Most writers I know like to get and give advice. There may be an inherent and historic pastime of writers reaching out to and mentoring younger writers, giving them advice that will help them spread wings and fly to publication or a career. However, this isn’t always the case. In New York City, and the media world especially, there are some people who are guarded about their secrets to success. These folks keep their cards close to their vests and their vests close to their slacks if you know what I mean (and I assure you, you don’t). Still, the writing world remains the one place where you still can read an author’s book and be so moved by it that you send her a letter or email that next day that begins a lasting correspondence. It’s a beautiful thing that is probably starting to dwindle with the internet age, but believe me when I tell you that it exists and I’ve been fortunate to experience it first hand. Below is the best advice that I’ve gotten in my five or six years as a writer, some of it from authors whom I admire, some it from editors or bosses, and some of it from regular Joe-bags with a knack for spitting out the occasional chestnut amidst their endless rants (you know who you are).
Disclaimer, some of these things weren’t said directly to me, but are things I read, or overheard. Some may even be advice I’m making up and therefore giving to you! I’m starting to feel all grown up. For more on my Freelance Life check out my blog or follow me twitter.
When starting out, work for free. If you’ve just graduated from college or are just embarking on a writing career, it’s a good idea to take what’s offered, even if it doesn’t pay, as long as you’re writing for an outlet that will expose your work to an audience. It’s up to you to figure whether that audience is worth it because, while it’s important to work for free at first, it’s also important not to be taken advantage of, which happens quite a bit. Free jobs should always do something for you–get you into some kind of event you want to see, expose your work to a wide audience, or give you the opportunity to meet people in the industry. Another thing is, people want to see that you can do the job, and then do it again, so there’s some proving to be done in the beginning.
Stop working for free. At a certain point you need to stop doing free work (except under special circumstances) and you need to decide when that is. It should become apparent to you when it’s time. I’d say it’s not uncommon for somebody to do mostly free work for a good year before they reach this point.
(A really generous and awesome older writer and editor once told me that you should always do work for one of three things: Love, money or prestige. Like, you just love a certain story, need to make some cash, or want to write for a place that may not pay well, but is really well respected and that you admire. It’s served me well. –ed.)
Use writing as an excuse. When it comes to journalism work, this is advice I live by. The best work I’ve done has been an excuse to do something I was either too scared, or too broke to do without the guise of “reporter” to hide behind. Also, there’s not a lot of money in the beginning (or middle) so if you get the occasional press pass or review material, that’s a real bonus.
Treat your editor like somebody you are trying to sleep with. This might sound strange, but this is real advice that I received from a former editor. I’d just written for the biggest publication that I’d contributed to at that point and was chomping at the bit to do more. As soon as my piece ran I began sending emails to the publication’s editor with every other thought that ran through my brain, and heard nothing back. That’s when my editor from another outlet and friend told me to treat every big editor like somebody I’m trying to “sleep with.” Sleep with in quotes because those are absolutely not the words he used. To put it simply, play it cool, flirt a bit, and don’t be that annoying guy.
When writing a novel just write as far as you see, to the next thing that happens. This is paraphrased from a book on writing that I read and combined with advice from a mentor who told me to simply “write in scenes.” In the beginning when it all seems so insurmountable, looking at a novel as simply a collection of scenes can be a huge help.
If you’re about to write a novel, be prepared to lose your social life, then as soon as you’re done, put in the effort to get it back. One thing that people don’t tell you about writing a novel is that it can be so insulating that it actually alters your personality a bit. After the two years it takes to get it all out, it can be tough to re-assimilate into the world, but it’s an absolute must. Many of the opportunities given to writers that help them climb the ladder are brokered at bars.
Go out and live. There are many aspiring writers who immerse themselves in books as soon as they realize they want to be writers and never come out. Great writers have a wealth of both living and reading experience and the two converge to make them great writers. Make sure you are going through serious shit when you are young, otherwise you’re wasting time.
Which leads me to this: I’m a big proponent of “Write what you know,” at least early on. But it’s a cliché and a lot of people disagree, so I’ll leave it be.
Always just do the next thing that you have to do. For me, this is the best piece advice I’ve received as a writer, and the advice I use the most. I probably repeat the above sentence in my head two or three times a month and I believe I heard it form a story somebody told at The Moth. Here’s why it’s important: a lot of things are out of your control as a writer and it’s easy to not to do the work that is in your control because you’re busy worrying about those things. If you remind yourself, “Just do the next thing you have to do,” and then do it, you’ll save yourself a lot of grief, and maybe ulcers, too.