I’ve been a professional (read: paid) writer since I signed my first contract in 1999. In that time, I’ve been able to go from working full time at a day job to writing full time. Here’s my favorite advice for people aspiring to be professional writers.
1. Learn your writing process.
What motivates you? Goal setting? External deadlines? What times do you feel you write the best? Keep a writing journal, capturing when you write, how much you write, where you write, and how you feel. What you think works for you might not necessarily be what works. Keeping track of your writing habits and what works and doesn’t work will help you pin down your most effective writing process.
2. Recognize your obstacles.
In my experience, the four main obstacles to writing are time issues, energy issues, process issues, and fear.
If you find you’re running out of time to write, then you need to schedule a time. It can be as simple as “I will write during lunch this week” or “I’ll write at nine o’clock at night, after my favorite show” or whatever. But if you don’t set a time, waiting for a free minute, you’ll find there are no free minutes. Also, cut back on outside obligations if possible. Ask yourself if you’re taking on too much. Is it a higher priority than your writing?
If you’re too exhausted when you do have the time to write, that’s an energy issue. The best way to deal with that is schedule less writing sessions, and invest in more self-care. Even if it means you’re only writing one session a week, do things like sleep more, drink more water, do some light exercise.
I addressed process (above), but I will reiterate: if you think that you can only write in four-hour blocks, for example, and you never find yourself with huge swathes of writing time, either figure out how to get those blocks, or experiment with different methods, like timed writing, group writing, or apps like Write or Die.
Finally, fear is one of the most pervasive and tricky of obstacles. If you find yourself sabotaging yourself, ask yourself what you’re afraid of when it comes to your writing. What is the worst thing that could happen if you tried and “failed” (i.e., got rejections, had poor sales, got scathing reviews.) What’s the worst thing that could happen if you succeed?
Once you identify what’s stopping you, you’ll be better able to address them, through systems, through self-talk, and through outside help.
3. Get a support group.
All writers write alone, in one way or another, but no writer succeeds that way. To accelerate your writing career, you’ll need people who understand your struggles in a way your non-writing friends and family simply don’t. You might want a specialized group, like a critique group, or accountability/goal setting partners. But at the very least, you need sanity savers, people who will bolster you when you’re feeling low – and trust me, you’ll feel low at some point.
4. Learn to adult.
The worst part about being a professional writer is learning to self-regulate! You have to learn to meet deadlines, promote your work, keep track of the market. Beyond business stuff, you need to budget your money because freelance is by its nature feast or famine. Remember that energy issue? If you’re juggling writing with a job and/or taking care of a family, you’ll want to learn skills like meal planning, reducing decision making in your day-to-day, and guaranteeing you’ll eat healthier foods (mostly.)
5. Learn to ship.
Seth Godin talks about “shipping” – the practice of getting stuff out there. It is easy to get caught up in perfectionism. In today’s writing environment, make sure that you’re dedicating your energy to things that actually matter to your target readership. If you spend three days shifting a semi-colon to an em dash, and back again, you’re going to get trounced. Learn to let go and keep moving!
Cathy Yardley needs to get out more. When not writing, she’s usually lurking on social media, playing Fallout 4, or watching D-list movies and adding to her unnatural mental store of character-actor trivia. She’s a fangirl of Supernatural, Doctor Who, Sherlock, LOTR, and too many others to name. She lives with her family in Seattle. They are considering performing an intervention for her addiction to pop culture. CathyYardley.com. @cathyyardley.
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