So you want to be a writer (or editor)? Here are 6 things to think about first

A lot of people ask me for advice about becoming a professional writer or editor. Maybe because of my credentials, or my good looks. More likely it’s because they want to work from home and wear nap socks all day.

Now, by definition, my advice is limited to what I know best (although you’ll notice that doesn’t stop me from issuing 1700 words on the matter), so this list is aimed at those of you who will end up in [editorial/comms/staff writing/copywriting/freelancing/content marketing] roles. Sorry, J-school folks; I’ve artfully sidestepped your territory here.

With that in mind, here are some of the questions I get asked most often, and a few observations I hope will help you.

I’m new to writing/editing. What do I need to land a good job?

I am not going to tick off a list of credentials. You know the basics. And no, most hiring managers don’t really care about your coursework or GPA — they care about your experience, your aptitude for learning, and the likelihood that you will succeed in their particular work culture. 

But if you are applying for a writing or editing job beyond entry-level lackey stuff and do not have any of the items below, you are not doing yourself any favors.

  • LinkedIn: Get a decent-looking headshot. List relevant experience succinctly, but use the summary and headline to indicate where you want to go and what you are good at. Tell me a story in that summary that gets me interested in you. If you are a writer or editor, this should be your place to shine anyway. A few recommendations from teachers, peers, the manager at your last internship, etc. are a bonus and very helpful indeed. 
  • Other social media: It worries me if you’re not on any of the major social media networks. Do you have Internet? Do you only write longhand…on paper? Do you own an inkwell?? Alternatively, if you are on Twitter/whatever and your public feed is full of grossly inappropriate comments, that might be worse, especially if you’re aiming for a byline (you’re going to get Googled).
  • Personal website: Yes, I know you’re not a web designer and you might even be broke. However, you can set up a free WordPress site with your name as the URL (dot wordpress dot org), Squarespace, etc. if you really don’t want to pay a few bucks for hosting and move to your own URL. Populate it with a few key things: topical blog posts or actual clips/excerpts to work you’ve done; an “about me” page that summarizes who you are and why you are a good candidate for a writing or editing job; a contact form; links to your social profiles. Failing that, start writing on LinkedIn or Medium. This might be a “bonus” step to some, but if you’re serious about making a career out of this, I don’t think it’s optional for long.
  • Don’t have many clips? Create some. Write your own blog posts. Not about your sex life, the authority figures you dislike, politics or your personal drama (unless you are VERY good and very funny — this will close some doors), but about topics that interest you and that show your range and skill set. Share them on social media. Cross-post to your blog and maybe a place like LinkedIn or Medium, or offer them to industry-related blogs as guest posts. Or just leave them on your own blog. That’s FINE. But you have to get yourself out there if you want to rise to the top. Don’t wait for someone to pay you for this.

There is a lot you can do above and beyond these steps, but this is a good start — and if you’re a recent grad, all the better. You’ve got a lot of spare time, and this is a good way to spend it.

Should I take this low- or no-paying job “for the experience”?

Listen. Only you can decide how much of your life and your time you want to sacrifice. I have had hilariously bad low-paying jobs or gigs that I regret; I have also had excellent low-paying jobs where I felt that I learned something valuable and honed my craft.

Of course, if you go this route, do your due diligence. Don’t make it a lifelong pattern. Don’t take jobs that are irrelevant or violate labor laws (e.g. writing content mill copy about how to use paper clips). And once you have more than a few years of strong experience, you have to start saying no to the really low-paying jobs, if not for money, then for the sake of breaking the cycle.

True story: I took a part-time job for $11/hour at age 26 because I liked the company and I wanted the experience.

How can I impress during the actual interview/application process?

Pretty sure this applies to just about any job, but here goes:

  1. Do the stuff above first.
  2. Apply to jobs that excite you. Don’t waste your time (or theirs).
  3. Follow the application instructions to a T.
  4. Provide verifiable evidence you know the basics and can learn the rest.
  5. Do your homework on the job/company and ask good questions. (Otherwise, we know you didn’t do your homework.)
  6. Cultivate good relationships with people who can provide references for you.
  7. Say thanks to the people who do provide references, give you job interviews, offer advice, etc.

Should I “just” freelance?

Generally, I think all writers/editors should freelance in order to diversify their portfolios on occasion or stay fresh in between jobs.

But if you’re considering freelancing as your job — and this is coming from someone who has spent a great deal of her professional life waiting for 1099s in the mail — I have some words of caution for you. This is not meant to be discouraging; it’s meant to be candid. Consider:

  • It’s tough to pay rent freelancing if you have no prior experience. You can still succeed, but you will need to either fabricate a portfolio (totally doable; just write some articles or business copy) or do some possibly low-paying work to pad it (which tends to beget more low-paying work).
  • The money’s not very good at first…unless you HUSTLE. The dirty secret many freelance writers don’t admit is that they have spouses, SOs or families that help them pay the bills. I had to hustle. Let’s just say that.
  • Self-management is a discipline that is very difficult to master. Some people are naturally great at this; plenty more suck.
  • You need a strong network to deal with the emotional turmoil and the questions like, “What happens when my client doesn’t pay?” And to help you get/find the choicest gigs.
  • Like entrepreneurship, starting a micro-business or freelancing is something no one will understand and many will judge. Thicken your skin. And see the previous point.
  • You need to be organized and treat your new gig like a company. This is a job, except you are also the boss and business owner. Wrap your head around quarterly tax payments and self-employment tax.
  • You have to commit and persevere. There is no one else to blame but you. You have to force yourself to learn the skills you need, problem solve, etc. This can be isolating at times and there are definite opportunity costs.
  • If you have debt — or expensive taste — you must have a financial plan and a strong will. There is a proverb of sorts in one of the big copywriting “how-to” books on the market that I will paraphrase here very roughly. A 9-to-5-er asks a freelancer, “How can you survive, not knowing what you’re going to get paid every month?” To which the freelancer replies, “How can you survive, knowing exactly what you’re getting paid?” The idea being the freelancer has greater control over this variable. This is a motivational idea, but it is also a cautionary tale — the 9-to-5 person still has a point that would sway a lot of people, especially people with obligations they can’t get rid of.
  • BIGGEST POTENTIAL PROBLEM: Who is going to edit you and make you better? How will you keep learning? How will you know you’re growing — not just financially, but in your craft? Whatever you do, this is a craft, and you need to find ways to get better at it.

All that said, if you still want to do this, go for it. Freelancing is great experience. You have to be very driven to succeed at it full time, and that’s a trait lots of hiring managers want to see. I would absolutely hire someone with a strong freelance background — so long as I understood why they were transitioning out of that lifestyle.

Do I need to specialize?

This is an area where I’m not entirely qualified to respond. You could say I do specialize now — in business — but business covers all businesses, so in fact I’m a generalist with a concentration in business/startups.

I think the answer to this question has a lot to do with where you want to go. I have met some young writers/editors who know the exact publication, venue or vertical they want to write or edit for; in their case, getting as much work as possible in that niche is going to be very important.

Most, however, just know they like writing and editing, do it both creatively and professionally, and would like to be able to work in that field even if the creative stuff never pays off. For those folks, I would suggest dipping your toes in a few different types of content — and different areas too (e.g. content marketing, technical copy, copyediting, etc.) — until you figure out what things or blend of things you are particularly good at.

Is writing/editing professionally a smart move if my real passion is for creative work?

There’s just one thing to consider here: Writing or editing all day can make writing or editing all night seem like a chore. But it can also provide you with important skills and contacts and of course, money. Plus, you’re probably a natural.

Take that for what it’s worth, from one “creative writer”-cum-professional to another.

P.S. If you’re looking for a job — and got this far along in my post — we’re hiring.

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