Exactly a decade ago, I was sitting in my high-school guidance counselor’s office for a mandatory meeting about college. When she asked where I was in the process, I told her I’d already applied to four schools. I’d also already decided on a major: English.
“Are you planning on being a teacher?” she asked.
“No,” I said. “I’m going to be a writer.”
She forced a smile. “That’s a lovely dream, but you should really have a back-up. English teachers get paid pretty well and they get summers off.”
It’s 10 years later, and (knock on wood) I’ve never needed that back-up. I got my degree in English, and save one short stint waiting tables, I’ve managed to make a steady living solely as a professional writer.
It wasn’t without effort. It required a lot of rejected job applications, a ton of pro-bono work, and several more conversations just like that one.
But it wasn’t as impossible as everyone made it out to be.
It seems that a professional writing career is still considered a pipe dream, and in my experience, that’s because good advice is limited. Yeah, “write every day” and “get a blog” are a good place to start, but those habits don’t necessarily make you a better writer—or a more hirable one.
These are the habits that actually launched my writing career:
1: Say “yes” to every writing job that comes your way—even if you’re clueless.
The first real writing job I landed was for a “staff commerce affiliate contributor,” and prior to the offer, I had no idea what that meant. I’d applied to be a lifestyle writer, and the publication offered that instead.
My first instinct was to turn it down. If I didn’t even understand the job title, how the hell was I supposed to do the job?
Luckily, desperation overpowered instinct. I took it.
As it turned out, the job was simply writing about products, and the more I did it, the more I loved it. I didn’t realize it then, but tons of publications were jumping on the e-commerce bandwagon, and as one of the only new writers with affiliate experience, I had opened myself up to loads of opportunities.
In this industry, a versatile portfolio is power. The more genres you can cover, the more pertinent samples you have for future jobs.
Even if you’re clueless about a particular opportunity, don’t let doubt get in your way. I’ve said yes to countless other jobs since, and full disclosure: for most of them, I was going in blind.
As the investor and business magnate Richard Branson says, “If somebody offers you an amazing opportunity but you are not sure you can do it, say yes—then learn how to do it later.”
And in this day and age, we’ve got everything we need to learn later. Don’t have a writer’s bio? Google it. Can’t edit a hero image? There are Youtube tutorials. Not sure how to format an APA article? The internet is filled with examples.
In other words, when it comes to a professional writing career, it’s easier than ever to fake it ‘til you make it.
2: Read everything you write out loud.
It’s a good thing I work from home, because if I didn’t, my coworkers would murder me. I read absolutely everything I write out loud: full articles, e-mail drafts, tweets, you name it.
Yes, you’re more likely to catch mistakes and clunky word choices, but it’s more than that. Good writing has a certain cadence to it. The brain analyzes human speech with the same circuits it uses to perceive music, and when you read a sentence out loud, you instantly know whether or not that cadence is there.
You can immediately tell it’ll resonate with people—like the first time you hear a catchy song.
Reading your work out loud is also a solid way to find your voice. It may sound alright in your head, but if it rolls off your tongue and you think, “Yeah, I’d never say that,” you know it’s revision-time.
3. Learn to view creative writing through a business-oriented lens.
I’m a writer who was raised by two professional musicians, so I can say this with conviction: Creative people get a really bad rap.
We’re seen as unmotivated, unorganized, willing to work for free, and ridiculously bad with time-management. People also assume we smoke a lot of marijuana, for some reason.
Maybe these stereotypes exist because, in some cases, they’re true. Maybe people with creative skills do favor the right side of the brain over the left, which makes it difficult for them to plan ahead. As a result, they don’t always make great employees.
But if you want a professional writing career, it’s your job to discredit all those stereotypes.
Hand in your articles hours before the deadlines. Regularly update your resume, LinkedIn, portfolio, and personal website. Genuinely prepare for each and every interview, even if it’s a quick call with a potential freelance client. And check your e-mails and respond to them promptly, even on weekends. (I can’t tell you how many times I landed a job not because I was the most qualified, but because I was the quickest to reply.)
Take yourself as seriously as you would if you were a banker, a doctor, a CEO—because that’s going to dictate how seriously other people take you.
Keep in mind: employers probably won’t hire you to pen your personal memoir on your own time. In order to get paid for your writing, it needs to be lucrative for someone else, too. That means there will be rules, expectations, style guides, and time limits.
But when you learn to treat writing as a business, it’ll start to pay like a business.
4: Stay optimistic. There are more opportunities than you realize.
Every single day, I wake up grateful that I was born in this time period, and not just because I’m a woman who aspires to own land one day.
The internet is the largest means of communication in the entire world. 55.7% of the internet is in English, and the vast majority of that is made up of written content. Now more than ever before, your skills as a writer are in-demand and lucrative.
Every company with a web presence needs someone who can articulate their mission. Anyone who tweets, Instagrams, or posts on Facebook could use someone who knows how to spell. Personal branding is everything nowadays, and that all starts with a well-worded idea.
In fact, recent studies show that hiring managers are now prioritizing creativity over all other soft skills—because while machines can do a lot of things, they still can’t do that.
Just last week, a recruiter reached out to me on LinkedIn. She works for one of the most prominent hospitals in my area, and they’re looking to fill several dozen writer and editor roles within the next year. A hospital wants people to run a blog for them, because right now, creative, human-curated content is how you stand out, no matter the industry.
Don’t let anyone tell you that a professional writing career is impossible. It’ll take work and dedication, same as anything else, but in today’s world, it’s more likely than ever before.