Can I turn this successful unpaid work into paid work?
December 7, 2010 9:51 PM   Subscribe

Something I wrote is being published (with my permission, but unpaid), yet again. How do I turn this knack for writing in a conversational style into paid work?

I've had some writing published in a few magazines (winning competitions). I've submitted opinion pieces to newspapers and have been published every time. Hell, even my letters to the editor get published the next day.

My friends have been telling me for, oh, ever that I should be a writer. (I know, never listen to friends!) I've had a blog or two and ended up bored with fighting off spammers and trolls so gave up.

I'm not willing to consider studying journalism or the like at this point, I'm already studying something more boring but more likely to lead to paid work.

I write in a conversational style that isn't everyone's cup of tea, but a lot of people seem to like how I do it.

Can I turn this thing-that-I-do-that-people-apparently-enjoy into paid work or a career? If so, how? Write a book? Write a chapter of a book as an intriguing or enticing hint and send that to agents/publishers? Start another blog and actually work at it, instead of playing with it?

Any writers here? How did you get started doing what you love and getting paid for it at the same time?
posted by malibustacey9999 to Media & Arts (12 answers total) 23 users marked this as a favorite
I don't know what field you're working in, but perhaps you could start a blog for your current employer? That's probably the easiest and fastest way to get paid for your writing (and how I fell into it, although writing's only about 50% of my job).

Re: the book thing, some successful blogs get book deals (see Waiter Rant, Regretsy, 1,001 Rules for My Unborn Son, Shit My Dad Says--okay, that was a Twitter feed), so if you can slog through--and it will involve a bit of a slog to build up the kind of readership required to generate significant ad revenue and publisher interest--blogging's a relatively cheap way to break into writing. If you decide to go this route, have a steady minimum publishing schedule like TTh or MWF. Best to publish everyday, but as long as you're consistent, you won't lose readers. This means having a few extra blog entries in your back pocket for when you're sick/get overwhelmed at the day job/go on vacation.
posted by smirkette at 10:09 PM on December 7, 2010 [3 favorites]

I started by doing TONS of research, asking this question of everyone I could, reading tons of books and websites, reading even more books and websites. Then I took a big deep breath and sent off my first query letter to a magazine. It was super targeted, well-researched, and focused on how the proposed article would benefit the publication's readers. I got my first paid gig.

Slowly, surely, I added to that success. Too many rejections to count, but some acceptances, too. I took the plunge and began writing full-time (just hit the five-year mark). Though I eventually quit magazine writing in favor of my growing Web copywriting and marketing focus, I kept reading and working and landed a literary agent with, again, a well-crafted, -researched, and -targeted query. My first book proposal garnered interest from major players...and died in marketing. I was devastated.

However. By this point I knew the basics. I kept researching, writing, honing, figuring out what made my voice particular and what particular story I was here to tell. My agent, God love him, stuck with me for three more years until I got my next proposal itch.

This time, it sold to a major publisher. Harper published my first book this October.

If I could go back and do one thing better, it would be to hone in on what made/makes ME unique and valuable as a voice first. Yes, you'll have to learn to adapt your tone for certain publications, but being able to say "I write snappy, humorous essays" or "I bring wit to dull subject matter" or whatever is vital. Also, find a community of writers and see them as colleagues, not competitors...and remember both to respect the Internet as a vast source of writing information and to take it with a healthy grain of salt.

Best of luck to you!
posted by mynameisluka at 10:21 PM on December 7, 2010 [11 favorites]

The problem with writing is that too many people are willing to do it, and too many people think they can do it pretty well.

Yes, you can get a job writing for a living, but you should not expect much compensation. As someone who had previously written for a weekly for about 8 to 9 years and who is still friends with a now unemployed former editor, I can tell you that you should not quit your day job.

If you are willing to hustle (which I didn't), you can probably get some freelance gigs going, through mediabistro and the like. But hell, give it a shot; maybe you'll get lucky.
posted by Gilbert at 10:23 PM on December 7, 2010 [3 favorites]

Best answer: It helps to know someone in the business. So much paid writing is done by freelancers that editors don't have to worry about standard hiring practices: If they don't know somebody looking for a gig, they probably know somebody who knows somebody looking for a gig.

I did go to school for journalism but had pretty much stopped thinking about writing and hadn't done so professionally for years when my writing career re-started. It sounds like you've done some of what I did: I wrote a few things in my favorite subject area that I was happy to give away because it was just something I liked to do. I didn't give it any more thought. One afternoon I was in a book store, noticed a familiar name on the spine of a book, realized it was an old friend, and called him to congratulate him for getting published. He asked me where I was at with my writing and if I wanted to pick up some work doing howtos and reviews. I figured it sounded like a good way to earn extra money for a few hours a week so I let him introduce me to an editor who liked the clips of work I'd given away. 

I started out doing a thousand words or so every couple of weeks, eventually got promoted to a regular spot in the lineup, then moved up to helping out around the site as an editor.  Having some paid bylines under my belt meant my friend was able to introduce me to acquisitions editors who needed someone to fill in missing chapters on large tech books, and that work caused one of them to listen to me pitch a book idea she ended up buying. 

I've since moved on from writing and do a mix of editorial and Web production work, but have the contacts I'd need to pick up some work and start the cycle all over again. I'm not a particularly awesome writer, but I've got bylines and contacts. 

So, based on my experience -- which I see mirrored in the experiences of the writers I hire now -- I think the best thing you can do is figure out who you know who's already somewhere in the publishing business, or who you know who might know somebody. Gather up everything you've written and give it a second look so you can send it along to somebody on request. Start asking around. Be ready to take a few assignments on short notice with no real sense that the editor's looking to commit long-term, because they're seldom under any pressure to make an arrangement permanent and often don't care to until they know you'll honor deadlines and won't require a ton of editing. Showing that you're reliable and write clean copy will go a long way to helping and editor decide to pick up your work more regularly.
posted by mph at 10:30 PM on December 7, 2010 [1 favorite]

Maybe you can at least at first write about something you really like?

I've been fortunate in that I like niche sports, motorcycle racing and boxing.

The first stuff I wrote was about the racing; because it's not a big sport, it was pretty easy to get access to racers and my work was far from brilliant, but I had knowledge, put a lot of effort and enthusiasm into it and the racing publications weren't eyebrow-deep in people who had knowledge about racing and at least a clue about writing.

Getting those bylines and some good editing and tips helped a whole lot in the early days.

(As fate has it, I am wearing a jacket I bought 19 years ago with money from the first articles I sold.)

A good bit of the writing and editing that pays the bills is interesting, but the boxing stuff I do now on the side is the real pleasure--for the writing, being around and talking to people I find really interesting, sharing things from that world with people who are interested in it.

I like the Tori Amos line something like, "If you don't touch your own heart, how do you expect to touch other people's?"
posted by ambient2 at 10:49 PM on December 7, 2010

I'm a bit earlier along than some others here, but here's my book-related experience:

1) discovered genre of interest
2) read read read read read read
3) took a class or two in writing that genre
4) practiced a lot
5) repeated steps #2-4 as necessary
6) decided I was good enough to send out my work; landed an agent on my first round of well-targeted queries
7) agent is now shopping my work

That's pretty typical for books. Not everyone finds an agent so quickly (or ever), but I refrained from submitting my work for a long time. Too gun-shy.

I think if you're going to do without an agent, you need to know people. Otherwise, it's not necessary. Every agent has query guidelines; after that, your writing will speak for itself.

In general, if you want to write books, you must write the whole book before sending anything around. (Non-fiction and picture books are a little different.) Nathan Bransford's blog archive has details on the process. But you shouldn't write a book unless you are really itching to write books, because it can be a long slog.

Also, portfolio trumps degree, no question.
posted by the_blizz at 11:16 PM on December 7, 2010 [2 favorites]

Ooh, just saw that you're in Australia. I don't know so much about the Australian publishing industry, so take what I said about agents with a grain of salt.
posted by the_blizz at 11:19 PM on December 7, 2010

Best answer: I've written about how to pitch on Askme before but damn it I can't find it.

More importantly, I just want to highlight to you that "getting paid for it" or god help you "doing it for a living" is a terrible metric to assess success as a writer. There are hundreds of brilliant writers all over the world that never get paid for it, and have full-time jobs etc etc. Likewise, Andrew Bolt is Australia's highest paid "Journalist."

Don't confuse writing with being a writer.

"Writer" is just a job description, no more or less than plumber, doctor, bricklayer etc. It's something people do for money, and sometimes those people are good at it, and sometimes they are shit at it. It doesn't make them a particular kind of person or thinker, or make them a success.

Also, being a successful writer is a job, and it's not just writing. It's only about 50% writing, in fact, sometimes even less. If you think having a blog is time-consuming and boring you're in for an unpleasant surprise.

I'm not saying this to discourage you per se (though it certainly sounds like it!), but I was once like you, and I had a very bad time of it despite working as a professional journalist for about five years. I compromised my ethics, my principles, my writing and ultimately my talent because I was obsessed with being a "writer".

This is not to say my path is everyone's etc, and nor that working as a writer can't be enjoyable (it certainly is at times), but remember to use the right metrics to assess it, and why you're doing it. If it's for the prestige or the romance, or because it makes you feel smarter etc, those ain't the right reasons - and it's easy to get sidetracked, trust me.

This said, contact publications that produce stuff you like, with writers of marginally more, not heaps more, experience than you. Pitch them a piece, keep it brief, include links to samples or with your level of experience perhaps the whole proposed piece itself, thank them for their time, and wait for a response. You'll get a few no's, but you'll get a few yeses eventually.

Don't assess the quality of a publication by how much they pay, or how many people read it. Look for publications that publish work you like, unless you really do want to do it for a job and will be happy turning out poorly researched shit for a byline and become the next Sam in The City or something. Maybe that'll make you happy, but it did not make me happy at all.
posted by smoke at 2:06 AM on December 8, 2010

Best answer: > Write a book? Write a chapter of a book as an intriguing or enticing hint and send that to agents/publishers? Start another blog and actually work at it, instead of playing with it?

All of those start with you producing product and hoping someone likes it. If you really want to get work as a writer, you do the opposite. You locate someone who needs something written and you write it for them.

In your case, you're looking for someone whose publication matches your style or subject matter, but it's the same general principle. You look for places where writing broadly like yours gets published. You contact them, and hopefully they say "I want 2,000 words on 'funny things that happen in libraries'. Make it amusing, but not smutty, and mention the Twilight books". Or whatever it is.

My point is, you don't go out and busk and hope someone chucks some money in the hat. You find someone who wants a job done and you do it for them.
posted by AmbroseChapel at 4:00 AM on December 8, 2010 [2 favorites]

Best answer: Everyone else has given you great long detailed answers, so I'm going to add a very simple little answer. Keep doing what you're doing now, only stop submitting to publications that don't pay. (Yes there's more to it than that - I especially second reading everything you can about writing and querying, and taking classes if possible. But basically, I went from "writer who writes for free to get clips" to "writer who gets paid" - albeit very little - by not writing for free anymore.)
posted by DestinationUnknown at 4:48 AM on December 8, 2010 [5 favorites]

Best answer: I went from "writer who writes for free to get clips" to "writer who gets paid" - albeit very little - by not writing for free anymore.

This, this, this. Now you have clips--move on to the next step, looking for paying gigs. The gigs will not come to you.
posted by Sidhedevil at 8:07 AM on December 8, 2010

Response by poster: Very helpful, thanks all.

I'm not looking to become the next JK Rowling (and I wouldn't want to, I loathe those books). And I don't harbour fantasies of being able to support myself and my family by writing.

But I do enjoy the act of writing. I like how people like the stuff I write. I'm happy to submit stuff for free, I get a thrill out of seeing my name connected to something that I'm proud of. But I wondered yesterday, after getting an enthusiastic response from the latest (non-paying) publisher, if I could maybe wrangle this into a bit of extra cash.

And I do have a contact I could approach. That idea hadn't occurred to me.

I've said it before, and no doubt I'll say it again: you guys rock.
posted by malibustacey9999 at 5:20 PM on December 8, 2010

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