Being a Writer: 11 Things you MUST Understand

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The idea of being a writer is something many people find strangely seductive.

But it’s also a hugely misunderstood way to make a living. Since starting this website, I’ve heard from hundreds of people who want to be writers, but I suspect many don’t truly appreciate what’s involved.

If being a writer appeals to you, reading this article will help you to understand the reality.

There’s some blunt honesty here, but before I begin, I should emphasise that I LOVE writing for a living. I say that now because the content of this article will perhaps make you think I’m focussing on the negatives.

Maybe I am, to an extent, but there’s a reason for it. If you still want to be a writer after hearing the negatives, maybe you ARE somebody who’s cut out for it. But equally, you may decide it’s not for you. If you do, our massive list of online jobs will give you dozens of alternatives.

Let’s get started.

1. Being a Writer Can Mean MANY Different Things

Consider this:

  • J.K Rowling is a writer. She’s made hundreds of millions from writing fiction about wizards. In the kindest possible way, it’s unlikely you will replicate her success.
  • E.L James, of 50 Shades of Gray fame, has also made millions, but from writing fiction about handcuffs and spanking.
  • Russell Brunson is another millionaire writer who’s made his fortune by doing something very different: mastering sales copyrighting, and then developing books and tools to show other people how to do it.
  • My wife is a writer. She hasn’t made millions but makes a very respectable freelance income. She mostly writes press releases and brochures for new property developments.
  • I am a writer. I write lots of blog articles like this one, and have other sites where I write about things that interest me. But when it comes to making money, the most lucrative writing work I do is writing about technology and reviewing software products.

My point here is that being a writer isn’t just one job. It spans a vast range of different things.

Equally important to understand is that the types of writing that earn good money are often not the same ones that people dream about being paid for. For every J.K Rowling, there are thousands of people with self-published Kindle books that have sold six copies.

And that brings us neatly on to the next point:

2. Writers Often DON’T Write About Things they Care About

This is probably the most important truth about being a writer.

I don’t particularly enjoy writing about technology. But I’m fortunate enough to have knowledge people pay me to share. The money I make from doing it (and the freedom of the lifestyle) puts me in a position where I can write about the stuff I do love as part of more speculative projects, such as new blogs.

This is a reality I find myself explaining to people repeatedly. There’s a huge amount of material online about becoming a writer, but most of it misses out a vital fact: most of the money in writing is around commercial topics. After all, if someone is going to pay YOU to write, they probably expect to make money from it themselves in some way.

This is obviously very simplified. Plenty of people can and do earn a living from specialising in writing about their passions. I’ve been paid good money for writing restaurant reviews and travel guides, and that certainly feels like “living the dream.”

But I’ve also reviewed a LOT of antivirus products and written hundreds of articles about online security!

The vast majority of aspiring writers will need to accept that there could be plenty of rough on the way to the smooth.

3. Writing Work Can be Surprisingly Technical

A LOT of modern writing work is intended for the online world. This is where writing itself quickly begins to merge with things like Search Engine Optimisation (SEO) and online marketing.

Many writing jobs also involve researching keywords, finding and optimising images, analysing the content you’re competing with, sticking to strict readability scores, and uploading articles to platforms like WordPress.

That’s not to say there’s no work out there for people who wish to simply spill their craft onto a Word document. However, learning the technical side certainly opens up many more potential job openings on freelance platforms like Upwork.

Many people I speak to are put off once they learn this reality, and it’s understandable. There’s a considerable difference between freely writing about something you care about and very precisely writing about something you know about. Unfortunately, the money is often in the latter.

4. There are Often Lots of Guidelines to Learn

It’s not just about the technical things. Often you have to learn and obey very specific guidelines when you’re doing paid writing work.

One of my ongoing jobs is a good example here: As well as providing the article text, I have to write bullet point summaries with a strict character limit; I have to fill out a data sheet for each product I review; I have to provide screenshots in a specific resolution; I have to seek out video content to go with each article.

It’s very common for clients to have requirements like this. It’s also not nearly as bad as it sounds. How it shakes out in reality is that the first article for a new client takes ages, while you familiarise yourself with the requirements. The second (and subsequent) jobs often take – quite literally – half the time.

It becomes easy to just click into the right mindset for a specific client and remember what it is they need, from writing style to specific technical requirements.

Or at least I find it easy – and that’s the key point. You’ll need to work out whether you will too. You may be a natural writer but dreadful at absorbing big lists of guidelines, and the latter can be equally important. Editors don’t like it when they keep having to send work back because little details have been missed.

Your ability to follow guidelines can be just as important as the writing itself in determining whether clients hire you again or simply move on to the next writer.

5. There’s No “Right” Way to Write

The best thing about having a blog of your own is that you can write in any way you want. However, clients who are paying you will generally have their own ideas about the style you should adopt.

For good or ill, the online world has blurred the boundaries of “right” or “wrong” in writing. I’d have been reprimanded for starting a sentence with “and,” “but,” or “so” when I was at school. But nowadays bloggers and even fiction writers do it routinely. (Did you see what I did there?!)

One particular type of writing that often stands out is “academic writing.” I see it a lot from people who’ve done lots of higher education, where they’re taught to introduce, discuss and conclude a point all in one paragraph.

Academic writers often struggle to adapt to online article writing, because it’s completely different. We’re talking short sentences, short paragraphs, and text that’s aimed at an 8th/9th grade reading level. (As someone who started degree-level study at a late age after becoming a writer, I struggled in the opposite direction).

There’s work out there regardless of how you write, but it’s best to either build the ability to switch freely between styles, or to get great at just one and focus on it. Most importantly, don’t fall into the trap of believing there’s one fixed definition of “correct.” It ALWAYS depends on the client.

6. Writers Constantly Evolve their Craft

As Booker Prize winner Anne Enright said, “Only bad writers think that their work is really good.”

I look back on articles I wrote as recently as a year ago and often conclude that they’re rambling misguided trash. I think humility is extremely important in writing. After all, who wouldn’t want to get steadily better at it?

Just as a band’s music can evolve based on the places they go and the things they see and hear (and take!), a writer’s work often develops based on external influences. This is why reading regularly is such a priority for most writers.

You often learn from clients too. Over the years there have been several times when I’ve initially sighed over a client requirement, before admitting to myself it actually makes the writing better. I’ve sometimes even been known to implement the same guidelines on my own sites!

7. Good Writers Score Highly on Attention to Detail

We’ve touched on this already but it bears repeating: Attention to detail really matters if you want to be a successful writer.

It’s equally important if you’re working for clients or producing something yourself, from a blog to a book. Readers are turned off by poor editing, something that quickly becomes clear when you read reviews of self-published Kindle books!

Clients and editors notice this stuff. One example that springs to mind is brand capitalisation and spacing.

A writer with good attention to detail will check if it’s “MailShake” or “Mailshake,” or “Generatepress” or “Generate Press.” A bad writer will guess, or fail to maintain consistency throughout their work. (WARNING: This is one of those things you can’t un-know. Many brands even get this wrong on their own websites, and you’ll notice it now. Sorry about that!)

This is another key point that will help you determine your chance of success in being a writer. Is this the kind of stuff you’re a stickler for? If so, you potentially have one of the qualities that evolves you from “good” to “great.”

8. There’s Plenty of Work Out There

There may be thousands of aspiring writers in the world, but there is plenty of work too. Companies of all kinds relentlessly churn out content, and given we’re all glued to our smartphones and laptops, that seems unlikely to change.

There’s still some validity to the stereotype of the “struggling writer,” but there are a lot of options for those willing to work hard enough to stand out from the pack.

9. Writing Rates Vary Wildly

The other side to the wealth of work out there is the fact that writers earn vastly different rates.

I’m a member of various groups for website owners, and if there’s one discussion that always warrants sitting back and grabbing some popcorn, it’s the one about how much to pay writers.

Someone will say they’re looking for writers to do 1000 words for $25. Someone else will pop up and say they charge $1 per word. People will laugh. Others will argue. And the whole debate will go around in circles with no agreement and lots of recrimination.

The truth is that there are people earning and paying rates at both ends of the spectrum. But not only that, there are writers at each end happy with what they’re being paid.

Let’s put this in perspective: An “inexpensive” average restaurant meal costs $22 in New York. The same costs $3.41 in Manila. And there are lots of skilled writers in both the USA and the Philippines. I think you probably see my point. You simply can’t produce an arbitrary “writing rate.”

The ONLY thing that matters is the rate agreed between each client and writer.

(Setting freelance rates is something covered in detail in my Freelance Kickstarter course – a slide from that lesson is shown below).

Being a writer - setting freelance rates

10. You Have to Pay your Dues

Regular readers will probably be surprised I’ve waited this long to say “paying your dues!”

The simple fact is that new writers generally have to do a bunch of the low-paid and uninteresting stuff in order to find their way to the better-paid and interesting stuff. This recent case study provides a good illustration of how this tends to play out in practice.

I emphasise this here for a very important reason: Far too many people simply aren’t prepared to go through this “grinding and grafting” stage.

One particular theme I see a lot is where people have had a high-powered corporate career before. Many struggle to accept that the experience means nothing until they’ve proved themselves in the writing world too. It’s something I’ve touched on before in this article.

11. Just Because you can Write, It Doesn’t Mean you SHOULD Be a Writer

I shall conclude with this point, because it ties together everything we’ve already covered:

Being a writer means understanding EVERY part of what’s involved:

  • Self publishing a book could also mean learning about typesetting, Kindle pricing and marketing.
  • Writing blog articles for clients could also mean learning about SEO and WordPress
  • Starting a blog of your own will definitely require you to learn about all kinds of things beyond writing posts and clicking “Publish!”
  • Writing for a living may mean falling back more on what you know than what you care about.

If you accept and understand all that, you’re already way ahead of the people who are speculatively wondering about how to write for a living. I’d strongly suggest pushing forward with your plans.

If the reality has put you off, that’s good too. It means you needn’t waste more time thinking about it.

7 Useful Books about Being a Writer

As we’ve already said, good writers do a lot of reading. Here are some recommended reads for aspiring writers of all kinds. Why not grab one and see what you can learn?

Everybody WritesFocussed on modern online writing, this enjoyable book delivers solid wisdom in short, digestible chapters. The author is one of the world’s top bloggers and a columnist for Entrepreneur. This one’s been by my bed since I bought it and is great for digging into for a burst of inspiration.

Contagious: Why Things Catch On: This book is as much about marketing as it is about writing, but crucially it explains “what makes things catch on” from a perspective of why things go viral, and why people tell others about certain products, articles and ideas. A very useful one to check out if you’re looking for lucrative article writing gigs.

Eats, Shoots & Leaves is a great guide to accurate punctuation. After editing the work of many writers, I can say that it’s clear that almost all writers (myself included) tend to have a few quirks and blind spots with punctuation. This will help you eliminate them before they rub an editor up the wrong way!

Strunk and White’s “Elements of Style” is a thin tome that’s graced many a university student’s bookshelf since it was released in 1918. Now in its 4th edition, it’s an absolutely essential read that will help you avoid commonly-made writing mistakes.

How to Make a Living With your WritingThis fairly short book is a good introduction to the various different ways to make money from being a writer. It has a focus on the business side of writing, as well as the craft itself.

The Associated Press Style Book: We’ve talked about guidelines in this article and this is arguably the gold standard. Many clients will request that you write to “AP style” and this is the manual you need to tell you how it works. It covers everything from whether to capitalise “Internet,” to when to spell out numbers and when to write them as 1-9.

Stephen King On Writing: A long and absorbing read on the craft of being a writer from one of the world’s most famous novelists. It flows like a fiction book but contains lots of inspiration and some very helpful tips, Especially good for those who like the idea of dabbling in fiction, but recommended for all.