My brain is wired a little differently to most other brains of around my age. When thinking of writing a series to help and encourage writers, my first thought was ‘what can I say to really scare them off?’
So here I am starting my series of short guides by telling you why you shouldn’t be a writer. Or, more accurately, why you shouldn’t aspire to be a full-time commercial writer.
When I first began writing, I – like most aspiring writers – dreamed of seeing my name in print in all the top magazines and newspapers, of seeing my books on the shelves of supermarkets and bookshops, and of all the money that could be made from the thousands of books that would be sold every month.
Luckily, I was old (and cynical) enough to have a good inkling that life isn’t like that – but I still couldn’t help fantasizing just a little. I wasn’t too disappointed to discover it wasn’t going to be like that, but I’ve come across plenty of people who do. It’s such a shame because much of the time they go off writing when they’ve actually got quite some talent at it and have something unique to say. When we set ourselves up for impossible fame and success, we are despondent when we don’t achieve it. It’s especially hard when I see people who aren’t just keen to be writers – they’re desperate to get out of the rat race or whatever job or lifestyle they’re in and they’re putting all their cards down on this writing game. Failure = disaster. Of course, they are going to find the reality very disheartening.
It doesn’t help that there is a ridiculous amount of sites, services and people out there who want to convince you that you can earn a fortune through writing, with relative ease, and all you have to do is buy their course and it will all be yours. I’m sorry, but they are lying. Even many of the top writers today are struggling. I know journalists with some of the best newspapers in the world who are all but out of a job because the print market is dire. Excellent, bestselling writers, who find that after a few books, their popularity has waned. I see popular writers who have a huge following on Twitter heavily promoting their books because they need to; no one else is promoting them and it’s the only way for them to get income during a pandemic.
The truth is: it is bloody hard to make a living from writing. It’s hard enough to make anything from it at all unless you’re a) really lucky, b) know someone who can get you ‘introductions’ to those who could commission your work or c) happen to be spectacularly talented (and even then, you probably need options a and b on your side too).
Even if you are getting paid as a writer, there’s way more economically useful ways to earn a living. For instance, if I write, say, a science piece for an informational magazine, I could probably get, on average, around $120. But I’ll almost certainly need a couple of hours of research to select the material I’m going to use and then take around two more hours to write a 1000-1500 word piece. That’s already taken me down to $30 per hour. That’s before the editor comes back to me with edits, additions and omissions they will are almost guaranteed to want. I could spend easily another two hours (spread over several weeks) to get a finished piece they will publish. That’s now $20 per hour. For an established professional with many years experience, that’s not really worth getting out of bed for. Add to that, the magazine probably won’t publish until perhaps as much as six months after the commission. It is standard that they won’t pay you until after publication. So work you do now won’t bring you in a penny until many months later. That don’t pay the bills.
That’s if you get paid at all. Magazines fold, editors choose not to use your piece and ‘forget’ to tell you. Some editors ‘cheat’ on their guidelines on payment for writers. One editor I know pays a higher fee for articles over 1000 words and I foolishly wrote two essays – both around 1500 words – which he published, but edited down to under 1000 in order to pay a considerably smaller fee. I didn’t write any more for him after that second. Why should I be disrespected like that? There’s also, literally, millions of supposed writers around the world offering writing services for ridiculously low fees which means, these days, many magazines, sites and businesses won’t take writers seriously. Perhaps the worst is the old chestnut: “We don’t pay writers but it will be good exposure for your work.” URGH!
Perhaps hardest of all is seeing good writers, who have been really successful for a time, suddenly out of favour and dropped by agents and editors as a matter of routine. It’s gut-wrenching to see them move from disappointment, to frustration, to sheer panic as they realised savings are drying up and they have no alternative form of income. These are people who have made their careers out of writing and yet still find the work has dried up. Is that kind of uncertainty worth it? Not really.
So, give up and walk away from your dreams and ambitions as a writer?
No! – but you need to give yourself real, achievable goals which will build your skills, your experience and your market knowledge without crushing your spirit. There is a way to pursue this career, love it and make money from it if that’s your thing.
In my next article, I’ll look at the right attitudes you’ll need if you’re going to handle being a writer. After that, we’ll look at handling finances for when you do start earning from writing. It might seem to be putting the horse before the cart to deal with these issues before looking at how to be a writer, but it is important that you get the right mindset and plan well so that you don’t crash and burn.
It’s okay to dream of fame and fortune (believe me, I’m looking forward to the day someone trots up to me and asks for my autograph – preferably while I still have eyesight good enough to see the flippin’ pen and paper!) but let’s make sure it’s a happy dream and not a soul-crushing expectation.
Social Entrepreneur, educationalist, bestselling author and journalist, D K Powell is the author of the bestselling collection of literary short stories “The Old Man on the Beach“. His first book, ‘Sonali’ is a photo-memoir journal of life in Bangladesh and has been highly praised by the Bangladeshi diaspora worldwide. Students learning the Bengali language have also valued the English/Bengali translations on every page. Listen to his life story in interview with the BBC here.
His latest book is ‘Try not to Laugh’ and is a guide to memorising, revising and passing exams for students.
D K Powell is available to speak at events (see his TEDx talk here) and can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org. Alternatively, he is available for one-to-one mentoring and runs a course on the psychology of writing.
Ken writes for a number of publications around the world. Past reviewer for Paste magazine, The Doughnut, E2D and United Airways, and currently reviews for Lancashire Life magazine and Northern Arts Review. His reviews have been read more than 4.5 million times.