Your first task in becoming a writer, is to convince yourself that you are a writer. This means you have the internal resources to keep at it regardless of a preponderance of evidence to the contrary.
In the beginning, this quandary comes up constantly. You feel so desperate to be published because that’s the way the world tells you you’re a writer, and boy, are you hungry for some form of affirmation. But publishing doesn’t prove anything. What makes you a writer is that you sit down and you write just about everyday of your life.
The learning curve is quite steep and with no clips to prove yourself, where do you begin? Most begin in their local area, writing less than stimulating puff pieces for free or something close to that. This can be a mistake. I’ve seen too many excellent writers get stuck in their local markets making close to nothing (Okay, 12 cents a word), because they are too intimidated to take the next step. Writing for the local market is reassuring, but it only shows that you can make some money writing. Prove yourself and then move on.
Venturing out to more widely distributed publications requires learning about lots of magazines and newspapers you’ve never heard of before. I can highly recommend spending some time at your local magazine stand. If you’re doing the standard rookie trick of writing the piece first, before you start to think about marketing it, feast your eyes on all the possible outlets for your precious words! I was amazed to find that there truly is a magazine on every subject under the sun. Unfortunately, most of them don’t pay much, but, hey, you just want a few solid clips, right? Cruising the internet is just not the same as holding the journal in your hand and trying to picture your article in it. Dream on.
Now we come to the toughest part of all, patience and rejection. I imagine the greatest single stumbling block after self-confidence, to most freelance writers becoming successful is a lack of patience. Waiting is a major part of the game. Dealing with rejection is the other part. Do you realize how many would be writers are immediately disqualified because they can’t handle these terrible two? Settle in and adjust, you’re going to be here awhile.
One way to combat that sinking feeling when you’re totally frustrated is to go do something you know you’re good at, preferable something that also provides immediate reinforcement. Cooking and gardening are great ways to prove to yourself that you have skills, you’re a productive member of society and the rewards are quite quick compared to waiting months for an editor to respond.
Another good way to combat early writer burn out is by either acquiring a writing coach, for those with money, or joining a writer’s group, for the penniless. Finding a good coach can make all the difference when you’re just starting out. Of course you don’t know what you’re doing. You’ve never done this before. And they can be so encouraging when you’re ready to quit and go get a real job with a real paycheck.
A writing group is a whole different can of worms. For as long as I can remember, I’ve had an aversion to what I call “group grope.” The dictionary defines grope as “to search blindly or uncertainly” and I’ve been in enough groups to agree. The first rule of joining groups: make certain that the members of your new group know more about what you’re doing than you do. Otherwise, you may be taking advice from a bunch of fools.
As a brand new writer, my group told me that my previous credentials were unimportant and should not be mentioned in my query letters. I found out only later that the editors I work with appreciate knowing that I have advanced degrees and years of experience in the areas I’m writing about. Suffice to say, choose your advisers very carefully when beginning a new enterprise, while keeping in mind no one is necessarily above jealousy.
I now believe the two most important ingredients in jumpstarting a new freelance writing career are courage and stubbornness. When my courage dwindles, I always remember:
“You miss 100 percent of all the shots you never take.” —Wayne Gretzky
Talent is, of course, key, but stubbornness can take you places no amount of encouragement or advice can. Once I decide that I’m going to get a certain story out to the public, nothing can stop me. I’m just that persistent.