10 Important Things I Wish I Knew When I Started My Writing Career

I started out as a freelance writer in 2013 but eventually got what I’d call a big break in 2015. After four incredibly hard yet fun years, and with the scars to show for it, here are lessons I’ve learned along the way.

Grab a coffee. This go’n take a while…

 

  1. Writing professionally means way more than just writing.

Diversify your skillset.

A career in the creative arts is never exclusively about being creative. When you’re not writing, the life of a professional writer includes other activities, many of them tedious including sales and marketing, networking, publishing, distribution, and accounting.

Yup!

If writing is the flashy frontend that draws us in, these “boring” activities are the gears in the backend that will make sure you have a writing career at all.

Creative people tend to shy away from these other activities, claiming they are either too boring, or too depressing. Yes it can sometimes feel like grunt work but guess what? Unless you can afford to pay someone to do it for you, you’ll just have to suck it up and get with it.

Thankfully, there are tons of resources online to help anyone’s who is looking to learn.

 

  1. When you’re starting out, it’s okay to work for free.

Note I said, when you’re starting out.

For me, this lasted for 6 months. I did pro bono work for friends, classmates, my local church, and even an NGO.

At this stage, I lacked enough confidence to ask for money in good conscience cos I didn’t even think I could deliver something worth paying for. My biggest fear during this period was producing writing that would ruin my client’s chances of making money or some other unreasonable disaster.

While this helped me work harder than I’ve ever worked before, it also prevented me from asking for money in exchange for my services. I basically worked for “exposure” but more importantly, I gained invaluable experience and built a reasonable portfolio.

 

  1. Pricing your services is a tricky science.

And it’s okay to be nervous about putting a price tag on your work. The anxiety comes from the possibility of pricing your services either too high or too low.

When you’re just starting out, I believe it’s okay to underprice yourself.

When I started earning money for writing, I used to get paid N3,000 per article. Sometime later, I was able to raise my prices to N5,000.

As my skills got better, and my portfolio increased, I raised my rates again, this time to N10,000.

I know people who charge a whole lot more than that.

It all depends on what you can live with at the end of the day. My rule of thumb is, charge whatever will not make you grumble during the job but try to be considerate of the client as well.

  1. Still on pricing…

For big projects, always collect at least 40 percent of the total cost upfront.

That 40 percent upfront does two things for you:

a. It helps you weigh the client’s commitment. I learned the hard way how fickle human beings can be. Committing funds to a projects helps us make up our minds. So think of it as helping your clients make up their minds.

b. It gives you some much needed runway. Big projects are long projects and usually involve rigorous research, interviews and sometimes, travel. The last thing you need is not being able to complete a project because you ran out of cash.

Make it a precondition to taking on big projects. It could be 50 percent or 60 percent upfront. But 40 is the minimum.

 

  1. On marketing and promotion.

As a fresh writer, nobody really knows (nor cares) what you do. You have to be up in people’s faces in subtle (and not so subtle) ways.

To put it bluntly, you have to be shameless about trumping your own horn. That shyness? Bury it and attend the funeral.

The goal is to ensure that with your family and friends, your name should be the first one that comes to mind when they see writing opportunities.

I got my first full time writing gig through a referral. The Editor in Chief of TechCabal had been on the hunt for good writers for months and ran into a good friend of mine at a mixer. She didnt hesitate to recommend me immediately. The rest, as they say, is history.

 

  1. The client is always right.

This one requires some humility.

Regardless of what you think, your client is never wrong.

There’s sometimes the proverbial client from hell (and experience will teach you to spot them over time), but most clients just want someone competent enough to deliver what they want. The challenge sometimes is they need help expressing their desires.

Part of the customer relationship process is educating clients on the nature of services you provide, what is possible within certain timeframes and when it is not.

If you are being asked to do something you know is not possible, let them know you don’t think it is possible. If they insist it is, don’t get into a back and forth match. Politely decline.

Every client is unique and hiring a writer over the internet has many quirks. So be courteous, be respectful, and be patient with everyone.

Another thing to take note of: You’re a hired hand. You’re being paid to deliver a service. You can offer advice, you can make suggestions or recommendations, but at no point should you become too attached to YOUR own ideas. The client has the final say on what stays or what goes in their commissioned writing.

If the client says they want their work done a certain way, do it that way. Don’t try to push your own ideas on them. Sure, your way may turn out better but let’s face it, you’re not being paid to push your own ideas. You’re paid to help actualise theirs.

Remember that.

Expect this to happen, a lot!

  1. Write wide, Read wider.

Pulitzer winning author, Jennifer Egan, once said, “Read at the level at which you want to write. Reading is the nourishment that feeds the kind of writing you want to do.” In other words, the quality of your writing is directly influenced by the quality of your reading.

It’s not just quantity but also quality. Reading helps you get accustomed with different styles, rhythms, ideas and concepts. Find the time to settle down with great books by great authors, subscribe to excellent newsletters, avoid drivel, social media fluff and whatnots.

As you read, write. Put down your ideas. Try different genres. Do satire, do fiction, do non-fiction, do interviews, do listicles, do it all. Have fun with your craft.

Writing is a job but it’s also fun. Exploring genres widens your audience, stretches you out of your comfort zone and forces you to try new things.

 

  1. If you want to be taken seriously, be professional.

This is the last thing you wanna hear from a client

Arrive on time for meetings. Send reminders on deliverables. Above all, meet your deadlines. I cannot stress how important this is. I once had to relocate to an aunt’s home on the other side of town, for 3 days, just to meet up with a killer deadline.

Excuses are a forbidden thing. If there’s a complication and your ability to meet the deadline is compromised, inform the client way ahead of time.

Call, explain the situation and then humbly request an extension. Follow up with a thank you email which also doubles as documentation about the extension of deadline.   

 

  1. On taking advice, stick to people who know what they are talking about.

This one is harsh but it needs to be said. Unless your mom is an ardent reader and knows how to critique a book, her feedback doesn’t really count. Ditto for your friends and families who also don’t really read.

These days, people are very careful with coming off as offensive so we pull our punches when we give feedback. But as a young writer, you need objective feedback. And it has to come from people who are mindful about good writing. Who can see flaws in your work and know how to fix it.

I wrote something about objective feedback some years ago.

These people don’t have to be writers (though they are usually your best bet) but they have to have “the eye” for good writing.

 

  1. It gets lonely.

Extremely lonely. Especially when you’re working on a piece that is kicking your ass. You will lose hours in your own mind, thinking, planning and rewriting entire chapters.

This is inevitable but please, don’t stay too long in there. Get out of your own head, talk to people often, make phone calls, leave the house, enjoy the company of others.

I’ve discovered that ideas flow easier when you have a healthy social life. The writing recluse caricature is a cliche and a harmful one at that.

Like Stephen King once wrote: “[Writing] starts with this: put your desk in the corner, and every time you sit down there to write, remind yourself why it isn’t in the middle of the room. Life isn’t a support system for art. It’s the other way around.

Write, then go ahead and live a good life.

 

I’d like to know if this helped.

[Photo Credit: Brad Neathery on Unsplash ]

Why winning doesn’t guarantee you happiness

Happy like a child

There’s a huge gulf between winning and contentment.

If you want to be happy, your best bet is to aim for the latter. It’s possible to be content all the time, but no one wins all the time.

Like the saying goes, Win some, Lose some.

Let’s take sports for instance. The popular mantra is, “Aim for the gold, nobody remembers second place”. But the reality is not everyone makes it to first place. Or second. Or third. Not everyone can. So, should that diminish your happiness? What of the athlete who broke her personal best record at the finals? If she defines herself by the fact that she didn’t take home any medals, she’s missing the bigger picture.

She just pushed herself harder than ever! She should be celebrating. The person on the podium, with the gold hanging down her neck may have already peaked. But here you are, still growing.

What more could a human being want?

If you scoffed as you read that, you may already be caught in the competition web. According to research, a competitive mindset generates constant tension and stress in life. It also never produces permanent satisfaction, because once the victory is attained, the next one is quickly sought after. It’s like an addiction. A focus on winning can also introduce a continuous state of dissatisfaction with one’s life.

This applies a lot to writers and their writing. A lot of times we want to judge ourselves based on accolades and praises we receive. It’s okay to win awards, especially as awards help you get more readers. But don’t fall into the trap of being validated by awards. Or even what people say.  “Oh you were robbed, you should have won that award.”

Don’t buy into it. And don’t tell it to yourself. It’s a trap. Trust me.

Never base your sense of self worth on your ability. Some people write better than others. I’ve come across writers, in person and on the internet, that make me shake my fist at the sky, at God, yelling, “why can’t I write this well?!”

Nevertheless, I get to the office everyday and I write my heart out. A lot of times, what I write sucks. But once in a while, I hit it out of the park. But win or lose, I’ve settled it in my mind: my writing doesn’t define me. What people say doesn’t define me either.

I’m just trying to be the best writer I can be. And that’s good enough for me.

Let it be good enough for you too.

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Photo Credit: AzQuotes keltikee via Compfight cc

Writer, don’t take yourself too seriously

way too seriously

It’s no secret that writers have an elevated view of themselves (try editing a writer’s work and see the sparks fly). It’s no surprise either because it comes with the territory. To wake up every morning, braving uncertainty, self doubt, loneliness, boredom (sometimes depression) and so on takes a level of commitment, balls and yes, a twinge of narcissism.

But there’s a difference between borderline narcissism and absolute conceit. And nowhere is it more obvious than in the place of criticism.

If you want to see writers at their worst, do a brutal criticism of their work. They’ll claw, scream, defend and explain their writing, with the conviction that, “if only you could see what I was going for, you’d leave all that in there.”

Look, there comes a time when you just have to release your work and trust your editor’s judgement. The truth is, we’re not attempting to reduce your work to a shadow of itself. Believe it or not, we’re trying our best to make sure your writing reflects your genius, your wit, and your skill. We’re also there to make sure you don’t show the world just how clueless you are about the difference between “there” and “they’re” or if your “clever wordplay” is merely pedestrian at best.

I came across an article recently, listing several writers who were ridiculously protective of their work (and their egos), so much so that one refused to have an editor, another compared himself with Hemmingway and Shakespeare while a couple verbally attacked their critics, denigrating them for bashing their books. (There are a couple of other quite embarrassing reactions but these stood out).

So this is to all creators, whether writers, designers, musicians and whatnot.

Look, not everybody will “get” your work. Make your peace with that. A quick search through my computer will tell you I hold some musicians in high regard whilst others virtually don’t exist in my world. I go through my colleague’s playlist in the office and I feel like puking (which I tell him in quite graphic ways). All human beings have that in common. Our taste change over time. Sometimes they don’t. Some people will NEVER like your work. Don’t take it personal. It’s not a reason to go to war and show the internet your insecurity.

I dare say that rather, you should welcome criticism.

The Oscars held yesterday and J.K. Simmons won for Best Supporting Actor in Whiplash. Deservedly. I really hope every creative person sees the movie because, oh boy! J.K. Simmons’ character may have been a beast but he said something that struck like a canon – There are no two words in the English language more harmful than “good job”. Nothing has crushed potential, and tamed passion and genius as much as those two words.

I agree.

While I’m not saying you should purposely seek out people who would find joy in poking at your work (there are plenty of those already), or haul things at you whenever you make a mistake (like in the video above), you definitely do not need a fanclub. In fact, a better strategy would be to surround yourself with people who cut you down to size. People who aren’t so enamoured with your writing prowess. People who don’t think, “he’s such an amazing writer”. Rather, people who would tell you to your face that you have talent, but so do the Nigerian Super Eagles and they’re yet to win the World Cup. So, talent counts for diddly squat. Show us you’re great.

If they’re writers, they should be “better” than you, at least in your own evaluation. This makes you value their assessment more as something that shouldn’t be easily dismissed.

And then we sit down and play Call of Duty.

Because at the end of the day, we’re all just humans, trying to live one day after the other, and making it count. You deserve to live as a person, with all your vulnerability intact. Not as a god to be worshipped. Don’t let them strip you of your humanity. You need it to keep creating relevant content.

I used to have a reader who worshipped my writing. She was always full of praise for my prose – I never had a sentence out of place. No clutter. Nothing. My writing was one of the best she’d read. I was destined for great things. Guess what that did for my writing? Nothing. I didn’t improve. I didn’t experiment. I didn’t go out of my comfort zone. My writing became repressed, formulaic, predictable.

It took some brutal honesty to come to terms with the fact that if I’m going to get better at my craft, I don’t need fans. I need critics. People who can objectively tell me what is wrong and right with my writing because believe me, no matter how good your writing is, it can still be improved.

So please, the next time you write or publish something, say this to yourself:

“I will not take myself too seriously. I will not be a cry baby. Not everybody will like or understand this and that’s fine. I’m improving and will keep doing so.”

Amen.

HOW TO PRODUCE BETTER WRITING

Happy-New-Year-Cards-2015-06

Yay, it’s 2015! Let’s begin on a positive note.

Writing is not hard; at least, not as hard as any other job on earth. But from my experience as an editor, the problem most people have is having something worth saying.

Excluding the 1% who have a freakish knack for storytelling, wordplay, or humor, the rest of us writers have to rely on the one dependable and common human trait – we all have a unique perspective and perception of different subject matter and events.

The challenge therefore isn’t so much writing as it is, thinking and being able to sort through our heads and unclutter our own ideas.

It’s not strange for me in a day, that I’ll come across a piece of writing in which two or more ideas are floating around without ever jelling together. That’s called clutter.

Sometimes, the author has unique and fresh ideas but the execution is askew. He/she starts writing about one thing, veers off into another idea, perambulates around another totally different one and so on; and what’s the point of having great ideas when your readers don’t get to see and experience the ingenuity of those ideas. You may argue that that’s my job, fine-tuning and helping the genius of the writer to shine through, but an editor can only do so much for an author’s work.

The creative process can be a beast. Writers sometimes start off writing one thing and discover somewhere along the line that they really want to talk about something else. No biggie. Writing can be therapeutic. It’s a great way to sort through your thoughts.

However, is if you want someone else to read your work and you consider yourself a professional of some capacity, you have to do what they call a rewrite. You rewrite and refine the work until it’s as polished and as sculpted as can be.

This is a particularly good idea because as an editor, when your writing comes to my desk, I don’t want to be confused about what exactly you’re trying to say.

My advice?

Get ONE thing you want to talk about. Speaking out loud helps. Imagine talking to your best friend about it.

Talk about it. Say everything you have to say about it. Rambling is allowed. Strap the internal editor to a wheelchair.

Go back and remove everything that isn’t essential to the ONE thing you wanted to say. [Kill your darlings or move them into the “other articles” box]

For example, the ONE thing I want you to take away from this post is that, writing isn’t necessarily hard; the hard thing is sorting through your thoughts.

I think I did just that.

Happy New Year.

Why Do You Write? The One Question Every Writer Needs to Answer

It doesn’t matter how many days or weeks (hopefully not months) it takes for you to search deeply and discover the real reason; If you consider yourself a writer of sorts (journalist, poet, novelist, or even satirist), you should have a tangible and truthful response to this question.

Mind you, this reason is for you, there’s no exam where your answers are going to be scrutinized. And I guess that’s a very comforting thought. Since there’s no right or wrong answer, you can answer truthfully. Brutal honesty is what it’s all about.

Answering this question for myself did wonders for my psyche – my motivation levels, my self worth and confidence. So i might be onto something here.

How did I get here? Well, let me start from the beginning.

I had quite a few deadlines this month, which I met . I also submitted my entry for a competition (which I’m confident I’m gonna win). The story didn’t all out suck (thank God), even though it didn’t start out that way.

When I first got the idea for the short story, I started out thinking, “Oh my God, this is going to be a game changing story, a mega rock mover, the invention of the microchip, all over again”. And I guess most story ideas start out that way. From my experience, nothing is more exhilarating than the conception of a new idea, the thrill of the new blank page. This is a huge contrast to the crippling dread that blank pages used to give me about a year ago.

So, I guess I have proved one of those age-long theories – you get better with practice.

What hasn’t changed though is the self deception that this time, the writing process from initial idea to final draft is going to be a slam dunk. By the time I was halfway through the four thousand word story, I was slogging through, tearing out my hair, psyching myself up and out in front of the mirror, pacing so many times around the room, abandoned the story twice and nearly gave up on my writing career. But something kept me coming back to the story, and about three days to the competition deadline, the story came together in a haymaker of an ending.

And then, the strangest thing happened. I finished writing the best story of my life so far and something popped into my head :

This writing thing isn’t so hard, after all.

You’re probably doing this right now:

...from reactiongifs.com

…from reactiongifs.com

Or if you are more conservative:

...from reactiongifs.com

…from reactiongifs.com

Seriously though, I haven’t been able to stop thinking like that since last week. I guess that’s what they mean when they say you are either a glutton for self loathing and self doubt or possess a lot of hubris to want to be a writer. Maybe both.

I’m not sure the process gets easier (we’ll find out soon enough), but I do know that actually finishing one story (or any writing project for that matter) increases your confidence, and makes you a little braver to tackle another project. It’s very handy to have a completed project to point to when the inner critic/bully shows up with his usual ‘you’re a crappy writer’ routine. Just don’t let it look at that completed project too closely otherwise, you’ll either be ripping up the work or jumping off a cliff, whichever one seems palatable at the moment.

Anyways, so, why do you write? It’s a question I’ve also been asking myself (whenever I’m not dressed in the “this writing thing isn’t so hard” garb).

One reason why this question is important is because, it informs all the other decisions on your writing journey, which has implications in other areas of your life as well. If you’re going to be serious about your writing career, it’s going to affect the people in your life, whether friends or colleagues or bosses or spouses or kids.

This is actually just common sense. If you want to buy a car, the first question isn’t how much does it cost, or even how much do I make? Can I afford it? No.

The first question is, what do I need a car for? Is it a lifestyle statement? Is it a necessity purchase? The need determines the compromises you’ll have to make. if it’s a first car, you don’t need to pull out all the stops (unless you’re trying to show that you’re moving up in the world). Second hand cars usually make up the first car purchase, at least for most Nigerians. Unless you’re working in Chevron, which makes my logic redundant in a way.

...from reactiongifs.com

…from reactiongifs.com

I may have overthought this car buying thing.

 

Why do you write? What for?

Answers usually range from ‘It’s a release’ to ‘it’s a hobby’, to ‘I intend to do this professionally’.

The key is to be deliberate about it.

If you’re just looking for a way to release pent up frustration, then you probably won’t obsess over every word. Just let the emotions bleed off on the page. But if you’re seeking critical/literary acclaim, you have to pay your dues.

Personally, I want to be a good writer, first of all. Before making money, before becoming famous, I really truly want to be an excellent wordsmith AND storyteller (they are two separate things BTW). Then, I want to be paid good money for my writing. That’s my reason for writing.

Craft before Cash. I don’t need the awards, it’s not a big deal. But I need the affirmation that I can write and write well. And people usually do that by using their money. Or not using it.

So there. That’s it.

Why do you write? Let’s hear it.