How I Became a Professional Writer

portrait of Jean Miélot, 15th century writer, in his office surrounded by books

Jean Miélot, 15th Century writer

I’ve always wanted to be a writer.

Not just a hobbyist or dabbler, but a professional, earning my living from my writing.

Over the holidays, the thought occurred to me that I’ve now achieved my ambition, almost without realising it.

No, I haven’t signed a book deal. I’ve been offered several, but for various reasons I’ve yet to sign one. I’ve taken a different route.

Here’s how I did it – and how you can take a similar path, whatever medium you work in, if you want to earn a living from your creativity.

Experience

When I was at college, the famous children’s author Leon Garfield came to talk to the Literary Society. In the Q&A session I asked him what advice he had for someone considering writing as a career. His answer wasn’t exactly what I wanted to hear:

Do something else first.

His reasoning was that until you’ve lived a bit of life, you don’t really have anything to write about. I resisted his advice, but I ended up taking it, exploring various career paths, including psychotherapy, publishing, copywriting, coaching, training and consulting. And at the ripe old age of 39, I’m not exactly sitting here dispensing the wisdom of age, but I have a lot more life experience to draw on than my undergraduate self.

Takeaway: Don’t confine yourself to purely creative ambitions, wonderful though those are. Life is much richer – go out and enjoy it! And your work will be better for it.

Example

I read. A lot. My English degree was perfect for me in that respect – three years with nothing to do but read novels, plays, poems, short stories and essays, from Anglo-Saxon times to the 20th century. At one time, it was fair to say I was the literary equivalent of an alcoholic – I always had to have a book with me, and got anxious if I had nothing to read.

I’ve moderated my intake a little since then, but I still read plenty of poetry, as well as business books, blogs, e-books, newspapers, magazines. One of the reasons I love Twitter and have a hard time with Facebook is that on Twitter there are no distracting pictures to get in the way of the stream of words.

And I analyse writing as I read it, to see how it works, how the writers achieve their effects, what I can learn from it. So I love getting commissions to write Poetry Reviews. But I don’t restrict my analysis to literary criticism – I believe there’s an art to every kind of writing, if you take it seriously, from tabloid headlines to personal ads, and the bit on the back of a cereal packet explaining how many E numbers and additives it contains.

When I’m on the tube, I read all the ads, analysing the copywriting and tinkering with it to see if I can improve on it. (I’m a particular fan of the ‘old timer’ voice in the Jack Daniel’s ads.) I used to love reading football match reports on Teletext, where the journalists only had one screenfull of large type in which to compress all the drama and nuances of a 90 minute game. Very similar to the challenge of writing a Shakespearean sonnet. Seriously.

Takeaway: If you take your creative work seriously, you’ll have a similar story to tell about your creative obsession. You know what I’m talking about.

Commitment

My first blog, Wishful Thinking, was an experiment, and like most experiments it was a bit haphazard. When I started out, I didn’t have a clue what would work, so I tried out various kinds of writing, and gradually learned what format works best for me and my readers – practical, educational articles, with plenty of storytelling and examples.

But once I got the format, the schedule was still inconsistent – I wrote when I found the time, when I wasn’t too busy with other commitments. Which meant the gaps lasted weeks on end, and I didn’t keep a consistent momentum.

When I started Lateral Action, Brian Clark asked me whether I could commit to writing an article week on the blog. He didn’t say “and make it a good one”, but he didn’t have to. When I looked at the standards he’d set over at Copyblogger, I knew he wasn’t talking about fluff. So I worked my socks off to make sure there was a substantial article on the blog every Monday morning, whether or not I was ‘busy’, tired or just didn’t feel like it.

I’ve been writing at least one article a week for over two years now, and it’s become a habit, it’s just what I do. Some weeks, I let guest writers take the stage, but I’m always writing something behind the scenes. Every working day, unless I’m delivering coaching or training sessions in the morning, my first job is to write.

I’m a writer. If I haven’t written anything substantial today, I haven’t achieved anything today, no matter how many meetings I’ve been to, or e-mails I’ve answered, or invoices I’ve processed, or whatever else I’ve ticked off my to-do list.

Takeaway: A writer is someone who writes. A painter paints, a musician makes music, and so on. You only earn the title – and your work will only get better – by doing it.

Feedback

If you’re afraid of feedback, stay away from the internet. Within seconds of publishing a new article, I can see how many people are reading it. As the day goes on I see comments, Tweets, inbound links. I see people subscribing or unsubscribing to the blog feed, based on what they’ve just read. And over time I see the trends – the number of visitors, page views, time spent on the site, bounce rate and so on, and on and on.

If you write a blog, you go through a phase of becoming obsessed with stats, which can get unhealthy. Sometimes it’s too much, and you need to put it out of your head in order to write. And there’s no point pandering to page views – sometimes I write things knowing full well they won’t attract many comments and will never go viral on Twitter, but they will be appreciated by the people in my audience I’m writing for.

Professionals don’t always take feedback at face value, but they know they need it. Shakespeare wasn’t too proud to rewrite his lines depending on how many laughs he got from the groundlings or compliments from the gallery. So if it was good enough for him …

And like most professionals, the feedback I value most comes from my fellow professionals and mentors. When Brian Clark or Steven Pressfield or Mimi Khalvati tell me they like something I wrote, it means a lot more to me than anything Google Analytics tells me.

Takeaway: if you want to be a professional, you need to expose yourself to feedback. Some of it will hurt, and that’s the way it should be. Some of it will send you into raptures, and that’s cool too. All of it should be grist to your mill.

Business Model

If you aspire to be a professional artist and you think you’re above such things as business models, you’re kidding yourself. We don’t talk about it much, but if you want to earn a living from your art, you need to have a system for finding an appreciative audience and a source of revenue – a.k.a. a business model.

Here are some of the business models writers have employed over the centuries:

  • Scribe – Civil servant, employee or monk commissioned to write records, books, scrolls and other documents. In illiterate cultures the ability to write could command high fees, and perks in ancient Egypt included exemption from tax and military service.
  • Wandering bard – Touring professional, bringing stories, poems and songs to audiences in exchange for food, lodging, whisky and/or tips.
  • Patronage – Being showered with money and/or gifts by a rich and noble patron, in return for producing literary works dedicated to the patron, often of a flattering nature.
  • Published author – Contracting with a commercial publishing house to have your work published and distributed, in return for an advance and/or royalties on copies sold.
  • Writer in residence – Receiving a grant or salary to hang around a university, museum, company, stately home or some other kind of organisation, and produce writings inspired by or relating to the host.
  • Entrepreneur – Writing original work, packaging it up and selling it to the public. This sounds very modern and commercial, but my favourite example is Shakespeare, who was a shareholder in the King’s Men theatre company and made a fortune in the popular entertainment business.

These days, with the advent of web-based creative entrepreneurship, there are plenty of opportunities for writers to follow in Shakespeare’s footsteps, at least as far as business models are concerned.

Here at Lateral Action, my business model involves giving a lot of writing away for free, here on the blog and my Creative Pathfinder course, and charging for coaching and e-learning. Over at Wishful Thinking, the model is slightly different – the free blog and ebooks are used to generate business leads for creativity training and coaching for organisations.

In both cases, although I give away a lot of my writing for free and only charge for some of it, the business couldn’t function without the free content – a classic freemium model. There’s no reason why I couldn’t combine this with the published author model as well, and maybe I will someday – but it’s no longer the only game in town.

Takeaway: If you want to earn a living from your creativity, consider alternatives to traditional contracts and deals with big media companies. Maybe a different model will work just as well for you – or even better.

Strategy

When I sit down to write poetry, it’s fatal to have a plan. If I’m to have any chance of writing a real poem, I need to let the poem take the lead, and surprise me with a bit of magic.

But when I’m writing for my business, it’s fatal not to know what I’m trying to achieve with it, and how it supports my overall strategy. I need to meet my readers’ needs, and deliver a lot of value to them. And when I’m lost in the writing, I need to be open to the element of magic, as the words take over and show me where they want to go. But I also need to know how this particular piece will help me reach my business goals.

Sometimes I write to attract links, social media buzz and new readers. Sometimes I’ll release an e-book for free, encouraging people to copy and share it, so that the ideas spread as far as possible.

Sometimes I write to deepen the relationship with my existing readers. Sometimes I write with other bloggers in mind, to stimulate debate.

Sometimes I write with one eye on the search engines, to get them to send me more visitors and customers.

Sometimes I write something in order to sell it. Sometimes I write in order to sell something else.

And sometimes I write to say thank you and give something back to my readers. I don’t want to get all woo woo about business karma, but I do believe what goes around comes around eventually. Or as Chris Guillebeau is fond of quoting, “Where much is given, much is required”.

Takeaway: If you want to earn a living from your creative work, you need to have a strategy, and produce work that makes it happen.

How About You?

What does the word ‘professional’ mean for you, in relation to your creative work?

Which of the business models I’ve described feels like the best fit for you?

Any tips on making the transition from keen amateur to professional?

I’ll shortly be opening the doors to a new group of students for The Creative Entrepreneur Roadmap – an in-depth course that shows you an alternative route to earning a living from your creative talent.

If you’d like to be first in line when the doors open – and to access the free education for creative entrepreneurs that introduces the course – you can sign up here.

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Responses to this Post

Comments

  1. Wow Mark that is really inspiring stuff – I’m just a few years behind you and not yet a pro writer, but I have just committed to blogging twice weekly on a consistent basis (one of the two will be an interview) and it does feel like a big step forward.

    Thanks for the great info.

  2. I particularly like the “Do something else first” advice. Sometimes the thing you want to do most is intimidating. Sneaking in through the side door feels a lot less scary.

    Speaking as someone who’s been in the online writing game for just over a year, I’d also add patience to the list of requirements. It looks like everything happens at lightning speed on the Internet, but that’s not always true. It takes patience, as well as courage, to tough it out at the beginning, especially when it feels like nobody’s paying attention.

    • I’d also add patience to the list of requirements. It looks like everything happens at lightning speed on the Internet, but that’s not always true.

      That is sooo true. Sometimes the internet moves at a snail’s pace. (And I’m not just talking about BT’s antiquated network.)

  3. Thanks for the feedback the other day. I went and read your recommended posts.
    Also bought Career Renegade and had a few interesting insights.

  4. Thanks for prompting us all to write our own “How I Became a _______”.

  5. Wild Cherry says:

    I like the sound of wandering bard…I’ll put that on my goals list 😉 Up ’til now its always been entrepeneur though…Own businesses as graphic designer, jewellery designer-maker (retail and wholesale) and during the last 5-7 years, artist and blogger. Soon to add artist-empowerment coach to the list…So if it’s real life experience I need, I guess I qualify 🙂

  6. I’ve been a keen reader both in Japanese and English all my life.

    I, too, studied literature at uni when I was young.

    I remember my tutor advised me to start writing a novel myself, but I told him,

    ‘Not possible. I’ve nothing to write about. Not enough experience.’

    Although I didn’t have the great advice of Leon Garfield that Mark mentions here,

    I instinctively decided to go out and see the world, as ‘field research’ for possible novels.

    In the end, I spent nearly 15years researching the world, becoming a jazz-club employee, hospital-dishwasher, trainee stockbroker, government bond and futures trader, and financial strategist.

    And now I’ve finally come back to write, becoming a mature MA student of creative writing.

    But I have an opposite problem:

    ‘My God! Now I’ve got excess materials. Am I skilled enough to process them all?’

    I’m probably older than many readers here, and my case-study seems to suggest:

    if you’d like to be a writer, go out and see the world first, but don’t delay coming home to write!

    anyway, thank you Mark, for another very insightful and thought-provoking post!!

    • if you’d like to be a writer, go out and see the world first, but don’t delay coming home to write!

      Ah yes, you do actually need to do the ‘writing bit’. 😉

      Great story, you were obviously wiser than me at that age. And I’m envious of you being able to read Japanese poetry in the original.

      • Basho! Well, yes, Mark, when you discussed on the kinetic intelligence several weeks ago, I was itching to say that Basho was a great walker, and his walking surely helped his poem production,

        which is so much like Wordsworth, who apparently walked ten miles a day at least! Both men are said to have produced poems as they walked, their creativity kinetically driven!

        which reminds me Henry David Thoreau (who wrote Walden, Walking, etc), who said he couldn’t write anything unless he did his daily walking,

        and another famous solitary walker, J-J Rousseau, wrote that he rejoiced the moment of being at one with Big Nature, completely forgetting about himself and being ”freed from himself”

        … which comes right back to Basho and his motto!!

        Thank you for reminding me, Mark!

        • Great list of examples!

          Walking = words for me too. I use speech recognition for my writing – I can walk up and down the office and dictate to the computer.

          I was lucky enough to visit Basho’s birthplace over the holidays – looking at the map of his journeys, he covered a phenomenal distance on foot. No wonder he produced so many poems.

          • Just one more! I’ve found another walker-writer!

            Michel de Montaigne writes in his Essays,

            ” My thoughts go to sleep if I sit still. My mind does not work if my legs do not shake it up.”

            He seems to have known about the kinetic intelligence in 16th century!!

            • Great quotation! I love Montaigne. Which essay’s that in?

              • Yes, it’s Essais (1580), the very first ‘essay’ compilation in Europe, apparently.

                Some scholars say Montaigne ‘invented’ the essay style of writing.

                My quote is from Book 3, chapter 3, p.262, of 1998 Penguin books, translated by J.M.Cohen.

                So fascinating to read Montaigne’s various anecdotes, all written so candidly, including his thoughts on the mind-body connection,

                and on the issues relating ”intellectual ownership”!!! Yes!

  7. Thanks so much for this substance and inspiration.

  8. Great advice all around, and congratulations on your accomplishments!

    The first part (about experience) reminds me of a Thoreau quote, “How vain it is to sit down to write when you have not stood up to live.”

    The part about feedback is crucial too, especially not getting too hooked up on statistics. Similar to your Johnny Depp article, I think it is more important that we focus on process over results/products. That’s not to say we should completely avoid analytics, but they can be misleading if we ignore the humanization of our content, and only what strategies brings us more traffic.

  9. Nice story Mark.

    And thanks a lot for sharing. Did something similar recently, shared an unusual story on how I became an entrepreneur.

    This is so particularly true;

    “until you’ve lived a bit of life, you don’t really have anything to write about.”

    As writers, we do need life experiences to pull from in order to educate our audience from the contents of our lives rather than replaying the life messages of others. People will not follow you or read your work unless you have got something of your own to share. Leaders as they say is someone who has first completed a journey and then comes back to help others make such journey possible.

    Thank you for sharing.

  10. Mark, I really like the evolution of your thinking in this blog entry. Thank you.

  11. New to the blog, but glad I stumbled across it.

    In high school I excelled at fine arts and writing, but my parents discouraged a career in either. I respected their opinion, so I went to college and pursued a career in sales and marketing. It’s been seven educational years in recruiting and fundraising. I do appreciate the experiences I have gained over the years. However, the challenge is now the transition. Attempting to get out from under the corporate giant to pursue a living that allows me to perform creatively is no easy task. 2011 is my year to start that journey. {gulp}

    Thanks for the dose of encouragement Mark!

    • Sounds to me like you’ve got a fabulous advantage, Kristina! What creative these days doesn’t need sales and marketing skills? As Julia Cameron said, you’ve just got to leap and the net will appear! Here’s to your new creative career!

      • Thank you so much! Wouldn’t you know it, I get a call today to interview for a higher position and more money…doing something I would get mediocre joy from at best. Temptations! Leap into the invisible net or keep my feet securely planted on the ground…

        • Actually the choice isn’t as black-and-white as that – please tell me you’ll read my piece on How to Build an Empire in Your Spare Time before you decide?

          Julia Cameron says some inspiring things, but I’ve come across quite a few cases where the net didn’t appear. And it would have been less painful to descend via the staircase. 😉

          I agree with WildCherry about the marketing skills though – put them together with your artistic creativity and you’ve got a winning combination!

          • Ok, so Prudence isn’t my middle name 😉 I’ve done a lot of leaping though, and my backside remains unscarred! Different strokes for different folks…but life’s incredibly short and the thing is, we never can tell just how short it’s going to be…I went to the funeral last week of someone who had moved out here to Spain on early retirement just a couple of years ago. A year later he was diagnosed with cancer and now he’s gone…

            But it’s Mark’s blog and I don’t mean to hijack 🙂 If you’d wanted to hear from me you’d be visiting mine! Building an empire in your spare time is clearly an option 😉 Good luck with whichever way you leap.

  12. Well, you behaved with such perfect Netiquette about me hijacking your blog… 🙂