“There is nothing to writing.
All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed.”
I’ve been meaning to blog on writing for a while, because it’s something I get asked about a lot, via email and also on Twitter. In this new blog series I’m going to take you step by step through what you need to do to be an author, to publish books and articles, and to make a living out of your writing. I am eternally grateful that I get to sit down at my desk each day, type words into my keyboard, and people actually pay me to do it. I love writing – I love it so much that I’d do it for free if no one was willing to pay me. (I’m doing it for free right now writing this blog, although mainly it’s for the purposes of procrastination, since as per usual I have a book to finish.) Given the explosion in writing since the advent of the Internet, it seems like a lot of other people feel the same way as me. There is clearly something romantic and appealing about the idea of writing for a living, of turning your words into an actual book, because many people want to do it. Before I get started on the process and the advice and the tips though, in this first blog I’d like to sit you down and tell you ten home truths about what it means to “Be A Writer”.
First, the bad news …
1. Writing a book is a *lot* of hard work. It sounds really obvious, but it has to be said. Writing 50,000 plus words is not easy. Realistically, it’s not something that most people can do in their spare time, unless you plan to burn the midnight oil every night. Like any job, to do it well takes commitment and dedication. If you’re willing to give up your weekends and your holidays, you might just be able to combine it with something else, but the reality is that writing is as much a job of work as any other career.
2. Writing a book is not the hardest bit. The hardest bit is selling it. If you want to write for a living, you have to be willing to ask people to pay for your work. Anyone can write for free (and lots of people do). But to actually make money from your writing, it has to sell, and selling books is tough. Really tough. Interestingly, sales are not just about marketing and publicity, they are also about trust and word of mouth. I’ll cover all these aspects of the job later on in this series.
3. There is a *lot* of competition out there. Each year, around 184,000 new and revised books are published. And that’s just in the UK. Worldwide, it is estimated that more than 129 million books have been published in total, since publishing first began. The average person reads between 1 and 5 books a year. (Yes, I know you probably read more – if you’re reading this, you are likely to have a vested interest in reading, but sadly most people don’t.) As the saying goes, “you do the math”.
4. Most books don’t sell many copies at all. The average book sells around 250 copies a year, and 3,000 copies in its lifetime. I’m very lucky – my first book is still in print, almost 20 years since it was initially published, but this is unusual. Book sales tend to follow a graph that looks a bit like your classic bell curve – there’s a spurt of sales when a book first comes out but this usually tails off quite quickly.
5. No one is going to come to you. As a writer you have to learn to ‘pitch’ yourself, your work, and your ideas, to a range of outlets. Unless you are an established name, it’s unlikely that anyone is going to offer you a writing job on spec. It’s just like with any other job – you have to turn up in order to be interviewed. This means you have to learn to put yourself out there, which can feel awkward at first, but it’s just part and parcel of the work.
And now the good news …
6. Holding your own book in your hands is a deeply magical moment. Even though it’s almost 20 years ago, I can still remember the breathless excitement I felt when I held a printed copy of my first book in my hands. The excitement of this is very closely matched by the buzz you will feel on the day when you first see your own book in an actual bookshop.
7. These days, anyone can publish a book. Self publishing, and the advent of ebooks, has opened writing up to everyone and anyone. You don’t have to go through a traditional publisher anymore – there is no longer a ‘gatekeeper’ holding the keys and preventing you from putting your own work in print unless you are willing to pay heavily for the privilege. These days, with a bit of know-how about formatting, you can do it by yourself. (I’ll cover the ins and outs and the upsides and downsides of self publishing later on in the series.)
8. It gets easier, and you get better at it, the more you do it. Like any skill, the more experience you have at writing, the easier you will find it. The more you do it, the more you will also figure out how and when you write best (I tend to write better in spurts followed by a break, rather than in a slow and steady way). I like to think that, technically, I am a much better writer now than I was twenty years ago. In fact, I know that I’m a much better writer than I was when I first started out. All I need to do is read an old edition of one of my books to confirm that this is true. Over the years, one of the key skills you learn is how to cut out all the words that don’t have to be there. Interestingly, writing short is much harder than writing long.
9. Writing is fascinating and fun. One of the great things about being a writer is that you get to nose into different places, to explore different subjects and to ask people lots of questions. If you’re interested in other people and how they operate, writing is a fantastic job to have. The research you do when writing a book or an article can be almost as much fun as the writing itself. Fun is desperately under-rated these days – it has become almost like a dirty word in parts of the online education community. But if you ask me, what could possibly be better than doing something that you find fun for a living?
10. And finally, remember that, at some point, someone will ask you for your autograph. When I was a kid I practised my autograph for ages, until I felt I had got it perfect (I hate it now, but that’s a whole other story). I always fancied being a writer, or at the very least being famous, as I suspect many kids do. So if you ever meet an author, please don’t be embarrassed to ask her or him to sign their own book, because deep down inside they will love you for it.