Monday, May 26, 2008


The lovely Mr BC has tagged me (mainly because I asked him to, I've never quite got the hang of these 'meme' things) to answer the burning question: 'What revelations have you had since taking up your writing career?'

The reason I wanted to do this one is that I'm aware that quite a few of you are, like me, toiling at the unglamorous end of the writing industry, with no prospect of ever being asked to write anything about dragons, or ninjas, or unfeasibly attractive and scantily-clad Liverpudlian teenagers.


So now I am going to impart some wisdom, and then I will tag some more of you to impart your own wisdom, and maybe together we can create a beautiful primer of everything that anyone might want to know about how to be a 'professional writer'.

Here we go then, some revelations I have had since I took up my writing career - or rather 'accidentally fell into' my writing career - nine years ago:

1. Being a freelance writer is brilliant. You get to work at home, have coffee whenever you like, look out of the window whenever you like and (usually) organise your working day however you like. Now there's the internet, and laptops, you can theoretically work from anywhere, which is how I didn't have to give up my job to go and look after my mum when she was ill, for which I am profoundly grateful.

2. Those adverts ('Make A Living From Writing!') that you see in the back of Sunday supplements are deeply misleading. Unless you're extraordinarily good, extraordinarily lucky or extraordinarily well-connected, you're never going to make a decent living as a freelance journalist, novelist or screenwriter. (Obviously this doesn't mean you shouldn't try, especially not if you're a naturally gifted creative writer, but just be aware that it's highly unlikely to make you unbelievably rich.)

3. This doesn't mean you can't make a decent living as a writer, though. You can. If you get enough work, and if you work hard enough at it, you can even earn the equivalent of a six-figure salary*. To do that, you need to be in the private sector. And not just any old part of the private sector - you need to be in an industry that's awash with cash. And not just any old industry that's awash with cash - you need to be in one whose products are complicated and obscure, and therefore need careful and precise explaining. It helps if it's an industry in which not many people know how to write about the products in a way that laypeople understand. Technology is one. Finance is another**. Pharmaceuticals is probably another one.

4. Once you get into one of these industries, and demonstrate that you can write beautiful, limpid prose that not only educates the target market about what the product does but also makes them REALLY WANT TO BUY IT, you'll be amazed at a) how much people are prepared to pay for your services and b) the kind of things they ask you to write. On more than one occasion, I've been paid to write an internal memo. Amazingly, there are people who have so little confidence in their own writing skills that they'd rather pay someone to write their emails for them. In some ways, I find this a sad reflection on an education system that has clearly failed a lot of people. In other ways, I'm eternally thankful that so many people feel unable to string two words together, because otherwise there'd be no work for me.

5. There's a received wisdom in the world of marketing that no writing is any good unless it's 'punchy', which means 'extremely short', 'devoid of verbs' and 'bereft of all meaning'. Many clients don't seem to care what the text actually says, as long as it meets these criteria. (This post of Matt's sums up the attitude nicely.) This means that I quite often spend all day writing meaningless 'punchy' stuff, which is why I like to be quite long-winded on this blog. Sorry about that.

Now then, let's hear it from fellow writers Great She Elephant, Bête de Jour and Rach. And of course anyone else who feels like joining in.

UPDATE: You can read Rach's very fine answer here.

* For the record, I don't have a six-figure salary, but I came within spitting distance of one during the dotcom boom. The dotcom boom was brilliant.

** I'm aware that the finance industry is currently emphatically not awash with cash, but give it six months and it'll probably recover.


Dave said...

I work in an industry whose 'products are complicated and obscure, and therefore need careful and precise explaining'.


a) few are interested in my explanations.

b) it's not awash in cash (well, not the bits I'm involved in).

patroclus said...

I'd like to imagine that your career is quite spiritually fulfilling, though, Dave, not to mention helpful to those in need. It strikes me that I've focused on the money a lot in this post, mainly because THAT'S ALL THERE IS.

Although once I had to edit a document that had the word 'dramaturgy' in it, which was possibly the highlight of my entire writing career to date. You see how bad it is. You probably get to use words like 'dramaturgy' all the time. And 'chasuble'. And 'oryx'. (Although now I've looked those words up, maybe you don't.)

Valerie said...

You had to go and blow the myths...

I'm in the middle of trying to cut down my hours at my well-paid, high tech, low-brain job so that I can spend more time on research and writing. I'm not really under any delusions that I could make up the gap in my salary with the new work. Not really. Except I think I was sort of denying that fact.

A dear friend of mine is a professional writer, and he's been scraping by for forty years on beans, LA Times and Boston Globe book reviews and fumes. Then suddenly, shortly after being diagnosed with inoperable cancer last year and just before he turned 60, Hugh Jackman bought the rights to his latest (20th or so) novel and is making it into a movie. Cue the selling of the rights to seven of his other novels, and suddenly he's made more money in a year than in the last 10 put together. But —

I really do like the coffee, window and laptop lifestyle... it beckons.

Well, the worst part is I've been thinking about buying a printing press. But more about that later.

patroclus said...

Valerie: I didn't mean to come across as negative. But it always appeared to me that if you want to make decent money from writing, you either have to be very good (or lucky, or well connected, or a combination), or you have to sell your soul to 'the man' and write crappy copy about inventory management systems. Of course there are more fulfilling rewards than just making money. But if you have to support yourself financially, writing a novel may not be the most pragmatic approach, JK Rowling notwithstanding.

Dave said...

I once set fire to a chasuble when I swung a thurible too close to it. It was being worn by an archimandrate at the time.

It doesn't get more exciting than that.

Christopher Campbell-Howes said...

No man but a blockhead ever wrote, except for money.

Samuel Johnson, 5th April 1776

* * *

What ever was Dave doing officiating in the Greek Orthodox church?

devolutionary said...

Three things immediately spring to mind: pharmaceutical writing (which I've done VERY occasionally) is very boring, involving much reading of tedious scientific papers and no sense of humour (I tried to get the strapline 'For your irritating family' presented to Piriton but the agency was having none of it); the money in copywriting generally isn't what it was - my day rate when I stopped last year was less than it was when I started in 1989 - but if you think you can live on £300 a day, it's yours as things stand; you can't use a laptop on a beach - the sunshine washes the screen out entirely (coffee is also cheaper at home).

Ian said...

Devoid of verbs? I thought it was adjectives and adverbs one was supposed to eliminate. (But, if I remember correctly, that was advice tendered by Graham Greene and I suspect he may have shared your reservations about contemporary punch copy writing

patroclus said...

Dad: I'll warrant that was part of Dave's murky past - the same murky past that once saw him don a biretta for REASONS UNKNOWN.

Devolutionary: I'm with you - despite the awesome liberatory potential of the laptop, I can't actually work anywhere apart from at my desk, indoors, with the curtains closed. I admire people who can work on a beach, or on the train, or in an airport lounge, or in Starbucks. I've never written any pharma stuff myself, but the world of enterprise software appliations is scarcely less dull.

Ian: Oh, adjectives and adverbs are very much welcomed - and the less meaningful the better. 'Insightful' is a particular favourite. I agree with Greene, though, especially about adverbs. Someone ought to inform Dan Brown.

Dave said...

The biretta bit is true - I even have a video of me wearing it.

The rest, though, was creative writing.

Boz said...

Okay but the writing in my jobs is a bit of an aside. It's only part of it because - wait for it - I work in evil PR.

Any advice on how I could, theoretically, leave the boring bits behind and find a job that means I get to write a lot more, and bother innocent* journalists/organise events less?

This is probably not the time to assess the quality of writing on my blog, of which I am very aware could be a lot better.

*there is no such thing as an innocent journalist, but that is another matter and my goodness when did I start adding footnotes to comments...

patroclus said...

Boz: You're in exactly the same situation as I was nine years ago.

I'd been working in PR for about four years, and realised the only bit I actually enjoyed was the writing. Eventually I thought 'screw this, I'm going freelance', and left the agency to become a freelance copywriter, blithely assuming that I had enough contacts who liked my writing well enough to give me enough work to survive on (I was quite young then, and naively optimistic).

Miraculously, I *did* earn enough to survive - and quite handsomely, too. I still remember my first day as a freelancer - everyone else going off to work while I swanned off to the National Gallery with my dad. It was brilliant. Now I'm freelance again, and it's just as brilliant as before.

So I say if you want to do it, do it. You probably need to have one or two clients that you can rely on for work to get you started, though.

Boz said...

Right. We may have hit a snag...

But thank you Patroclus! This is really cool and very encouraging.

delores said...

Cheers Patroclus - your experience is very encouraging. I've just gone freelance after nine years working in various press/PR offices and, most recently, a PR agency - luckily my old boss is putting enough work my way to keep me in gin, but it's still a bit scary not having a regular pay check.

Boz - might be worth seeing if your current employer would consider a more flexible arrangement, or perhaps sign up with a PR freelance/temp agency, which would be one way of making new contacts. One of the main reasons I decided to go freelance was to be able to do some volunteer work in a sector I'd like to work in eventually. I've given myself six months to see how it works out - if it all goes horribly wrong, then I'll just look for another job. It's worth a try - good luck!


patroclus said...

Hi Delores, and welcome. Glad to hear it's working for other people too.

I did have assurances from one of my clients and from my agency that they would put work my way if I went freelance, and so they did. And so did some people at the agency I'd worked at previously, and it all snowballed from there.

Even so, it's still difficult to predict where the work will come from, and whether there will be enough. But I quite like the unpredictability of it all. You just have to be careful to put some money away during the good months...