What does it take to become a writer? Francesca Baker investigates, with a little help from members of 26.
A love of writing, a desire to see words in print, and a passion for communication are what drive many people to seek to build a career in writing. It’s not always easy, and like many creative professions, is highly competitive and not always well paid. But it is possible. I chat to a few 26 members about the business of writing, and the advice they would give someone starting out.
Embrace your love of words
If you’re anything like me, you see words everywhere. You read the back of shampoo bottles whilst having a shower, try to make interesting phrases out of number plate sequences, or muse over the slogan on your cereal box. For Roshni Goyate, co-founder of The Other Box, it was bus stops. ‘I distinctly remember looking at a bus stop ad, well before I knew copywriting was a thing, and wondering “Who’s in charge of getting those words on those ads?”’
If you want to succeed in writing, a love for language is key. It’s not crucial to have qualifications, but it is important to have a ‘desire to turn interesting thoughts into compelling pieces of writing,’ says Roshni. A degree of skill is needed – and a commitment to keep honing that skill. Jonathan Whiley, writer and editor, describes the ideal candidate as ‘someone whose love of words is matched by the ease in which they can use them to convey a message.’
Hone your craft
When starting out in the field it’s key to keep learning. Elen Lewis recommends getting a solid grounding in an industry like journalism or advertising. Roshni says that it’s crucial to ‘Keep your eyes and ears open, and stay open to constructive feedback.’ Remember that ‘The brief is your best friend, so make sure you’ve fully understood it, and don’t be afraid to ask obvious questions. It’s always better to ask than assume.’
Whether you’re writing for a business, consumer or magazine, you must know your audience. ‘As a journalist, achieving the correct tone of voice for a particular publication is key. It seems an obvious point, but it’s overlooked more than you might imagine,’ says Jonathan.
To find clients, you have to get out there. Networking events are key, as they both let you meet new people and give you a chance to practise your pitch. Get in touch with all of your contacts and tell them what you do. Basically, as Elen says ‘tell everyone you know.’
Olly Davy left his job a couple of years ago to build a career as a freelance writer. He says to ‘reach out to contacts from all your previous professional and personal incarnations, and let them know you’re a pen for hire. People you already have some kind of relationship with are warm prospects. Networking events are good for making contacts in industries you’d like to work in. Try Meetup. And start building a profile on YunoJuno.’
Pick up the phone
If you don’t have any contacts (and we all have some, however tenuous they may seem), you’ll have to start out cold. Even though most of us are more at ease with writing things down, Olly recommends using the phone. Agencies and businesses receive hundreds of emails every day, but how many people pick up the phone? By picking up the phone you’re already marking yourself out as unique.
‘On the importance of picking up the phone: read The Well Fed Writer. This book inspired me, I’ve followed its advice, and the impact on my writing business has been profound. People are bombarded with emails. The marketing manager at Nike is very unlikely to read yours. Pick up the phone, speak to the right person, and try and arrange a meeting. It’s a numbers game, so get yourself in front of as many people as possible.’
Be a sponge for creativity
Working in a corporate environment, there can seem a tension between an activity that is both your job and your passion. It can be easy to lose some of the magic of words if you’re not careful. Roshni recommends that as well as writing for yourself, you get outside of your notebook. ‘It’s really important to seek out creative inspiration as often as you can outside of work. Go and see a play, visit an exhibition, check out one of the many brilliant spoken word nights in the city (any city, not just London!), have a conversation with someone you find interesting, and stay as much of a sponge of interesting, creative things as you can.’
Write, and write some more
Ashley Hoyland started her writing business two years ago. She recommends writing as much as possible – ‘it’s the only way to improve and learn what works. Write in your journal to get any thoughts, worries or ideas out of your head and onto paper. Set up and write a regular blog either for you personally or to help promote your business website (I’m still working on this one). Not only does this help with SEO, it shows potential clients that you practice what you preach. Finally, write things just for the joy of doing it. I call this kind of writing my side projects and it’s why I joined 26.’
Elen echoes the sentiment of John Simmons. ‘There is only writing. There should be no difference between corporate writing, fiction writing, journalism. One way that helps this change in mindset is to call yourself a writer, rather than a copywriter or something else. We don’t need all these distinctions. We’re all writers. Writing novels and poetry makes me a better writer at work. Fight for those magic words that you’ve sneaked into a corporate report – that’s what makes the writing persuasive and distinctive.’
Building a writing business isn’t easy. You have to be committed to the craft and the business side of things. You have to be your own sales team, marketing agency, HR department and financial backer. But as Olly says, ‘it is worth it. Getting paid to write? Man. Sometimes I have to pinch myself.’
Jonathan Whiley is an editor at Publishing Business which produces luxury lifestyle magazines including the Mayfair Times and Belgravia. He is also available for freelance commissions – email@example.com