Since the word “writer” covers so much ground, let me start with a brief overview of what I do. Specifically, I write novels, nonfiction business books, plays, screenplays, magazine/newspaper articles, advertising copy, interviews and blogs. In addition, I’m a script consultant for the movie industry (which means I stop a lot of really bad movies from coming to theaters near you) and a professional ghostwriter (which does not mean I talk to dead people). Writing careers typically fall into two categories: creative and technical. The creative side involves painting imaginative stories with words in order to entertain, enlighten, inspire or – in the case of advertising –persuade your audience to buy a particular product or service. The technical side tends to be more analytical in nature and seeks to educate readers on how something is done and/or why it exists. Examples of this would be how-to training manuals, encyclopedias, financial reports and government regulations. Creative writing is subjective and derives from personal opinions and beliefs; technical writing is objective and focuses on measurable facts. Writers often classify themselves as “right-brained” (free-thinkers) or “left-brained” (logical) but there are certainly crossover aspects depending on the nature of the project.
Under the broad umbrella of “writer,” you’ll find such opportunities as editor, proofreader, speechwriter, journalist, grant writer, curriculum developer, columnist, biographer, reviewer, (books, movies, restaurants), and publisher.
Although a university degree isn’t necessary to call yourself a writer, it can nonetheless be advantageous to have one if you plan to compete professionally for high-paying assignments. My own degree, for instance, is in Communications with an emphasis on Audience Analysis and Message Design (a specialisation that I have used in all areas of my writing career). Depending on the type of writing you’d like to pursue, you may want to consider a degree in Literature, English, Journalism, Theater, Media Relations, History or Business Administration. It’s also likely that you’ll need to work for someone else until such time as your writing becomes sustainable.
My advice on this is to either find a position that allows you to mingle with kindred spirits and hone your craft OR take a job that’s relatively mindless and gives you the flexibility to strategise your future.
In this regard, I had the best of both worlds. I was acting in theater on evenings and weekends. For my day job, I worked in state government. It paid well, there was very little stress, and I was surrounded by doofy/annoying/weird coworkers that would one day people the plots of my novels (sometimes as chalk outlines on the floor).
I also can’t emphasise enough that whatever type of writing you’re going to do, you need to become an expert on it.
I often teach fiction workshops in which I ask participants, “What’s your favourite novel?” Invariably, there will be those who say, “Oh I don’t have time to read books but I think I’d be pretty good at writing one.” If you don’t read books, how do you know what’s good, what’s bad, what’s commercially viable? If you wanted to build a boat but had never been on a boat, seen pictures of different kinds of boats, or understood what boats are even made of, how do you expect to build anything that’s ever going to get out of a harbour and go someplace interesting?! The best writers I have ever met were not only voracious readers as children but continue to fill their existence with books, books, and more books. Likewise, you need to familiarize yourself with the rudiments of structure, style, genre protocols, syntax, formatting and, of course, brush up on your spelling, grammar and punctuation.
So how did I get started?
To be honest, I can’t remember a time in my life that I wasn’t writing! As an only child, I was always entertaining myself by writing short stories, poems, and plays for my puppets and Barbie dolls. My first published interview in the local press was in sixth grade; I did a feature story on the Chief of Police. My segue into theater was totally a case of being in the right place at the right time; I was writing for a weekly newspaper and was sent to do some PR on a melodrama that was opening in two weeks at The Gaslighter Theatre. As fate would have it, the heroine forgot there was a rehearsal that day and yours truly stepped in to read her lines. Not only did I end up getting cast as an extra and the understudy for that very production but I also spent the next 16 years onstage, half of which was with my own touring theater company. Since then, I’ve been published in multiple genres, researched and penned squillions of articles (travel, food, business, relationships, humor), and interviewed new and established authors for You Read It Here First. The object lesson in all of this is twofold:
- You’re not a writer unless you’re actively writing every single day… and
- You’ll never get writer’s block if you have a diverse spectrum of projects bubbling away on all burners instead of just toiling away at one thing and writing yourself into a mental cul de sac.
For me, this also means that there’s no such thing as a “typical” workday. I start each week with a review of upcoming deadlines and make a To Do list of things to cross off as the week gets underway. I keep several notebooks close by, too, in order to jot down catchy titles, snippets of dialogue, character descriptions, and topics I’d like to learn more about.
As with other industries, technology has had a major impact on the lives of writers, especially insofar as instant access to research, social media as a promotional tool, self-publishing, and using blogs to increase name recognition. It should also be mentioned that once upon a time I used to send all of my query letters and manuscripts by snail-mail and then wait as long as six months for a reply. Today, the majority of publishing markets accept email queries and online submissions via their websites (which cuts down tremendously on paper, envelopes and postage). On the receiving end of queries, however, I’m dismayed to see the sloppy familiarity with which I’m addressed by complete strangers (i.e., “Yo, C, wassup?”) Even if you’re communicating on an electronic platform, you must maintain a professional demeanor, never address an agent/editor/publisher by his/her first name unless invited to do so, and thoroughly research what type of material is being sought so as to save both parties valuable time. Nor should you ever send more than is requested; if an agent asks for the first 10 pages, don’t send the entire manuscript and expect to make a favorable impression.
The path to being a full-time author is not an easy one. Many an aspiring writer gives up after the first couple of rejections because s/he takes the rejection personally rather than looking at what can be done to improve the quality of one’s work and/or to explore alternative market placement. You need to stay abreast of what’s going on with your competition, be judicious in your research, invite (and be gracious about) feedback, and remind yourself that your passion for the written word is such that you’d be doing it even if no one ever paid you for it (although obviously we hope they do!).