Can we keep this just between you and me?
The worst mistake I made at the start of my writing career was deciding I had the chops to make it as a journalist.
My next mistake was deciding I should only write what I love.
Deciding it was okay to write just at the weekends and not during the week, because I was busy.
Here are ten truths I wish I knew back when I decided I wanted to become a professional writer.
(If I’d know these 10 truths, I could have avoided my embarrassing mistakes)
1. Get Used to Spending Time Alone
When you’re part of an editorial team in a newspaper, you’re working alongside other writers.
But more often than not, you’ll get a brief from your editor or a client, and then you have to do the work, by yourself.
Unlike a lot of other jobs, you need time, quietness, and space.
There have been times when I tried to write beside colleagues, who were talking to each other, and found myself typing out what they were saying.
To get anything done, I had to take my laptop and my notes, lock myself in a small room, and force myself to sit down and write.
This looks strange to other people, but it’s less painful than not getting your work done on time.
2. There’s More to Your Job than Writing
Okay, so I’ve always loved to read.
But, when I was training to be a journalist, I preferred reading mostly fiction that I enjoyed. I didn’t spend much time reading non-fiction subjects outside my comfort zone.
Now that might be okay for somebody whose career doesn’t involve moving around words and ideas, but it’s poison for an ASPIRING PROFESSIONAL WRITER.
Here’s the simple truth:
If you’re going to become a professional writer, then reading is part of your job.
You must spend time reading OUTSIDE OF YOUR COMFORT ZONE, reading the work of writers you admire, reading the work of writers you detest, copiously taking notes, writing down the ideas you have.
If you fail to feed your mind, then don’t expect it to serve you quality ideas when you next sit down in front of the blank page.
3. Feedback is Tough to Hear
Me with a lot to learn
Me in my early 20s and with a lot to learn
I used to show my writing to friends and family, and they’d tell me:
“It’s great Bryan; you’ve got talent.”
And I’m like, “Wow, thanks. This is my dream.”
Their well-meaning feedback wasn’t helpful.
The first time I sent a piece of writing to a professional editor, she emailed me back a word document with dozens of annotations and almost all of my work rewritten or crossed out.
“It’s terrible Bryan; You’ve got a lot of work to do before I can publish this.”
I almost vomited on my keyboard.
I thought I was going to be fired, and I didn’t know how to do my job.
This was the first time I’d face the fire of professional editorial feedback.
I’m not going to lie to you.
Even today, getting editorial feedback is difficult.
It’s also part of the job and key to becoming a better writer.
4. The Day is Yours to Waste or Spend
Here’s my dirty secret:
I like to put things off, procrastinate, and say it will keep till later.
(Sound familiar? ;) )
I’ve often woken up, checked email, phoned the cable company about my bill, arranged meetings, and done everything else but write 500–1000 words.
The day goes on, and if I’m lucky I’ll have an hour left to write just a little.
More often than not when I put writing last, it’s unlikely to happen at all.
It took me years to realise, writing is the most important thing I need to do almost every day (apart from looking after my family), and it’s my job to minimise interruptions and put writing first.
Before social media.
Before the news.
And even before breakfast.
5. Typos are Hell
Fact: Typos and bad grammar make you look unprofessional.
Now, here’s the problem:
The longer you work on a piece the more likely you are to slip deeper into your work and become blind to these typos and mistakes.
Publishing your work with a typo is like arriving at a party with your fly open.
Sure, some people will look away but somebody’s going to notice, and when they do, you’ll want to run out screaming.
6. Professional Writers Market Their Work And Themselves
In my early twenties, I argued marketing and writing have almost nothing in common.
Funny coincidental fact:
I spent most of my early 20s struggling to find work as a professional writer.
Was this because my peers were more talented?
At the time I thought so.
Now, I know they were better at telling stories about their work and forming all-important connections with new editors, readers and clients.
Now, I know a little better.
There’s a time for being alone in the room and doing the work, and there is a time for coming out of it, showing your work and telling stories about what you’ve done.
Successful writers adopt a nuanced approach to writing and then market what they write.
7. You’ve Got Fierce Competition
My first gig as a journalist paid just €100 a day. This was barely enough to cover the cost of childcare, petrol, and lunch.
I complained about my poor wages to my editor. He said:
“Bryan, there are dozens of CVs on my desk from journalism graduates just like you.”
The sad thing is he was right.
Unless you’ve got experience, connections or real talent, there are few writing jobs that pay well, at first.
When you get one, the best way to earn more is to finish your work and get better, fast.
8. You’ve Got to Finish What You Started
One day, my editor called me into the office and asked me to take a seat. He said:
“I’ve been waiting hours for your story, and you’re about to blow your deadline. This isn’t the first time that’s happened.”
“It’s nearly there,” I said. “I’m just reworking the introduction. I want to make it a little better.”
“Bryan,” he sighed as he put down his pen. “If you can’t finish work on time, you’re not doing your job.”
I’ve spent hours writing and rewriting openings and conclusions to articles, posts and even books.
The sad thing is my readers probably didn’t see the difference after those last couple of time-consuming edits.
There’s a time for polishing your work, but I wish I could go back in time and assure myself:
It’s never going to be perfect.
If you want to make it as a writer, you’ve got to finish what you started on time.
If you don’t, you’re denying yourself the chance to learn from your work, from your readers and your editors. You’ll never move on to the next big project.
9. You’re Going to Fail, a Lot
Here’s a short list of things at which I’ve failed at as a writer:
I failed to build a career as a news journalist.
I failed to hold down a well-paying contract with a magazine.
I failed to turn a well-paying freelance job into a profitable permanent job.
Worst of all, I failed to write and publish a book before I was 30 (a life-long goal)
Failure; it’s tough.
On good days, I felt restless; on bad days I was devastated by my lack of progress.
Writing is a personal thing, and not something you can fake or dial in. If you want to publish on your blog once a week or even finish a book, you’ll fail many times before you get there.
10. You Need to Write Every Day (Even If They’re Not Paying You for It)
For several years in my early 20s, after I had failed as a journalist but before I made a living from writing, I worked in a career that had nothing to do with words.
I struggled to find some time outside of work to write every day.
I told myself it would keep till tomorrow and that I could write at the weekend.
I even tried looking at myself in the mirror and telling myself, ‘Don’t be lazy, just work harder’.
When I finally had the guts to sit down in front of the blank page and do my work, I could barely remember where I left off or what I wanted to say.
It took me so long to find the right words that I felt like a beginner.
Let’s Fall Forwards Together
In my early twenties, I was just an amateur trying to figure out my way around the blank page.
And I still am.
Sometimes, I make embarrassing mistakes.
Last year, I spent two months rewriting a book when I should have concentrated on publishing my new book, but that’s okay.
I still fall, but I read as much as I can about writing, creativity and productivity.
I use what I discover to fall forwards, instead of falling down.