So, You Want to Be a Writer

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People often ask me, “How do I become a writer? What education do I need? How do I get experience?” My answer is always this: There are many paths to a writing career and no one way will work for everyone. My own path was circuitous, built around regular jobs, a gradual transition to freelance work and, eventually, becoming a novelist. This kind of wacky path is not at all uncommon. Which path you take also depends on what kind of writing you want to do. If you want to be a journalist, there’s a pretty well-defined map for that. Get a journalism degree, work for your school paper, take grunt assignments at a local paper and work your way up. Other forms of writing have a less defined path.

For fiction and poetry, you can get a degree in English or creative writing, but it’s far from necessary. (And I wouldn’t advise it. Get a degree in something that will pay your bills while you write your novels. Novelists don’t get paid until they sell a book and that can take years. You need a real job if you want to eat.) If you want to freelance, you might be better off getting a degree in a field you love, getting a real job, and then using that expertise to freelance in that field or write non-fiction books. There are programs for other forms of writing, including technical, script, and marketing/copywriting, but they are likely not necessary, either. If you are creative, can write well, and understand the guidelines imposed by your chosen field or discipline, you can find work.

Most writers become career writers through trial and error, or after writing for years on the side while holding down some other job. That said, there are some things that you can do to ease your path and give you the best chance to become a writer, no matter which form of writing you want to pursue.

  1. Write. Well, duh, you say, but you’d be surprised how many wanna-be-writers don’t grasp this. If you want to be a writer, you need to practice. Keep a journal, write for your school paper, treat your term papers as writing practice, write your office or church newsletter, write terrible poetry and novels that will end up in a drawer, and generally take any opportunity you have to write. It’s only through practice that you become good enough to make a living as a writer. As with any career or art form, you can’t skip the practice.
  2. Read. Good writers are voracious readers. Read everything. Fiction, non-fiction, articles, advertising copy, poetry, etc. Even if something isn’t in the genre or field you wish to write, there is still much to be gained from seeing how professionals in any field organize their work and express themselves.
  3. Read about writing. While you’re reading, take some time to read about the craft and business of writing. There are tons of reference books and websites that will teach you everything from the basics of grammar to how to get a novel published. Absorb it all because it will come in handy one day.
  4. Experiment with different forms. Even if you want to be a journalist or a novelist, it’s still worthwhile to experiment with other forms of writing. You might discover a hidden talent. At the very least, it’s more writing practice and a chance to see how other forms might influence and strengthen your work.
  5. Learn how to research. Research is part of a writer’s life, whether you’re writing fiction or non-fiction. Learn how to conduct interviews, find obscure pieces of information, and use varied sources. If you’re only using Google for your research, you’re doing it wrong.
  6. Pay attention in English class. I know that learning how to diagram sentences and conjugate verbs is boring. Grammar isn’t sexy, but it is necessary. If you want to be a writer, you have to master the basic rules. You also need to pay attention to all those boring books they make you read because even if you hate the plot, you don’t want to miss the chance to learn how the greats tell a story.
  7. Learn how to edit and revise. A first draft isn’t a finished work. Learn how to edit and revise your work to make it shine. This is sometimes taught in English class but if it’s not, seek out books or critique groups that can help you. Revision is a skill, just like writing, and you need to master it through practice.
  8. Find a mentor. Sometimes this is a teacher or faculty advisor who takes an interest in your work. If  you can’t find a teacher, maybe you can find an author or working writer in your local community who can help you. Maybe your library or school offers a writing group that you can join. It’s helpful if you can find someone who can answer your questions, review your work, and show you what the life of a working writer is like.
  9. Put your work out there. Yes, it’s scary, but you will never become a working writer unless you’re willing to receive feedback (and rejection) that can help you improve. Submit to contests. Post your work on your blog or on a site like Wattpad. Submit for publication in small magazines. Try out for the school paper. Join a critique group. You’re going to have to put it out there eventually if you want to get paid, so get used to it.
  10. Don’t worry about your college major too much. As I noted in the opening, a college major in English or creative writing isn’t strictly necessary for most forms of writing and it may not be the best way to go unless you also want to teach as your day job. Your best bet is to major in something that you enjoy and which can pay your bills while you transition into a full time writing career. This is particularly true if you have your heart set on writing fiction. You can always take your job experience and launch a freelance career based on your expertise. And if writing doesn’t pan out, at least you have a useful degree to fall back on. No matter what major you choose, keep practicing your writing throughout college and beyond.

Becoming a writer isn’t like becoming a doctor. There isn’t a formal path that everyone must follow. If you love to write, practice often and find any way you can to insinuate yourself into writing work. Volunteer yourself any time someone is seeking a writer and put your work out there for feedback. Eventually, you might wake up one day and say, “Hey, I’m making a living as a writer. How did that happen?”

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