Some say I have a way with words.
October 12, 2009 3:16 AM   Subscribe

You are a paid writer/screenwriter/columnist/blogger. What can you tell me about how to best break into this profession?

Now, obviously, talent matters, and whether or not I have any of that good stuff remains to be seen. But are there tips/secrets that you could offer to an aspiring writer as they look to break in to this realm?

For what it's worth, I'm 9 months removed from my B.A., and looking at going back next fall for my M.A. (probably in English, either Lit or Creative Writing) and looking to start freelancing for a local lifestyle magazine. I keep a blog, mostly for my own amusement (clipping entertaining passages from my reading).
posted by the NATURAL to Work & Money (13 answers total) 23 users marked this as a favorite
Developing a niche for yourself may help -- I write about a lot of things, but people know I can write about the arts, and so that's where most of my writing gigs come from. I do a lot of arts writing on my own blog, mostly unpaid -- just stuff I am interested in -- and it keeps me visible as an arts writer.

See if there is a local Web forum where a lot of area writers hang out. I managed to discover one in Minneapolis when I moved back here, and became a pretty active participant, and eventually took over as a moderator. That probably raised my local visibility as a writer more than anything I have done, and has lead to a lot of jobs for me.
posted by Astro Zombie at 5:00 AM on October 12, 2009

Nthing on developing your niche.

The best advice you can get if you're looking to attract the market (i.e. readers) to you is:

1) Find your niche
2) Mine it.

Welcome to the fragmented media. You can be a pretty decent generalist, but you'll be like thousands of others. Establish your core audience first, and give them a reason to come back, and see how you get on. Once you have those guys, you may be able to branch out.

The second best piece of advice you can get as a blogger is to post regularly. If you do, and you're worth reading, you'll begin to develop a loyal readership. If you don't, you're giving some other schmuck the chance to steal your [potential or actual] readers.

Traditionally the first bit of advice is "know your audience". But if you're blogging you may not know yet who your audience is or what they want. It helps to know, but it doesn't hurt to experiment and find out as you go along. Several blogs and bloggers have reinvented themselves as they've discovered new audiences or noticed certain patterns among their site traffic.
posted by MuffinMan at 5:25 AM on October 12, 2009

I'm not (yet) a 'paid' blogger, but I have won prizes for my writing and photography :)

The key is to start with what you love. Make that your niche. Being an English teacher in Seoul, South Korea gives me an opportunity to travel around the city and country, along with learning more about life in Korea. That's my niche. Other bloggers I've personally met focus on restaurants in the Seoul area, cooking Korean foods, or photography of famous places with very fancy DSLR cameras.

The biggest question starts with your goals - what do you want? Everyone starts small and builds up from there, attracting fans / readers / hits / people to work with. From there, network network network network network network network network network network network network network network network network. Oh yeah, and network. Make up some business cards with your ambitions and pass them out - one a day is a fair goal.

Recognize everything you do can raise your publicity level. Develop your trademark, your niche, and (AND!!!) your style. What makes your readers come back to YOU versus going to someone like you?

Best of luck :)
posted by chrisinseoul at 5:46 AM on October 12, 2009 [1 favorite]

1. Be aware that advice, like mine, from people who started writing for pay 10 years ago may not be useful. A lot fewer people are paying for writing now, and the people who are paying are paying less. Thus,

2. Make plans to writing not to be your living. Which brings me to

3. People are right about having a niche. It also helps to have a credential. I have a Ph.D. in math, few other freelance writers do, and that right there is why I get paid to write. A good friend of mine went to med school, dropped out after a year, and has made a successful life as writer on health science ever since. I'm not saying you should get a Ph.D. or drop out of medical school, but certainly there's something other than writing you care about -- why not get an MA in that? It doesn't mean you only get to write about that one topic -- it just means you have a far more reliable stream of work and clips.
posted by escabeche at 5:53 AM on October 12, 2009 [1 favorite]

Without wishing to disagree with the folks suggesting you work hard on developing a niche, here's the alternative viewpoint, also worth bearing in mind:

1. Don't force it. If you really do have a fairly narrow subject area that you love, then go for it. But I know plenty of writers who feel constrained by their niche, and for whom it's not at all fun. It is possible, in other words, to "niche" all the fun out of writing, in which case you might as well seek a more secure and reliable source of income instead.

2. As soon as people start working inside any kind of large media organization, they're stunned by the terrible quality of what people calling themselves freelance journalists submit on a daily basis. If you really can write, you're way ahead of the pack. The ability to quickly and reliably turn round an article on pretty much anything, expressing yourself in crisp and elegant prose, is still hugely valuable.

Which is all just to say: maybe take a twin-track approach. Work on developing your niche, but scattergun-submit to general interest outlets as well.
posted by game warden to the events rhino at 6:32 AM on October 12, 2009 [2 favorites]

Another vote for a niche you enjoy, especially if it's one of the higher-paying niches (business, technical, medical, science). I also agree with escabeche: If you want to get a degree, consider getting one in your content niche, not in writing.

I've been at this since the early 1980s. I think I was able to make a business out of it because I focused on business early on. I got jobs that required writing, starting in my sophomore year as an undergrad. The only college course that was actually helpful was one on cutting the fat out of non-fiction writing. Everything else was pretty useless compared to the training I got by writing on the job.

I moved through a few more jobs to build my skills, asking for projects that would make me more marketable, and then went independent. I bill myself as a consultant to large organizations, not a writer, but my business relies heavily on my writing skills as well as on some analytical fun. I published for awhile in trade magazines but the pay was too low. It's far more profitable for me to write in my blog and use it to get clients and sell information.

Obviously, I'm looking at writing as a trade, not an art. So I wouldn't get an MA in writing or lit with the hope that it would make me more marketable. The kind of writing you're rewarded for in academia is often different from the kind of writing that you get paid decently for in the "outside" world. Certainly go for the degree if that's what you love, but do it with the understanding that it's not vocational training and that the debt you'll incur will be hard to pay off with literary (or any type of arts) writing.

I sometimes hire writers, and I'm actually a little nervous about ones who have a lit or writing degree, because they're used to an approach to writing that's far removed from the creative but very deadline-driven, analytical stuff I need them to do.

On preview: In addition to strong writing, your professionalism will make you stand way ahead of the pack. Producing a strong, accurate piece that's on time, meets the requirements, and needs little editing will win over editors and clients big time.
posted by PatoPata at 6:44 AM on October 12, 2009 [1 favorite]

These days if a website hires you to write for them (reviews, columns, whatever) they expect you to already have something of a following online. Honestly you should build up your own blog into as big a something as you can, because you are more likely to be hired based on your existing web presence than anything you've actually written.

This is because companies really, really don't know how to publicize online -- the higher you get up the management tree, the more they just assume that good things will "go viral" or that the writer can just "blast it out there" via social networking sites and that it will get a lot of traffic. I lost enthusiasm for my last freelance gig when they started requiring that every single article be posted to a list of about fifteen different sites. As a writer, I barely have time to finish all my assignments, let alone working as their unpaid publicity intern.
posted by hermitosis at 7:21 AM on October 12, 2009


These are all vastly different professions. There is no one answer on how to become ALL of these things, but as a writer and a screenwriter, I can tell you:



Write a book. Write the best book you can possibly write. Workshop it, revise it, and then craft a query letter. Then, start your agent research. The Writers Market is a good resource, so are AgentQuery and QueryTracker. Vet your agent choices against Preditors & Editors and Writer Beware. Follow all query instructions, and query ten agents at a time. Proceed until you've 1) secured representation or 2) run out of people to query.

If 1, from this point on, do what your agent tells you. If 2, write a new book. The best book you can possibly write. Workshop it, revise it, then craft a query letter. Rinse, repeat.

Non Fiction:

Get a copy of Michael Larsen's HOW TO WRITE A BOOK PROPOSAL. Read it. Write the first 3 chapters of your non-fiction book, then write your proposal. Make sure you have a great platform or a totally unusual, and yet super-marketable idea. See if you can find someone famous who is somehow related to the subject of your book to commit to writing a foreword.

Then, start your agent research. The Writers Market is a good resource, so are AgentQuery and QueryTracker. Vet your agent choices against Preditors & Editors and Writer Beware. Follow all query instructions, and query ten agents at a time. Proceed until you've 1) secured representation or 2) run out of people to query.


Move to LA. Take any shit job you can find at a production company. Adecco is the temp agency of choice in LA to find these positions. If you can, get a position as a script girl (you don't have to be a girl) or a treatment writer, since those will put you in daily contact with scripts, which you will read, and then dissect for your boss. This is how you learn to write a screenplay- by demolishing other people's.


Write a spec script for a TV show that's LIKE the show you want to work for, but isn't actually FOR that show. (IE, if you want to work on CSI, write an NCIS script. If you want to work on Gossip Girl, write a 90210 script, etc., etc..) Then write a stunning query letter, and start querying screenwriting agents. The Agents Directory and The Screenwriters Market will be helpful here.

Query until you get an agent, and then let your agent tell you what to do. You'll probably end up writing a bunch more spec scripts, going on meetings with various executive producers, and end up carrying coffee for some guy on a show you hate and never wanted to work for. That's okay. Now you work your way up.

Oh, and match is in March, April, May. If you don't have a placement for network television by then, you'll probably still be working the day job you got through Adecco until the next season rolls around. Just so you're not surprised or nothing.


Write a totally awesome movie, win a Nicholl Fellowship. Then, write a stunning query letter, and get an agent. Then, spend a lot of time going to pitch meetings, where no one will have read your script, because they want you to generate ideas on the spot. They'll steal these ideas, and as long as you don't bitch about it too much, they will call you a team player.

That means, they'll call you sometime when they've stolen somebody else's idea, and ask you to write it for them. Say yes. Understand that the awesome movie for which you won a Nicholl Fellowship will never be made. Ever.

Or, you can take your script directly to an actor, an independent director, a film-student-cum-baby-producer and try to get the movie made for the Indie circuit. This is pleasurable, and is more likely to result in a movie, but unlikely to result in big box office or a livable wage. But you'll have a movie you wrote on a real DVD and stuff, which is totally cool.

Or, you can apply for one of a zillion grants out there, and make your movie yourself. It will suck, because you're a writer, not a director or a producer or a cinematographer, but you will have a movie you made with your own two little hands. You can add it to your "reel" that no one will watch when you go in to pitch the next Disney fart comedy.
posted by headspace at 7:24 AM on October 12, 2009 [21 favorites]

Always write what gets you excited, and always write what people will pay you for. Do this enough, and they will become the same thing.
posted by lore at 7:57 AM on October 12, 2009 [1 favorite]

If you're planning on, or considering, an MFA in creative writing, I'd be happy to give you advice. Feel free to send me a MeMail.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 8:21 AM on October 12, 2009

Response by poster: Thanks for the advice so far, everyone!

Just to clarify, I'm not seeking a MFA in lit/creative writing to make me more marketable, but because I think that it'll make me a stronger writer, and also give me a wider knowledge of canonical literature that I'll (ideally) be able to use and refer to while writing.
posted by the NATURAL at 1:47 PM on October 12, 2009

I have a paid job that has "writer" in the title, but it's probably not the glamorous position you might be thinking of--it is, in fact, a development job; it's also not-so-different from many other office jobs, which you might find true for many of the better paying and steady writing- or writing-related jobs (technical writing, etc.)

But I did get an MFA in creative writing this past May, so I can tell you a bit about that. And I have to say that your conception of an MA in Literature or Creative Writing seems a bit divorced from reality. In most master's classes in literature, you're not going to be gaining wider knowledge of canonical literature in the same way you'd gain the same in, say, an undergraduate survey course. In most graduate programs, it will be assumed that you're already familiar with the canon. Instead, your focus will be on creating long papers, works of academic criticism that might analyze literary works or might talk about, I don't know, post-colonialist perspectives on magical girl anime. You'll become a stronger writer of this kind of writing undoubtedly, but whether that will positively impact your other writing is a total crapshoot. I've known people for whom academic study kind of wrecked their creative writing. It's certainly a sometimes rigid and peculiar style.

Most people getting MAs in literature are going to be hoping to go on to get a PhD in literature. It's not good for much else.

As for a creative-writing MA or an MFA, I'd highly recommend that, for career purposes, you consider getting an MFA rather than an MA. An MFA is a terminal degree and, theoretically, you should be able to teach college-level classes with one. Because an MA is not, it's next-to worthless in terms of career potential, and much less likely to be offered with funding. Which is to say, you'll have to pony up some cash or go into debt to get one.

As for MFAs, you say nothing about the type of writer you'd like to be, but most MFA programs will want to know. Do you write fiction? Creative non-fiction? Poetry? While I think it's sometimes a mistake to pigeonhole young writers, you should have some idea of what you'd like to seriously study before applying to these programs.

And you should know that any of these academic degrees is going to represent a serious time- and money-sink (even if it's only in terms of lost income if you're planning on being a full-time student). Some creative writing programs will help you make good industry connections which, besides talent and perseverance, is probably the other real necessity to break into the writing world, but not all will. And if you're just hoping to flex your writing muscles, you can easily find cheap or free workshops in many areas--look for ones at bookstores, libraries, and community centers.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 6:33 PM on October 12, 2009

I blogged for Conde Nast last year and loved it. Here's what helped me professionally -- I'm assuming you're at least a decent writer.

- never piss off an editor or burn a bridge. Editors move around and they'll look to you if you've done good work for them, even if it's not your usual niche.

- be kind to other writers, since they often turn into editors. Network often, giving work to others when you can.

- treat blogging professionally. This means setting up interviews, being on time for them, invoicing properly and in a timely manner, and generally being the person people want to pay well for good work.

- scheduling your blogging time really helps. I tried to post at the same time every day, and managed my time so that I could interview for 30 minutes, write for 20, and spend 10 minutes cropping photos and posting.

- I also had a spreadsheet for my posts, showing what stage they were at (interview, written but not live, live, and beneath it all a list of ideas for future posts. Payment is also something to add to that spreadsheet, depending on how you'd be paid for posting.
posted by mdiskin at 7:27 PM on October 12, 2009 [2 favorites]

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