How to Write for Money

Screen Shot 2015-05-21 at 10.05.35 AMPeople keep asking how I started writing “as a job.”

Like, a job where people give me money, and I pay my bills, and buy food. If I wanted to be inspirational and encouraging I could say “A lot of hard work — and a little luck! *wink*” — but fuck that.

I became a Writer by writing aggressively, filling notebooks and napkins and the skin of my arm when necessary. I spent a lot of time, energy and mental fortitude on pursuing anything but writing as a career. I deeply mocked and berated myself for thinking that something I enjoyed could support me, because happiness wasn’t sustainable.

People ask what I read.

I read words and faces and body language. I read books that are far beyond what I could ever hope to write. I read books on par with the dribble I wrote in middle school. I read fanfiction. Comic books. Screenplays. Magazines. The little inserts in programs when I go to the theatre. The back of my shampoo bottles. I read books twice. Three times. Annually. I read the first sentence of books, return them to their shelf and never touch them again.

I get asked how you start getting paid for writing.

You send a lot of emails. You read a lot. You write — yes, of course, but that’s not how you spend most of your time, frankly. You go on Twitter. You read things you wish you’d written. You read things you’d never want your byline on. You read cereal boxes.

Editors ask you questions, they tell you how to write for them. For their audience. You consider what it means; an audience. You begin to understand the difference between being read and being heard. You drink coffee.

Your writing begins to exist in two separate camps: what you write that will turn into money and what you write so that the shit you write for money will be better. Some of your best work lays dormant while fluff and click bait and ad copy get sent out into cyberspace and return to you on the boomerang of dollar bills in your checking account. Or, more likely, PayPal.

You listen to sad indie music, staring at your blinking cursor, wondering if this is what it means to “sell out” — but then you scoff, get to work, pour another cup of coffee. You stop worrying about it because you’re writing,your rent is getting paid and you don’t have time to debate the philosophical side of that reality.

You take a lot of walks. If you have a dog, you take a lot of walks where you stop frequently in the middle of the sidewalk and contemplate how to look cool while holding a bag of poop. If you live alone, you ask your dog how they feel about Oxford commas.

You stand in the middle of the sidewalk struck by inspiration and a sense of calm that you never get at your desk — when a jogging grandma stops you, asks if you know about the hidden dog treats in an old mailbox. She shows you. Your dog rejoices because happiness is much simpler when you have four legs. You watch Grandma bob away with a wave and you realize that you may not live in a city where writers get together to drink and debate Oxford commas, but you’re fine with that. Because maybe you’re not part of the Algonquin Roundtable but you’re in the Hidden Dog Biscuit Club, and your dog is happy. You find something beautiful in every day and that’s what makes you a writer in the end.

Because eventually, you get direct messages on Twitter. You get emails from people you’ve never met who feel like they know you. People start wanting to give you money to say these things that you’d say anyway, because you don’t know how to be quiet.

It just happens one day.

You wake up, roll over, check your social media. Respond to people who are thankful for your willingness to be honest about whatever niggles at your heart and keeps you bleeding incomplete sentences. And you will. You will respond to every tweet, every comment, every email. It will exhaust you but you’ll do it, because you won’t ever take these people for granted. Because you were them, reading and feeling validated. You’re still them, reading desperately, looking for what you can’t yet write in someone else’s paragraphs.

You still spend the majority of your time writing what pays the bills. It’s the grind. The churning. You write ad copy. News copy. Summaries. Blogs. White papers. Power Points. You do the grunt work that other people can’t imagine finding any joy in at all, but you do, even when you despise it.

Because you love words and they are comfortable, familiar.

And you begin to realize that every project, every blog post, every technical paper, every essay — every time you put down words and let them go, you improve. The money comes in fits and starts. It’s feast or famine, and you have to be prepared for that.

You have to be able to live with the responsibility of being entirely your own office: you are your own secretary, your own accountant, your own office-coffee-grunt, your own boss, your own everything. Because at least for a few years, you won’t be able to afford to hire someone to do it for you. And you shouldn’t. Because you need to know how much you’re worth and expect that you will be paid consummately.

At some point, you need to walk into projects, into contracts, expecting to be paid, and you need to be willing to walk away if you’re not.

You need to be willing to negotiate rates, salaries and benefits. You need to know what you need to make, and how to ask for more than that. You need to be confident that you deserve it.

What I would tell anyone about writing for money, about writing as a job — a career, even — is this:

IF YOU DON’T BELIEVE THAT YOU ARE A WRITER, IF YOU DON’T BELIEVE THAT YOU DESERVE TO BE COMPENSATED FOR THE WORK YOU PRODUCE, YOU AREN’T GOING TO GET PAID TO WRITE.

You can’t ask other people to believe you’re a Writer until you do. And how you get there, I don’t know — all I know is that now, when people ask what I do and I tell them I’m a writer, I say it without hesitation, with confidence (not cockiness) and I believe it.

Oh: and I took my dog’s advice about the Oxford comma.

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