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Thursday, May 01, 2014

Writers Worth Month: Having What It Takes

What's on the iPod: Holy by Frightened Rabbit

Welcome to the first day of the 6th Annual Writers Worth Month celebration! Started as just one day based on my rantings over fair pay, the event has grown to a month-long awareness campaign where we remind each other to realize the value our skills hold.

When I posted that first Writers Worth post, it was in response to another job listing offering pennies to writers. I'd given up on chastising these "employers" and decided instead to turn my attention to those people who could best reduce the success of these charlatans - writers like you.

This year, we have plenty of guest bloggers who are eager to share their perspectives and help you, a fellow writer, reach those goals a little bit easier. Please bookmark this site, add it to your blog roll, or subscribe to the feed. Just don't miss a bit of the advice and sharing. And please, feel free to share these posts via social media or links from your own blog.

Let's kick off this celebration right now!

Having What it Takes

by Lori Widmer (yours truly)

When I first started my freelance career, I was like a deer in headlights. I didn't know which direction to turn, where to start, how to start, and what to do if I was lucky enough to get started. I thought I'd write and the money would come.


What did come was rejection, which I was prepared for to some degree, but which still stung each time. I didn't lack confidence, but I lacked an open door. I managed to get hired by the local newspaper. When I headed to the editor's office, I was dressed to impress. Imagine my shock when I walked in, along with 21 other new correspondents. They had answered the same cattle call.

My heart sank. How was I ever going to get anywhere if I had to compete with all these other writers?

Turns out I had a few things wrong in my thinking.

A) We don't really compete with other writers; not if we're freelance.
B) I wasn't identifying the most important factor: tenacity. I had plenty of it.

Within a few months, those other 21 writers started to drop out of the picture. One woman, the most vocal and the one who had garnered the most attention from the hiring editor, didn't walk her own talk. She was bylined twice. After that, she never wrote for them again. Instead, she ran for local office and last I heard, was being covered in the very same newspaper in connection with investigations into her financial dealings with other politicians.

Not the way you want to be published, or remembered, for sure.

But while all these other writers were handing in assignments or disappearing, something else was happening.

I was being noticed.

Within a few months of covering municipal meetings, I was suddenly being referred to a special sections editor who kept me busy for the next few years with human interest pieces. It wasn't until she called me for a last-minute assignment that I realized why I'd been referred in the first place.

"I can rely on you," she said.

Since that moment 26 years ago, I've come to realize that when it comes to knowing what it takes to succeed, writers are pretty much in the dark at the beginning. We think we need boundless talent, perfect grammar, textbook-level knowledge of every rule of English that exists.

We don't.

Instead, here's what it takes to make it as a successful writer:

1. Pluck. Without determination and a stubborn courage, we writers wouldn't go very far. Suppose I had given up two months ago when a client said my prices were ridiculous? Or if I'd done so when an editor 26 years ago snapped at me for sending him the wrong idea? While criticism is often cutting and hard to take, it's not always right. You have to believe in yourself enough to make a go of it. And when you make mistakes, you have to shake them off, learn those lessons, and keep pushing forward.

2. Reliability. If you show up on time every time, your editor will call when he/she needs you, even if your skills are still at the newbie stage. If you show attention to detail, respect for the deadlines, and flexibility with the editors/clients, you'll have plenty of work and a darned good reputation.

3. Skill. It goes without saying that writing requires a bit more skill than the average citizen. If you're weak in the basics, it will show. Still, knowing how to write something compelling that doesn't use fifty-dollar words to impress will get you noticed.

4. The desire to run a small business. If you consider yourself simply a writer for hire, you're going to be eaten alive. If, however, you view yourself as a small business owner and see your skills (and earnings potential) as an entity you need to protect, you're going to pay much more attention to protecting it and growing it. Shift your thinking now -- become that small business owner.

5. Self-discipline. In a way, you could say this is also part of being reliable. It's more than that, though. You're going to be charged with finding work (every day), managing projects, managing work hours, creating relationships, networking, invoicing, collections.... If you can pay attention to the details at the beginning of your career, your business will be stronger for it.

6. Goals. It's great to start out with the hope of publishing somewhere, somehow. But what about setting a goal and planning ways to reach it? If you take time to identify your ideal situation, you'll also be able to understand that goals don't just happen -- they have to be reached for.

7. Intuition. The strongest monitor we have is our instincts. Yet how many times have we ignore our gut reactions and suffered for it? Writers need to tune in to their inner voice and listen to the signals. Never have I regretted turning down a gig or a client that my intuition was telling me wasn't a good fit. You know what's best for you. Listen to yourself.

Writers, what do you think it takes to build a successful writing career?


Cathy Miller said...

I go with your #1, Lori. Although being a writer, I have a different way to express it ;-). I always say you have to be a bit of a bulldog. You cannot shake off the writer who believes in her worth.

Thank you so much for Writers Worth month, Lori. You have given me a boost on more than one occasion and for that I am truly grateful.

Yo Prinzel said...

Reliability is so, so, so important!

Lori Widmer said...

I love the way you say it, Cathy. And thank YOU for helping make Writers Worth month a success. :)

Exactly, Yo. You can be a decent writer with a few foibles and go far just by being reliable. I've worked with those writers, and I didn't mind editing a bit more knowing the copy was there on time.

Anne Wayman said...

Bulldog probably works, although I don't like to think of me looking like one... persistence, flexibility, discipline, persistence...

Lori Widmer said...

I'm plucky. :) Bulldog does work, and no one would compare you to one physically, Anne. :)

Eileen said...

I would add the ability to market yourself. You may have the writing skills of J.K. Rowling, but if you don't know how to get business, you won't make it in the business. You can be just an average writer with outstanding self promotional skills and you'll do well. One mistake some newbie writers make is in thinking if they're a good writer, word will get around. But you cannot exist on business from referrals alone. You must know how to generate new business because industries change, personnel changes, the economy changes. Good clients can fade away for reasons that have nothing to do with your writing talent. Learn how to fish ...

Lori Widmer said...

Amen, Eileen. I know a few writers who are okay (not great) but who never lack for work.

"Learn how to fish" -- I love it!

Paula said...

I'm so excited that Writers Worth Month is finally here again!! (Apparently so excited that I'm getting excessive with exclamation points!)

Flexibility is important, too. With deadlines, with ideas, even with finances. Self-employed writers need to relax a bit and let things flow naturally.

You can't force ideas to strike. You can't expect clients to provide all necessary information on time. You won't be paid just for showing up. And you have no control over exactly when an invoice will be paid. But if you're flexible you can plan for those ups and downs - including rush assignments.

Lori Widmer said...

I'm excited too, Paula. :) You can't emphasize flexibility enough, either. It's okay to have boundaries -- like not working during your kid's recital or when you have a houseful of guests. But being flexible when working with someone, like if an editor is in a bind and needs an article in three days, shows you value the relationship. That's not to say it's your job to drop everything at each request, but sometimes clients have real problems. Be that problem solver and they'll remember you.

Sharon Hurley Hall said...

Great start to the month, Lori. I'm excited to read the rest of the posts. This is always an inspirational series. :)

Lori Widmer said...

And once again, thank you, Sharon. I appreciate your contribution toward making this such an inspiration for others. I couldn't do it without you (nor would I want to).

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