Advice to a Young Writer

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“If I had to give young writers advice,
I would say don’t listen to writers
talking about writing or themselves.”

– Lillian Hellman

Via an old friend, a young writer sent me an email: How, he wanted to know, should he get started?

He’s a good-hearted guy, a poet, and does some work in the non-profit, fundraising field.

From what I could tell, he’s not really sure if copywriting is the field for him. Or moving ahead with trying to publish his poems. Or some other kind of writing.

Is there a future for him, he wonders, in fund-raising? And how about the money thing? Is every writer destined to starve?

(He didn’t ask that, but I know he’s thinking it.)

Ah… to be young and full of questions. I remember it like it was yesterday. Because, let’s face it, it WAS yesterday… wasn’t it?

Well, anyway, I sent him an answer.

Maybe more of an answer than he wanted.

In fact, I think I scared him. Because I haven’t heard from him since. Just the same, it’s what I would tell any writer… and hey, you’re writers… so how about it? Care to take a gander at what I said? Sure you do.

So here you go…

ADVICE TO A YOUNG WRITER

Dear “Al,”

I think I was telling your girlfriend, I used to be a living-room novelist. That is, I’d sit around in my apartment living room… usually in a t-shirt and boxers on Saturday mornings… with a beer and a hangover, trying to kick start various pieces I was working on.

Either that, or I’d spent a lot of time scribbling furiously in a journal. I piled up a lot of pages. But here’s the thing…

It’s hard to make time for writing if all you’re doing with your writing is making time.

You don’t want to squeeze off shots into the air. You need a target. 25 poems and a publishing deadline. 3 short stories sold by the end of the year. A publisher breathing down your neck for a manuscript.

Imagine someone will take a limb if you don’t meet the goal. Better, ask someone to take one if you don’t. That’s a metaphor, of course, about making it real.

Point being, if you’re not on the line for your writing, you’ll probably never make it happen. Blunt but true.

Fear to write? That goes away fast when you’re more afraid of what will happen to your paycheck — and your reputation — for not turning in the stuff you’ve promised to turn in.

Fear of not being persuasive? I’m not kidding, one of my writing mentors used to take me over to the window and say, “Imagine you were standing out there in the park, trying to sell a watch to that guy on the bench… and I had a deer rifle trained on your head… if he didn’t buy, you didn’t survive. What would you say to him then? Because that’s how you need to make it happen on paper.”

For me, I ultimately moved away from fiction not because I didn’t love it, but because I wasn’t doing it. I wasn’t working at it the way I knew I would need to if I really wanted to make it happen. And the rent check was due.

To get my foot in the door at the publishing company where I started, I took a $15-per-day internship as an editorial writer (this was in 1991).

I was still in grad school at the time, working during the day… going to classes at night… playing guitar with a friend in a bar after classes until closing… then getting up to do it all over again the next day.

The bar and guitar part, I could have done without. But I had to work and wiggle my way into place for the rest of it.

I was terrible at the start.

That is, my writing was technically pretty good, but I didn’t know how to write sales copy. So a lot of my earlier stuff got thrown away. Either by me or the guy who first started training me.

After about four months, I had a promo in the mail. After about six months, I had my first winning (by a narrow margin) promo, after my first year I was finally starting to get the hang of it. But I had to work at it. And the deadlines are what kept me going, when all else failed.

That’s not to say this kind of writing is for you, by the way. It might be. But you have to know first what it involves.

For instance, there are generally two types of advertising. What most agencies do is called “Brand Advertising” or “Awareness Advertising.”

They put a message out there, hope it gets noticed, and then hope it leads customers back to the product (well, the good ones hope that… the bad ad professionals just want to win awards and impress clients with how cool and witty they can be).

This can be a lucrative field if you can (a) stick out the abusive apprentice phase in which the agency tries to chew you up and spit you out, for very meager pay and (b) you don’t mind working on ads that may or may not ever sell anything.

What I do is called “direct response” or “direct mail” advertising. Basically, junk mail. Though these days, most of what we do is really happening online.

This is considered the ugly duckling of the ad world. Where copywriters from the big agencies are drinking martinis at the bar and wearing black turtleneck sweaters, direct-response copywriters are in the corner drinking beer and, probably, hovering over the free happy-hour slices of pizza.

The benefit of that second kind of advertising, however, is that every single “piece” or sales letter that gets mailed has an individual reply device, coded with the date of the mailing and, usually, the name of the copywriter who wrote it.

The same is true of sales letters online, only they’re tracked via clicks. When a customer makes an order from a letter you wrote, everybody knows it. And they pay you a royalty on it. Those royalties are part of what you negotiate when you take on the job.

I happen to work in the newsletter publishing business. But there are lots of other businesses that depend on direct-response copy. Fund raising is one of them. Business-driving brochures and websites for non-profits is another. These both tend to be less lucrative than what I’m doing, but can be pretty profitable nonetheless.

How would I suggest you get started?

You mentioned just going after the jobs without the portfolio. I think that’s best, with a twist. Rather than try to fake your way in, blind, something you can always do is go after the freelance jobs with the intention of building a portfolio. And you can say that to a prospective client too.

“Look,” you tell them, “I have experience in the non-profit field, but I’m looking to branch out. Since I’m just getting started, I can see why you’d want some kind of guarantee of getting quality copy, so how about this? Let’s settle on a base fee that’s half the normal rate. I’ll write the project and we’ll go through the draft phases. If you end up liking what we produce, you can pay me the rest of the fee. And if not, then we can cancel the project and you don’t have to pay me anything more. Does that sound fair? That way, I get to build my portfolio and you get the copy…”

Forget the school and forget building a portfolio with no clear purpose in mind, unless you’ve got a lot of time to spare. Training is good. But getting right in there and getting started is better.

That said, you do need some kind of education in the techniques. And there are piles of online courses. They cost money and you can’t be sure if what you’re getting is worthwhile.

Though, I do recommend one that some friends of mine started, called the American Writers & Artists Inc. It’s mostly about copywriting but they have other courses. You can Google it. I teach some of their writing seminars from time to time. At the very least, looking over their site will start giving you some ideas about available writer’s markets.

You can also go to a library or bookstore and look for books by Bob Bly on this and other kinds of writing careers (not “Robert Bly,” the poet, but “Bob Bly” the copywriter). If you end up going the copywriter route, let me know and I’ll send you a list of some more books that might help.

If it’s article writing you want to do, you might get a copy of “Writer’s Market 2007.” Just be aware that it’s pretty tough to make a living only writing magazine articles. Most magazine writers can be found in the kitchen washing dishes… next to the poets 😉

As for leaving your job… you could do that, but I recommend you don’t. Not until you’ve at least taken a look at some of the resources I mention above to decide if they’re really for you.

And if they are, still dig into them first and make sure you like what they have to offer. Get a couple of clients or other repeating gigs, and THEN you can plunge in head first.

Last modified: March 14, 2017

2 Responses to " Advice to a Young Writer "

  1. jackforde says:

    Hmm… answering an “expand on your thoughts” question sounds dangerously tempting and unproductive all at once. Do you have a more specific detail or answer you’re looking for?

    Meanwhile, here’s the best summary I can offer you: Get started. Do it now. And in a very targeted, goal oriented way. Even if it means a little sacrifice at first.

    New writers ask me all the time what they need to do to get the ball rolling, as if they’re looking for a loophole that will get them the results without actually jumping in and doing the work. This letter, and everything else I’ve shared like it, is my way of saying that the easiest way is to end the search for shortcuts… and start walking the path that was always right in front of you.

    Does that clarify?

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