So you want to be a writer…

so you want to be a writer

I’ve worked with a fair few interns in my time. They range from the one who didn’t last a day (so gung-ho at the start but quickly realised the reality of journalism was not what he envisioned) to outstanding candidates I wished we could pay. I’ve been asked by students for industry advice, which I most assuredly do not feel qualified to give.

Ergo: this braindump covering most of the things I would like to tell would-be writers.

You will be overworked, underpaid and underappreciated. Perennially underresourced.

Pay starts low and stays low. It’s not like, say, accounting – where you start on $40k and work on up to $100k in a few years.  The industry is relatively flat; it’s not like there is a huge ladder to climb.

You will in all likelihood need to pay some serious dues. Internships help get your foot in the door. (I hope you got yourself qualified, because the degree is practically mandatory now.) Working the crappy shifts will help you get your foot in the door and rack up valuable experience. Although depending what you go on to (breakfast TV? online news? Talkback radio?) the hours may ALWAYS be bad. (At first you’ll feel SUPER IMPORTANT because you’re NEEDED at all hours! And then that novelty wears off and you’ll resent the intrusion.)

It is not (always) as exciting or glamorous as you might think. Sometimes we get to meet important and/or famous people. Sometimes we get wined and dined and plied with crap. There’s also the mundane and often repetitive stuff. You’ll get used to writing stories about similar things: awards, surveys, reports, acquisitions, events, fires, arrests, issues that “spark a debate”, etc. You don’t always get to choose what you write about. The unsexy stuff (tech, business) pays better and has better hours. You might have overbearing subeditors – or none at all.

You’ll need to be fast. Onto it. Understand digital. (I never want to hear “do you use hyperlinks in your web stories?” again.). It will be to your benefit to know what CMS stands for; have a few basic Photoshop skills; have profiles on social media so that you know how those networks work, for starters. You need to exist online. It freaks me out to Google you, expecting to see clips, or at least a Twitter or LinkedIn profile, and come up empty.

It’s thankless. Not just in terms of readers, but also, the self-deprecating, self-mocking culture among us. (From what I can tell, this can be found in academia too – why do we keep doing this? There must be something wrong with us. But we keep plugging away anyway.)

Some of this applies to wannabe pro bloggers, too. I am not one of them, so I won’t speak to this for long (I’ve made a few bucks online without trying but it took me a couple of years; the hourly rate is good but spread out over all the hours I spend on blogging, would be well into the many decimal points of cents).

Again, you cannot simply write about whatever you want and expect to be able to make a living doing so off the bat. You’ll need to learn about SEO and marketing and find a niche, and it’s only getting harder from hereonin as everyone and their dog pursues the lifestyle design movement. You are relatively late to the game; you won’t be a Dooce or Tavi or Gala Darling. (But if that’s the path you want to pursue, you can do it authentically and without being a douchebag.)

If you go the freelance route? Much the same. Learn to pitch. Learn to sell yourself. Learn to market your skills. Read the blogs of those at the top of their game, because you’ll find everything you need to know there: finding outlets, utilising social media, crafting pitches, crafting letters of introduction, setting rates, choosing markets. (See the Career section in my blogroll for some awesome resources.)

I haven’t done the full-time freelancing thing, but I know people who are/have. It’s tough. Rates, at least here, haven’t changed in decades. There are fewer and fewer staff writers these days, which opens up freelance opportunities…but still. Hopefully these days there are also opportunities overseas too.

They tend to supplement writing with non-editorial work (advertorial, marketing, corporate copywriting); many have steady or semi steady/ freelance subbing gigs (it’s infinitely tougher without some regular contracts to rely on). They’re always juggling multiple assignments and looking ahead to securing the next one.

That said, we wannabe writers just keep coming. Most switch over to PR after a couple of years (I’m tempted to sit down and calculate the percentage from my graduating class, but I’ll restrain myself). A few soldier on.

Last thoughts: Like Amy Poehler says in her kickass commencement speech to those who want to follow her into acting, don’t. But if you ignore this and insist on doing so anyway, then you’re probably in the right place.

12 thoughts on “So you want to be a writer…

  • Reply Funny about Money May 18, 2012 at 13:34

    🙂 All of those things are true.

    On the other hand, I’ll tellya…journalism is a helluva lot more fun than teaching!

    I loved my staff jobs on magazines. Never had so much fun in my life. Never drank so much in my life. It was hard, grinding, underpaid work that guaranteed at least one overnighter a month, but it was just plain fun.

    Freelancing: not so lively, but good if you have a working spouse. Try to do it without a second income to support you? No. Don’t go there.

    One of the things I loved most about journalism was that it gives you an excuse to ask people nosy questions. More to the point, it leads you to meet very interesting people from all walks of life, and to learn a little about almost everything. Wish I could go back to it.

    • Reply eemusings May 18, 2012 at 15:46

      Agreed! I’ve had the privilege to chat to some amazing people (and also a few very boring ones but thankfully they’re the exception rather than the norm among creatives and entrepreneurs). But someone has to cover the courts and emergency rounds…

      I fear journalism is becoming the domain of the very young (who only last a couple years) and the hardboiled, hardcore ones who’ve been journos all their lives. Who knows where that will end up.

  • Reply Funny about Money May 18, 2012 at 13:41

    oops. must’ve typed i/ instead of /i…gotta stop doing that!

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  • Reply My Broken Coin (@MyBrokenCoin) June 20, 2012 at 13:32

    Wow… You know I would not be able to be that kind of writer. The problem with me is that I cannot write when I am told what and how to write. I am much better in accounting. You can tell me how you want to set up a report and I will do it just fine. Freedom of expression and inspiration are two huge pre-requisites for writing (for me, at least.)
    Great insight! Opened my eyes.

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