Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Going pro?

I’ve lost track of the amount of people who’ve told me they’re interested in becoming a professional writer. Especially those who tell me they want to go full time. So, here’s the million-dollar question. How does one go full-time in the media industry as a wordsmith?

Okay, you can do it the hard way, and study journalism and, if you’re lucky, start working as a journalist for a newspaper or magazine. But most people I’ve spoken to have already got jobs in some other industry, probably because they’d (sensibly) thought to have a job that would actually pay the bills, and don’t really have time to pursue these qualifications.

The media industry being as fickle as it is, editors and journos’ positions are often the first to be shed, should a company look to tighten its belt. I’ve also encountered a perception that writing for a magazine or newspaper is some kind of glamorous job. It’s not. It’s a job, like any other, and if you’re chasing daily or weekly print deadlines, it can be extremely pressurised.

There’s another way. You can study copy writing at an advertising school, university, college or technikon. These can either offer you a diploma, certificate or degree by way of tertiary qualification. You’ll end up working in marketing, at an advertising agency or, like me, as a commercial features sub-editor for a national newspaper publisher. And, no matter what the TV shows lead you to believe, this is not a glamorous job, either. You can only write so much promotional editorial or advertorial before you want to reach for a blunt spoon and slit your wrists. Granted, this has given me an excellent grasp of the English language but it’s dead boring. The only benefits I can think of is that one of my projects is a weekly travel publication and I occasionally get to go out and review game lodges or five-star resorts on tropical islands. Place the emphasis on “occasionally”. I don’t get paid for this extra writing. I do it because I love it. Ditto for the books I end up reviewing in the papers. Or the lifestyle pieces I craft. I don’t get paid for these stories, okay?

Then you have your average, garden-variety freelancer. Some of these individuals studied languages, copy writing or were just damn hot and learned on the job, so to speak. They write editorial for magazines, newspapers, promotional material and websites. But they were not making oodles of money overnight. It takes a long time to build up a decent client base and, more often than not, these intrepid writers end up spending most of their time writing copy for corporate clients. Corporate clients can also be full of s***.

And you don’t just break in into this industry. You go freelance only once your extra work is paying you the salary you’re already earning. Generally, unless you’ve got a very strong handle on grammar, I don’t advise sudden career changes unless you’re absolutely certain you know exactly what you’re doing to the English language. I’ve seen people try to make this jump after working in an unrelated industry, often resulting in a spectacular income failure when they were still learning the basics. And, trust me, it looks really bad when you write copy for a corporate client when you abuse homophones or don’t punctuate your sentences properly.

And there’s the last category that makes me smile. Sometimes people approach me and tell me they want to write novels with the view of staying at home and being a career novelist. I’m in agreement with one of my friends, who said her first impulse is to tell them to take a ballpoint pen and repeatedly stab themselves in the hand because it will be less painful. I know very few full-time authors. Those who are, were incredibly lucky and got in with a big publisher the first time round with huge deals and a best-selling international series. Many of them held onto their day-jobs until they were earning the royalties to replace that income. But that was usually only by books six or seven, and they were proven authors.

Others are big names but still have day-jobs. Sure, they may have a number of books with a mass-market paperback publisher, but they hold onto that day-job. Some of the ebook authors I know write fulltime but I’ve been told they write the books they know will sell (romance and erotica) and sometimes write the books they want to read. And even this is hard work because you’re competing against so many other people who are established brands. This means that you must constantly strive to improve your writing skills and learn from what your editor or writing buddies tell you about your writing. You don’t just sit down and write an instant best-seller in the space of a month.

So, before you start writing, ask yourself this question: Why are you writing? If you’re writing to make money, then look at the choices that will actually pay. And if you decide to embark on that trip, make damn sure you’re passionate about that type of writing because, trust me, it shows when you aren’t.


Sondrae Bennett said...

I would absolutely love to write full time, but realistically know that's a long ways away (my first ebook will be released in January). Truthfully, if it never happens and I always have to work my "pay the bills" job too, I wouldn't change one thing. Writing is something I love to do and I'm just glad I'm getting to share the stories I love with other people.

This was an interesting post and I agree completely. Writing should definitely be a labor of love first. :)

Vivien Jackson said...

I advise against taking just any old any job that lists "writing" among the duties. Can't tell you how many software manuals and business pamphlets I've gotten suckered into authoring that way. On the other hand, it does pay the bills, which heretofore my fiction writing has *not*. Thanks for this blog entry. :)

Nerine Dorman said...

Well, I can write advertorial in my sleep. If that counts for anything... **sigh** My day job sucks but it pays the bills.

Noor Jahangir said...

I've been working on my first novel for 18 years. I've spent the last two looking for an agent or a publisher, without much success. If I didn't work a day job, I wouldn't have survived to the age I have.