top of page

Taking the Plunge

            Here we are in the body of the guide (this is Act II, for those of you playing “Theory and Structure of Writing,” the home game). You’ve decided to write for a living. No matter what your subject matter, pick up a pen/typewriter/laptop/chisel/voice recorder and write what you want. Remember, it’s important to write what you’re interested in, even if you don’t get paid for it right away. It reinvigorates your drive and rekindles the passion of writing to see the words you’ve been dreaming of filling up a blank page. So, if you write a column for a magazine about the mating habits of cheetahs, but your dream is to write a bestselling erotic picture book, then you’d best start scribbling some lewd illustrations in your notes.

            This first step is simple; you need to enjoy yourself. Forget about the obligation part of it for now; in order to set yourself up for success, you need to be able to dig deep and pull out that passion for writing that made you set off on this crazy adventure to begin with. This is something even established writers forget from time to time. We get so caught up in the business end of things that we forget to actually enjoy ourselves. If we write outside of our desired field to pay the bills, then we must inevitably write inside the field on our days off. Lest the passion for creating worlds vanish forever, only to be replaced by disillusionment and alcoholism. You might end up on a syndicated A&E special that way, but you won’t have realized your dreams of publishing your magnum opus.

            The next step to motivating yourself is figuring out how you’re going to make it rain, or at least, drizzle. If you’re going to write for a living, you need to make money doing it, and you need to be confident enough in your income that you can live a comfortable lifestyle. Unless, of course, your work constitutes a hobby, in which case – have a blast! There are bound to be several examples of casual writers who have gone down in history for their work. Without a doubt, however, those who have dedicated their lives to the pursuit of the craft far outnumber the hobbyists in that regard.

            So, how do you make money by writing? There are a few important ways to get started. The easiest way is through your connections. Who do you know that works for a newspaper, runs a magazine or e-zine, or works as a literary agent or for a publishing house? If you know anyone in the world of words already, this is the absolute best chance you have of finding paid work right away. And don’t be afraid to ask. The most horrific thing anyone in life can ever do to you if you ask them for a favor is say no. Unless they’re a psychopath, in which case they could burn down your house with your favorite puppy barricaded inside, or something equally terrible. The moral of this story is not to go befriending any psychopaths, though you inevitably will. Actually, the moral is that at this point you have nothing to lose. Arguably, you never do. There are only a few things in life that are irreplaceable, and if you aren’t at risk of losing any of those, then you should feel confident going after what you want. This involves asking your friend who works for Garbage Men Weekly for a couple of articles a month. It can’t hurt. Credits are credits.[1]

           If you can find a way into a subscription-based magazine or service, you’ll have garnered yourself an epic recurring payday from the start. A financial writer and very good friend of mine, Bryan Mills, landed a regular gig with a prominent subscription-based magazine in the world of finance early in his writing career. However, he’d been working as a financial planner for twenty-two years prior, and could cite significant accomplishments and a wealth of specialized knowledge of the field. If you’re beginning a career in writing after several years of working elsewhere, consider this as your first viable option. Writers with credentials in a particular field are in high demand. Certain others fall into their field or fields, but if you have one already, consider yourself fortunate. You probably already know the prominent publications in your field, and might even have a way to get yourself introduced to the editor. If not, ask around or peruse LinkedIn for a way in.

            If you don't have the connections or the support network, the best thing to do is to have a regular gig and write in your spare time. Better yet, have a gig where you can write while on the job. It's up to you to decide how much time you'll need to dedicate to earning a living versus how much time you'll spend writing. If you find that having a full-time job detracts from your writing time too much, consider working part-time hours somewhere. Start by pitching articles or short stories to publications. You can find a list of the best places to query in the perennial Reader's Digest's Writer's Market. We'll talk more about pitching and explore the query process in a later chapter.

           This brings us to our next and last option – writing for free. For the most part, you should try very, very hard not to write for free. If you worked in any other profession, you’d never, ever work for free. Because work is based on a system developed by our early hominid ancestors where products or services of equal value were traded in a mutually beneficial manner. Modern capitalism is sort of like this, but has lost the whole mutually beneficial thing. Regardless, you wouldn’t hire a mechanic and tell him that you won’t be paying him to fix your car. So you shouldn’t let anyone “hire” you to write for them and not pay you. Writing is a job, just like any other. The recent surge of companies expecting writers to work for “visibility” is a scam brought on by the principles of supply and demand. This same set of circumstances is prevalent in all the creative industries. At the moment, there are too many amateur artists, most of them college-aged, who are willing to work for free solely in order to stack credits on their resume or portfolio. These folks are a catastrophic plague on the creative arts, and they’ll be met with quite a wake-up call if they ever try to make it as a professional. Their actions have caused commercial entities to devalue the craft, inexplicably maintaining that the unskilled work of a non-professional is just as good as that of someone who’s been clacking away at his keys for several years. Heavily decorated wordsmith Harlan Ellison sums up this point nicely here.

           That being said, writing for free for any reason is not advised, but building a portfolio is advised. If the only way you can conceivably do this is to write for free, then you should proceed in as cautious a manner as possible. Most employers either don’t understand Intellectual Property (IP) law, or they try very hard to take advantage of beginning writers at every turn. IP law is something you need to know forward and backward, because it’s the set of rules and regulations that governs your new profession. Pick up a book, research the Interwebs, and actually read Title 17 of the United States Code. As a professional writer, it is essential that you possess this knowledge in your toolkit. You’ll most likely make use of it on a semi-regular basis. If you’re writing for free, remember that First Internet Rights is all you’re giving up, i.e., the employer has the right to display your work on their website or magazine once, and that all other rights and decisions regarding your work remain exclusively with you.

           You can find more detailed information on rights in a later chapter, The Rights of Writing.




[1] Credits, also called bylines or citations, are the publications you've garnered during your career. Put them on your resume or portfolio by listing the magazines or newspapers you've sold your work to, i.e., credits in Rolling Stone, The Seattle Tribune


bottom of page