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PUT YOURSELF OUT THERE

Surprise

Ok so I lied and this is the hardest part. 60% of getting paid for words is in writing those words and getting better and then saying to yourself in a mirror, I am a writer who should be paid for words.

The remaining 40% is the getting paid part. And like a fiendishly punishing video game, there’s an exponential curve where everything you’ve done up to now will feel like a gentle walk in the park compared to the nightmare of actually talking to people about money and writing.

But it’s not all bad news

Most people who have the idea of being paid for their words don’t even get to this part. Most people fall at the first hurdle. By making it this far you’re already way ahead of the game. 

Where is the there in which you must put yourself out

The short answer is, everywhere. And all the time. Because once you’ve set your mind the task of being paid for words, once you’ve adopted that as your truth, you must live it in every situation, under every circumstance. And it’s going to be terrible.

In Between the World and Me, a masterful, book-length letter about race and existence, Ta-Nehisi Coates describes his first months after moving to New York:

In New York, everyone wanted to know your occupation. I told people that I was “trying to be a writer.”

Again, without knowing you at all, you are not Ta-Nehisi Coates. And if Ta-Nehisi Coates—MacArthur Fellow, National Book Award Winner—once had to show up at parties and tell people he was trying to be a writer, well guess what?

And frankly, even if you are Ta-Nehisi Coates, it will always be this way. People still ask me if I’ve been published (not really) and if I ever want to be a real writer (seriously) and nothing I can tell you will ever make that better. 

The longer answer is you’ll need to place yourself in situations where being a writer matters.

My first paid writing gig came about after attending a teacher workshop (I was a teacher at the time) on starting an in-class magazine. I became friends with the other teacher leading the class, and several years later, when I was in law school, they asked if I had any ideas for a socialist website where they were now the editor. And the reason they asked me that was, in our first few interactions, I had summoned up the—courage? insanity?—to tell them I was “writing more”. More than what, who knows. But that’s what I said.

When I moved to London and didn’t have a job I signed up for every free writing and writing-adjacent talk, workshop, seminar, event, party, shindig, and hoedown I could find. And I went to most. I lounged about in what I hoped was a writerly manner, and when people spoke to me I dropped careful hints that I was incredibly desperate for a job and would they like to pay me.

I wrote emails to industry types who were crazy enough to post their contact details online, asking for advice and, when I felt brave enough, help. And for the most part, they were happy to give me both. Partly because people are nice, and partly because I knew not to ask for too much. One piece of advice. One bit of help.

Sometimes this lead to things and sometimes it didn’t. But all this hustle and jive meant that when it came time for me to sit across from someone and claim, with authority, that I was a writer worth paying for words, I knew what to say. I knew how to present myself. I’d done it when I had nothing and now could do it when money was on the line. 

Ways to talk about writing when you’ve yet to be paid for writing

To be honest there are worse things to go with than, I’m writing more these days. “More” implies you were writing some before, and now you’ve ramped up production. But after that opening salvo, you’ll need to back it up. Which is where you’ll want to be very specific. 

The human brain likes details. A lot of the time when we’re talking to people we present them with an open field, thinking it a gift they’ll run around in all that possibility space. But usually when we’re presented with an open field our first instinct is to lie down, or we get bored and wander off. 

What you want is an adventure park of specific details, leaving the listener real options about where to go and what to do. So tell them you’ve been writing more lately, about how the rise in popularity of a Canadian musician can predict the following decade’s political climate in America. Give them stuff to climb on. Give them a reason to be interested.

The key here is, if you’re not interested in what you’re writing about, there’s little chance anyone else will be either. So, as per step 1, write about things that interest you so that here in step 4 you can be hyper specific about it.

(Alannis Morissette/Sarah McLachlan --> Clinton, Shania Twain --> George W Bush, Arcade Fire/Broken Social Scene --> Obama, Justin Bieber/Grimes --> Trump, if you were curious.)

Someone you know right now might one day pay you for words, or knows the sister of the cousin of the person who knows the person who will pay you for words, which is why you, writer of words, need to let people know. 

And when they offer you a job, you’ll need to know when to take it.