Don’t Write for Free (and Other Lessons I’ve Learned from Blogging)

A long time ago, in a professorbeej blog far away, I wrote a post about writing. I wrote it when I was teaching, using the summers I had off to write my novels. So I wrote it with novelists in mind.

But as life progressed, and I actually became a professional blogger, I realized that it was adhereing to the advice in that post that got me where I am today.


Now, with Blaugust upon us, I thought I would rewrite that post with what I’ve learned over the past 7 years. Maybe it will help someone who may be struggling to see the light at the end of the very dark tunnel that is being an amateur writer.

Here’s The Thing

Now, I wrote this under the assumption that folks are trying to make money with their writing, preferably make their livings doing it. If you’re not in it for the money, then replace all that talk with your own definition of success. It all still works.

There’s a good chance that you’ll probably never make a living by writing. I never thought I would. That’s kind of why I went into teaching in the first place. And even if you luck into selling a manuscript or a few short stories or even landing a few freelance articles, it’s unlikely that it will even pay your mortgage or gas for the month.

There are some statistics out there that say the average debut author’s advance is around $5,000 and 80% of novels never actually earn out their advances. Most self-published authors never earn over $500 over the life of their books. And freelance rates are generally considered good  if you can find someone who pays $0.15 per word (that’s $150 dollars for a 1,000 word article). Sheesh.

So why even bother when being a career writer looks like abject poverty from the outside?

“Because I want it!,” you say.

Well…that’s not enough, friendos. Want it all you want, but you gotta work for it. Sure, there’s a level of luck involved in landing the right job and being noticed. However, the only way that you can open yourself up to that luck is to treat writing like the job you want it to be.

No more amateur hour, no more kid gloves, and no more training wheels. (And no more motivational platitudes, am I right?) If you don’t treat writing like the job you want it to be right now, it will never happen.

1. Make Writing Mandatory

Lots of writers call this BiC, or Butt-in-Chair.  I consider it being a writer.

My boss told me when I got hired on that it was my 10 years of consistent blogging that made me a candidate for my position. It’s a lot of work to put quality work out consistently. But if you want even a modicum of success at it, posting regularly on a consistent schedule is paramount.

If you want to sell your words, you have to write them. The only way for that to happen is sit down, put your butt in a chair, and write. Sometimes, you have to make time when there doesn’t seem to be any. You steal minutes and sentences here and there. But you do it. You write.

When I was working on my novels, I gave myself a quota and a work schedule: 2,000 words/day or 10,000 words/week between 8am and noon, Monday to Friday. Sometimes I only turned out 1,200 words. Or maybe I wrote between 11am and 2pm. The specifics didn’t matter. I actively every day and eventually finished and published 4 novels.

Some days, I didn’t feel like writing, but I did. (Some days I still dont, and I do.) I trash and rewrite thousands of words over the course of a year.  But without having put down those garbage words that I needed to get out of the way, the good ones wouldn’t have had a chance to come out.

So yeah, put your butt in a chair. Write. No excuses.

2. Switch It Up

Sometimes, the words just don’t come.  Or, worse, they come, and they’re awful.  They actually hurt the story you’re telling or the topic you’re writing on. One of the surest signs you’re getting better as a writer is gaining the ability to distinguish your the good stuff from the bad stuff in your own writing.

So when you begin to see nothing but bad stuff…stop writing and switch to something else.  Pick a different topic to blog about. You can always hit Save Draft and come back later. Write a short story or a Twitter thread.  Something.  Just take a step back from your darling so that you can come back to it with fresh eyes.

And when you open it up again, you’ll have some new insight and have learned something small from whatever you tackled while away.

3. You’re Never Finished

So let’s say you you finish your novel. Heck, let’s say you’ve even revise it. Millionaire time, right? Same for the blogs, yeah? You launch that WordPress site, get a few posts up, and you’re Geek and Sundry.

Ummm…no. Now’s the hard part. Now is when you set that finished book aside and start on your next project. Preferably not a sequel, just to prevent burnout. Work on some short stories to submit for publication. Write in a different genre. But make sure you keep writing. Because it’s easy to get caught in the It’s Finished stage before you’re actually finished.

And for the blogs, just because you have lost that excitement of launching a new site, you can’t let the habit of writing you’ve developed atrophy. You can’t get a few posts scheduled and wait for them to go live before starting on the next ones. You always need to be writing something.

The old cliche that “writers write” is a cliche for a reason.  When we want to write, we write.  When we don’t want to write, we write.  When we have nothing to say, we write about the irony.  When we have no more projects in the queue, we make something  up and call it a project.

What you write next might be craptastic, but it might be the one that gets you out of that studio apartment and off the air mattress. It may get you from pitching blog ideas to HuffPo and writing full time for a software company’s blog.

Keep building momentum.  Remember that everything you work on will not sell, nor will it all be good.  Eventually some of it will be good enough.  You will learn lessons from it all, with the most important being that if you don’t write, you forget how to.

4. Get Your Name Out There

People need to know who you are. You need a platform and a community and a brand. You cannot think that writing and publishing content alone will a successful writer make.

The easiest way to get your name out there is through social media.  Use Twitter (don’t just shout into the night; actually talk to people).  Comment on blogs you like, email the authors, and ask if you can write a guest post their readers would really enjoy. Join Slack communities. Join Discord communities. Make friends within them.

Your end goal is that when someone Googles your name, they see you instead of the famous cat herder you share it with. When someone online is looking for a resource, some rando will go link to your blog or recommend your podcast as the go-to place.

That’s how people get noticed. That’s how blogs explode in popularity. That’s how you get a portfolio of articles that you’ve written. That’s how you make a brand out of yourself.

Remember, your words aren’t the product you’re selling. You are.

Many new writers feel that spending this much time on building a platform/brand through social media and networking takes away from their writing time, and that their time is better spent. And it does take time.  But it’s also just as important as cranking out pages and paragraphs.

Remember when you were a kid and you wanted to be a paleontologist?  Now do you remember the shock when you realized that digging up dinosaur bones was only a small part of the job? The daily life of being a dinosaurologist is finding research grants, writing papers, and other menial, unglorified tasks.

Well, writing’s like that, too.  It’s not all unicorns and cupcakes.  It’s not all book release parties and going viral. It’s a job, and with that comes the good and the bad, like any other position in the world.

5. Do Not Write For Free (For Someone Else)

This one’s gonna be short (“yeah, right, Beej,” you say, knowingly). You have skills. You deserve to be paid for those skills. If someone tells you to write for exposure, then you tell them that exposure kills writers just as much as it does lost hikers. Additionally, don’t write for less than you’re worth.

Now, if you blog as a hobby, that’s different. You put out into the world what you want at your own discretion. You can charge for it if you want (or lock it behind a Patreon, maybe). But you control how its used. You’re using your own skills in a way you choose. This is no different from a concert pianist performing in a park, a carpenter building her own table, or a mechanic restoring her father’s old hot rod.

But when someone tries to get you to work for free, don’t let them. Even family. Even friends. Even if they pay you in a pizza party or by baking you a cake, it’s payment. And it shows that your skills have value.

And as you practice (by blogging, let’s say), your skills will improve. And you can charge higher prices because you’re better at what you do now than before. Would my writing from ten years ago been able to land me the job I have now? No way. But if I hadn’t been writing steadily for the past ten years, I never would have improved enough to do it professionally.

But I treated it like a job that I wanted, and I treated myself like a professional. By trying not to pay you for your skills, people are treating you like you’re not a professional. Nip that spiral of negativity in the bud from the beginning. You’re a pro. You got this.

So…You Ready?

Being a successful writer takes time, discipline, and responsibility. That success won’t come if you don’t put in the effort. If you want to be a writer, then you gotta write. If you want to be a blogger, then you gotta blog. If you want writing to be your job, then you gotta treat it like one.

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