Many people want to know how to become a professional writer—it’s one of those “dream” professions. But it’s scary, too because we’ve all heard stories of starving artists and some of us aren’t in a position to withstand unsteady income. Fortunately, you can start part time and grow your writing business. But full time or part time, you need to know a few things before you make the leap.
I’ll start with the best and most basic advice I can give to any writer:
Start With What You Know
It’s easiest to start in a field that you actually have experience and knowledge in. The best professional writers have a depth of knowledge in their fields. Knowing your topic also gives you the confidence you need to finish what you start.
One of the biggest challenges with being a professional writer is Imposter Syndrome. If you don’t have formal training specific to writing, if you didn’t get a graduate degree or weren’t invited to attend a renowned creative writing retreat, you may feel like you’re not qualified to put yourself out there as a writer. In fact, if you don’t feel a bit of a fraud, you should check yourself.
In 1938, John Steinbeck wrote in his diary, “I am not a writer. I’ve been fooling myself and other people.”
Yeah. Even Steinbeck.
The good news is that your writing style doesn’t need to be on the level of Steinbeck or Maya Angelou. You just need to be able to clearly communicate information. Understanding your subject matter allows you to do that. The other good news is that the more you write, the better your writing. Strong writing skills develop over time.
Starting with a niche or industry you have experience in gives you one more big advantage: Contacts. You know people in the industry who may need your services as a writer. They already have a relationship and comfort level with you. Many people don’t know where to start as a writer. Start with niches and people that you know.
Decide What Format You Are Going to Write In
There are many niches within writing as far as subject matter goes, but there are also many different formats to write. Do you want to be a copywriter, developing ad copy? There’s a lot of pressure to deliver copy that converts into sales, but it is also an incredibly lucrative field. Maybe you want to do content creation, writing articles and blog posts for companies.
There’s such a wide variety of formats for you to choose from: grant writing, ghostwriting articles and books, developing content from blog posts to lead magnets, infographics, eBooks, even writing professional bios and resumes. If you have a background in engineering, computers, or other sciences, technical writing is another lucrative field. And it’s not all nonfiction and business. Many fiction authors, famous and not so famous, hire ghost writers to flesh out their stories. (“Flesh out” is a polite way of saying “write the whole thing.”)
Your decision may be driven by money or it may be driven by job satisfaction. I again recommend that you start with what you know and get specialized training in the areas you are interested in.
Offer Your Services or Write on Spec
No one likes to work for free and I HATE when people tell me “I can’t pay you but it will be great exposure.” No, because most of the time it’s not “great exposure.” Right behind that is the guy who has a “great idea for a book, all you have to do is write it and we’ll split the profits.” That’s a big NO.
But there’s a reason why freelance writing has the word “free” in it. Sometimes you end up writing content that never finds a buyer. Sometimes you intentionally work for free. The idea is that you won’t always work for free and free work should be kept to a minimum.
When should you write for free? If you’re trying to get your foot in a specific door, you could do some pro bono work. Or you could work out a trade of services. For example, if you need a website for your business and a website designer needs some copy for one of her clients, that might be a situation that would serve you well.
If you’re going to write on speculation, then at least give what you’re writing a chance to make some money. Sites like Medium and Substack allow freelance writers to post articles and monetize them. NewsBreak has an application process but is also an easy-access site for writers.
Most of the articles written by freelance writers for publications are written “on spec.” A freelance writer will pitch their idea(s) to an editor before they ever write a word. Learning how to clearly pitch an idea—and why that editor’s audience will want to read about it—is a skill you will need to develop if you want to work for established publications or find a traditional publisher for your book. Do a great job and you may be tapped to become a staff writer or become a regular contributor.
At the very least, you should have a portfolio of pieces that showcase your range as a writer. If you want to be a copywriter, have examples of sales pages, brochures, or web copy that people can see. If you’re a content writer, have several variations of articles or lead magnets that people can examine. You should also have a blog that you update on a regular basis.
I was several years into my business before anyone asked to see a writing sample or “clips” before hiring me. I was like, “For real?” (That’s ego, for ya.) Most of my business was ghostwriting, so I had to get permission from several clients to send examples of the work I had done. Now I have any number of different clips at the ready. They show a variety of writing styles—a piece from a fitness book, business book, and a more emotional piece done for a nonprofit.
You’re Probably Going to Have to Write about Things You’re Not Interested in
When you’re first starting out as a professional writer, you often take on jobs and clients who are less than a perfect match for you. They will want you to write about topics that may not interest you.
This is a good thing.
First of all, it creates discipline. It’s easy to write about a topic you know and love and the words are flowing. It’s hard to grind out a 1,500 word article on something so boring you want to stab your eyes out.
Second, you’ll gain writing skill—the technical ability to make a boring topic interesting to the average person. Amateur and aspiring writers don’t have the dexterity to turn straw into gold. Professional writers can make any topic interesting.
You’re also going to learn new things and you never know when that knowledge base will bring you another client. Many clients like to know that you have written something in their field before they hire you and they will ask for a writing sample. Being able to furnish a writing sample on their specific topic will give you an edge over other writers they may be considering.
Getting Paid for Your Writing Is the Goal
When you’re first starting out you want to polish your work before you let the client see it. In the real world, spelling and grammar count. Professional writing is free of grammatical errors, typos, and misspellings. Spell checker and Grammarly are a good start but you need to know the rules or how to look up the rules. Also know that no piece is perfect and some errors will slip through. That’s the nature of the beast.
Your writing career will evolve as you become a better writer, add skills, and establish your reputation in your niche. You will find that you don’t have to spend as much time searching for clients as your repeat and referral business grows. Remember that writing is a business: Do your best work and take good care of your clients.
It’s time to move yourself from aspiring writer to professional writer. Start by writing an article on something you know. Then write something more specific to what you want to specialize in. Try your hand at a content marketing piece. A good writer is versatile. You can use these as portfolio pieces to show potential clients or to publish online. From there, it’s just a matter of time until your first check as a professional writer is in your hands.
Have you thought (for reals) about writing for a living? My book, Start a Professional Writing Business, gives you an overview of the business, what you need to get started, writing niches to choose from, and what you can expect to make. Just $2.99.