Here’s a story not about writingI was once interviewing a candidate to be a social media creative (back when people were still quite optimistic about social media). They were very smart and engaged, and the interview was going well. We were at the point in the interview where it became a friendly chat, so I tossed up what I thought would be a gimme question.
“Tell me some brands you think are doing really cool stuff on social media.”
The job they were applying for was to make social content for brands. The candidate had been brilliant to this point, and I’m pretty sure we were ready to hire them. Except... they didn’t have an answer to this question. At all. After an awkward minute it was clear they didn’t pay much attention to social media. And on reflection, the work they’d shown us didn’t include any examples of social content. But it was good work, and the presumption was they’d be able to do what was asked. Except. Except.
You need to write to be paid as a writerWhen people talk to me about getting paid for words, I always ask them the same question. Do you write? This may seem condescending, but it’s a binary question. I’m not asking if you write well, or get paid to write, or even if your writing is online. I’m simply asking, do you write?
And some of them tell me they don’t.
No one can pay you to write if you don’t writeYou have to write. It doesn’t matter at this point what kind of writing it is. Just write. The more the merrier. (You also can’t remotely get better at writing unless you write.) I know, I know. Obvious stuff. And yet...
Writing in a beautiful, leather-bound notebook is, while spiritually edifying, not remotely useful for communicating that you are a writer to other people. And you need to do that too. Partly because that’s what you want to be, but also so other people, even people who don’t yet know they might hire you, can find it and read it.
So you should put your writing onlineThis is almost as essential as writing. Any money you’re going to make from words will almost certainly be online, so that’s where your words need to go. Also online can be FREE and FREE is great when you’re not getting paid yet to write.
By all means, write with any tool you want on any material you choose. Write with charcoal on a pack of crisps. But once you’re done with the writing, put it online.
Some free places to put your writing
sdnotes - Go to sdnotes.com/ANYTHING and it will make you a little blog right there at that URL. I have sdnotes.com/thom where I’ve been adding the best thing I see each day.
Medium - There’s a lot of questionable reckons on Medium, but that’s to be expected of a free platform connected to Twitter. What Medium lacks in curation it more than makes up for in being free and heavily trafficked. I don’t use it very much but several years ago I went off about Jet Li in Romeo Must Die.
Substack - Substack is a newsletter platform. I use it to send out 100%, a mostly every other week email about looking at life very closely. But if you simply send your “email” to yourself, it makes a post on the web version.
But what should you write about?
The simplest answer is, write what you’d like to read. Wish there was an essay about the best songs to start with “And”? Write it. (If Arcade Fire’s “Neighborhood #1 (Tunnels)” isn’t the top song, you messed up.) Want to explore the synergy between Super Mario and the films of Wes Anderson?
Now, some very smart and successful people have said you should do the kind of writing you want to get paid to do, and that’s very good advice if you are already writing. But if you’re not writing at all, that’s another layer between you and putting words down.
Once you’ve got some writing under your belt, go ahead and focus. If you want to get paid to write magazine articles then you should write things that look like magazine articles. And if you want to get paid to write video game scripts, etc.
The challenge after you start writing is finding a reason to continue. Possibly being paid for it is often not a strong enough reason. You need extra incentive to get past the dreaded blank page.
You need to find a reason to write that isn’t moneyI started my newsletter to stay in touch with friends after deleting my Facebook account. This saw me through the initial creative wall of “who am I to think anyone wants to read my writing?”. This wall is high and long and a total bastard, and we’ll address it further in step 3.
Another way to be motivated to write is to help friends with projects. (This heavily presupposes that you have friends who do projects. If you don’t, maybe you’re that friend?)
And another way is to volunteer. This is tricky. As some smart and successful people have pointed out, if you do for free what someone otherwise would be paid to do, you’ve just reduced the number of jobs that exist in the area where you’re trying to get paid. That’s known in the biz as “doing a bad”.
BUT some places are not going to hire anyone for love or money (mostly money), so you’re not so much reducing the number of jobs as creating the experience you’ll need to prove you can do one.
With this in mind, don’t accept a non-paid writing gig UNLESS it’s for an aforementioned friend. But do approach places you care about or believe in and offer your services, free or nearly free. The difference is subtle but meaningful.
I’ve done all of these things and as I said, people pay me for words. Is that correlation versus causation? No one will ever know.
With the writing part out of the way, let’s get to the reading.