How to be a writer

  1. Don’t.
  2. Seriously, don’t.
  3. There’s no money in it, for one.
  4. Many successful writers come from rich parents who paid their rent or bought the place they live in, and many have spouses who do the same. If you have someone like this, then, maybe, you have a shot.
  5. If you don’t, and you still want to do this, it is easier to make money as a journalist than in fiction. Plenty of great fiction writers were journalists to pay the bills, and if you really want to be a great fiction writer, you will write if you want it badly enough because all you need is a writing implement and time.
  6. There is much more money and career stability in PR, communications, and advertising — go there if you don’t have the stomach for the oncoming, ongoing struggle.
  7. Get onto staff if you can: It’s a steady pay cheque and means you don’t have to perfect the pitch. Don’t get too comfortable if you aspire for greatness, but, otherwise, you will technically be a writer — the reporter at your local paper makes more than the vast majority of freelancers. For what it’s worth, no one was (or is) willing to put me on staff — both in my home country of Aotearoa, and when I applied to numerous South China Morning Post positions, or the many, many ones I tried for in London. I am not a freelancer out of choice.
  8. As a freelancer, be prepared to be poor for two years. You are doing well if you get more than a handful of commissions (ie more than five) during that time; you are doing well if you can pay a single month’s rent.
  9. Have a second job that can pay the bills. While this advice is very common, it is nice to know there is food in the fridge, the roof will remain over your head, and that although there is less than £2 in your account, a few hundred pounds will land the week later (true story).
  10. If I haven’t made it clear enough by now, don’t pursue this career.
  11. If you have it in your dreams of long lunches, of reporting trips paid for by publications, of having languid phone calls with editors, soz bud, those days are long gone. Well, you can lunch, but it’ll be on your own dime, as will reporting trips until you have a large enough reputation to ask for expenses; most editors you work with will never know the sound of your voice.
  12. Here’s how to become a paid journalist: build a portfolio of two or three pieces, then send pitches to editors until you get a commission, do that well, and chase up your invoice until the money arrives in your account.
  13. Building a portfolio is easier than it sounds: Make a blog and do a few pieces on the beat you want (this is what I used to get my Eater piece, which was my second international commission), or write a few pieces on-spec (industry term meaning “write this without any commitment from us because we don’t rate you enough”) and send them to an online magazine that publishes things for free (how I got into art writing). Other, more well-known ways include interning at a magazine and writing for the university student newspaper — I started with a piece on-spec that no one published, but got me on the radar of a few editors at the national magazines, one of whom commissioned me later as my first proper piece (bar some review of dumpling restaurants for a site I’m not sure anyone reads).
  14. The way to write a pitch is widely covered online, so here’s a summary: Say hi to a specific editor (never send to slush except for New York Times’ Modern Love), outline your story idea (what is it about at a logistical level? at an overarching thematic level?), why you’re the one to write it (usually covered by previous pieces in the same beat, but can also include your race or sexuality if pertinent etc, but really boils down to proving you can do the work), and an answer to the hardest question — “why now?” (here, a time peg, like an upcoming TV show, is easy; others, like the continued plight of refugees, are harder if the news cycle has moved on). Many stories can be angled for any publication, but bear in mind not to waste yours and editors’ time by sending, say, a pitch about a new golf course to Bookforum.
  15. In my opinion, while the onus is on publications to make editors accessible, good journalists should be able to find their emails. Many can be found on websites (the publications’ and editors’ own), others on editors’ Twitter bios; a lot of the time, you can triage email formats with the right section editor. If you don’t know which section to pitch, you should figure that out — some editors will point you in the right direction if you send a nice email. There are some publications known to be black boxes, but most others are open, including your dream publication —but not if it’s the New Yorker.
  16. Be good at email, which means to be nice, reply timely and definitely follow up — many editors are not good at email and I have followed up weekly for a month on pitches that went on to be accepted. Don’t harass though. Editors are swamped with bad pitches from both writers and PR, so if yours is actually good, they’ll bookmark it in their heads, even if they forget to reply — one editor told me she remembers writers with good pitches, even if she doesn’t commission them.
  17. But when it comes to payment, harass away. Sprudge published my piece months after I sent in edits and didn’t tell me — I only found out because the Muck Rack bot had picked it up — and it took emailing the editors-in-chief to get paid the measly £50 fee. Although most publications are willing to wire your payment, having PayPal is a good idea (The Nation has better payment terms for freelancers who have PayPal, for instance).
  18. Of course, as a freelance journalist, you only make money when you both come up with an idea and sell an idea. You are always on the precipice of ruin.
  19. This is why it’s better to be on staff — bar the boredom and being stuck in a rut, you will be given ideas by your editor (not always, but sometimes). Some editors reach out to freelancers with ideas (what I call “assignments”) but this has only happened three times for me; another writer said they’ve never liked any ideas editors have brought to them; another writer got almost half their freelance work from being approached.
  20. Perhaps, then, it’s better to have a singular beat — editors know you can write about this specific niche. I obviously don’t believe in that: I have plenty I’m interested in, and it’s pretty obvious with the editors I work with what I like to do within their areas. I’m also very conscious that I have more story opportunities (both in getting and selling them) by diversifying; the transience of all this is why I prefer saying “the editor I work with” instead of “my editor”, in addition to my being averse to my having ownership over an editor (why are writers so possessive over editors they communicate regularly with?).
  21. But, as this is a guide for the beginner, here is how you can find stories: Create a separate writer’s email (you never know when you may want to separate that life from your personal) and email organisations related to your beat to be added to their press lists; attend every event you can until you get to know the movers and shakers; if you come from a country that is not the UK or the USA, subscribe to all the newsletters from that country’s regions and keep an eye out for stories you can re-sell to the international market.
  22. Should you move to New York City or London? If you can get a job in the media industry there, do it — you’ll learn how a daily’s newsroom is run, how a monthly magazine is put together, how stories need to be fed up the ladder, and where you, as the writer, fit into all of this. Is it necessary for your career? Not so much. I spent a few years doing that media thing in Aotearoa, and sold a few international stories (a trip to North Korea and on a chef bringing back native Aotearoan ingredients) before I moved to London, where no one wanted me. Other freelancers who’ve somehow managed to make non-fiction writing their full-time work have also worked around the system, finding themselves in the right places at the right times and capitalising on it — I owe my career to the pandemic, when I got into the London Review of Books’ blog with a story about the desertion of London’s Chinatown, which was then referenced by two different editors months down the line without my prompting. Interviewing digitally is commonplace, after all. If anything, being away from the concentrated media centres (and especially if you can be in a country that English-language journalists are sparse) can be a boon for your career, because you’ll have stories no one else will — though I did a piece for the New York Times on a New York–situated dating service for which I pitched and did all the interviews from Aotearoa.
  23. The piece of advice I wish all aspiring and beginning journalists were told: Write the obvious. When you hear something and you think it’s something you already know, if not every major outlet has covered it, then you should pitch it. These are the stories you should be reporting because they’re the ones you know how to do and can sell — they’re also an easy way for you to establish beats. Writing about Asian representation felt passé to me, but that’s how I got into Vanity Fair, because I linked it with another one of my faves — reality TV — and they hadn’t covered it in that way before. Not only did I become a TV writer (and start writing semi-regularly for VF), I, more importantly, found a way to monetise my leisure time.
  24. You’ll find soon enough that the idea that “everything is copy” rings completely true: Been watching a bunch of your friends back home partying? Turn it into your New York Times Magazine debut. Read an interview with the translator of the first North Korean novel to English? Do a book review. See that Amazon is opening its first cashier-less store in London? Watch a bunch of wannabe YouTubers’ video tours and write it so well that friends ask how you managed to go in-person when you’d moved to Dublin by that point.
  25. When it comes to filing pieces, do it on time (don’t bother being early as it sets an unnecessary precedent for yourself, and most editors have scheduled to look at your piece based on the deadline) and be as correct as you can. This includes facts as well as grammar and spelling, but it isn’t the end of the world if you send a British spelling in a piece for an American publication (one editor ribbed me for it by turning it into a punchline in a newsletter dek). Read all the grammar books you can; check your spellings with Oxford Dictionary and Merriam-Webster. Try to follow the publication’s style guide if possible (the New York Times likes to quotation-mark show and book titles, when most others like to italicise them instead in all of its departments, but the use of honorifics depends on the section) to make the editor’s job easier, but it is, once again, not the worst thing in the world — sometimes, such as when I macronise Māori words, it’s a political statement and worth taking up with the copy department. Even then, when you begin, and even as you progress, you will see large amounts of rewriting: Learn how to restructure your sentences, and why things have been cut (I swear at least a third of my first draft was slashed in that LRB piece); learn that every writer has gone through this and probably still does (nothing makes one more relieved than seeing a Great Writer’s underwhelming first draft).
  26. Remember to ask for more money all the time. If your piece gets killed (and plenty of mine have been), those editors will still want to work with you in the future (well, so long as you weren’t a dick), and the higher rate also means the kill fee will probably be higher (it’s usually a percentage of the commissioning fee). You will eventually run into some wall with how many pieces, as a freelancer, you can put out and you will have to make choices as to which publications to take your ideas to first — there is no shame in prioritising those with higher per-word rates even though your style is scrubbed entirely from the page; writers gotta eat.
  27. There’s another big piece of the puzzle for me: a writing partner. Mine, Lavender Au, and I talk almost daily about potential stories and what we’re working on. We edit each other’s work so, even if we’re operating at less than full capacity, the other will elevate it to a file-able level (or, in my case, if my English has deteriorated because of my French’s improvement, she unjumbles the garble). We see stories the other should do: I told her to grab the opportunity of being locked down in Hubei, the Chinese province where the pandemic started, to get into the New York Review Daily; she’s the one who told me I should pitch that Chinatown story. There is much to be said as to how to find a partner or group, but here’s some quick things I think (considering I’ve only had one partner and I don’t intend on splitting from her): You must respect each other’s work and style; you must grow at similar paces; it helps to not write on the same things; basically, it needs to operate in a way that makes jealousy difficult to sprout but also allows information sharing (editor feedback, rates negotiation strategies, whether you should add another source to the story). I don’t know who needs to know this but you don’t have to mine your own life’s stories to sell for less than 50c a word — personal essays are paid less (even though they always take me more time)!
  28. For the freelancer, the path is murky because it does not exist: All those who’ve gone before us have all taken their own twists through the jungle. I have asked advice from writers I admire in a social capacity, but I’ve also done Q&As with others for publications that pay for them — you can ask questions that you’ll not publish, and you have an easier in, not to mention — and this is the most important — making money from it.
  29. Rob Moor, a writer who started in the New York media scrum told me there are around three proven paths for doing the big-time non-fiction longreads (ignore this if you’re happy being a beat reporter; in fact, everything from this point on doesn’t matter for you): Work from the bottom to the top at an organisation; bypass the whole system by building a rep with the zeitgeisty small literary magazines everyone reads; build your rep as a fiction writer instead.

    1. Working from the bottom is fraught with its own dangers: Many an aspiring writer has found themselves mired within the fact-checking corps with no way out; many have been oppressed by institutional bullshittery; others realise they can’t work two other jobs to sustain being a junior in media for the five years it may take them to get a decent salary.
    2. Some people get noticed by writing important pieces that only the literary community cares about. The first thing, though, is to figure out which magazines will launch you: Anyone can start an online magazine these days, but which ones are founded by those with quiet connections already (aka run by people already working at lower levels of the elite publications)? Which ones are other cult-ish writers jumping into? Who are they friends with? You can figure this all by watching Twitter: The young Londoners aspiring to be Guardian columnists; an older set shaping the literary conversation, somehow linked by Berlin; those enjoined by an interest in Web3. Figure out which writers are good at jumping onto the next big thing and watch who they’re promoting: You want to get in when the going’s good; for example, while it’s still a good thing to be published in n+1, that byline won’t do as much for you as it did for the writers in its first ten issues. The trouble with this method is that it is never clear whose piece will be picked up by The Conversation, and all of this will be done for barely any money — if any at all.
    3. If you get fiction cred, editors at the top magazines may come knocking (I’m not entirely sure how this works yet) and offer you the best rates — $2 or more a word. One of my favourite writers, Jennifer Egan, has built a strong journalism portfolio off the back of her fiction. I was also told once by an editor that she liked commissioning fiction writers because they could write good dialogue and description, which I thought was bull, but was an unconnected source to the writer who gave me this advice, so that made me feel this has merit.
  30. And this is where we’ll move to fiction, in which I have little to show for, but have found out some things I’ve not seen elsewhere.
  31. Firstly, something obvious: like in your non-fiction, be good. I admit it is harder for fiction writers, who, as they usually produce at a slower rate and have to write their pieces on spec before submitting to editors, don’t get as frequent edits and thus, don’t get on-the-job training, but, really, you should know what’s good. If you don’t, well, then I can’t help you — you should already know to read widely and a lot, of novels and short story collections and the short stories put out in prestige publications, and of poetry, and bad writing, read lots of bad writing because you need to know what bad is so you can identify and fix it. But, otherwise, you should know if something’s good. A good and/or powerful editor may not always spot brilliance, but they will know when a writer has phoned it in.
  32. Supposedly, one needs to be in several literary magazines, building from the lower tiers up to the higher, before signing with an agent. Supposedly, one has to have a novel ready — maybe two — when querying. Unlike non-fiction, this isn’t so clear cut: The only definitive is that you need an agent to have a shot at a big publisher, which would mean you possibly get more marketing bucks (whether that’ll be spent well is another matter). The less definitive but other important point is that you have to have something to publish. Everything else is just other’s meandering paths.
  33. This isn’t to say these methods don’t work; rather, it’s about knowing you don’t have to take the same route. Like non-fiction, you can go straight to prestige with little else than a good story and good work to back it up — more so with fiction, as the work is already done. Writers have made their debuts in the New Yorker — for those who don’t know, it famously rarely sends rejections, so much so that even a form rejection (ie a copy-and-paste robo-rejection) is celebrated by some aspiring writers. I, myself, have gotten quick form rejections from second-tier publications for the same stories I got atta-boys (ranging from editors telling me they enjoyed it to others asking to send more work) from top-level publications. Seeing as I’m laying it all out here, pretty much all my bad experiences have been with lower-ranking publications. Also, a fact I’m not sure is widely known enough is that many literary magazine staff members publish each other in a quid pro quo arrangement; sometimes, it is worth going to the pie-in-the-sky publications if they really do go through their slush pile.
  34. While it is useful to be published in literary magazines and hoping agents reach out — this is how many, many writers get their agents — it is not the only way. Some writers know theirs from going to school together (not exactly an actionable piece of advice, sorry), but it is entirely possible to strike up a friendship with agents online. Many agents also sign writers based off recommendations from their current stable — it is possible to sidestep the minefield of “writing communities” by simply being nice and befriending writers you admire and, one day in the future, floating that you want representation. Of course, you have to have good work to show.
  35. You don’t need an MFA.
  36. You don’t need any formal writing education, in fact. My own formal writing education finished when I left high school; before I moved to France, I tried to read three books a week in an effort to catch up to those who spent their university days reading (here’s a secret: Almost no one has read everything important).
  37. All this talk about finding your own little coop of writer buddies seems a bit reliant on chance, but so is writing: You only find non-fiction stories and ideas for fiction stories by going out (physically or digitally); same with friends, writing or otherwise.
  38. This may backfire, though, because you’ll inevitably be drawn into writer’s gossip: Who got which promotion or position; which writer’s family bought their apartment (more than you think); how certain writers’ commissions look suspiciously correlated with their likelihood of meeting editors from media parties. Remember the world is bigger than writers — make plenty of friends from other industries, if only so we don’t have to read another damn novel about a writer struggling with a piece of work. But maybe don’t focus too much on how much non-writers make (and if you do, try to get them to distribute their largesse).
  39. I’ve talked a lot about money in this because, frankly, that’s what powers this industry. Never forget this is a business: We, as writers, are selling stories and must think of ourselves as product developers, advertisers, accountants, and above all, corporate strategists. There was a hullabaloo a while ago about how Philip Roth was a careerist, but all writers we consider great now sell copies of their books (it’s a self-actualising cycle, but nonetheless). It’s not to say you should write the most easily sold and digestible piece, but you should always keep an eye out on what’s not selling — vampires, for instance, will probably be a difficult subject for a few more years. You also have to realise that you will want time to write, and it helps if the writing is what funds it and not some job that leaves you with zero energy and attention. Though many successful writers have paid little heed to the business side, you are not necessarily the exception.
  40. It’s an entirely unromantic way of looking at it, but writing is, for the most part, a commodity: Most people do not read, and most of those who do are not reading the books and articles we would put in the pantheon of the greats. What we can do is our best to put out good work, try our hardest to give it sunlight and be appreciated by those who matter (however you want to define that), and hope that it’ll still be read after we’re dead. If you’re not hoping to be affecting people in the future, then I don’t know why you want to be in this dastard game.
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