The Best Way to Begin a Writing Career

Writing eBook Cover“Write for magazines.”

That's what I would tell anyone who dreams of being a writer — whether they want to write novels, create curriculum, or do something else with words.

The best way to start is by doing piecework. Write for magazines, websites, and other publications, and you'll begin to understand what the life of a writer really entails.

Here's why that's important:

It's great practice

Years of feature writing for magazines and websites was the best way I could practice for my first book. It taught me how to meet a deadline, work with an editor, and be humble about my work — all of which are needed for a writing career.

It doesn't matter if you're a future novelist, nonfiction author, or journalist. Writing short-form pieces prepares you for long-form. This is a great alternative to endlessly working on multiple drafts of your book and letting it sit in a drawer for years.

As my friend Marion Roach Smith says, you need to “write for real.”

It's humbling

Writers, when they're beginning, have two diseases: neurotically believing they have no potential and, at the same time, thinking better than they really are.

Nothing will bring you back to reality more quickly than red markup on an article you spent dozens of hours working on.

If you're going to be good — really good — you need to be humbled. It's hard but healthy. A little criticism will ultimately make you better. If you don't experience this, you're probably hiding.

It pays

But it doesn't always pay well. Nonetheless, writing for magazines teaches you how to manage your time, what you're really worth, and why so many writers complain about being poor.

Still, there's nothing quite like your first check in the mail. It's empowering, validating. You realize you have something to say, and someone else recognizes it, too. What a rush.

How do you get started?

Just begin somewhere — anywhere. Start small and build.

If you read books — and you really should, if you want to be a writer — try submitting reviews to local newspapers, a friend's blog, or a magazine. They don't pay well, but it gets your name in print and can be a step to something bigger.

After that, try doing an interview. If all you have is a blog, use that. You'd be surprised how many stars are willing to talk to you. In the 21st Century, “blogger” is synonymous with “journalist.”

Then, publish online.

Create small wins that build momentum over time. Use a past success to get your foot in the door for a future one.

The secret to getting publishers to notice you is relationship. Once you know them (and they know you), you're “in.” Then, it's a lot easier to get your ideas heard and your words published.

If you're living the romantic life of a writer in your head, it's time to stop dreaming. Start writing. And if you feel like you have nowhere to start, begin where I did: with magazines.

Good luck.

This was adapted from a contribution I made to Shawn Smucker's Building a Life out of Words, an excellent book on the writing life. Part memoir, part practical writing companion, this is a great read for any writer. Check it out here.