You don’t become a writer. You can become a published author, a success, or find another way to get paid for your writing. Those things are all possible, and reasonable goals. But you cannot become something you either are or are not.
I wrote my first book at age six, and pretty much read everything I could get my hands on when I was a kid. It’s a common writer’s story. Time alone, time at the library, a list of favorite authors as long as my arm. The story rolls on with the typical advice from adults of our generation who told us there was no way to make a living as a writer: It was an impossible dream and we should just go to college and train for a “real” job.
Still, I dreamed of being the next King, Koontz, or even as prolific as Asimov. But I never did anything about it until I was already a little way down the road. So I’ll offer you some free advice.
1. Stay in school, or go back
In my case, I had a scholarship to Whitman college in Walla Walla, Washington, majoring in English. Instead of pursuing it, I adopted conventional wisdom and enrolled in a local university, majoring in aeronautical engineering. That turned out to be a huge mistake.
Now, after years of looking longingly at a Master’s Degree, I am headed back to school to finish my Bachelor’s first, starting by taking some classes online. It’s much harder as a dad with a one kid still at home, but it is worth it.
Truth? You don’t need a degree to work as a writer, but it does help, and the knowledge you get along the way will be invaluable and set you apart from the crowd.
You don’t have to major in writing or English either. Being an author is a business, so a marketing, business or communications major is nearly as appropriate, unless, like me, you also want to go on and teach; I don’t want anyone to hear or listen to the horrible advice I did.
2. Follow your head and your heart
There are three requirements when you look for “work” as a writer:
- The subject must be something you are passionate about (or can become passionate about).
- You need to make money. Don’t do things for free or just for exposure without a strategy of some sort. The only thing writing for exposure tells people is that you are willing to write for exposure, highlighted by Nick Thayer’s dust up with the Atlantic in 2013.
- Keep track of your hours, and get paid for all of them. There are many ways to track how productive you are actually being, and how much time it takes for the admin part of the writing business.
Your head will govern this to an extent, helping you logically determine how much money is enough. Your heart will let you know if your efforts are worth the emotional investment you are putting in. Be careful about draining either your bank account, your emotional reserves, or both.
3. Write every single day
Fiction, nonfiction, technical writing? Write something, or preferably more than one thing every single day. I have had more than one author tell me they don’t have to do this—and they are right. They don’t. But as Malcolm Gladwell states in his book on success, Outliers, spending 10,000 hours on anything is necessary to become a virtuoso. The average writer needs to write one million words to even begin to master the craft.
There is a reason many writers never come into their own until they are in their thirties. If you don’t write something every day, you’re simply delaying your maturity in the craft.
4. Write the story only you can write
Many people will tell you they have a book they would love to write, a story sitting inside of them they feel they must share. If you aspire to be a writer, this is where your success lies: Tell the story only you can tell, the one you were made to write. Then you can move on to other things.
For me, that story was the Samuel Elijah Johnson series. Redemption was first, and by the time I finished the final book in the series, Confession, I was spent. I wrote a poem, “Guilty,” that encapsulates the series, and then moved on to write a number of other things.
To be honest, I still struggle. I write every day, but not always what I want to. Sometimes I become so focused on the business side of writing, I forget the passion side. You’ll find a lot of imperfection in yourself in the search for perfection. When it comes to failing at the advice I offer here, as the poem above says, I am guilty.
This is your journey. I’ll share more tips going forward, but until then, set your feet on a path, and start walking. If you fall down, get back up. You’ll be running soon enough.