Advice to a would-be writer

Now I know I’m getting old. The son of a friend got in touch to ask my advice on making a living from writing and/or journalism. The boy is in his second year of an English degree. I cast my mind back to when I was in the same position. I only knew one thing – I wanted to write, and I didn’t want to be a teacher, which seemed to be the only sensible career option. How to reply?

This is what I said. I hope it helped (he said it was better than ‘the vague stuff you get from guidance counsellors’), and I hope it’s useful to anyone else who stumbles on this.

‘If you write well, have determination and get plenty of good experience, I’m sure you’ll find a way to make writing into a living.

Firstly, writing and journalism. They’re quite different things, and you need to know that from the start. Enjoying writing doesn’t mean you’ll enjoy journalism. To be a journalist, you need to be good at talking to people, getting them to talk to you and answer your questions, to have the type of mind that always wants to find out what’s happening and be desperate not to miss anything. Getting the story is the hard work – writing it up is usually the easy bit. You do need to write quickly and fluently as a journalist, but unless you are a columnist paid for your opinions and style, your writing style is less important than your news gathering abilities.

I started as a newspaper reporter for a weekly local paper. It was a good grounding in covering just about every type of news story you can imagine – I reported on murders, fires, burglaries, riots, hospital closures, planning protests, council meetings. It involved knocking on doors of people who weren’t very pleased to see me, and quite often getting told where to go. Some was exciting, some boring as hell. I also spent a couple of years writing the arts and entertainments section of the paper, which was less dangerous but did mean spending a lot of time typing in entertainment listings, visiting theatre productions and shows ranging from brilliant to awful, interviewing some fascinating people (like the actor/director Mark Rylance) and some incredibly dull people (like most other actors).

The thing is, local newspapers have changed a lot in the 20 years since I was there. They never paid anything much and I think things are even worse now in terms of hardly any staff and very poor pay. From what I understand, local reporters are quite office-bound, churning out news stories from press releases. But that might be wrong – if you’re interested, I’d suggest contacting your local paper to ask to do a week’s work experience and talking to the journalists.

Where people start to earn money is when they have a specialist subject that they know more about than other people. For me it ended up as medicine – not because I have a medical background, but because I started doing all the health coverage for a local paper, then got a job on a magazine for GPs, then was health editor of a women’s magazine, then started writing patient information for the BMJ, which is what I do now. It’s taken years to gain that expertise, but what you find is that there are not many people who can both write well and explain complex stuff like medical trials. I’ve always been interested in medicine, so it’s suited me to spend time learning about it.

I’d suggest thinking about what you enjoy, know most about, and considering whether that’s an area you could specialise in. How well can you explain complicated things to people? Would you be able to do that for law, or politics, or business? There’s always a need for that – think about all the ‘experts’ that get invited onto the Today programme or Newsnight to talk about their specialist subjects when they’re in the news. A good way to build up expertise is to work in the business press serving the areas you’re interested in.

I’d concentrate on the subjects you’d like to write about, rather than the type of media you want to work in. Everything I write is online and has been for 5 or more years – but if you have an area of expertise you can use that in print, broadcast, film, online, books – whatever.

In terms of writing fiction and getting paid, I’m a rank amateur. I’m working on a novel but have realistic expectations about ever getting it published or making any money from it. I know several published novelists who have day jobs – one a lawyer who decided law was easier than novel-writing, after 2 well-received, successful law thrillers! But if you have top ideas, the determination to see them through and plenty of luck, there’s no reason why you couldn’t be the lucky one.’

What else could I have said? Does anyone else have tips I can pass onto Joe? And what are your experiences of making  a living as a writer?

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3 Comments

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3 responses to “Advice to a would-be writer

  1. Ha ha – from the lawyer who thought law was easier than novel writing! Actually, I love the creativity of writing fiction but realised that in order to make a living as a writer, I’d have to write all kinds of stuff that I didn’t love so much – in which case, I might as well write leases and legal contracts cos the pay per word for those is pretty good…! Which means I can enjoy the creativity of my own creative writing – as I’m doing now with a new novel!

  2. Excellent post. I’m glad you pointed out the distinction between writing and journalism. I began college as a Journalism major because I wanted to get paid to write, but I quickly discovered all the things you mentioned above. I transferred to English and have been much happier there. I also worked at my university’s writing center, which I recommend to everyone to improve their writing as well as learn how to work collaboratively on writing, which is an important lesson for all of us.

  3. I thought this was a great post. I think you definitely said the appropriate thing to him since everyones journey to the same goal is different. I hope one day to write about books and review them. I currently do that every now and then on my own blog. I love reading and writing so book reviews are really fun for me. I agree with him about the guidance counsellors. They never reallky guide, haha. Wonderful that you are working on a novel. I am as well. I am taking it nice and slow and one day when the time is write I will try and get it published. Good luck in all you do!

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