How to make the switch to a writing career

4350431493_390dff81ec_zLaura’s note: Over the next few days, I’ll be answering some of my Frequently Asked Questions — questions that I often hear from readers. As I email my answers, I sometimes think, hey, that would make a reasonable blog post! So here we go. If you have a question to add to the series, please email me at lvanderkam at yahoo dot com.

Q. I’m working as a lawyer/consultant/administrator/small business owner but I’ve always wanted to be a writer. How do I get started?

A. I think writing is a great career. I’ve heard too many stories lately of people who’ve wanted to do something creative or artistic, but have been discouraged from it by well-meaning sorts who inform them that it’s impossible to make a living. This isn’t true. It’s quite possible to make enough to support a family in a creative career. I know a number of writers earning six figures, and none of them are as big of names as, say, J.K. Rowling.

That said, it’s not as straightforward a path to earning a decent living as going to law school and then getting a job at a major law firm. It’s pretty hard to earn a good living if you are dead set on doing only one sort of writing (e.g. only magazine features, or only books). And anyone hoping to build a career as a writer should know that it requires a lot of patience. Momentum builds over time. Seeds you plant can sometimes take years to bear fruit.

The old advice to get started as a writer was to start building up your “clips.” Clips are magazine or newspaper clippings of your work — basically, evidence of what you’ve done. I got my first professional clips in college writing freelance stories for local newspapers. My first “big name” publication clips came right after college when I started writing for USA Today. Those op-eds got me a number of other gigs later. My biggest “clips” these days are my books. I hear from editors who’ve read my books and are looking for writers.

There’s nothing wrong with my approach — and getting a few professional clips is still a great idea. But these days you can also get started by making your own clips. So I recommend that anyone looking to make a career as a writer start a blog. The best reason is that you’ll get a lot of writing practice as you crank out posts daily. But the next best reason is that a blog creates a portfolio of your work that anyone can read, including people who hire writers. If you want to write feature stories, just write them for your blog, and people will see what you can do. Send your best posts to various editors,  or to bigger blogs that take guest posts, and over time you’ll hear back from people who are interested. Then you can start sending ideas for paid stories to these people who hire writers, and go from there.

Of course, none of this is a sure thing. It may take a long time or you could make the leap overnight. If you write a blog post early on that somehow goes viral, you’ll get book offers coming to you. But probably things will build slow and steady, which is good because your writing will get better over time as well.

Photo courtesy flickr user qisur

8 thoughts on “How to make the switch to a writing career

  1. Great advice!
    I’m fairly new to your writing, within the last year, but I want to tell you that it’s been very motivational. Loved “All the Money in the World”.
    I have had a side photography business for years and also written a few published, but non-paid articles. I’ve wanted to build those areas into a more substantial portion of my income. They have long been my passions.
    So, inspired by your one line journal article, I have just attached a blog to my photo website. I also have plans to start another blog focusing more on my writing.
    Thank you!

  2. I’ve been asked to do freelance writing (under my real name) because I’m an expert on a topic and I’m willing to talk to people about it. If you’re a “lawyer/consultant/administrator/small business owner,” talking to people (commenting on blogs is an easy way to start) about that expertise might be a way to dip your toe in the water.

  3. I have been waiting for this for some time. 🙂

    Thanks.

    Re: getting better, I second that. I recently rewrote and edited an ebook I originally put together in 2006. I was shocked at how much my writing has improved since then, and I’ve made no real study of the art of writing, other than being a person who writes daily and reads for a couple of hours every day.

    1. @Carrie – reading a few hours per day, and writing daily, is probably the best way to study writing. OK, and reading Strunk & White. One other tip that’s been useful for me is understanding that when people read your words, they’re actually saying them in their heads. In other words, write to be read aloud. It rarely hurts the prose and usually makes it much better.

  4. Great advice for me, thank you, Laura! I’m trying to do this myself, and so far it has been a long, patient process, but I have faith that something will come of it if I keep focusing on producing quality writing and trying to get the writing to the right people.
    My follow-up question is this: Once you decide you want a writing career, how do you find your niche? I am interested in writing and blogging about many different topics, and I’m having a hard time figuring out what my focus should be. (I recently blogged about this and cited your blog as an example of someone who has a clear message but still has a lot of versatility.) To promote a blog, it seems like a defined message or theme is important. How did you choose yours, or did it end up choosing you?

    1. @Leanne – to some degree it chose me. I had lots of topics I liked writing about, still do, but time/productivity/career topics seem to have the most legs, and at this point it’s now what I can get book advances for 🙂 But I do still like to do random things. I do assignments for City Journal, which is a policy magazine, because they have me writing about more off-beat topics: the decline of Korean green grocers in NYC, the Khan Academy, maybe school lunch programs next.
      As blog readership grows you start to see what people respond to and what you’re most excited about to write about again and again – – sometimes that makes a good niche. Or if you have professional expertise, that can be a good niche too. I talked to a woman once who made a living writing almost entirely about boats. But it turns out that boats get at a lot of different topics: travel, mechanics, decor, even staffing if you’re talking about huge yachts…

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