I’ve been working as a professional writer for almost 20 years now.
It’s been a long haul, and fun too. I always enjoyed sitting at my keyboard and click-clicking the keys. Remember that B.B. King classic, “The Thrill Is Gone”? I never had to sing that one, knock on wood.
God knows I tried many genres and styles in the past, including academic papers, journalism, desk top publishing, screen writing, short stories, blogging, copy writing, and technical writing.
Let me tell you right away — nothing beats copy and technical writing in terms of income.
If you’re a young writer entering the field today and you want to secure yourself a steady income before you sail out to more choppy waters, I’d say go with either copy or technical writing. And that would make a good topic for another article.
But today, I’d like to share with you my Top 10 Rules of Success for a Young Writer:
Rule 1: Be aware that you are a part of a very noble and ancient tradition
This noble tradition is indispensable for our sanity, joy and survival.
If you’re apologetic about what you’re doing, if you think you’d be leading a better and more useful life as a _______ (fill in the blank), then don’t even think of becoming a writer for a single moment. It’ll do you or the ones you love no good but bring much friction, resentment and misery.
Be happy, feel privileged and empowered even when you’re not making much. This is the most important rule to become a good and successful writer.
When love and pride of the craft is there, the rest follows on its own accord.
Rule 2: Dare to write, every day
Dare to climb that wall and then fall on your face, over and over again.
Drivers drive. Pilots fly. Writers write. It’s as simple as that. “I’m a writer but I can’t write” is a contradiction in terms.
But writers do not always write “excellent” stuff. A lot of times they write rubbish. (Remember what Hemingway said about the “first draft of anything”?) But their pens keep moving and their keyboards keep clicking.
Remove the concept of “writer’s block” from your mind for once and for all. Writing every day, no matter what (a blog entry, diary, a note on a calendar, two paragraphs of a story, a dialog, letters to your local paper, a well-argued e-mail to your professor, etc.) should be your passion. Give that word to yourself and keep it.
That’s the minimum sine-qua-non condition of becoming a good writer.
Rule 3: Know your heart and your inner voice.
WHY are you writing? Money is fine, but what else? What are your beliefs and core values? What is your Truth?
The answers to these questions do not come easy and they change over time too.
I’m for example still formulating my answers and refining them, re-configuring some of them. But the questions are smoking alive, burning while illuminating my way.
Without that inner sense of who you are, you’ll never have the courage to make the necessary investment and sacrifice. You need that to create the kind of writing that will benefit you and the world. We can talk more about this important point later if you’d like.
Rule 4: Develop your craft
It sounds basic but you’d be surprised…
I was an editor and jury member at certain points in my career and I’d regularly be surprised at some of the materials submitted for review; stuff that was not even spellchecked by God!
Know your spelling and grammar, and have the courtesy in this day and age to spell-check your stuff before submitting it to anywhere.
Learn how to develop an idea, link it to supporting arguments and bring it to a conclusion within the allowed word limits. Learn all the basic writing skills and techniques like “parallel construction” or how to avoid “dangling participles” and “misplaced modifiers” etc.
Enroll in a writing program, if necessary. Put aside some money for your professional training even if it’s just enough to buy one educational book or training CD a month.
Your knowledge is your power; your ONLY power. Feed your mind well to write well.
Rule 5: Develop a niche, an expertise, a driving point and an edge
The more the better.
But keep it real and under control. Don’t lose your wheels while trying to develop a dozen of such specialties.
You’re human. Act like one. But don’t hide your light either. The more you write on your specialty, the easier it’ll get and the richer your material will be. It’ll smell roses from a mile. People will feel your authenticity and authority the minute they start reading the first sentence.
As your expertise deepens your preparation time will shrink as well. You’ll be able to turn out well crafted and well-informed articles, speeches, books in no time. That’s what editors love – a writer who knows her stuff and can roar with an assignment like a souped-up Mustang on a speedway.
Rule 6: Guard your time jealously for your art and craft.
Make choices and live with them.
Isaac Asimov hardly had a day in his life when he was not writing in his room, curtains drawn. But to him it wasn’t torture because that was the most pleasure he had in life.
I’m not saying become a monk but recognize that you’ve got only 24 hours to live.
If you keep watching your football games and soap operas and reality shows 6 hours a night, you’ll never be able to finish that novel after you come back from a full-day at the office.
It happened to me this past Sunday. A friend of mine invited me to a Film Festival, with free tickets. I’m a freak for cinema. But I told him I couldn’t go because I was in the midst of a screenplay I’m currently writing. Either I’d go out, have a “good time,” or sit at home and write another twenty pages. It’s as simple as that.
If you want to be a working writer, get accustomed to making those kind of choices at the drop of a hat, every day.
Rule 7: You got to know when to hold’em… know when to fold’em
Sometimes we all get stuck on a track that leads to nowhere but for some reason we keep banging our heads on the same wall.
There ARE alternatives in life, especially for writers. Remember that.
I was a newspaper reporter for four years in Washington DC. The first couple of years I thought my career was going somewhere.
During the last two years I realized, nope, it wasn’t really going to add up to anything. I was on a treadmill repeating the same old things for the same old results. No progress.
After looking around for six months, someone suggested “technical writing” – something I didn’t even think before. I wasn’t even sure what tech writers exactly did. But I decided to take a calculated gamble anyways.
I gave myself six months to see what would happen. And I never looked back since. Am I glad I did not try to hold on to my “journalism cards”! I would probably be on welfare roll by now, God forbid.
So be aware of the many alternatives waiting for you out there.
If sports writing doesn’t work, perhaps you should try catalog writing. If your newspaper job is going nowhere, perhaps you should try writing a novel or try direct marketing copy.
Move sideways to move forward.
Rule 8: Create a web site
You have to have this one.
I have a blog for sure. Who doesn’t have one these days?
But my main web site is a non-blog type of traditional site, designed to display my “wares” to prospective clients. People who’d like to hire my services can find all kinds of pertinent information there to help them make up their minds.
One other thing I have on my web site is a Subscription Form for those who’d like to receive my free monthly newsletter (currently in its 73rd issue) packed with useful information and tips about copywriting, information design and marketing.
You must also have a similar site to communicate with your audience, clients, editors, employers, while displaying the samples of your work.
Google offers FREE web hosting and web site building tools, for quite a few years now. I’ve actually built my web site on Google Pages. I may have to move it soon to a dedicated server but it has served me pretty well so far, since 2006. So, free server, free web space, free HTML editor – what excuse do you have not to build your web site right away, like today?
Rule 9: Join, connect, participate, & collaborate
Writing is a solitary job.
We usually sit in our own cubicles and rooms, creating worlds never imagined before. But there’s also a professional side to writing; a business side.
You need to be in the know; you need to connect and communicate with your other writers, and stay in circulation to follow the trends and hear about the opportunities. Become a member of your local writing organization.
I’m a member of a pretty good writers club that regularly offer classes of all kinds. I end up taking about one class a year. But I also am a member of many on-line communities and newsletters.
I regularly exchange e-mails with selected writer friends and acquaintances whose judgments and good will I respect.
I sometimes end up collaborating with them on special projects; like the last screenplay I’m working on right now. The idea of writing it came from my co-author and after a year, we’re working on our second jointly-written script.
We both know that neither of us would be able to write these scripts if we tried to do it solely on our own. So we are lucky in that respect. But we couldn’t have known anything about that luck if we did not choose to get in touch and stay in touch in the first place.
You are a precious fish in a vast ocean. Swim a little in a school of fishes and see how faster you can stream.
Rule 10: Take care of your health
I can’t emphasize this strongly enough.
Most people learn late in their careers that writing is actually an athletic event. You burn a lot of precious calories and brain cells when pounding out anything.
When we write we use a lot: proteins, vitamins, amino acids, carbon and nitrogen, and God knows what else. Eat well, fresh and organic, if possible.
Take it easy on the red meat. Go generous with fruits, green veggies, and fiber. Stay away from booze and junk since they all dull the mind and drop a curtain of haze over your clear skies.
Charles Bukowski was an alcoholic, and wrote some great poems.
Wallace Stevens was the Vice President of Hartford Accident and Indemnity Company. He was an insurance guy; a suit and a “square.”
He wrote even greater poems while walking during his lunch hours to his home.
Guess who has left a deeper imprint on American Literature today?
Get your sleep well and exercise well. Get those glands and ligaments moving. Get that life juice in your veins circulating, carrying fresh oxygen and bubbling ideas to your brain. When your body is not complaining, the mind will be a more pliant servant.
Take good care and just feel how lucky you are to be a writer, bringing hope, joy and love to our troubled world!