Beyond the Pen: How to Turn Writing Into a Career

Students in Southern New Hampshire University’s online liberal arts programs were invited to participate in the W.R.I.T.E. Challenge, an 8-week experiential learning program, working in groups to research and write a resource article related to writing. Beyond the challenge itself, the groups competed to be published in The Penmen Review. This is the winning article.

By April Eilerman, Brooke Gebhardt, Laura Hughes, Amber Pritchard and Kelly Shire

Someone writing in a notebook on their desk while discussing how to turn writing into a career

The field of writing can be varied and complex. Whether you’re a new graduate or an experienced writer, one thing we know for sure is that there are going to be many “what now?” moments.

Here are some actionable tips to answer “what’s next?” for new (and experienced) writers who are ready to move into the next phase.

Research the Writing Market

Because the writing industry is wide and encompassing, a great first step in developing your career is to research the writing market.

Give thought to the genre of your piece. Is it a novel, a freelance article on a hot topic or a product review? Depending on your genre and desired path toward publication, there are a few options to consider.

Submit to Editors

It is quite common to submit pitches, freelance articles or novel manuscripts to an editor or a literary agent. Be sure to research what they accept and read their submission guidelines carefully. In a Writing Cooperative article, writer Austin Hackney said, “It’s a point most new writers fail to grasp, but to sell your writing you must write what editors want to buy.”

If you write an outstanding article about a five-star restaurant and submit it to an agricultural magazine, chances are it will be rejected.

Save time by submitting your work to agents and editors who want what you write.

Publish on Your Own

Many writers publish their work through their own website, a Patreon page or online distributors such as Draft2Digital. The adage “it takes money to make money” also rings true in the publishing industry.

In self-publishing, you are the writer and the publisher, which means you are responsible for editing, illustrations and promotional outreach, too.

This route is not for every writer, but it is an option if you have the resources and enjoy having full creative control.

Read the Fine Print

Most new writers are excited about their pieces getting approved for publication, and rightfully so; however, signing a contract that you’ve skimmed through can lead to major ramifications later in your writing career.

Writer and publishing expert Jane Friedman shared the three types of contracts every writer should understand:

  1. Implied contracts
  2. Oral contracts
  3. Written contracts

The pathway to publication is not a one-size-fits-all model, but we always recommend researching the writing market and understanding the terms of any contract before signing it.

Think Like a Brand

Stephen King, Mary Higgins Clark, John Green: You’ve probably heard of at least one of these authors. They’re not just names; they’re brands, and while you probably aren’t going to turn your novel into a movie this year, you can start the name-recognition process now.

Begin with a website. In her blog post, “How to Build an Author Website,” Friedman recommends doing research and considering everything from appearance to what you want to say about yourself through your bio, your projects and your contact information.

Remember that you’re setting up a brand. What do you want people to remember about you and your writing? What makes your work unique? Find an angle or a niche that your writing can fill and highlight it.

Writers need social media. It’s an obvious way to establish a name and start drawing on the mere exposure effect. The mere exposure effect is a phenomenon in which a person develops a preference for something after repeated contact with it, according to Simply Psychology.

When navigating social media, focus on getting yourself out there, not just your projects. Teacher and writer Derek Haines said, “Sell yourself first, think like a freelance writer, build your authority, and book sales will follow.” He also suggests keeping your personal and professional writing accounts separate and being likable (or at least not detestable).

The online world is a direct link to the people who will buy your novels, articles and short stories. Show them who you are as a writer and a professional.

Treat Writing Like a Job

Set Your Intentions

Neil Gaiman said that, early in his career, he imagined his writing goals were a mountain. From then on, he would ask himself whether any decision he made was bringing him closer to or further from the mountain.

What does your mountain look like? Publishing a novel? Shadow writing a blog? Do you want to write full-time or on the side? Where do you want to be in ten years?

Don’t be afraid to dream big. This is your mountain. The clearer a picture you have, the easier it is to see your way through the fog.

How Much Work is it, Exactly?

Whether or not you leave the house, writers still have to go to work, and it probably won’t mean spending all day writing perfect prose in hazy Parisian cafés.

Best-selling science-fiction and dark romance author Ron Collins charted his work hours and found that he was spending 40.9 hours per week split evenly between writing and business. In other words: the same hours as a standard full-time job.

Likening your writing to a full-time job can help you make a plan that keeps a good balance between work and other life concerns.

Step Outside Your Writing Silo

Trusting others with your work can feel daunting, but the reward is joining a writing community full of people with similar goals. While “the act of writing is an individual pursuit, the writing community is open and giving to each other,” Collins said. “It’s quite easy to have a wide network of cohorts where contact is a simple direct message away.”

Here is how you can take the solo out of the silo:

1. Join an Online Critique Group

No matter your writing level, MasterClass and Indeed state that joining a critique group with diverse authors helps writers find the encouragement needed to finish a writing project.

Don’t be passive. Accept the feedback on your own work to improve your craft and establish long-lasting professional connections.

For a more immersive experience, explore writing residencies or online writing workshops geared toward your genre or craft. You may meet other writers that you’ll continue to talk to after the event ends.

2. Cultivate Connections

Once you make connections, cultivate them.

Garth Greenwell’s top advice is to hold your friends close. Cheer on successes, commiserate rejections and stay plugged in for writing opportunities. Sometimes having someone who understands what you are going through makes all the difference.

3. It’s Not a Competition

Hackney reminds us that writers are not in competition. By sharing knowledge and experience, everyone wins.

A writing career can be full of ups and downs, but being an active participant in the writing community means you never stop learning.

Don’t Forget Why You Became a Writer

You’ve networked, researched, started that blog and just finished the story that is going to change the world.

Okay…so maybe your new book isn’t going to change the world. But that’s not a reason to stop writing. The fact is you are going to receive rejections. So, now is the time to ask the all-important question that should define your writing career: Why are you writing?

For Collins, writing cannot simply be an attempt to “dazzle readers.”

“I don’t think you can write things that take people’s breath away without first writing simply for yourself. At one point, I decided I was simply going to write stories that matter to me,” he said.

When you write with the goal of blowing readers away with your genius, you set yourself up for failure. Don DeLillo calls writing “a form of personal freedom” and a way to survive. Natalie Diaz claims that we need stories because “we are stories.”

It’s not all about the readers, as Collins admits, but rather it’s about having fun and not stopping. “To write is to put yourself into everything you do every day,” he said. “If that doesn’t feed your soul, perhaps the failure is in continuing to do it.”

So, write down your goals. What do you really consider success in the writing world? Are you closer to or further from your mountain? Where do you want this journey to take you?

Plan your next steps and follow them. Keep learning and growing with webinars, conferences and anything you get your hands on. You can always learn more.

Above all, when things feel daunting, or if you hit a stumbling block, give yourself a hug and remember why you became a writer in the first place. That will be the fuel to keep you going with each new milestone you hit.

A career in writing is complex and rewarding, and it takes a lot to share your stories with the world, so always make sure you still have that joy with every word you put on the page.