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I have been working as a professional writer for the past 4.5 years, in everything from finance to entertainment to lifestyle to poetry to news. I have hired writers and published other people’s writing. I have done nonprofit copywriting and sponsored content and four books. Some of my articles have 9 million views. Others have 300. These numbers are not always a reflection of the quality of the work itself, rather what is resonating with people at the time. In all, I have published a few thousand pieces, and below are the 30 things I wish someone had told me when I first started it all.
1. The internet has redefined how creatives work. Twenty years ago, journalists were competing for a 5×7 column space. It’s not like that anymore. Now, you are competing for people’s attention.
2. The ability to weave flowery sentences together makes you a poet. The ability to communicate ideas clearly enough that a wide audience of people can understand them makes you a writer.
3. Writing is more like a sport than it is an art. It is mostly collaborative – any given piece usually passes through a number of people before it is published – and it is perfected by strategy, training and repetition, not blind talent.
4. Creativity is not a well you tap dry, it is a mental muscle that strengthens with time. Four years ago, someone asked me how I would be able to keep up with the volume I was producing, how I would keep developing pitches and ideas. I didn’t have an answer at the time. Since, I’ve learned that there are an indefinite number of ways to talk about any topic, and coming up with them actually gets easier with time, not harder.
5. Though creativity doesn’t run dry, effort does. If you are constantly trying too hard to be something you are not, you will burn out.
6. You don’t need have to have unique ideas all of the time. Most writers actually just communicate other people’s news.
7. There’s a difference between writing as a hobby and writing as a profession. Most people do not want to be professional writers. They like the idea of being able to “do what they love,” and then when they have to write 5 articles a day on top of manuscripts and other projects, they suddenly don’t love it so much anymore.
8. A lot of people ascribe a moral or artistic hierarchy to writing. That is a dumb way to think about it. It’s like saying that one type of music is better than another as though it is a fact and not subjective opinion. Different genres and styles resonate with different people and they are all “good” and valid in their own ways.
9. There’s nothing wrong with writing what other people want to read.
10. In fact, unless you are writing what other people want to read, you’re not bringing in ad dollars, and your work is (fiscally) worthless.
11. Digital publications make money through ads and sponsorships. The more people that view a website, the more they can sell ad space or sponsored content for, like they do with commercials on TV.
12. Because of how quickly news moves, it is much more common to find regular work writing stories daily, weekly or monthly.
13. Websites that are backed by major publishing companies can (usually) afford to pay you a little better.
14. However, you can only really start asking for premium rates once you’ve built an audience, or proven that your writing regularly generates a large response.
15. To generate that large response, write what you need to read, and do it in a way that is approachable, simple and organized.
16. Write what you need to read. The best thing I have learned throughout all of this is how truly alike we all are at our core. When millions of people share the same article because it is “so them,” you realize just how not alone you are.
17. There are a lot of different kinds of writing jobs out there, and not all of it includes a public byline.
18. People like to keep others in neat boxes. You are not less of a poet because you are also a TV reporter. Contain multitudes, guys.
19. For the love of god, show your work, don’t talk about it. There is nothing more grating than someone who constantly talks about how good/hard/stressful/crazy work is, without ever really showing you what they do.
20. The reason for this has something to do with what you train your brain to be affirmed for. If you post about work being hard and get a social response to it, you’re conditioning yourself to keep thinking work is hard. If you wait to post your finished product and get a response to that, you condition yourself to achieve completion.
21. Metrics of success are different for everyone, and that is never as true as with writing. Five years ago, the idea of having one article published was basically beyond my wildest dreams.
22. Writing is not that special, and it is not always creative. There are lots of companies, organizations, businesses and individuals that need reports drafted, copy edited, or marketing designed.
23. Not everyone will like what you do. That’s oddly one of those “metrics of success” that are pretty universal. If you’re getting big enough to generate an adverse response from some people, you’re getting somewhere.
24. Remember that if you say or suggest anything that is counter to an attachment that someone has, they will retaliate. One particular trigger for a lot of people is telling them they have the power to change their lives. The very people who most need to heed that advice are the ones who will vehemently defend why they don’t. Remember that their responses aren’t always a reflection of you, but they are always a reflection of them.
25. Nobody probably cares about you that much. At max, they read something you’ve written, have an opinion on it, and carry on with their day. It is too easy to get a spotlight complex from this kind of work. Regularly remind yourself of your insignificance.
26. You should look back on your earliest work and think it could be better. If you don’t, that means you’ve stagnated.
27. Success should be self-evident. You should never have to say, or imply: “I am successful.” That should be clear through the work you are producing.
28. The only time that you should be talking up what you do and how well you do it is at an interview or on your personal website. This applies to every profession: be the person who is successful but you’d never know it, not the person who makes sure everyone knows it.
29. You will always be surprised by who, and what, becomes popular.
30. Only real way to fail as a writer is to give up on it – which is true for most things in life.