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Most of you probably aren’t aware, but this whole writing and editing on a full-time basis thing began for me relatively recently. To be clear, I’ve been writing for a long-ass time, but it was never my primary gig. Now that it is, I’m asked by people fairly regularly how I arrived at this point in my career, to which the answer is an honest, “Beats the hell out of me.”
But it’s had me thinking, especially when that question comes from the folks in our writers’ workshop. And while the path can, and does, vary from person to person, I figured that sharing some things I’ve learned over the years might be helpful to some aspiring writers out there. Even if it’s not, at least now there’s an article online I can send to people when they ask me how I got my job, I guess.
You Might Start Out Writing For Free
Some years ago, I was heavily involved in the local music scene where I lived. I was playing gigs in a crappy punk band and attending a lot of shows to support other musicians. During that time I also picked up any magazine that covered local music and read blogs until my eyes bled. And one day, one of those blogs put out a call for writers.
“Oh, hell yes,” I thought, since I loved the local music scene so much and enjoyed this particular outlet’s non-standard approach to journalism. Of course, it was just a blog on Wordpress or Blogspot or whatever (I don’t remember which, exactly), so those of us who signed up knew we were just volunteering our time and talents. But it was still rad as hell -- we all got to contribute to the scene in a way we never had before, and it was starting to attract attention.
Eventually, that blog turned into a magazine, and soon we were a household name for people who were into local music. We writers still weren’t getting paid -- but we didn’t care. We loved and believed in what we were doing, so if our compensation came in the form of free entry to shows or having our beer covered for the night, so what?
The point is, typically, you’re going to start down this path writing about something you like for no money at all, simply because you enjoy writing. And it’s a great way to hone your craft before shooting for paying gigs. Because trust me, someday, you’re going to look back on the stuff you wrote early on and think, “Jesus, that’s ... people used to actually read this garbage?”
But you have to start somewhere. Then, when you finally do land the opportunity to get paid for your work, you’ll find that ...
Your Words Will Get Rewritten (A Lot)
Editors are dicks. You can pour your heart and soul into a piece that’s perfect, then when it gets published you notice that 75% of your words aren't even there. “What the hell,” you may be thinking. “Did they not recognize the majesty of my badassedness? And why did they change the word ‘badassedness’ to ‘badassery?’”
This was a pretty jarring realization for me, and one that I took personally at first. Seeing your name attached to something that feels like you didn’t write is the worst, especially for creative types who take pride in their work. I suppose it’d be like painting a beautiful tapestry, and then some jackwagon waltzes in and Bob Rosses your abstract masterpiece and it wasn’t supposed to have happy little trees.
The truth is, writing undergoes a series of edits in order to produce something that fits a particular publication. In fact, before this piece goes live, another editor will go through my word diarrhea and fix all the things I screwed up. But that’s just part of the process. It doesn't matter if you’re Stephen King, Kurt Vonnegut or Hunter S. Thompson -- you’re getting edited. Nobody pushes their work through for instant publication.
OK, so editors aren’t really dicks. They just want the best copy for their readership. And if you want to see most of your words get published, you should totally ...
Learn Your Publication's Voice
After that whole blog-turned-magazine went by the wayside, I started writing for another music blog. Eventually, I was hired on as a writer for a cool-ass local arts and entertainment mag. And honestly, that was the raddest thing ever -- I got to interview famous people and holy crap this is my life now.
I’ll never forget the first time an article was sent back to me, though. “Yeah, this isn’t what I’m looking for. Try this angle instead.” I hated hearing that. But it was spot on, because my editor knew what our readers wanted, and what I delivered wasn’t it. So she had me rewrite it, and after I compared the two drafts, it became instantly clear why she had me do that.
What I learned to do, given that experience and with other outlets I’ve written for, is to look at my submitted work, then compare it to the published piece. It’s really an important learning experience. “I wrote this and the editors changed it to that and ... why?” Usually it was because I tried putting things into my own words instead of theirs.
That's probably the advice I give out most often: Learn the publication’s voice. The more you sound like one of their writers, the more you’re likely to become one of their writers. You don’t pick up The New York Times and read a bunch of articles in a variety of styles -- it’s all pretty consistent.
Prepare Yourself For Criticism
The internet is awesome because it provides a platform to anyone with something to say. It’s also the worst, because it provides a platform to anyone with something to say. Accordingly, your work will get raked over the coals, so expect that. You might even get death threats. I’ve received plenty, and I remember my first one fondly.
Actually, no. I was terrified.
I’m not telling you that to frighten or discourage you, but rather as a reminder that you’re putting your words out there on the internet, and some people are just going to be jerks about it. That’s ... I wish I had more to say on this topic, but that’s pretty much it.
But still ...
Just Keep Writing
I know this seems like almost stupidly obvious advice, but I bring it up because a lot of people I know who aspire to this whole writing thing don’t actually write very much. It’s like this weird goal that will somehow manifest itself in the future for arbitrary reasons, as if some big break is going to come without putting in the practice first. Kind of like hearing someone say they’re on their way to try out for the Chicago Cubs but they haven’t touched a baseball since high school.
If this is something you really want to do, you have to write. Constantly. Go start a blog. Buy a notebook and write down things that no one will ever read. Grab a can of spray paint and leave your message on the nearest government buil- wait, no, don’t do that. You’ll get in trouble and just blame me. Whatever word processing program you have on your computer is a better option.
But write. Oh, and then maybe find and connect with a group of people who want to help you succeed, like you can totally do right now in our writers’ workshop. There are a bunch of talented people in there, and many of them just like being helpful. You’ll not only get direct editorial feedback, but help with research and tips from other writers who have been doing this sort of thing for a while. It’s pretty awesome, actually.
Write. And write until your fingers fall off. Freaking write. And take this last quote, from one of my favorite authors and the guy I stole my pseudonym from, to heart:
“Practicing an art, no matter how well or badly, is a way to make your soul grow, for heaven’s sake. Sing in the shower. Dance to the radio. Tell stories. Write a poem to a friend, even a lousy poem. Do it as well as you possibly can. You will get an enormous reward. You will have created something.”
Oh, and disregard that first point entirely – I’ll pay you right now to write for us.
Like this article? Check out “How To Write For The Modern Rogue (And Get Paid)” and “5 Legendary Internet Services (And What They’ve Become)”.
Want to write for The Modern Rogue? You can! Just sign up for our writers’ workshop.