7 Steps to Writing for a Living

One of my readers asked me a question last week after hearing the good news about my new writing job, and it’s something I’d love to address. I was actually going to mention it in the post anyway, but I was already getting pretty long-winded. A writer needs to know when to edit, too.

The Edmonton Tourist wrote,

Mark, what kind of writing education do you have? Obviously you are an author and blogger but do you have formalized training – such as a degree in communications or English? I’m trying to break into the field and have had moderate success, but I’m always interested in knowing how someone else did it. Congratulations! I know you have been wanting this for a long time.

Thank you, E.T. I have been wanting this forever. And it took some work to get to this point, because the short answer to your question is, I have no formal training. I graduated from college with a B.A. in Advertising because, once upon a time, I dreamed of being a Copywriter. I fantasized about writing one of those funny everbody’s-talking-about-it-around-the-water-cooler-the-next-day Super Bowl commercials, and even had a great idea for a Coca-Cola spot. Alas, the bloom faded from that rose by the time I reached my junior year and realized what a cut-throat, dog-eat-dog business advertising really is.  Besides, advertising courses don’t really teach you writing – it’s all about selling.

Which is why, when I graduated from college, I landed a job in customer service. Fifteen years later I was still in customer service, my dream of writing for a living dwindling further and further with each passing year. The problem was, even though I knew I could write, I had no practical experience whatsoever – just a steady string of jobs that entailed data entry and talking on the phone with people. Prospective employers rarely just take your word for it, and no amount of “trust me – I can write!” was going to cut it.

So, I came up with a plan.

And, damn if it hasn’t worked out beautifully. The truth is, I’m still a little surprised I was able to pull it off. Hard work and determination played important roles, but so too did luck. And, I was brave (or foolish) enough to gamble a little.

Here’s what worked for me – and the advice I would give to other aspiring writers.

  1. Write –  for yourself. This is the most basic piece of advice in the world, but also, the most important. The writing life may seem glamorous, but how do you know it’s something you’ll enjoy until you actually try your hand at it? Maybe you’ll drive yourself crazy undangling participles or subjugating verbs. Who knows, you might find coal mining or bomb defusing to be less stressful pastimes. What I did: I wrote my first novel in 1999; it was a turning-30 goal. I enjoyed it so much I penned three more over the next six years. Just like that, I was hooked.
  2. Write – for others. The goal here is twofold: you’ll pick up some much-needed experience to add to your resume, and you’ll find out pretty quickly if you’re actually any good. Plenty of people think they can write, but in truth, are horrible. You may think you are your own worst critic, but you really need an impartial second (and third, and fourth) set of eyes looking at your work. What I did: I had a friend who started up a book review publication, and signed on to write freelance reviews. There was no pay involved, but you have to start somewhere.  Later, I added a monthly column and editing duties to the mix.
  3. Start a blog. Not only will blogging keep your skills sharp, it’ll teach you discipline if you’re committed to it. I cannot go more than four days without updating; that’s a personal deadline I set for myself early on. In the writing world, deadlines are everything! Blogging will also give you a chance to show off your writing to others, and if you get a lot of “hits,” people notice. Plus, you’re part of a community full of people who can dispense helpful advice. What I did: I started a blog.
  4. Add writing to your list of job duties. Contribute articles to your company newsletter, volunteer to add content to the corporate website, help to update the policy manual. You want to show your coworkers and your boss that you’ve got skills, even if they’re not a part of your regular job description! What I did: All of the above. Before long, I developed a reputation and became the go-to person for writing-related projects. This helped land me a promotion to Marketing Coordinator, opening doors for me elsewhere and – most importantly – finally getting me out of the dreaded vicious circle of customer service.
  5. Build a portfolio. A writing portfolio – both an online and a physical version – is crucial; it’s often the first thing an employer will ask to see. You’ll want to include a variety of materials that demonstrate your diversity as well as your strengths. What I did: I gathered everything I had written – book reviews, newsletters, web articles, corporate documents, even a few blog posts – and put them together in an attractive binder. I simultaneously started a website (paying for my own domain name) with links to my online writing.
  6. Commit to it. I’m a big believer in following your dreams at all costs, and if you want to be a writer, don’t let anything stop you! Fortunately, if you’ve followed the first five steps, you’ve already demonstrated that you’re pretty committed. What I did: When my marketing position was eliminated in 2010, I was faced with a tough decision. My employer gave me the option of staying on with the company – in a customer service role. That would have been the smart choice, but it also would have been the safe choice…and would have set my career way back, erasing all the strides I had made in breaking free of customer service. I decided to roll the dice instead and join the ranks of the unemployed. This afforded me the opportunity to take a stab at freelance writing. I landed a few clients, got some important (paid) gigs, and gained a ton of experience in the process. It also allowed me to add “freelance writer” to my resume, showing prospective employers that I was working even when I didn’t have a job.
  7. Focus on a specialty. Being a jack of all trades but a master of none is sort of like having a liberal arts degree – you know a little bit about a lot of things, but a lot about none. Knowledge may be power, but to truly be successful, you’ve got to have an area of expertise. It might be technical writing, or a focus on medical articles. For me, it was SEO writing. What I did: I first heard the term “search engine optimization” in my marketing position. SEO writing is almost an art – you use key words and phrases in order to achieve high page rankings on search engines. If you’re too heavy-handed, Google (and others) will consider you spam (and not the good kind that comes from a can, either). I decided to focus my efforts on this area, and studied up on the topic until I felt comfortable enough to give it a shot. My first freelance client was a “web solutions” company that required seven SEO articles per week on a variety of topics. Even though the pay was crap, I stuck it out for a couple of months, and the experience I gained proved to be crucial. That skill is what led directly to this awesome new job!

There you have it – seven tried-and-true steps to earning a paycheck for your writing. Admittedly, they are not foolproof. Toward the end of my unemployment stint, I could no longer afford to be choosy and ended up broadening my job search to include those dreaded customer service positions. In fact, I’d made it to the final round of interviews for a call center job with the local utility company, one that would have been a soul-sucking, miserable experience – but I had bills to pay, and my choices were limited. Fortunately, everything worked out in the end. Now, I can actually add “writer” to my resume, and that should make future opportunities easier to come by.

All part of my plan.

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24 thoughts on “7 Steps to Writing for a Living

  1. cecilia says:

    Excellent, I am so glad I stumbled across your blog. I truly think that commitment is the key.. and absolutely agree that blogging (daily in my case ) is a fantastic discipline.. happy writing! c

    Like

  2. Lisa Wields Words says:

    This sounds like excellent advice, but at the same time it sounds a little terrifying. I don’t know why, I pretty much have done all these things, but I still have some personal demons to get out of the way I guess.

    Like

  3. benzeknees says:

    Thanks for this Mark, I am one of your readers trying to figure out how you made it too. Not that I don’t think you deserve it, but without some of the background it seemed so surreal. Being unemployed, I am on the cusp of change. I don’t want to go back into office work – I am burned out by office work. Bullies have beaten me down & reduced my confidence in myself as an office worker. But then again, I don’t think I have enough writing experience to land a job doing any kind of writing. But I want to write! I need to build a portfolio so I can go after writing jobs.

    Like

    1. Mark Petruska says:

      Just having a portfolio will impress a lot of employers. I’m sure that’s what separated me from other candidates on several occasions. And I say, take advantage of being unemployed to follow your dreams. If nothing else, write every day!

      Like

  4. Honie Briggs says:

    I see Springsteen’s only 9 days away. Are you pumped? Yeah this is me practicing taking comments off topic. What do ya think? Do I have skills or what?
    Glad you shared your background; makes my career path look almost plausible. weight lifting machine cabler and bench upholsterer, blue jean inspector, jet engine mechanic, payroll clerk, random jobs and night school, banker, ops manager, unemployed blogger.

    Like

    1. Mark Petruska says:

      I am so ridiculously excited to see The Boss!! Been a fan since the early 80s (when the rest of the world discovered him, too). I’ve got most of his back catalog on vinyl and it’s a dream come true to finally see him live in concert!

      Excellent off-topic commenting, by the way. And quite a varied set of skills you’ve got there, too.

      Like

  5. Tracy says:

    I found this very interesting and I’m glad you enlightened all of us. Thanks for the insight!

    I’ve always admired you and your writing. I, for one, know for a fact that I am not a writer so knowing someone who actually is a writer is way cool in my book!

    Like

    1. Mark Petruska says:

      A very negligible amount. I haven’t noticed any uptick in sales since lowering the price. It doesn’t matter – I’m going to keep the Kindle version at $2.99 anyway. I think that’s a good strategy regardless. Ironically, I sold 3 paperbacks at work the last two weeks I was there. Maybe quitting your job and never seeing people again is a better book selling strategy than offering it for a low price through Amazon!

      Like

      1. Steven Wolff says:

        Huh… Interesting. Have you thought of a different book cover or description or does it not matter, it’s just there as bragging rights? Changing covers sometimes makes a world of a difference. My Got Ghosts increased a lot when I changed it to the ghost woman. Just FYI. The important thing is you’re doing what you love… writing.

        Like

  6. Steven Wolff says:

    Respectfully I think you are proving my point I made earlier that you can have the greatest story in the world but no one will ever know because the cover maybe a turn off (I don’t know, it could be the description too or price.) I agree with you on the cover – I LOVE my fairy book cover but very few people are picking it up. As much as it hurts me I will move on to one that does sell. After all, isn’t the point of writing to share what’s inside? It’s no longer our bird once we set it free. Let it fly away… fly fly fly! 🙂

    Like

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