Because I am a gobby twat who writes for lots of different places and isn’t afraid of shoving the resultant work right up into people’s faces, I occasionally get mistaken for someone who knows how to be a professional writer.
gullible idiots people say, “you are clearly not of sound mind half the time, yet you earn your living as a writer. I too would like to be a writer, please tell me how.”
Once I’ve stopped laughing I usually change the subject before anyone realises that I am, actually, a complete fucking lunatic. Yet I do still manage to make my way through life by putting words on a screen and apparently this is quite appealing to a lot of people. So here, then, is my advice.
It’s probably shit advice, mind.
Firstly – and this is the important bit – reassess what you mean by ‘success’
Want to write a fantastic novel which is hailed by readers and critics alike and retire on the proceeds to spend your days being wittily pithy on Twitter? Ain’t gonna happen. Anyway JK Rowling’s already got dibs on that job and she’s doing just fine at it on her own.
Success to me means ‘not starving whilst still having time to do your own thing, sometimes, if you can stay awake long enough after you’ve finished the paying work‘. If I can pay the bills then I’m happy.
If you’ve never written professionally before, start a blog
It’s a cliched way into the job, but it works. Blogging, if it’s done properly, can be an amazing and brilliant thing and it is a fabulous training ground with little or no risk. If it turns out that actually you’re just a bit shit at it, delete the fucking thing and go find something else to do. At least you tried. And most people who blog aren’t shit, because there’s usually an innate ability in them that’s made them think of doing it in the first place.
Find a niche and dig in
The reason there are so many lifestyle blogs that are perfectly okay but only get about three readers a day is because there’s nothing new in them – you need something that makes you look different to everyone else. From a random selection of my friends’ blogs I can find specialist topics such as stationery and running (Nickie O’Hara at Typecast), travel and fitness (Kate Sutton at WitWitWoo) and – bizarrely but brilliantly – poo and body image (Sam Cleasby at So Bad Ass).
All these people write about more than one subject, but they all have certain topics that are their main pulling point. Sex, Death, Rock’n’Roll started out as a general lifestyle site because I wanted to do something a bit more mainstream after years of running a blog about Victorian corpses, but soon realised that people like to know what to expect (and what they expect is quite often not old photos of dead people). The subjects that always got the most attention were sex and mental health – luckily I’m happy to write about them (because who doesn’t want to be able to claim sex toys as a business expense?), so these days I keep those two as core subjects and put other random stuff in around them.
It doesn’t matter what you write about, so long as you’re genuinely interested in it. Do you like harvesting badger toenails by the light of a full moon? Write about it with enough enthusiasm, and pow! – all those other secret badger fiends will be beating a path to your website to compare notes. However bizarre your specialist subject is, if you like it then I can guarantee that others will too.
But don’t restrict yourself
The problem I initially found with SDRR was that however much I personally liked my chosen topics and however interesting each individual subject might be, most other people don’t like thinking about sex and corpses at the same time. Go figure.
Magazine layouts are your friend, if your subject matter is a bit random – I have lots of different subjects on my front page and visitors can click through to the bits that interest them without being confronted by the stuff that doesn’t. Nickie has another site (rather sneakily titled Nickie O’Hara, because she’s clever like that) which acts as an umbrella for all of her random interests and also gives brands and PRs a central point from which to contact her.
The main reason behind not restricting what you write about is that you don’t want to risk missing out on work just because someone thinks ‘Aah no, that’s the one who only ever writes about knitting with llama hair, they won’t want to take on a really well paid commission about cooking with parsnips’, when secretly parsnips are your favourite thing ever but you just forgot to write about them.
Write things. And keep writing them until you are sick of writing and really just want to cry and pack it all in because let’s face it, it’s never going to go anywhere
This is precisely the point at which being Certifiably Batshit works in your favour, because HA! there is no other job you could do on account of how you would need time off for panic attacks, or there might be a week when you can’t get out of bed because the Marshmallow of Anxious Doom is pressing your head into the pillow in the hope of smothering you with your own misery, or those manic days when you keep writing but none of it makes sense except in your head but your head isn’t making any sense either and around 3pm you realise you forgot to take your meds and oh god it really must be time for a nap now.
Anyone with any sense whatsoever gives up on writing as a career early on and decides that working as a bait setter in a shark tank would be the easier option. But when you are batshit you have no other option but to carry on because what the fuck else you gonna do?
Talk to lots of people, make lots of friends
Yeah I know, this is the hardest bit because oh my god people and conversations and everyone will realise what a dork you actually are, waily… But honestly, EVERYONE FEELS LIKE THAT. And the more people you know, the more interesting stories you get to hear and the more inspiration you have for your writing. Anyone on my own Facebook friends list will tell you how much I use them as a ready source of case studies for articles – not because I purposely collated myself a zoo full of specimens, but because I like lovely and funny and different people.
Oh, and the useful thing about knowing lots of people is that quite often it gives you a foot in the door with commercial clients. What you know is as important as who you know, but only just.
Follow the money
Unless you are very lucky, you have bills to pay. It’s all very well standing by the principle of only writing worthwhile stuff (for ‘worthwhile’ read ‘things you actually want to write about’), but principles don’t put food on the table. You don’t have to compromise your ethics, but be well aware that any work you can take whilst you’re feeling less deranged than usual gives you a cushion against that fortnight in February when you can’t see any way out that doesn’t involve lying in bed all day eating chocolate and hating everything. Think of that cushion when you’re offered a week’s copywriting for a double-glazing company, or whatever – it might well be mind-numbingly tedious and you’ll almost certainly resent every second of it, but it probably pays twice the rate of the more interesting stuff and apart from anything else, the ‘working to deadlines’ thing is good practice.
Please remember – you really don’t have to work for free. I wrote about this recently (opens in new window, so you won’t lose your place) – it’s fine to do a few little bits at the start in order to have some kind of CV, but if you’re pushing your blogging and social media enough you should hopefully have enough proof of ability without doing free shit for other people.
Think up story ideas, then pitch to magazines and websites. Sometimes they’ll say no – and quite often you’ll get absolutely no response at all, which is fucking rude but you might as well get used to it now cos it’ll happen and it isn’t personal – but sometimes they’ll say yes. If someone takes your pitch then DO IT PROPERLY AND ON TIME BECAUSE YOU WANT MORE WORK. If this work happens to coincide with ‘Rocking and Crying In The Corner Week’ then suck it the fuck up – just get the fucking work done and do your wailing into the dog/cat/pillow after you’ve submitted it.
Rinse and repeat.
Ta da! You’re a writer, and you didn’t even have to get out of your pyjamas to do it (although it helps the Mentalism if you get dressed at some point during the day. Seriously).
I’ve one final point:
Love what you do
However much I take the piss, I really fucking love my job. It’s stupid and ridiculous and the money’s mostly crap and it’s fucking stressful, but I wouldn’t have it any other way. Actually of course I would – I’d rather the workload was steady rather than being feast or famine, and I’d like it very much better if it paid ten times what it actually does, because then it might be somewhere within the ballpark of what people think it pays. But I still love it.