It took me a long time to respond “writer” when people asked what I did for a living. I had to force myself to give myself that label, even though I had only a few pieces of work “out there” and no paid writing gigs. It felt strange. Unnatural. Boastful. Most of us are not conditioned to self-promotion. “It’s not nice to brag” is a common message we receive through childhood. So that was a hurdle I eventually had to overcome. Here’s where the expression “fake it till you make it” helped a lot!
The road to becoming a paid writer isn’t (for most of us) easy. For a long time, I felt like I was pushing a boulder up hill. I’d make phone calls every day. Send out as many queries as possible. Only to sit and wait. I wondered if I’d ever get that call to say we need your writing services. Basically, I spent my mornings marketing and my afternoons tearfully watching Law and Order reruns.
For a great take on how it feels to wait by the phone and a few clever strategies to get you through it, check out this humorous blog.
What are your qualifications? Well …
In my opinion, the most important qualification for being a professional writer is loving to write. If you love to write you have an advantage over, I’d guess, 75% of the population. Better still. Work will never feel like work (well, most of the time). The next is to be a good writer. Unfortunately, this is where the expression “fake it till you make it” does not help. You have to be good.
Here are four skills that are non-negotiable:
1. You must have an excellent grasp of grammar and punctuation, while knowing when it’s okay to break the rules (for more on this, see my previous post on speechwriting).
2. You must be able to deliver quality writing on time. The ability to meet deadlines is critical.
3. You must be able to write lively, engaging text.
4. You must be able to put your ego aside, accept feedback and rewrite. As one of my mentors says: Writing is rewriting.
Build your portfolio
I hadn’t followed the usual path towards becoming a writer. I hadn’t pursued an undergrad or Master’s degree in English literature or communications, though I had taken many university level courses in English and American lit. Without these credentials, I had to find a way to market myself so that potential employers and editors would overlook these missing pieces and recognize what I could offer. I had to define and demonstrate my skills and talents and build relationships of trust from scratch.
As I practiced writing, I sought out potential publishing opportunities that would help me build my portfolio. In fact, just a few weeks ago I was surprised to come across a short piece in my filing cabinet that I had written in 1999 and that was published on an on-line writing blog called Inkspot that same year – yes, there were blogs in 1999! This was one of many unpaid writing gigs, but they all counted in helping me establish my reputation as a competent and skilled writer.
Always look for the next opportunity
Stay nimble. My 10-year plan is to be able to write from anywhere in the world. This means building new skills and a portfolio for the on-line world. It’s new territory for me. Another boulder to push up that hill, yes, but another fresh start. It’s exciting, and a little nerve-racking, as every good new beginning should be!
Have you ever sat by the phone waiting for that new opportunity?