A Brief Guide to Writing: 3 – Thinking like a writer

In my previous article I did my best to put you off any fantasy of making a living from writing. If you’re still here, I take it you’ve engaged with that and you’re ready to find out what you can do as a writer (and if you missed it, read it first and then come back).

Of course, there are ways to make a living from writing – and I’m one such person who does exactly that – but you need to have the right attitudes if you’re going to survive this game. The stereotype of a ‘true’ writer is one who is perpetually penniless, living the life of a bohemian until, miraculously, they have a hit book and then become rich and famous (usually to then squander all the money, go out of favour or suffer long-term writer’s block and then begin the whole cycle again). Alas, for every rags to riches (to rags again) story, there’s literally thousands trying to earn a crust out there for whom the penniless part of the story is a continual truth.

So, the first attitude you need as a writer is this: assume you’re not going to make any money.

If you start with this basic premise then any money you do make will be a plus. It changes everything when you don’t depend on earning from your writing (at least until you’re established). If you have other financial means then when you receive that $40 for an article, or a few people buy your book and you get some royalties in, you can enjoy the win, go treat yourself, or save the money for a rainy day. Just don’t bank on it or start making plans for perceived earnings.

So do not – I repeat, do not – give up the day job and bet all your savings on becoming a successful writer.

Keep that job. We’ll talk, in later posts, about how to juggle time to write with working (and looking after a family, etc.) but for now, recognise that you need that job to allow you to pursue the dreaming of being a writer.

The second attitude I suggest is this: embrace the freeconomy.

The internet has changed all our lives beyond recognition and much of this has been wonderfully good. The traditional writing business, however, has struggled to adapt to this new world. Newspapers have ceased, even top newspapers have seen circulations dwindle and had to significantly reduce their staff. Publishing companies have found it ever harder to make a profit (although the predicted ‘death of books’ through the advent of ebooks didn’t happen). Adapting to an increasingly digital age has been hard work, not just in changes to how written work is read but in how income is produced. The Guardian, for instance, uses a subscription service to bring in a substantial amount of its income. As the paper isn’t hidden behind a paywall (and far too many papers are doing this now which means, personally, I don’t want to read them) then there’s no obligation for readers to pay anything at all. We pay (and I do indeed subscribe) because we care about keeping quality, independent journalistic writing alive; but this is all voluntary.

The internet was always intended as a place where knowledge could be shared freely and that is indeed the place we live in today. This friendlier, less mercenary aspect of the internet world is slowly taking its effect on the ‘real’ world too. Many economic experts and environmental activists are really advocating a return to what we used to do long ago: trade and barter goods and services. There are costs to this, not least the continuing debate about censorship, accountability and free speech, but it is very unlikely that the essentially ‘free’ nature of the web will change.

But that doesn’t mean you’re writing for nothing. The idea of the ‘freeconomy’ is that your skills are traded for benefits and skills of others. For instance, because my reviews are very widely read, I’ve enjoyed hundreds of theatre productions, music albums and books for free in exchange for honest reviews. The price of these things totals many thousands of pounds/dollars and, more importantly, I’ve enjoyed them all (especially the theatre productions which I adore!). A few hours of my work in exchange for the countless hours of their hard work and a thoroughly enjoyable time (be it evening out, or hours curled up with a good book) is more than a fair price.

I know of retired people writing holiday reviews on their blogs who get hotel rooms free or at reduced price from hotels or tourist boards because their blogs are widely read. It doesn’t matter that they write for free as amateurs. Their reviews are read widely and this is valuable to the tourist industry. The internet has democratized the writing world – which is great for you because the days of having to be in with the right crowd and so on are gone(ish), but along with it comes less money. The ‘freeconomy’ is the flipside of this.

Another aspect of this ‘freeconomy’ is that writing you do for free can sell you in other capacities. For instance, I certainly hope that you benefit from my advice here and you go check out some of my links in my bio below. Perhaps you’ll look at my TEDx talk, or buy my excellent book on how to memorise and prepare for exams? Perhaps you enjoy literary short stories and will get my bestselling collection? It doesn’t matter if you do none of these things, of course, but you might.

Part of my income is from international tutoring and mentoring of teachers and educational establishments. My status as a writer gives me considerable kudos and absolutely brings me business. Meanwhile, that educational side has given me the material to write my book for students and the follow up for maths students which is coming soon; and students often buy my book and recommend it to others. Both sides of my business help each other in their own internal form of ‘freeconomy’!

In today’s world then, making use of this ‘payment in kind’ type of transaction or using writing to support your own paid business is absolutely essential. Writing doesn’t just mean getting a writer’s fee or royalty payment – it can bring economic benefits in other ways.

But most importantly, my third attitude is this: ask yourself do you really love writing at all?

This is so important, I can’t stress it enough. If you want to make any kind of income from writing you need to ask yourself would you carry on writing even if it never made you a penny anyway? There are plenty of shit content writers out there (see my caveat below for more on this) scraping a living, but I’m not interested in encouraging you to pursue this. While some undoubtedly make a ridiculous living for just an hour or two a day, the vast majority simply don’t. It’s a soul-sucking existence to be writing stuff you don’t care about or even believe in.

I would challenge you to ask yourself which is more important: gaining an audience who will read your work and benefit from it, or grabbing the money? If it is the latter, good luck – lots of people out there scrambling the cash too and producing nothing of worth. If it’s the former, welcome – these posts are for you. I’ll give my advice on how to make your writing as professional as possible and how to manage this business, but your heart is all about writing well and making a difference to the lives of others.

Caveat – if you really want to make money from writing: sell your soul.

There is a way to circumvent what, essentially, I’m describing as the hard graft of writing. You can go for the dirt, the stuff people are always wanting to read. Eroticism, gossip columns, relationship advice, conspiracy theories…there’s lots of ways to make a quick buck.

I’m not talking about quality writing here. There’s some fantastic erotic literature out there. Good solid counselling advice based on good solid psychological training helps a lot of people. News items will involve scandals. Governments and organisations do need holding to account. This is good – and usually takes years of training if you’re going to write it.

I’m talking about the ‘influencer’ kind of writings. Usually pretty or handsome young things who have zero life experience who write wildly about their sex experiences or think they’ve got the love relationships thing sorted, or have trawled YouTube far too much and believe every conspiracy going, or fancy themselves as the next hottest thing because their DMs are full of messages and their TikToks are viewed by thousands.

Luckily, I got into the writing game far too old to be tempted to sell my body (if I ever had one worth selling!) and I’ve never gone down a route of writing trashy porn or cliched horror stories to titillate a hungry audience. But hey, if you’ve got it, flaunt it. If you do have an over-excited fantasy imagination and want to write about your bedroom experiences (real or imagined) and people want to pay for those stories – go for it, I wish you well!

But be aware, – youth fades, sex gets boring fairly quickly, today’s conspiracies are tomorrow’s points of ridicule, dating advice always gets ignored and you will ruin your standing as a writer. You might make a lot of money now, if you’re lucky (really lucky), but there will come a point where you’re likely to find writing no longer pays, is no longer interesting and you will ditch it as a fad.

For the rest of us, with the right attitude that sees any income as a bonus, can see ways in which writing might be useful for other reasons, and who want to write because we have something to say, the world of writing is an enriching one. And the great news is that, given the time and effort, you can get published, you can earn an income and you might even find it becomes your main job if things go your way. But make sure you don’t count on it; and make sure that’s not your reason for doing it.

Next time, I’ll talk about how to manage your finances once you start making money from writing, and after that, we get into the nitty-gritty of picking up the skills needed to be a writer.

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.

Both ‘The Old Man on the Beach’ and ‘Sonali’ are available on Amazon for kindle and paperback. Published by Shopno Sriti Media. The novel,’The Pukur’, will be published by Histria Books in 2022.

D K Powell is available to speak at events (see his TEDx talk here) and can be contacted at dkpowell.contact@gmail.com. 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 2 million times so far.

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