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.

61 thoughts on “The Best Way to Begin a Writing Career

  1. Love this post. The basic principle to write is reading. When we read, then we will have the guts to write. As my opinion, writing are presenting the ideas that we have learned from our surroundings.

    Thank you for this awesome article, Jeff.

  2. I just so appreciate you and your blog.  Your writing is amazing, everything is just so helpful, meaningful and inspiring.  I am so grateful for your work and God has blessed me by allowing me to connect with you.  Thank you for all you do.  I so appreciate it.

  3. Aw, c’mon, Jeff. A little romancing of your writing life is nice – helps keep the dream alive. Everything else in this post is spot on. Note – checks come in thin envelopes. Love finding those in the mailbox!

  4. Is there really a difference between writing for blogs and writing for magazines? Most of the magazines are only read online anyways, right? 

    (Not being sarcastic, just an honest question. I know tone is IMPOSSIBLE to interpret online.) Thanks. 

  5. Is there really a difference between writing for blogs and writing for magazines? Most of the magazines are only read online anyways, right? 

    (Not being sarcastic, just an honest question. I know tone is IMPOSSIBLE to interpret online.) Thanks. 

    1.  Jim, yes there is. Much harder to get published in magazines (for the most part). While this is changing, the barrier to entry for magazines and amount of legitimacy we associate with a writer published in one is still significantly high.

  6. I was able to get my first “real” writing gig 4 months ago. The editor marks up my posts, makes me revise over and over, and (at times) scraps my whole idea. BUT… I have grown more with this editor and writing job, than all my other blogging experiences combined. 

    It really stretches me, humbles me and is excellent practice. With the guidance of my editor, my posts have been featured on multiple news outlets, including Business Insider. Even more than that, I feel like I’m constantly becoming a better writer. Your suggestions here are spot on.

  7. I agree that this sort of writing is a truly humbling and necessary experience for anyone serious about being a writer.  I wrote for our local paper and it was life changing.  Between editors undoing what you thought was a masterpiece and commenters making sure to point out every flaw imagineable, you get a good grasp on what it is like to truly swallow your pride and persist.  
    I would also suggest people write about topics they aren’t all that crazy about.  I had major creative breakthroughs while writing articles about credit and insurance because in order to not go insane, I had to dig deep and find the joy of writing within dry subject matter.  It’s not easy, but it definitely sharpens you.  Thanks Jeff!

    1.  both. whatever works. remember: it’s not about getting your words published, it’s about serving the magazine. find out what they need and provide something of value.

  8. Writing for small venues gets the writer published, a few extra dollars, and best of all gives his/her confidence a very nice little jolt. Thanks for the advice – I do believe I’ll make use of it!

  9. I didn’t exactly plan it that way, but I’ve cut my teeth writing for college courses. You must keep deadlines, you must meet the professor’s criteria for the course, and you need to be able to humbly accept criticism of your ideas and work. But it can also be very validating when you get that critique back and it says “well done.”

  10. I like magazine writing because I can see the beginning, middle, and end much sooner than when I’m writing a novel. I love feeling like I’ve “finished” something. In novel writing, it takes much longer to write THE END.

  11. I have been thinking about guest posting on blogs or trying to write work for someone else for awhile. I think it’s time to get serious about this. I think those red marks would do me some good to help my writing improve even more.

  12. Thanks, Jeff – this was encouraging. I’ve been struggling to get a few pieces accepted into magazines, and finally discovered Elance – it’s not an excuse for me to stop trying to get in print, but it does make it easier to earn some money while working towards that goal. 

    It’s hard to stay focused and motivated when bombarded with rejection after rejection, though. I’m trying to remember that writing is my passion, and not just a source of income – it can be easy to forget when trying to make a living from it.
    On another note, I’m looking forward to seeing you in Nashville at Killer Tribes this weekend! 

  13. Awesome advice Jeff!

    I like your suggestions about submitting articles to newspapers and magazines. That’s been on my to-do list for far too long. Time to take action, right?

    One place I have taken action is blogging. I started my blog to get practice writing and content for a book. It’s working.  I’m slowly piecing some articles together and coming up with ideas! Can’t wait to see where it leads.

  14. Jeff, I have shared on FB and Twitter and think this is one of the most useful posts you have presented to us who love to write–and want to get read by others, hopefully getting paid for it as well.  THANK YOU, dear Jeff!

  15. It’s funny that I read this post today. I just received back my editor’s changes for my latest co-authored book due out this fall, and the changes were very minimal. It was such a relief, but I also know that it’s because a I wrote a book 2 years ago that I had to kill in the middle of the publication process due to some changes at the publisher. The process of writing that second book taught me so much  that I took into writing this “third” book which is really my second published book. In one sense, the second book feels like a “waste,” but just by writing that book for a publisher, I finally internalized the lessons I needed to learn. Writing this latest book was hard, but the editing process has been much easier because of that book that will never see the light of day. 

  16. Hello,My name is Adam Hornyak and I am a Featured Writer for Front Row Monthly Magazine (, a digital fashion and lifestyle publication currently being read in more than 50 countries.We recently launched several niche spin-off websites to highlight some of the unearthed talent that we’ve been seeing. One of our more recent launches is Front Row Lit ( Front Row Lit is a platform being offered to writers of fiction, non-fiction, poetry, short stories, and even book reviews. We would like to offer writers in your program the opportunity to submit their work for consideration to be published on the site.Our requirements are simply original pieces, 2,000 words or less, and can be on any topic. Exceptional work that fits our core demographic will then be considered for our main publication, Front Row Monthly. I can happily provide you a flyer upon request.If you have any questions, please feel free to contact me at you for your time,Adam

  17. I think I get a little confused by all this sometimes.  I’m working on a book length book while trying to grow my blogging platform which will —hopefully— make it easier to get published.  Both these things are time consuming, so as I’ve considered trying to get pubbed in magazine’s it’s so overwhelming to try and take on a new thing too. (I’m also working 30 hrs. a week, and taking care of two kids).  So, I just know if I can add yet another unpaid writing gig.  Any thoughts on this conundrum???

  18. Jeff, your posts are always spot on and very personal, encouraging. The comments reveal exceptional observations from other writers, editors and readers. A good editor can be a writer’s best friend. A good editor will always make the written piece better. Every writer needs a good editor.
    Secondly I am concerned about your comment that “blogger” is synonymous with “journalist”. Most news media are still struggling to accept the blogger as a journalist, even though many print columnists would be considered bloggers if their work was published electronically. The other note concerns the legal protections afforded to journalists which is not automatically extended to bloggers. Therefore bloggers need to conduct themselves with a higher ethic, to present sources and be as transparent as possible to improve the perception of bloggers. This is an area to watch as electronic news streams continue to grow.
    Thank you for your insightful posts.

  19. That’s what I’m thinking about—start gleaning inputs, and comments to local newspapers in the area to fellow bloggers and in a magazine. Hoping and praying to be more disciplined in attaining a “stepping stone” goal. Thanks for the article.

  20. I am trying to get magazines interested. Is there a way I can get lists of magazines that may be interested?

  21. I am at odds with our local newspaper because I informed the editor that he has no integrity spreading proganda and lies. They printed an article of me without my name, to cover their arse, making outrageous allegations as though I was a threat to my community. I called Senator Lou Barletta’s office to declare grievance over issues of myself and also the Berwick Senior Center and how they treat our elders. Recently one of the State workers threw a bottle of water at one of the Seniors so apparently my words were disregarded completely. In turn Barletta’s secretary manipulated our conversation making calls to have me set up at our town council meeting. I am wondering if there are any other local outlets known so I may pursue writing. The newspaper is this town’s sole resource of news written and they censor truth constantly. I am fighting to the good fight here and am climbing from the bottom up, while being kicked in my teeth back down.

  22. I’m 14 and I write A LOT. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had to scrap work and try all over again. I save my scraps though, they can be used for other ideas. I mainly write about romance, I’d like to learn how to be a better writer as for I am still an amateur. I’ve been writing for about two or three years and I’ve been getting a lot of my work checked by friends, my parents, and my teachers. Do you think there is anyway I could make money by writing short stories? Maybe I could submit a few chapters at a time to a publisher? Am I too young to start this career? So many questions I have for the writing career path… I’m sorry if this sounds like a bunch of rambling, I’m just really new to actually being a writer.

  23. Im 12 years old and I really love writing! I had a dream about a typewriter and money when I was 10, and starting from that day I realized how I love writing and I even tought about having a writing bussiness to help out people who loves writing to become a better writer. But I know I still lack some skills but who cares? I can do better next time right? But the thing is, many people do not agree with me because it will be hard for me to earn money…and I was like “I dont care if do not earn enough money, what I want is for people to know how important is writing is for me! I get to show them my works, I get to help people”. I even promised myself that when I turn 18 I will start my bussiness and hire some people but I also reminded myself not to make my plan to perfect yet because if I did everything might not as plan, so I hope who ever read this supports me!

  24. I’ve started to take my writing seriously, and, I have been writing a book, a memoir. I have been writing for about a year, and, I have a great deal written. However, I do not know how to take the step towards getting it out there. Part of my problem is that I am shy and introverted, so, I am writing on my own with plenty to write. Any recommendation about legitimate ways to start looking into getting my writings to the public. I love writing, and, I want to take a step to getting paid, so that, I could keep writing.

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