Friday, May 24, 2013

4 Steps for Launching Your Writing Career

My writing mentor, Alan Natali.

Mentoring new writers is an important part of my life. It’s a tradition that I take seriously because my mentor, Alan Natali, bestowed it upon me. His mentor, the late Ron Forsythe, had passed the tradition on to him.

“Don’t thank me for helping you,” Alan once told me. “Someone did for me what I did for you, so it’s your job to pass it on to someone else now. That’s how it has to work.”

And so, like a jiu-jitsu lineage, I work to give to others what was given to me.

I have helped a few young writers get their start, and one fight writer has worked with me closely over the last year, but I am interested in helping more. As much as I would enjoy teaching a class on writing, that’s not a possibility right now, but I can teach you how to begin establishing your writing career. It’s not easy, but having an idea of what to do and where to start puts you ahead of most aspiring writers. These four tips are a start, a jumping off point.

1. Learn to write.
You can learn to write without going to college, but the structure of a class guided by the insight of a professional writer will advance your writing far more quickly than trying to trial-and-error your way to being a better writer. Learning to write by reading great writing is certainly effective, but that approach requires a bit more effort than simply reading. I plan to cover this topic in a future post.

2. Establish a professional presence.
Setup a LinkedIn profile, a website, and become proficient in the query letter. Your LinkedIn profile and your website should present you in a good light and should be used as tools for expanding your network. The query letter is an art in itself, but you should be able to write an email that succinctly and expertly introduces your content idea, explains why that idea is an ideal fit for a target publication, and then demonstrates why you are the best writer for executing that idea.

3. Build your portfolio.
Your portfolio will begin with high quality writing samples that you created for pleasure. Then you will most likely write for free to amass a collection of published clips. With those published clips, you have the foundation to seek out and demand paying assignments. Rule: once you get paid, always get paid. Do not go back to writing for free after someone has paid you, no matter how small that pay may have been.

Finding places to publish your work for free is not terribly difficult. You should be able to find multiple websites and independent publications within your target genre that are looking for quality content but do not have a budget to pay writers. Pitch some ideas to their editors and start to grow your portfolio. The process for finding paying work is some similar, but start with small publications and work your way into steadily larger and larger publications.

Think of the well-paying writing jobs as the point of a pyramid. You have to lay a lot of stones in multiple levels to build a pyramid of work that reaches as high as that point. Do some people skip to the top? Yes, but you should never count on being the exception. Keep pushing to outdo your last publication, keep pushing to get published in larger, more prestigious markets.

4. Treat writing like a job.
Treat your writing more like a job and less like art. If you are going to be a career writer, you cannot wait for inspiration (for the record, I have not been “inspired” to write since April of 2008). You have to develop the discipline and the process to write without a muse speaking to you so that you can consistently develop content over long periods of time. For this reason, I tend to avoid settings where the more spiritual writers gather, like writing groups or workshops. To me, it’s not about “feel” or “flow.” Good writing is a craft, like carpentry. When done well, it’s beautiful and artistic, but very particular factors make a table a successful table.

So learn to step into your workshop and to start planning and measuring your pieces. I offend many writers when I talk like this. Art can come from work; lest we forget that the Sistine Chapel was not a product of inspiration but rather a commissioned project. If I didn’t make myself think about writing this way, I would not be able to write for 50-60 hours a week.

Good luck. If you have any questions, please ask via the comments below or via my Facebook page.

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