How to start your writing career off right
Starting a writing career is a huge endeavor that takes months, if not years, of building. I want to help you get to work faster and take the necessary steps early so your writing career is stronger, more creative, and resilient.
My name is Rebecca and I am a writer, book coach, and former magazine editor-in-chief. I run Conquer Books with my sister, Nicole, and we love turning budding writers into dynamic professionals.
Step 1: Call yourself a writer
You can call yourself a writer, yes, today. This simple thing is a sticking point for new writers because they feel they haven’t earned it yet. More problematic, they worry what others will think.
New writers say:
“Oh, I’ll call myself a writer when I go full time.”
“I’m an aspiring novelist.”
“I’ll wait until I have an agent before I tell anyone.”
If you are writing–be it 2,000 words every day or one Saturday a month–you are a writer. Even if you do something else to pay the bills. Even if you haven’t been published. If you consider yourself a writer and practice the craft, call yourself a writer.
Starting this today will help you in a few ways. You will begin taking your work more seriously. Networking opportunities will open up. Writing friends will be made. The writing world is full of serendipitous connections, but they’re never going to come your way if you don’t put yourself out there.
I am of a mind that you meet the universe halfway by doing the work and the time and building a solid foundation of creativity, skill and total despair — meet the universe halfway and maybe the universe will meet you in the middle.— Chuck Wendig (@ChuckWendig) September 4, 2018
Step 2: Set a writing schedule
Now here’s a hard truth. Yes, you can call yourself a writer as soon as you decide to be one, but you do have to follow through. Your career will not gain momentum on its own. Sometimes it needs a little push; most of the time you need to pull it screaming behind you. You can do this by setting actionable goals and sticking to them.
Write out your schedule and record blocks of time you can commit to writing. Then, time yourself writing so you have an idea of how many words you can write in an hour. This will help you figure out how long it will take to write a piece of short fiction or the first draft of a novel.
Writing takes practice. Some say you need to write for 10,000 hours to become an expert, some say you need to write 1,000,000 words. Either way, it’s clear you need to practice the skills necessary to create a great story that is thrilling, concise, and grammatically correct.
Step 3: Get a critique
As writers, we are too close to our work to see it clearly. Getting feedback from a wide variety of sources helps us identify what is and isn’t working from a reader’s perspective. Though practice is important, to improve you need to close the lifecycle of a written piece and allow someone to read and respond to it.
If it’s terrifying calling yourself a writer, imagine when it comes time to actually put your writing out there. That is why it’s important to share your work with someone you trust. New writers think they need to choose someone trustworthy so their work doesn’t get stolen.
It’s actually so that you can trust they’ll share feedback in a delicate way.
This can be a hard step not only because it requires confidence, but because inviting too many people, or the wrong person, to give feedback on your work could threaten your progress. A new writing friend might think they’re helping, but really their tearing assessment made you feel like you’ll never make it. Or, six members of a writing circle all give you contrary advice and you don’t know whose to follow. You may also deal with jealous or confused family members that don’t really get this writing thing.
My rule of thumb is to ask myself: Does this person want to preserve my voice? Or are they trying to make my work into something else?
Seeking and receiving feedback is a skill you will sharpen throughout your entire career. It is hard to find good feedback and once you do, it is hard to accept. Take time to find a supportive, skilled, and empathetic local writing group, share with friends who are cheering for your writing journey, or reach out to a past high school teacher who would be thrilled to hear from you.
Step 4: Read books on writing and business
You have a vison of what your writing career will look like. By educating yourself, you can better understand the steps to get there. Writing books from authors who’ve done it before you and business books by creative entrepreneurs can clarify your path and save you some growing pains. I suggest novice writers read one writerly book a month.
Nicole and I have a list of our favorite books on writing on Bookshop.com. Bookshop is our affiliate partner and 10% of purchases go to support Conquer Books and an additional 10% goes to indie bookstores. You can also find these titles at your public library.
Step 5: Set up writerly social media
I highly suggest joining Twitter. It’s a great place to meet writers. I’ve exchanged guest blog posts with other writers, used new connections as critique partners, and learned a lot. However, word of caution, don’t throw your time away. Make a point to build meaningful relationships, but don’t doom scroll when you should be writing.
Follow the hashtags #amwriting, #writerlife, and #writingcommunity. And follow us at @RebeccaZornow, @NicoleVanDenEng, and @ConquerBooks.
You may not have much to post about yet, but you may want to consider getting involved in Bookstagram or creating a page on Facebook to keep your friends updated on your writing process. Also, update your LinkedIn page to include your new journey.
Part of the social media gambit is to build your writing network, part is to leave breadcrumbs for the publishing industry, and another part is to help you find your voice. But let me tell you what I wish I understood early on: social media involvement is not going to make or break your writing career. Choose a platform, do something, but don’t let it infringe upon your writing time.
Step 6: Submit widely
Submitting your work is important. If you’re going after a big novel, I suggest you find a few ways to stick your toe in the eternal pool of writerdom while working on the book.
Start small here–your local paper or a regional writing contest. Part of this is to gauge interest in your writing, but to be honest, it’s also about learning to deal with rejection. I would have titled this section “Rejection” but I knew you’d skip it. Putting yourself out there and learning to deal with rejection is one of the most important skills you can master early. Entire writing careers are derailed because an individual couldn’t deal with rejection.
And there will be a lot of it. Many working, professional writers earn hundreds of rejections of various kinds every year. You have to submit widely to win one writing competition. You have to query 100s of times to find the perfect agent.
Getting paid to write and have lots of people read your work is amazing. But the other side of that coin is rejection and as writers we need to find ways to work through it.
This was an important lesson for me to learn. Sometimes a rejection is not personal; a good piece can get rejected. But you need to put yourself out there a lot to find the right opportunity or to connect with the right editor or agent. If you’re having a hard time with this phase, e-mail me at email@example.com for an empathetic ear and some ideas.
Step 7: Publish something
If you’re not getting any bites on your submissions, keep working on your skills. And in the meantime, publish something, really anything, so you have a new starting place. Ask a writer friend if you can write a guest post for their blog. Put something out on Medium.com or another website with a built-in audience and infrastructure. I think it’s okay to publish a few things for free at the beginning of your career.
This will provide a much needed self-esteem boost, but the simple act of sharing your work in this setting will tell you more about yourself as a writer. Did you find an almost-missed typo just before submitting? Add another layer of proofing to your routine. How did you feel when sharing the post with family? Maybe they’re not your ideal readership and that’s okay. Did you wish you had titled the piece something else when you saw it in print? Take time to research what makes a good title.
Getting your writing out there is exciting, but it is also an opportunity for recognizing and facilitating growth.
Step 8: Find your niche
The more you write, the more you will naturally narrow in on a sub-genre. This is important for you to actualize before the next steps in this article. Early in the process, it’s okay to try multiple avenues and genres, but spreading yourself too thin will impede your progress in the long-term.
It’s possible to have multiple pen names (I know someone who has 14 and is killing it), but that will come later. Narrowing in now will help you build on your momentum and allow you to dive in completely and master that genre or style. Do this now and in a year or two, when you look back, you’ll be amazed you ever did anything else.
Step 9: Write a business plan for your writing career
Writing a business plan will help you discover your strengths, goals, and motivations. I find the process so fulfilling, I rewrite mine at the end of every calendar year. If this isn’t your style, you don’t need to write a 20-page document. You can write a 1-page summary of what you hope to accomplish.
Many times writers forget they are business people. You are, in fact, a business person, and treating your writing career as a business will help you make more money and find more professional fulfillment. We share exactly how to create a writer business plan in this article.
Authors, it’s realllly important to know what you can write off as expenses. That includes website costs, design costs, swag, book purchases that can be considered research, business cards, and ads. Bloggers, this counts for you too, if you’re getting paid or in your first years.
— Dahlia Adler (@MissDahlELama) March 26, 2019
Step 10: Get serious about your finances
As part of that business plan, or as a separate exercise, build a budget that outlines how much you will make and spend in a year. You can even write two versions: your long-term goal and what you hope to achieve this year.
We are not used to talking about finances so this can be challenging. Just like rejection, finances are something writers wish they didn’t have to deal with, but empowering yourself in this area will prepare you for success. I personally worked with a business coach, a financial coach, and a tax professional, and read many articles and books before I felt confident in my plan.
It was a long road, but I now know exactly how much I want to make each year, how that supports my business and personal life, how I can organize my monthly finances in a smart way, and how to make sure I file my taxes properly.
If you’re just getting started, I suggest learning about deductions and that you create a simple spreadsheet to track funds going in and out. On a larger level, I suggest investing in yourself and thinking of yourself as a creative entrepreneur.
Step 11: Launch a website
If you like our website, good. It’s our second version. For the first few years of Conquer Books, Nicole and I ran a functional, but less SEO-friendly template. Nicole quickly outgrew the confines of our site as she expanded her web-building talents. So, when our stats picked up five-digit steam, we knew our blog was working and knew it would benefit us to invest more time in our site, as well as a little money.
I shared that background so you know it’s okay to start with the myname.wordpress.com address or that it’s okay your site doesn’t have custom features. What’s important is that you create an online home–a place to welcome potential readers and writing friends, and where you can share a bit about yourself without being pretentious about it on social media.
Oh, and it’s never too early to start a mailing list. Seriously, I am a member of many writing circles, and the one thing writers always say they wish they had done earlier was start a mailing list. Collect the e-mails of people who want to keep in touch with you and your writing. If you’d like to join our mailing list for writing tips and SFF book talk, you can do so at the very bottom of this page. New subscribers receive a free recourse: 25 Questions to Ask Your Manuscript.
Step 12: Write, submit, repeat
Neil Gaiman says it, and, uh, I say it too!
What is a writing career unless you are writing and submitting (or self-publishing) your work?
The top way to improve is to write and submit. The fastest way to make money is to write and submit. The best way to have fun is to write and submit.
If you’d like more writing and business tips, you can check out our writing resources page or our book coaching services. And if you’re serious about becoming an author, don’t forget to Create A Writer Business Plan.
Good luck on your writing career journey.