How to Become a Writer — The Harsh Reality

How to Become a Writer — The Harsh Reality

Since starting this blog last year, I have regularly been asked about how to become a professional writer. Mary, one of my keener subscribers (see – I didn’t forget you), recently raised the topic again and prompted me to think some more on it.

For many, the article that follows may seem negative and discouraging. That is not my intent. I merely want to illustrate the harsh realities of the grit, learning, commitment and – let’s face it – luck that goes into convincing someone to actually pay you for your words.

Harsh Reality Number 1 – Writing is Like No Other Job

I achieved the goal of professional writing last year, a few weeks before I started this blog to discuss my experiences and observations. But, and I really do stress this, I had been working towards this goal since approximately the age of twelve. That’s about a clear quarter of a century of plodding away at my amateur scribblings and working in other industries – from dirty factories to bland offices – as I waited for the stars to align correctly. So, for those of you who have only recently decided to pursue a career in writing, don’t expect it to be as easy as applying for any other job you’ve held.

Writing is definitely not a regular job. Sometimes, it can seem like it. I travel to the office every morning and work from my cubicle next to the marketing department, across from accounts and a floor above the sales team. But when trying to get a writing job, the differences become apparent.

Finding work as a writer is more akin to launching a career as an artist. It takes more than just knowing which way to hold the paint brush or pencil coupled with a determination to succeed. It takes talent – and I’m sorry, but that doesn’t come with an easy course at the local adult education centre.

What is the lesson here? Follow your dream, but be prepared that it may take time, persistence and heartache. Also, be prepared that it may never happen.

This leads to the next point.

Harsh Reality Number 2 – Supply Far Outstrips Demand

It is commonly said that 95% of professional actors are out of work at any one time. Similarly, there are thousands of artists devoted to their craft but unable to turn their passion into a bank balance. For writers, a similar figure is probably true. All of the creative professions are popular career paths. So many children grow up with dreams of being an actor or a painter or a writer, before giving up and becoming a postman instead. But many will continue to follow the dream and remain disappointed. Supply and demand.

Even among those who have achieved the right to put their dream profession down on their passport application, the road isn’t smooth. Not all writers have a full time job. For many it is a shuffle from commission to freelance commission, an article at a time. You can also look at the books in your local store and be sure that most of the names you see on the spines are still working another job waiting for their publisher to call them back. It is one thing to get a first piece of writing published. It is another thing entirely to keep the flow of work and money constant.

I am incredibly lucky as I have a regular salary to do what some of you are begging to do. I don’t have to worry about whether I have enough work next week to pay the rent – unlike my fiancé who runs her own salon. But her situation of an up-and-down income is far closer to most writers. In fact, for many writers, down is more common than up.

Some artists may get work as illustrators or graphic designers or – heaven forbid – a seaside caricaturist to the tourists, as a way of keeping the rent flowing while their oil-splattered canvases are pushed to one side. Actors may get simple ‘fill-in’ work as extras or may be lucky enough to find ongoing contracts as a drama teacher. Far too many actors finish up in a theme park inside a giant chicken suit. A friend of mine once told me the story of how he got talking to the guy inside a kangaroo suit in a touring children’s show. The actor admitted to having spent three years at drama school before finding himself in a hot and stuffy foam costume jumping around trying desperately not to knock over the toddlers. Training and qualifications are not necessarily the golden ticket to an acting career. The same goes for art and writing.

For writers, I guess the equivalent would be taking one of those paid blogging jobs that are advertised all the time. These are the jobs where you pump out ten or more generic short blog posts a night for a few dollars each that are sold onto people with no idea of the importance of quality content. Or there are those ‘paid’ blogging jobs that rely on advertising revenue to provide an income, the writer’s equivalent to commission work. Not recommended for someone looking to keep the eviction notice from the front door.

The lesson? There is absolutely no guarantee of obtaining a regular income from writing, no matter how talented you are or how much preparation you have put in. Be prepared to start anywhere and compromise your dream to stay paid.

Harsh Reality Number 3 – Are You Really a Writer?

I’ve been a member of many writing groups online. By far the most illuminating for me were the forums at Project Greenlight Australia. (You can read my previous post on my experiences in the competition.) The range of skill on show was immense, but it was very easy to work out who stood a chance of achieving their dream and who would forever remain convinced that the world just doesn’t recognise their ‘genius’. Writing is about more than having ideas and stringing words together (although I’ve come across some aspiring writers that have trouble even with that). Professional writing means understanding how words work, what structure is, how to shape tone and atmosphere, pace and meaning.

Above all, writing is about clarity. If the reader has to ask you what you meant, you’ve failed as a writer. This was a common issue among some amateur writers at Project Greenlight. If someone were to suggest they had difficult understanding the events of Act Two, for example, the writer would imply that it was the reader’s fault for not understanding. A failure to get the message across to an averagely literate person is ALWAYS the writer’s fault.

I have a shelf at home bulging full of ‘how to write’ books. Books on the structure of screenplays. Books on how to build a dramatic storyline. Books on crafting a killer final act. Books on character, story arcs and the seven basic plots. Books on grammar. Books on the evolution and history of the language. Books on modern usage. Books on the techniques of successful writers. Books on copywriting. Books on proofreading and editing. Books on formatting. And there’s more, I’m sure of it.

I have read every single one. Some of them twice.

Does reading a lot of ‘how to’ books make me a writer? No. But if I want to repair my own car, I don’t open the bonnet and assume because I can drive that I can tune the engine. Just because you can read or write to a high-school standard doesn’t mean you can ‘Write’ write. Filling journals of your heart-felt poetry at home, or having a hard-drive full of great ideas for films that only make sense to you, doesn’t make you a writer any more than cutting my own grass and weeding the rockery makes me a landscape gardener.

During Project Greenlight, I came across many people who felt their enthusiasm and high school English education were enough to make them writers. These were often the same people that would sneer at discussions of structure or pace, believing these complex ideas were not for them. What I suspect is that these people dismissed the tools of a true writer, because to admit they are important would mean admitting to themselves that they weren’t ready to be a writer.

What is the lesson here? Follow the rules of the masters – whether in grammar or structure or pace or format or anything. The rules exist because they work. If you can’t describe how the plot beats of your script fit into the three act structure, can’t define onomatopoeia or explain the difference between a simile and a metaphor, you need to hit the books. Amateurs should never avoid the rules and only the most gifted of proven writers can – sometimes – break the form. Ignorance of the rules is no excuse.

Harsh Reality Number 4 – You Need to Write for Free Before You Can Write For Money

So, how did I get this job? What quirk of fate allows me to spend my entire working day playing with words at a keyboard for a salary?

Last year I was working as the office manager in an employment agency. After ten years of success in that field, I really felt I had delayed my quest for a more creative career for too long. I applied for everything in the media and creative industries. In my time, I’ve worked as a cameraman, video editor, radio presenter, nightclub DJ and promoter, so I certainly had a number of possible avenues to pursue.

I achieved a number of very different interviews before the one that changed my life. I had responded to a small ad requesting an ‘editor’ for an online marketing company. Specifically, they needed a copywriter for search engine optimisation purposes. For those of you that don’t know, search engine optimisation involves crafting the copy on websites around very specific words and phrases in order to rank higher in Google and thereby attract more customers. Don’t worry – before I attended the interview, I had never heard of SEO either.

In the interview, we discussed a wide range of topics. How would I approach different clients? Was I good at researching topics I knew nothing about (after all, I would be writing whatever websites were needed). But I think one thing sealed the deal for me.

My future boss indicated that he had received a number of applications for the role, but that a large amount contained basic errors of spelling or grammar and a great deal more were unable to back their skills up with concrete samples. On the other hand, I had spent a weekend building and writing this very website to help in my search for a job and I had included a link in my application.

The employer was able to follow the link and read exactly how I write. He was able to sample a few pages of web copy and gauge my approach to online writing. The website included PDFs of other writing samples; scripts, a short story and links to other websites I had a hand in producing. Of course, he liked what he found and offered me the job.

This is what I mean by working for free before working to get paid. These samples demonstrated my abilities as a professional writer. Now, understand I didn’t give him a portfolio of poetry, or links to a cheesy Stevie Nicks fan club site. The work I used to demonstrate my ability was work that appeared professional, even though I had completed each piece as an amateur. Everything I write, amateur or not, has always been treated with the seriousness and attention to detail of a professional job.

Formatting and layout are crucial with this. If you’ve ever written a movie script, you should already be aware of how anally-retentive professional script-readers are when it comes to formatting. The wrong indentations or a failure to use CAPS for certain directions can be enough to see your script filed in the shredder, regardless of whether you have written the most amazing Act 3 ever committed to foolscap. The same is true across all writing.

The lesson: A professional writer behaves like a professional writer long before being paid to be a professional writer.

Harsh Reality 5 – There’s More to Writing Than Writing

I started the job a few days later. I was shown to my work station, was given a description of my duties and then was told that, until customer copywriting orders started arriving, I was to help completely overhaul the existing website while writing articles and blog posts on issues concerned with online marketing and ecommerce. Remember, I knew nothing of SEO and all the other techniques online marketers used, but I was now required to not only write the pages of a website selling these services, but also to write detailed and informative articles on the subject.

So I did what a writer does best if he isn’t writing. I read.

Every lunch break I was buying and reading industry magazines. Every spare moment I had, I was visiting social media sites, such as Sphinn, that specialise in online marketing. I subscribed to more blogs than I could conceivably read in a week. I created this very blog as an extension to the original website so that I could practice the principles I was reading and test them out for myself. I knew that merely regurgitating the facts I read elsewhere would be meaningless. I needed to know these things first hand by doing.

In the evenings, I was still at the PC, either reading, Sphinning or coding the website. Very soon, I was submitting my own articles to Sphinn and was encouraged by the response. By January, I not only had the blog off and running with a number of subscribers, but I began writing on these topics for Nett Magazine, a new small business ecommerce title released in Australia in December.

I went from ignorance to authority on the topic of online business and internet marketing in weeks. The boss was now coming to me for advice on how to improve the link structure of the site. My name was becoming recognised in the online community.

As a result, I no longer carry out customer copywriting jobs. We have employed a young journalism graduate to deal with customers as I have inadvertently created a brand new role within the organization – that of Marketing Communications Manager. And I got a whacking pay rise to boot. My duties are pretty much as you would expect. I blog and write articles to build brand awareness of Netregistry and its subsidiaries, while creating and running the new social media campaigns we have implemented as a result of my work.

Without all this additional research and commitment and sweat and experimentation, I would not be in this job. If I hadn’t thrown myself into working every moment I had with a passion to fully understand and become an informative voice in the industry, I probably wouldn’t have lasted in the industry longer than five minutes. Anyone can turn up to a job at 9 and leave at 5. Anyone can claim that it is up to other people to train them or provide guidance. I chose to create the writer I wanted to be, with no half measures and plenty of sacrifices along the way.

The lesson? Be a writer 24×7. Always reading, always learning, always observing. Your writing is only ever as good as the information you have to impart or the unique perception you have. Make sure your message is worth writing about and live it with a passion.


So there you go. I know that’s not as simple an answer as some of you were hoping for. I can’t provide you the number of an employment agency for writers. I can’t give you any shortcuts or back doors into your dream. A writing career is a result of determined graft and nothing else; no courses, no contacts, no books and no tricks can replace that. Having said that, the courses, the books and the contacts are all necessary too.

And a massive dose of luck.

As I said at the beginning, I don’t mean any of this to be demotivating – merely realistic. If you read any of the above and felt intimidated by the truth, then maybe you need to very carefully think about whether your dream is best left that way. But, alternatively, if you are destined to be a writer, you will overcome adversity and stick at it with the gumption to do the things I did. Just remember, there are no guarantees and always have a second job.


  1. Michael Leis says

    Thought-provoking post! Thanks for taking the time. A few I’d throw in there:
    1) What I find as a key difference between people who write and professional writers is being able to write every day. Many people want to write because they feel inspired to tell a story. But can you write even when you have no story? When it’s someone else’s story? When it’s a rainy day and you’re tired and it’s Monday at 7am?
    Professional writers must be able to write at a consistently high level regardless of any other factors that exist. It’s your job!
    2) Belief that your writing can compel groups of people to act.
    3) Separating your personal opinion from the goal of the work. Writing is an emotionally draining task, but the written piece is a product. Be as proud and as objective as possible about your writing. Accept that once you write it, it is not yours anymore, and that it must serve a purpose.
    4) Nine out of ten ideas are bad ones. It’s your job to come up with enough bad ideas that you’ve collected a few worth pursuing.
    5) Pile-up rejections. Many people will not like your work. It will make some people insulted or angry. These are all okay. If you are averse to rejection, you’re not a professional. Being a writer means welcoming rejection as a motivator on the path to better writing.
    Sorry for the lengthy comment — thanks again for the post!

  2. This is one of the best articles I have ever read on what it takes to be a writer. So many people think it’s an easy profession — hah. You can’t have an ego, it’s counterproductive. A thick skin is not only necessary, it’s mandatory.
    However, I will say, for me, it’s a fire that burns continuously. It’s not that I want to write — I need to write. I have been fortunate in that I have found venues that help support my habit. I still have a “regular” job, but I’m working toward my goal and I won’t stop until I’m there.
    Persistence. Constant learning. Practice. Luck.
    Thanks for a great post. I’m bookmarking this and coming back often.

  3. Thanks for the kind words, both of you.
    Michael, I agree, there is so much more I could say on the topic. Some of these things I have already covered in my series on ‘The Professional Writer‘, including the need to write everything, even when you don’t feel like writing. I also covered the topic in my post ‘How to be a Writer when Your Muse Goes on Holiday‘.
    The main point I wanted to get across was that writing for your own entertainment or for the back-slapping of your friends is very different to the real world of writing. Like any creative job, all the training and effort in the world won’t make up for a lack of talent.

  4. I stumbled here by way of and couldn’t be happier. A wonderful site of useful ideas, thoughts and comments presented professionally and written with style. As with the other pages I’ve nibbled on, I couldn’t agree more regarding what is required to even put yourself in a position to maybe have a chance as a writer. Thanks for sharing your thoughts and experiences, and good luck to all who pass through here.

  5. Thank you for writing this article. It is by far the most helpful article that I found on becoming a writer.
    My writing was re-awakened when I moved to Arizona 10 months ago. I was very fortunate to find a work-at-home position as a travel writer / blogger with Sunset Travel. I recently found two other work-at-home travel writing opportunities. One of the opportunities is volunteer but will turn into a paid position after a “trial period.”
    Writing to me is the same as breathing. I am very passionate about certain areas such as animal rights. If I can be a voice for those you cannot speak, I will. I have my own website where I write on a variety of topics. My writing skills have come along way since I started with Sunset Travel.
    I am working on finding the “right” day job for me. Reading your article made me realize that I can have a “regular” job and continue with my writing. Who knows where it would lead me. Reading your article opened my eyes. It does not have to be “all or nothing.” Thank you.

  6. Kimota says

    Wow, welcome aboard Rebecca and Artie. I never guessed this article would produce such passionate responses, all from people who – instead of seeing the truth as demotivating – saw it as proof of the challenge.
    Rebecca, yours is exactly the approach I recommend. That work-at-home job producing articles is a perfect foothold into further writing while still allowing you time to earn money elsewhere. If your articles reach enough people, eventually they can lead to more work, and so it grows.
    This is what has happened to me, with some people having read my various magazine articles, online pieces and this blog now offering me additional freelance work that I can carry out in the evenings.
    Your articles become your portfolio and your calling card – spread them far and wide.

  7. That Was the Week That Was – July 23rd: Watchmen and Bittorrent

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  9. I too would love to one day become an accomplished non-fiction writer. Your blog is helpful and without surprise. I know, as I have heard, it’s a tough journey, but as a lifetime-learner, I see it as a learning curve without end. Knowing I have something of value to share, I just need to find the right audience and follow suit to fulfill and satisfy. Thanks to all who have shared your thoughts and opinions, all of which has been duly noted. 🙂

  10. Summer says

    I am only 12 years old and am already fascinated in writing. I read probably around 3-4 500 page chapter books each week, and believe me I am truly not lying. My mom tells me that when i grow up there’s A possibility i could become a writer. Iv made my own 300 page books before at home and iv shown probably around 6 of my friends it, and some tell me that its great some tell me to keep writing so basically thats what encourages me, and the small fact that i love to read. I do want to be a writer when I grow up but I wont get my hopes up to high though because I know that there is A big chance that I wont get to be it.

  11. I’m fourteen, and I’ve wanted to be a writer for as long as I can remember. I write stories in my spare time, and i love coming up with characters and plots. your article gave me a lot to think about, and I think to make sure I have a set future, I’m going to have a back-up plan. I’ve already prepared myself knowing it’s difficult to achieve, and I know there’s a chance I’ll never succeed, but I’m going to try.
    Thanks for your help

    • Bruce Stewart says

      Well done remember it is better to try and fail than fail to try.
      Stay addicted…

  12. Michelle says

    Great article. I’ve been on the writing for free side for a good two years via a writing degree and internship (it’s the most expensive way to go, but I had the opportunity and went for it). Now I’ve been spending a good year-and-a-half trying to bridge the gap between school work/hobby and paid full time career. You’ve done a great job detailing what a harsh reality it is, especially with number two.

    One thing I found that I did not expect is that if you get into the right office, once people know you can write, edit and design, work experience comes from the weirdest places. I’ve helped with direct mailing pieces making graphic designs, worked on document layout, drafted letters and spent a good amount of time editing a new employee manual. And it’s all potential work for a portfolio. 😀

    • Thanks. And yes, corporate writing (which I do, and by the sounds of it you do too) provides a very broad range of writing challenges. Long form copy. Short form copy. Advertising copy. Support copy. SEO copy. E-books. White papers. Websites. Blogs. Tweets. Updates. Scripts for YouTube videos. Email templates. Telemarketing scripts. And probably many more that I’ve forgotten.

      Each piece of writing is judged by different metrics and comes with its own set of factors and requirements. As a result, there are many writers that specialise on one area and not others – writers who are great at short DM copy but can’t produce long form articles, for example. Getting experience and practice in all disciplines certainly helps the portfolio and makes you far more useful to a future employer!

  13. Aenowen says

    It sounds like you have achieved success in a menial faculty – compared to what writing truly can be. Don’t preach wisdom unto others about the written word when it merely involves your own progression. Written communication belongs to all of us – there are many avenues that augment different paths. Just because you finally made it to a level YOU believe qualifies the means does not transcend to every writers aspirations. How about you get off your high horse of literal efficacy and write an unbiased and succinct article on what drove you to write and the fervour involved.

    I do not mean to come across as caustic as I probably do, but I believe you should have entitled your post ‘How to Become Some Kind of Writer: My Harsh Reality,’ if, indeed, it was truthfully so harsh.

    • Hmmm… if you think my journalistic and copywriting career doesn’t ‘qualify’ as what writing ‘can truly be’, then I wonder how you would define being a writer? The idea that writing is somehow purely authoring great fiction is a myth. Look at the careers of many great writers. Spot how many also worked as copywriters or journalists or columnists or similar earlier in their careers. Should we discount Orwell’s far greater back catalogue as a journalist from his writing career because that is somehow more menial?

      Sure, I write from (partly) my own progression. Of course. ‘Write from experience’ is always one of the first pieces of advice given out to writers. But I also write from observation and from the experiences of other writers I know. Yes, there are many different paths, but there are also many common themes. I have also been part of many writer groups where I come across so many amateurs that resist the very harsh truths I outline above. And believe me when I say they don’t make it. So yes, I am writing from my experience in seeing what works and doesn’t work for a lot of people.

      I can’t think of any writer I know that considered the road to full time paid word-smithing as smooth or without constant application and education.

    • Packerchickeighty8 says

      Very nicely done Aenowen! I truly honor your intelligent response to this nonsense. 

    • Maleeq Triwealth says

      The best comment under this article that I’ve seen!
      I’m 5 years late but…who cares?
      For some reason, everyone else in these comments appear to be taking in his words as the gospel, and that’s not to say he’s wrong or anything in his viewpoint, but it’s almost as though they don’t know what their own path or ideas or success are. Although I feel the message, and the main point of it all, I don’t agree with 97% of what he said. It almost seems fear based in his delivery. Is he trying trying to scare people or something by conveying HIS experiences throughout HIS career? To assume your experiences are checkpoints that all other would-be writers are going to have to face is both arrogant and narrow-minded.

      So, sorry, John, but this one just doesn’t cut it for me.

  14. Awnew3 says

    First I would like to say thank you. Thank you for having the guts and knowledge to post something that finally puts writing into a real career, unlike all those other sites that simply describe how writing is a dream and takes hard work to accomplish, though they never tell you what kind of work or where to work. I, myself, love to write. Its something that I do to get away from everything that is happening in my life, and one day, I would love more than anything to be able to turn this my writing into a real career. And I know that I still have a lot to learn, but I now know more about what I need to learn, as before, I only knew I had to somehow magically acquire the information to be absolutely amazing in this specific career field. Sure, I have lots of dreams and ideas but I also have to have the concentrated and professional ability to write those out in a way that will not only grab my reader’s attention, but will maybe even help them learn something through that. This is my dream, and I just want to thank you so very much for helping me to finally be able to move to the next step and actually make something out of the dream that I once that would only stay as such, you are truly inspiring and even though I know you probably no longer need it; I wish you the best of luck.

  15. Fuckass says

    I’m this, I do that, I accomplished this… who cares? I despise Holier then thou writings more then any other… 😐

    • Ah yes. Piercing debate that cuts to the heart of the argument. Come on. Let’s keep the comments family friendly. Anonymous abuse is pretty lame.

    • Sealcvc says

      Bravo…..You have such a keen grasp of the written word! Your aspirations must appeal to becoming a literary critic. And to attempt to answer your question “who cares?”, obviously some of us do. I’m sorry I can’t agree with your “Holier than thou” comment, but I’m certain I am not as accomplished as you decerning the written word. I suggest you try the website “”.

      • Thank you. 🙂

        At least some of you appreciate I’m not trying to big note myself (far from it) but instead writing on a topic I get asked about a lot from the only perspective I have – my own.

  16. Good read, I have a room mate (In New Zealand we call them flatmates) who is currently unemployed and instead of looking for a job has decided to write fantasy novels. I  encourage him to pursue writing. However, I keep trying to inform him of the reality of writing, and that he should at least have a part time job to support himself while he writes. He doesn’t want to listen

    Sorry about my spelling and grammar, I am not a writer/editor.

    • Thanks! And yes, it sounds like your flatmate is exactly the sort of person I’m talking about. I’ve met many in my time – I was one myself once – more convinced of my ‘destiny’ to be a writer than actually understanding how it would happen.

  17. marcezchi says

    Your post is awesome. I pray someday to fully understand in first person your experience. Thanks. The world is small, I’ll see you around.

  18. Tjrobinson007 says

    Gain some great info! Will meet soon and ill thank you personally!

  19. Trina4mayor says

    Holy narcissism Batman! 

  20. Arthurmusheyev says

    imagination is key to being a writer, most lack it. If they do have it, it s nothing new…it is the same as everyone else s…it s not what you don t know but what you don t feel. Most people don t feel, they think too much…thinking and  feeling are two separate entities, one must learn to master both individually and then aspire to bring them together as best as one could to make the essence of them, this is true imagination. Nothing is new anymore…the only writer s I respect are philosophers, they are true genius s. What they say make s sense and it is the truth…the truth is our s, always been our s, always  will be ours. Society turns us all into robots, thinking feeling the way they want you too….I am no one to give advice about writing but what I do know is that writing is an art…it is a talent…one possess talent or they don t…don t impersonate, if you see yourself trying to write think feel like someone else, anyone else….you are not a writer, at least for me your not. 

  21. Great post about the difficulty of writing here:

  22. I love it! I have come across so many people (more recently for some reason) who figure writing is an easy job that pretty much anyone can do from home. Scary how many write their tips about writing and being a writing and their articles are full of spelling and grammatical errors, nonsense sentences and other writing mistakes that just show their absolute lack of talent and knowledge.

    It is great to see someone admit it is hard and takes some natural ability to truly succeed. And a willingness to learn and practice, too.

    Like you, I had many jobs which helped prepare me for a communications manager role and now my own writing business – it may have appeared I suddenly became a writer but there were years or learning and billions of pages read to achieve the necessary skill level.

    As for implying commercial writing is menial or you are ‘holier than thou’ for writing this, it’s just nonsense and sounds like sour grapes to me.

    • Kimota says

      Well didn’t you just make the Christmas Card list… 🙂

      And I can’t help but also add that this post is already nearly 4 years old. Another 4 years of experience, two awards, my first published fiction and enough magazine articles to wallpaper the house only further prove my points. That’s not being ‘holier than thou’, but merely recognising my hard graft is generating results and being honest about why. All writing is menial. Show me a writer that only writes when creativity flows easily from mind to pen and I’ll show you an unpaid amateur.

      As Douglas Adams said: “Writing is easy. You only need to stare at a piece of blank paper until your forehead bleeds.”

      • I know this post is a few years old but I loved it. I work fulltime and write a blog for fun. I do it for fun and it is obvious the training in the field is absent, but as long as I fewl passionate I will continue. I however admire professional writers and was grateful to read how hard it is in reality, far from the just cone up with an idea and you will be the next big thing.
        Happy days to you theintermediatemother.

  23. Matthew Knight says

    Very interesting and helpful….I am aware that I alone need to decide whether to take the step, but I would like some feedback/ advice.
    I am a 58 yo pediatrician. For the last 3-5 years, I have considered writing fiction or possibly plays. I have no epxperience, but a growing desire to tell stories in some way.

    Given the above stated realities, is it realistic to start at my age? I have heard/read that if one can’t imagine not writing, then it’s not the right choice. Is that a fairly good guideline ?

    I may have more time over the next few years also. I already read alot.
    Thoughts any one?


    • Kimota says

      Absolutely, it should never be too late to start. I’m sure we can all think of best selling writers who were never published until even later in life. But I think, as you suggest, the guideline should be whether you can’t help but write. Don’t write because you want to be a best selling author, playwrite or whatever. Write because you have to get the stories out of your brain and onto paper – even if you are the only one who will ever read them. Write as often as you can, daily if possible. Write and rewrite and rewrite so you build up that experience of how words can always be improved. That’s where the experience comes from, ultimately, that can eventually have others wanting to pay for those words.

  24. I am glad that I found this site. Thanks for it and the advise. Two years ago I tried my hand at some fanfiction (the author allows it on the site, so don’t slam me about plagerism). I appreciate the forum that allowed me to develop some confidence and an audience. It also gave me a chance to write on the various forums. Now I want to write some fiction of my own and on my own terms. I write audit reports as part of my job and enjoy that part. (I am an accountant and will be retiring in less than 10 years.) I was looking around for a place to put my story where people might read it. After reading this site, I realize that I can put it on the free web page that I have set up thru google and I can just send the link to my facebook friends and family. If it takes off great. If not, well, at least my mother will read it.

  25. Thanks for this brilliant article – reading it was a real penny dropping moment for me and led to me realising I am, in many ways, a writer myself! It prompted me to come up with this (you get a mention in there too, not that that’s worth anything with a readership of about 5!) x

  26. U dont need structure or grammer or even spelling. Writing is all about meaning, emotion, passion, and what ever gives u that drive to write. Some of the greatest writers couldnt spell or use correct grammer they had other people do that.

    • Kimota says

      I think you may be living under a misapprehension there. Those “other people” you suggest a writer has to correct their spelling and grammar are called editors. But to have access one of those you, have to be commissioned or hired first. While, yes, it is possible for a publisher to accept a writer’s magnum opus even if it contains grammatical errors, when reading the first page the initial impression of bad grammar or poor spelling is going to impact whether they make it to page 2. And so few unsolicited manuscripts are read as far as page 2. So while 100% perfection may not be necessary, to say grammar and spelling aren’t important is like saying it’s not important to dress well to make a good impression at a highly competitive job interview.

      Same goes for journals and other forms of professional writing too. Yes, sub-editors have caught my typos and grammatical errors before when I’ve written for magazines. But I would never have been given the gig writing for the mag in the first place if I didn’t know how to structure an article or write to an above average standard. They’re a safety net to catch the (very) few that slip through, and aren’t an excuse for not knowing how to use the basic skills of the craft.

      And sorry, but the ‘structure’ doesn’t matter line is a furphy. Whether they know it or not virtually every published book, movie or tv show follows similar structural conventions. Understanding and recognising that helps you to construct a story that works, with a much higher likelihood of being accepted.

      Sorry, but I hear comments like yours all the time. Funnily enough, never from anyone who’s ever been paid for their words.

  27. Priyabrata nayak says

    and what if somebody fights against the whole world only to become a writer. that’s his only dream. life is too short ,sir, to think about the second job. thank you. waiting for your encouraging reply

  28. Marissa says

    Wow. This article gave me alot to think about. Since the fourth grade, people have told me I’m going to be a 15-year-old author. I’m going to need a fallback if I am to truly consider being a writer. I mean, in case it doen’t work out, I will always have something else to use to pay my bills. This is well written and made me consider what other options there are.

    Have a nice day,

    • Jonathan Crossfield says

      Thanks! Some people see this article as a downer, but I far prefer your more pragmatic response. Talent is never enough by itself, and neither is commitment or effort. Even all of those together are not much cop without some focus, training, and a dose of luck.

      Plus having another fallback set of skills can inform your writing in many other ways. It’s why many acting schools prefer to take acting students after they’ve had to survive in the real working world for a bit, instead of straight out of school. It’s those experiences that inform our creativity and allow us to write (or act/paint/compose) with greater authority and authenticity.

      Good luck!

  29. ”I can’t give you any shortcuts or back doors into your dream. A writing career is a result of determined graft and nothing else;”


  30. Before I get started, can I just ask that no one lash out at my grammar?
    First, I truly enjoyed the article and gained alot of perspective. I love the idea of being a writer, and while I have so many wonderful ideas, I’m just not there mechanically. Maybe I never will be and thats okay too. I’m also painfully aware that this information is from 2008 but I highly doubt its gotten any easier. I’m throwing in my 5 year old, 2 cents, anyway.

    I was not surprised by the combative and angry responses that I read. The internet has become a wasteland that is polluted with garbage, negativity, and drama. Anymore, It seems you have to search through muddied waters and quicksand to find the truth and the goodness that lies within the good ol’ world wide web. *eye roll*.

    It is sad that some of you really reacted so defensively. I read numerous comments and I’m going to guess that these people definitely do not lack passion for their creativity. Dream. Always Dream. However, just the same, these are the people who don’t like hearing the truth because it is devastating. These are the people who are insecure in their ability to “make it big”, or else they’d remember to have a little humbleness.

    I feel that the point was lost on some of these people. The article wasn’t about ones ability. It was about ones ability to make money at ones ability…. And I’ll leave it at that.

    Mr. Crossfield – I truly enjoyed the advise and the honesty. I’ll be creepin’ around to see what other fun finds you have for me. Thanks again.

    • Jonathan Crossfield says

      The article wasn’t about ones ability. It was about ones ability to make money at ones ability.

      Couldn’t have put it better myself.

  31. Tangential says

    Thanks for the article, Jonathan. I’ve made the mistake of trying to go into teaching with rose-tinted glasses and later being miserable about my decision, and thanks to some good advice from family, I’ve started to read about the reality of writing before leaping in where angels fear to tread.

    This was a great help- thank you! I now realise exactly how little I know and how much more I need to find out about.

    To the haters from 2011- guys, this isn’t conceit, it’s just plain hard work. It’s better than being coddled and told that writing is amazing and rewarding and the best profession to grace humanity.
    Isn’t it? Come on.

  32. Wow. I just read your article and all the posts to follow and must say I admire your grace when confronted with those whose criticisms border on straight character assault. Not sure about much in life, but am fairly certain that most anything worth doing is not as easy as one would hope. I found your article to be most probably realistic and a rationale departure from what would be idealistic. Thanks for writing it.

    I don’t know how to write. Well, that is I understand basic spelling and at least some grade-school level grammar, but have never written a story, a blog, or even kept a journal. In fact this is only the second on-line post I have ever uttered outside of Facebook. I find writing cathartic whether it be some musing I had at some point during my day, or a more philosophical pondering when reflecting on my life or a situation. I don’t know how or if this could ever translate into an actual career. I don’t consider myself narcissistic enough to think people outside my Facebook friends care much for anything I might have to say.

    So, it would seem that writing doesn’t start out necessarily by coming up with deep meaningful words or with a story, a play or even a plot per say. Perhaps not even an original thought on a subject that the writer genuinely cares about. If I interpret it correctly, it seems that writing may commonly start with a paying J.O.B. to write about what an employer genuinely cares about for the purpose of the company, not to blabber an opinion of your own devise or a witty, clever or entertaining story. I never really considered this. As much as I often thought how “cool” it would be to be a successful novelist, I never really gave much thought about where those giants of literature may have started.

    I am at a crossroads professionally. Based on your article I am thinking I should pursue the ‘smart” road and first make sure I have enough income to continue supporting my habits. Eating and clothing myself for example. However, maybe it would be worth my while to spend some time tentatively going down another path to pursue public writing. I honestly have no idea if I would be any good at it. This isn’t to sound defeatist. I had learned a hard lesson once in my late twenties that I had to jot down into my world outlook. I once thought enough of my abilities to say, “I would be successful at whatever I applied myself to”. I learned the harsh reality of that not always being true. At that moment I was reminded of my 9th grade History teacher who enjoyed basketball. He said one day in class that if he practiced enough each and every day, he could possibly(ital.) become the best 5’5″ Jewish basketball player to ever shoot the rock. He went on to acknowledge that even at this personal best level, Michael Jordan would make him look like a 5’5″ Jewish basketball player. So my point is, I want to try this knowing I may never see any great measure of success or real “payoff”, but to aspire to be “good” if not GREAT or even well received might be worth the journey so what the hell.

    Should I try and enroll in some classes somewhere? What might I take to be most beneficial? Any input is appreciated. Of course if the snarky critics wish to spew their poison, I can’t promise to be as gracious haha. Punks.

  33. Brittani says

    Hello! I hope you are doing well. In your post you mention that you have several books that you have read in order to help improve your grammar, how to structure X, etc. I was wondering if you could possibly (please) recommend some of these reads; Specifically, ones on grammar and technique, if you don’t mind! I am always looking to improve my writing and would like to attempt to enter the professional field of writing. I have been writing since I can remember and have had a couple of minor things published (but let’s face it, it was only high school). I’m not expecting anything spectacular or anything that would replace my main job, but I would love to at least learn to freelance on the side. Anyway, thank you for the informative blog post!

  34. Adam Regan says

    I’d first like to say, thank you for this article on becoming a writer. I’ve aspired to become a writer ever since I created my own fictional short story at school in the sixth grade. This article is unimaginably insightful and has only helped me further in trying to become a successful writer.
    You’ve opened my eyes that even though the dream is to become a professional writer, accept that to start I will still need something else to pay the bills. Nothing is as simple in the real world as you’d like it to be.
    Also I would like to forward a congratulations on making your job sector at the company you work for… Skills!
    Thanks for reading.

    – Adam J Regan

  35. “I have a shelf at home bulging full of ‘how to write’ books. Books on the structure of screenplays. Books on how to build a dramatic storyline. Books on crafting a killer final act. Books on character, story arcs and the seven basic plots. Books on grammar. Books on the evolution and history of the language. Books on modern usage. Books on the techniques of successful writers. Books on copywriting. Books on proofreading and editing. Books on formatting. And there’s more, I’m sure of it.”

    Would you mind providing the list of books that you believe are important? Like your top twenty-five books that every aspiring writer should know and why they should know it?

  36. Okay so, here’s the deal.
    I am 15 and in high school. I love writing and have been doing so since primary. I have written many articles and poems for Yearbook and the school magazine. Other than that, I have written many short stories and one long one. Up till now, I always considered writing to be something I would do at home while I became an astrophysicist (something I have been wanting to become since 2nd Grade). However, recently, I began rethinking my decision. For the past year or so, I have not really been that confident about getting a job as an astrophysicist (I don’t believe it’s hard to imagine why). So I decided to get a career as a writer. However, I saw your article, and others, telling me to have a stable job from which I live off. Pretty soon, I will have to apply for college and I am really conflicted about what courses to take. I do want to pursue English but I also want to pursue physics. So could you please give me some advice. My mates and family say I write well but I don’t think that’s enough. Till now I haven’t faced rejection but I don’t think I am that good. I am able to write whenever I want and on whatever topic I am given. So should I take the various writing courses universities offer or not? Should I become and English Major and a journalist? Or should I just go for science? My father opposes both the decisions while my mother supports them. So getting some professional advice would be really good.
    Thank you!
    -Just your ordinary, idealistic, emotional, conflicted teenager

  37. Great article.

  38. I came across this blog while researching another topic, but stopped to read since everything you say resonates. Writing – any writing that needs to be read by anyone else other than your family – involves a great deal of pain, patience and persistence way before you ever see a pay off. Reading this article should stave off the disillusionment for any aspiring writer. Writing may seem easier than say painting since we all think in a language and have been taught to articulate it in writing in school. Making a living off it, getting someone to pay for reading your work, demands a higher quality of writing or thinking. The good news is- there are lot more opportunities to showcase (for free) than ever before. So the aspiring writers who expressed doubts must put their writing out there, get as much feedback and just get better at it.

  39. I honestly did not read this article to find out how to make money. I read a lot of articles about writing and feel these are some valid concerns for any type of writer, but that goes for anything you do in this world–not just writing.

    Writing is an art you can practice to self educate, to empower your way of thinking about life in a totally new way. Writing is a craft, you need to absorb a lot of it just through reading and studying the text of other writers. Not just the writers you want to read.

    Read everything you can get your hands on, books are the best teachers.

    When you first get going, you are going to get tired, your head is going to hurt; you will have to train hard to develop stamina and over long periods of time, one day you too will grow; over a period of years–sow your seed; make it happen; live the dream.

    Writing is fun, enjoy the time you spend writing or you will give up. Always believe in what you are doing, even when nobody else will.

    I’m a dyslexic writer. I know how hard it can be to focus on writing, do it a little-bit at a time, daily, and over time you’ll be just fine. Writing will enrich your life; if you’re anything like me–it will center you. Believe in yourself. You can do it.

  40. Andrew M says

    This article is very enlightening to me as well. I think you said it perfectly in your comment that said that you want people to see it as a recognition of the challenge, rather than a demotivator. I’m 21 years old and have been writing short stories and what i had hoped to be novels (most of which suffer the same fate where they are put off by new ideas and inspirations i come across) since i was about 14 years old. Of course i would love to be the next JK Rowling or Tom Clancy, who wouldn’t, but i also know that the reality is thats exceptionally rare. In a weird way though, that makes me want to get into this field even more though, knowing that if i were to be able to actually do that, i could be a part of a very exclusive “club”. 99% of what i, and most writers, write never gets read by anyone besides me and close friends and family, but thats ok! It just makes you want to strive even harder on the next project so that one day if you’re lucky you can walk past a barnes and nobel and see your work prominently displayed in the window. Cheers and good luck to everyone else here! Dont give up!

  41. Ben Arasi says

    I wanted to practice my writing skills by starting to develop a portfolio. My Bachelors degree is in Criminal Justice, so it is completely unrelated. However, I have always loved to write.

    What types of writing samples should I start to create if I wanted to get into a writing job of some sort? I have started to work on a travel blog that I have recently gotten back into.

    I take it that samples of papers that I have written in college would not be applicable to a portfolio?

    • Jonathan Crossfield says

      It was running my own blog that did it for me so you’re on the right track there. If the college papers are on relevant topics that you might want to write about commercially (for example, demonstrating that you have knowledge or expertise in a particular area) it may be a simple task to pull representative extracts sans the overly academic veneer, or even repurpose some of the content into fresh sample articles.

  42. Imogen Kingsley says

    BEST article ever. Been a writer 20+ years myself. Every word of this is true.

    Anyone who wants to be a writer had better read this and do some serious, hard thinking. Figure out if it’s for you, cos it definitely ain’t fer everyone.

    So glad I found this article even if I did a bajillion years later. Super well done, you ^_^ /

  43. Nicole Manley says

    Wow, this is a fantastic and insightful article, that offered me a whole new perspective on the difficulty of becoming a professional writer! I recently turned sixteen, but I’ve wanted to be a writer for as long as I can remember, and have been trying my hand at fictional stories since elementary school.

    Obviously, my older works, in hindsight, are hilariously bad, but I never stopped writing and I do believe my writing has improved significantly. From a pragmatic perspective, I also understand that I will need to earn money, so I will invest in another career as well – likely in law.

    Thank you so much for writing this. I know I’m remarkably late to the party, but considering I stumbled upon this article today, I couldn’t help but comment. I write both original and non-original works (fanfiction), and the latter is mainly to garner an audience and constructive criticism from readers who are not in my immediate circle of family and friends.

    I greatly admire the hard work and dedication you’ve put into your craft, and it inspires me. I hope to climb up the writing ladder as you have, one rung at a time. I’m so sorry for such a long comment, but again, thank you so much and I wish you all the best in your future endeavors!


  1. […] today the penny dropped.  I read a blog by Jonathan Crossfield about the trials of becoming a writer and how few people are ever paid to write. He wasn’t […]