Unsolicited Advice

I’m regularly inundated with questions from people who want to write professionally. Or people who know someone who wants to write professionally. Or people who once wrote a letter to the editor of their college newspaper and earnestly believe that this qualifies them for a career as a future full-time columnist paid at least $4.00 per word*. You get the idea.

While journalism school** isn’t necessarily a prerequisite for a career as a writer, it is a good idea to have a working knowledge of the vernacular and basic word and grammar usage before you plunge headfirst into the pursuit of your new vocation***. To that end, and because I am feeling incredibly magnanimous**** I’d like to share some quick tips along with an ever-expanding list of resources for writers. Of course I make no claims to the reliability, efficacy, or potential for monetization of knowledge gained from said sources, but you’re a grown-up and can make your own decisions.

1. Read: Then read some more. When you’re done reading, pick up a book, magazine, e-reader, search your smartphone and continue to read. Read blog posts and captions and political posts that you’d normally shy away from. Why? Because you can’t write about something if you don’t understand that there are so many different styles of writing and while you’re well suited for some, you might suck at others. And because the world view often differs from your own. How can you know you’re an expert on a topic if you have no idea of what anyone else is saying about it?

Read what you love, read what you hate, read things that make you think, read other things that make you roll your eyes in disgust, but continue to take in the great big literary or pop culture conversation going on around you.

2. Research your market: You realize that at least initially, you’re going to have to query, right? Before you get to that particular brand of pain, you need to know where you’re going. Don’t randomly send a story idea to a magazine before you have an idea of the types of articles they run. Don’t randomly send out a query to the first editor on the masthead- find out who handles what. Read the magazines, websites, newspapers, and publications that you intend to pitch- it will save you the embarrassment of pitching a story about glue guns to a magazine like Gardens & Gun.

3. Be a social networker: Freelance writers are notoriously anti-social animals. Sure we tend to flock to online message boards and social networking sites, but there’s a reason that most of us work alone, hunched in front of our keyboards for hours at a time. While online forums can be addictive, they can also offer loads of advice targeted at freelancers. Web forums and organizations like the American Society of Journalists and Authors, FreelanceSuccess, Media Bistro, and all those top-secret Facebook groups we’re not permitted to speak out loud about offer advice from seasoned writing professionals as well as a place to hang out and virtually schmooze. Bear in mind that while some of these services are by subscription only, they’re non-private forums for professional writers- your ideas can potentially be poached, so exercise caution when sharing. Many writers also find Facebook, LinkedIn, and Twitter to be invaluable resources for connecting with potential sources and editors or simply for sharing stories and updates. If your sharing is limited only to your successes, stories, and blog posts though, people might be turned off and tune out. Interaction over announcements is key. Follow hashtags that relate to your industry or those that make your heart sing. It doesn’t always have to be on-topic, it just has to move you in a direction that inspires you in some way.


*This, of course, is a subtly disguised rant against TV shows like Sex and the City which created or propagated the myth of the Jimmy Choo and champagne lifestyle of the average freelance writer.

**Oh come on. Like you really thought I was going to call it J school?

***Please note the fact that I have resisted inserting a full-blown rant on the declining quality of professional publications as publishers and publications skimp on hiring professional writers and editors and instead frequently rely on unskilled and inexperienced writers.

**** And also because I no longer have the time or energy to answer each and every e-mail I receive on the subject