when I was there; loved coming into the newsroom and seeing and talking other reporters and writers, loved having to have everything in by 3pm, loved the whole life of it. In 1991 there was little indication just how quickly that mode of work and storied kind of job would be outmoded, outsourced and outdated, and it’s kind of a tragedy. We are not better as a nation for having our local newspapers being a half or third of what they used to be in terms of writers and editors (if they still exist at all), and taken over by hedge funds who starve the papers and squeeze their staff. We can say it was inevitable once the Internet became a thing, but I don’t think that’s it. Choices were made, large and small. Not the best choices. I miss what newspapers were, and call me silly, but I hope one day there’s a way for them to come back.

So I didn’t get that life. The life I did get, I think, is better for me. Since 2001 I’ve been writing in the same northwest corner of the office that is in the northwest corner of my house, in a village of 1,800 people in Ohio. From that one same spot (plus occasional laptop travel) have come over thirty books, split between novels and non-fiction, plus thousands of other bits of writing: blog posts, reviews, newspaper and online columns, scripts and script notes, newsletters and corporate consulting. A lot of it done in a bathrobe, with pets sleeping in the office whilst I type. That life has seen me go all around the country and world to talk about my writing, to sign books and meet people, and to make friends that I would likely have never met if my life had gone to the plan my 22-year-old self had imagined. It’s gotten me published two dozen languages around the world, won me awards (including the Hugo, the one award that young me absolutely would have geeked out about), and, as a bonus, made me a decent amount of money to support myself and my family.

This has been a good life and career, and I’m happy to have gotten this one, out of all the possible ones I could have gotten. I think I would have been happy in the life I had planned at 22. I think I’m happier in the life I have now.

30 years of writing professionally is a long time, and it doesn’t feel like that long at all. Realistically I can hope for another twenty years of it; I wouldn’t mind getting another thirty. I’ll keep at it; honestly at this point I’m not qualified for anything else. The good news is, I still like doing my job, and doing it mostly every day.

And that’s the very best thing: To love what you do and to keep wanting to do it. I love my job, and love writing to all of you in this northwest corner of this northwest room in my little Ohio town. Thank you all for letting me have this life so far. I’ll keep at it, and look forward to what happens from here.

— JS

25 Comments on “30 Years of Being a Professional Writer”

  1. Congrats on doing what you love and doing it well. Also many of us are glad you wrote novels, not the least of which is the excellent entertainment we’ve received, but if you hadn’t some of our lives wouldn’t have crossed. And I know mine would have been poorer for having missed yours. Here’s to another 30 years (at least)!

  2. I think our current deep cultural divisions as a country are at least partly due to the decline of local newspapers. When I was a kid in the 1960s, nearly everybody I knew (1) subscribed to the local paper and (2) knew people who worked for the local paper. The guy in the house next door to my childhood home worked for The Milwaukee Journal. One of my parents’ old friends worked for an Indianapolis newspaper. My first job was delivering The Milwaukee Journal (if anybody from Milwaukee reads this, my route was on Oakland Avenue on the East Side, near the Shorewood).

    That meant people got much of their news from professionals to whom they felt a personal connection. Local papers in conservative places tended to be moderately right of center, and local papers in liberal places tended to be moderately left of center. In bigger cities, there were usually two local papers, one of which was moderately conservative and one of which was moderately liberal.

    There was, of course, no Internet. I bought my copy of the Nixon White House Transcripts in paperback form (and was startled by how frequently people used profanity in the Oval Office; my friends and I sometimes amused ourselves by trying to guess exactly which word was behind an instance of [Expletive Deleted]).

    Today, most people get their news from some combination of professionals whom they have never met in person and their social media feeds. Since I happen to have more than 20 years of experience doing Infectious Disease Drug Discovery, I have spent much of the past 18 months trying to improve the signal-to-noise ratio on the subject of Virology. I’ve had to block some childhood friends who have gone totally anti-science.

  3. That’s a fine column. And I am very glad you are a writer whose works I really enjoy! Keep have fun writing books I like.

  4. Although my own 30-years-ago newspaper life was at a campus daily, it was a big one (our print runs were 40,000) and offered many of the same pleasures as working at the Bee, I’m sure. I have many fond memories of helping to edit and physically produce the paper 5 nights a week (3 during summer terms), then driving the box of page negatives to the printer. It’s a real shame that today’s student journalists don’t have the post-graduation opportunities we did, even if they weren’t the ones we’d planned on. At least I’m still on a (weekly) masthead of a nationally respected magazine/journal/website and proud of it. (It’s my birthday so I choose to toot my own horn.)

  5. The world needs another book in the Old Man’s War universe, just like we need Ted Lasso. Your books are uplifting, even when they’re about death and fear and loss and worlds being lied to. Your writing style, your point of view, are inspiring. Readers fall in love with John Perry and Jane and Zoe and Lt Wilson and Ambassador Abumwe and Rae Daquin and General Gau and Sorvalh and Lt Lee and…all of them! Because they are so real and so relatable.
    How about a new book with Zoe, maybe, 20 years later? Maybe Jane is still around to help? Or, did Rafe move into his body after all or stay as the ship? How did the colonies’ union turn out? Did Lt Wilson and Danielle get married? And don’t forget Sorvahl! Did the humans learn how not to piss off the Conclave?
    I know you’ve thought of these ideas before (and if you haven’t, I give you complete unfettered rites to use them without acknowledgement or payment to me).
    The universe needs to hear more about these people and places! Please?
    Also, I want a pony.

  6. congratualation sir, appreciate your abundant gifts, in the top rank on this fool’s must read list.

    with a tip of the hat also to fave still writing lois bujold mcmaster and carrie vaughn.

  7. I remember that day you walked into the features department at the Bee, John. I can’t believe it’s 30 years later and what your life is like now. I’m proud of you!

  8. I’m glad you chose this career, sir. As someone who’s been teaching at the college level for many years myself, I know how nice it is to have a job you enjoy. May we both enjoy another 30 years in good health!

  9. Loved your reviews in the Fresno Bee! I was an avid reader back then and still enjoying your work today. Keep it up!

  10. I’ve recently discovered you, John Scalzi, thanks to my nephew-in-law, Andy. I’ve been delighted by your unique, I think, genre of humorous sci-fi, loved the emperor trilogy, and look forward to finishing the old man series. If other sci-fi writers who would make me laugh exist, I’d love to know their names.

  11. Loving what you is do is such a blessing to you. Being good at it is a blessing to us.
    Keep doing what you love. Where ever that takes you.

  12. Congratulations on your 30th anniversary. The world is a little better for the enjoyment you have added to it.

  13. I wanted to be a newspaper columnist too. I started out working for a newspaper and I miss it to this day. Almost nobody I knew at the newspaper is still around at the paper or in journalism at all now. The editors write a column, the reporters went into working at colleges, myself included.

    I really despise the “career” I ended up with (i.e. peon lackey service/abuse job), but it has great insurance and benefits and my employer has had great Covid protocols and I got to work from home until now. And above everything else, it wasn’t disposable in a pandemic.

    I find it horrifying how reporting is so disposable now. I’ll always wish I could go back and know I’ll never go back, at the same time.

    Glad you could figure out a DIY career for yourself there. There’s enough health issues running in my gene pool that I prioritize health insurance paid for by someone else as my number one thing in a job, though.

  14. Life takes you in odd directions. I’m glad that yours was/is good.

    I took degrees in journalism and economics, and like you had a plan. I was going to write for the Wall Street Journal. Instead, I ended up as a sports writer. It was good and I loved it – i was with a prominent mid-sized market daily and I had my by- line. I was sometimes picked up by the wire and USA Today (which was still very new). And like you, I got out before it was clear that getting out was a good idea.

    I changed careers and love what I do, but in some alternate universe, I hope that there’s a me who’s writing for the WSJ.

  15. I think actuarially speaking, at 52 you have a better-than-even chance of making it to 80. With any luck another three decades should be very much in the cards.

  16. As somebody who lived the journalist life (well, tech journalist) for over a decade before the bottom fell out? You jumped to writing books at just the right time.

  17. Congratulations on your writing anniversary!

    Like you, I am a former newspaper journalist. Like you, I mourn what journalism has become. The current hollowed-out shell of journalism is not sufficient to meet the needs of our democracy and this situation is bad for our country. I have no idea what to do about it, but it makes me sad and worried.

  18. Congratulations John, I’m certainly glad things worked out the way they did for you. Also for me, I’ve enjoyed your work over the years.

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