How To Make a Living Writing, Part Two

writerThis is a continuation–Part Two, as it were–of my recent post, “How To Make a Living Writing.” Part Three of this mini-series is Writing: Don’t Get Me Started.

(A quick note to the reader who asked what I meant by incoming freelance work being “clean and useable.” Those aren’t industry terms, or anything: I only meant to describe work submitted to an editor that’s … well, clean: no typos, no weird formatting or attachments, has a good title and subtitle (that’s the dream!), is the right length, is the right tone, is written anywhere near well. You simply wouldn’t believe how rarely that sort of work comes in.)

Which brings me to a point, actually. I’ve been amazed at how many people have asked me to continue “How To Make a Living Writing.” (That’s funny: It looks like my Tip #1 is: “Put a lot of links to other stuff you’ve written!”) That piece had a lot to do with, specifically, magazine writing. Writing for magazines is a real particular discipline. There’s all kinds of writing, of course: poetry, mainstream journalism, magazine writing, short stories, plays, novels, book-length nonfiction. Apparently lots of people want to write for magazines. Cool! It’s an insanely voracious, wide-open market. I am a freak for magazine journalism; I can’t express how much I love writing in that style (um, which I’m pretty much doing right now). I quit working in magazines because, frankly, there’s a lot more money in books — and, in truth, I wanted something beyond the temporal nature of magazine publishing. But magazine writing is still, to me, Le Bomb Deluxe. Many of you apparently feel the same way.

So I’ll say a bit more about that. But if people keep … well, caring what I have to say about any of this, I’d like to maybe next time move beyond the specifics of magazine writing, and talk more about writing generally: What it is to be a writer, what it really means and entails; what it is about being a writer that so many people tend to get pretty darn entirely wrong. If anyone’s up for it, I’d kind of like to talk about stuff that applies to just about anyone who feels driven to express their thoughts and feelings in any of the writing idioms. But we’ll see how it goes. Maybe I’ll just talk forever about magazine writing. Maybe I’ll do a four-week rant about the critical difference between writing like you think a writer should write, and writing in your own voice. And how (if you’ll pardon my intrusive obnoxiousness) unlikely it is that you have any idea what your own writing voice really is. And how you can go about discovering what that voice is. And how (assuming you’re sane) absolutely unlikely it is that you’d be willing to pay the price for discovering what your own writing voice is.

Anyway, we’ll see what you guys want. I don’t care. I’m good for all of it.

So, back to magazine writing. Yes! Do it! Magazine writing is great, because doing well in magazines opens doors to just about any other kind of writing you would ever want to do. If you want to write books, for instance, magazine credits will automatically separate you (in the eyes of literary agents, and then publishers) from the umpteen zillion people who want to write books who haven’t ever been published magazines. Whoo-hoo! You’re in! Plus, the great thing about magazine publishing is that it lives on ideas. It needs ideas like elephants need food. In the world of magazine publishing, ideas are the Big Currency.

Oh, no: This piece is getting too long already. Bummer. (Another great thing about book writing is you can babble on forever. As you know, if you tend to read modern nonfiction books, which all have to be the same length, which is something I hope to one day go on a lengthy tirade about because even though it’s a business necessity it drives me insane since it ruins the writer’s organic relationship to his topic … but whatever.)

Anyway, here’s the deal (or one of the deals) on magazine publishing: Nobody cares about you as a writer. Magazines rip through writers like … well, like elephants rip through hay. You don’t want to even care about you as a writer. What you want to care about is the editor of whatever magazine you want to publish in (or, in a larger magazine, the editorial head of whichever department in that magazine you’d like to publish within). That’s who you care about.

Your job — your goal, if you’re starting from the outside — is to make that person’s job easier. Because everything about an editor’s life is working against his job being easier. Freelancers are late with their stuff. Photographers send in shots of their feet. The graphics department decides the next cover would look good with everyone’s face bright red. The PR rep for the star about whom you were going to run a feature is suddenly insisting their client be on the cover of the magazine. The people running the ad on your back cover want that ad changed. Your rep at the printer’s quit, and her replacement is color blind. The publisher — your boss — decides at the last minute that you need to switch out a story you’d planned on running with a story about his wife’s yoga teacher.

For an editor, life is an endless series of issue-swallowing holes forever opening up around him.

But you! You,with your tight writing style; your  timeliness, your outstanding story ideas; your flawless execution; your blessedly low-maintenance personality; your flexibility; your plain, good ol’ fashion, astoundingly rare professionalism.

You’re someone who’s actually helping that editor, for a change!

Thus do you in very short order become invaluable to that editor. You become one of the editor’s go-to people.

You develop a steady income as a writer. You build a portfolio. You have a book idea. You write a proposal for that book. You send it to an agent. That agent takes you on, and sells your book to a publisher for Humongous Smackers.

And voila: You’ve got yourself a whole new world.

(Should I keep going? I don’t care, but I’m happy to do it. Thinking about this stuff is pretty much my life, so … no problem.)





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  • samwrites2


    Now that's great advice. I never even tried to sell a story to a magazine because I thought it was so far above my capabilities. Armed with your advice and industry insight – especially how bad editors need copy – I'm going to give it a shot.


  • John-

    How does someone who's started writing for magazines, and dreams of having a (humorous) column for a women's/parenting/discipleship/other type magazine, go about scoring a regular column gig?

    Thanks for any thoughts.

    [p.s. I'm Okay You're Not helped me see how humor could be used to make a great message more palatable. Thanks.]

  • Columns are tricky, cuz they're the Grand Prize of writing. EVERYONE aspires to their own column; it's really much more of a culmination thing, than it is anything you want to spend too much time concentrating on when you're just starting out. Before anyone (real) gives you a column, you have to prove, in objective, verifiable terms, that a whole bunch of people already CARE what you think about stuff; you essentially have to earn the right to be pulled out of the endless ocean of writers with publishing credits and placed on the pedestal of a personal column. And the way you earn that right is no surprise: You write a ton of wonderful stuff for a long time, make sure nothing you EVER publish is subpar, and publish as well as you can. You make publications WANT you as a columnist, rather than you wanting them to want you. Slow and steady, and all that.

  • Cool! Great stuff – I passed on the link to my friend who’s dreaming of becoming a writer. Thank God for you, bro!

  • Kath


    I'm a writer who's launched a magazine, spent time at the Iowa workshop, taught at a university — but, for the love of a roof over my family's head — all I've been writing lately is needs assessments, reports and evaluations for govt programs, etc.

    I would love to find a balance — something that's a creative challenge worth waking up for in the morning, and pays enough to call it a living. I was thinking about pursuing magazine writing this year — have done a bit of it in the distant past.

    So I was intrigued by your comment that books pay more than magazines. Would you please elaborate on the difference? The average magazine article, in my experience, pays $500 – $2000. About right? Or do established writers get more, do you think? How about the average book contract? And for time spent, what do you think each works out to?

    Hope you don't mind the gush of questions — I am ready to get going — this would be incredibly valuable info for me.



  • Adrian

    Nice post John.

    I'd be interested in hearing more, particularly about writing novels.

  • Kath: This feels like such a cop-out, but the questions you've posed take answers a little too complex for … a comment box, basically. "Magazines" and "books" cover so much, yes? Local mags, regional, national, trade, mainstream–ithere are so MANY kinds of magazines. It's just too huge a topic. Same with books. There is no "average" book contract. First novel, you're lucky to get $1,000. Your last book sold 50,000 copies, then … then it depends on the what your latest book is. And who's buying it.

    There's just … nothing to say that I can say too quickly. What I meant, basically, is that, to me, magazine article writing is a lot more WORK than it is to write a book, for the same kind of money. Like, let's say you know you can get $10,000 for a book. You'd have to write maybe five national articles for that money. That's WAY more work than one 40,000-word book. I mean, depending.

    Sorry. Too many variables. Again, if anyone ends up really being interested in all this, I'll share what I know. But can we maybe wait to see if … anyone else is really looking for this kind of information? Cuz it's a huge field to go walking around in. Take real time.

  • Man, I thank God I stumbled on your blog. It's great! I've been sitting here reading all your posts on your front page from since December (yes, until that piece on the Crosswalk hack)—until I remembered that I should write something to let you know how I appreciate your site.

    Thanks, brother! God bless you!

    Oh, and by the way, I think your "How to Make a Living Writing" series is great! I myself want to make a living writing, which was why I started a blog—for practice, you know. Besides, it's great having other people comment on what you've written.

    Thanks again!

  • Dave

    I would like to hear more about finding one’s voice as a writer. Seems like most mag articles sound alike and it’s rare to find voice that really stands out. Being published is still a dream, but I do keep a journal, so writing for me is mainly a way to deal with life and roll out the jumble in my head.

    Look forward to reading more. It’s one thing to dream, quite another to hear reality. In this case, hearing it makes the dream seem more attainable.

  • Now you’ve done it. You’ve opened that door, flipped that switch, lit that fire, and now we want to know more.

    By all means, please go on. Based on the number and tone of the comments you are getting, one thing is clear: If you write it, they will come. Maybe you should consider fleshing this topic out with the focus on the things you wish you had known when you were an ankle-biting writer wannabe like most of us.

    I have to admit, I am feeling a bit of the muse’s presence here. Inspiration is a dangerous thing. I might have to actually do something about it.

  • amazing72


    im glad your e writing the books you feel you nee to write if i might ask how did u get started on the whole thing, writing for magazines that is

  • Thank you! I can't wait to see how you'll continue this.

    I wanted to mention to Margot– see if a magazine you love has a website or online message boards. Message boards need moderators, which is a great way to develop relationships with the magazine staff, and to "tend" conversations. Some moderator jobs pay, some don't. But you do become invaluable, and humor is a help.

    Also, my first article was a "how to" article for a high-end craft magazine. $50 per page plus $10 per photo was the opening rate of pay. I chose a national magazine for a very small crafting niche. Then I followed a lead for a startup magazine in the same general niche, and got several writing assignments. Now I need to find some more irresistible ideas for stories and start querying again.

    I'm a long way from "making a living," but learning as fast as I can.

  • I care about what you have to say concerning: “What it is to be a writer, what it really means and entails; what it is about being a writer that so many people tend to get pretty darn entirely wrong.”

    Is that enough for you to go there?

    Also, what do you mean when you say WRITER? (e.g., there are a lot of singers who are not pop-stars and vice versa)

    Thanks John.

  • Yes, keep going. It's good stuff. By the way, I like your blog's title.

  • Betsy Thraves

    Please continue with ALL the related topics you mentioned in your second post on writing,especially finding your writer’s voice. Then maybe you could assemble it all in a book.

  • This is so great for newies and I am so grateful for any motivation and inspiration as I know the Lord has laid this on my heart to write books after over 30 years of serving Him. Keep up the good work John and God richly bless you.

  • Katie

    Sure, keep it coming.

    Some of the stuff is amusing, and some is a big help in ways.

    (Now i really need to go back to writing)

  • I’d be very pleased if you kept going along with this article series. Any ideas at all from someone with industry experience (even the obvious ones) can be refreshing and inspiring. Even some of the comments on these articles are quite interesting, let alone the actual content. There seems to be an untapped mine of ideas and topics here. Go where you will with them and I’ll be perusing frequently.

  • giudiciwriting

    It must be great to have enough income to spend time on this kind of writing. I not only had a major (3,000 word) feature article published in a large-city magazine; I even won an award for it from The Society of Professional Journalists. I learned a few interesting things from that experience:

    1. Networking is more effective than any query letter (that assignment started from a conversation over lunch with an ass't editor, who got interested when I told her about my network of contacts in that city's ethnic community; and I've just started freelancing for the Houston Chronicle thanks to an editor's name I got from a friend)

    2. Organizing and planning your article will make a bigger difference in gettinng published than vocabulary (I mindmap everything). Focus on flow, unobtrusive atmospheric touches and especially tight transitions to connect the dots and keep the reader involved. Save the stream-of-consciousness stuff for your blog

    3. Good point about researching what a magazine publishes; like for an inventor, it's 99% perspiration. Or to paraphrase Norman Mailer–writing is a physical activity because success depends on how long you keep your butt in the chair. NO SHORTCUTS!

    4. Make things easy (for editors etc) or entertaining (for casual readers) and you'll get a little money. When I worked as a butler for the very rich at a 5-star 5-diamond resort they paid me peanuts, for example

    But make somebody rich and you'll get paid a lot–for example direct mail copywriting. With all due respect, I can't afford to write magazine articles any more. But good luck to all of you!

    Carey Giudici

  • Man, that is some sweet advice, just above. (Hey, Carey: I removed your WordPress blog address because there's [virtually] nothing on that blog, and I don't want to send people to nothing. I don't know if you know your blog is empty, but … there it is.) Thanks for this great input. I especially liked #2. It's HARD to get freelancers to get that.

  • giudiciwriting

    Thanks John, It's good to find a clear-headed discussion about something that offers so much potential to so many folks like us. Your comments have obviously meant a lot to many folks, and I hope that eventually I can contribute as much. Keep up the good work!

    I completely agree with your comments about the giudiciwriting blog, and am motivated to practice what I preach and write, then write some more, then write . . .

  • sheryl

    I feel so totally out of my league on this website, but it’s enjoyable listening to what you have to say. I don’t think I’ll ever become a writer (for lack of skills), but I envy those who write. Oh that I could speak eloquently in print and actually sell what I have to say. But it’s not going to happen. If you don’t mind though I think I’ll stick around and read your blogs and maybe gleen something that I can use in my personal writing.

  • giudiciwriting

    Sheryl —

    You're really gonna give up? Don't do that! Other than one typo {"gleen") your last post was better than some stuff I've seen published . . .

    As I suggested yesterday, the key to success isn't eloquence as much as persistence and organization. Because you already care as much as you do, the finish line is in sight. Maybe a couple of quick ideas will help you make a go of it:

    1. Consider improving the organization, flow and transitions by doing a "mind map" visual outline of what you want to write. With its free-form style, a mind map enables to plan what you'll be writing. There are plenty of web tutorials and good books that can help you get started with this. Trust me, a disorganized or flabby piece of writing just won't get finished by any readers!

    2. Like any other activity, writing is about goals and acting systematically to achieve them. Decide what writing project or product you want to end up with (a book? an article? a poem?), then work backwards. Break it down into baby steps backward from your ultimate success until you know what you need to do day to day. There are a number of good books about setting and achieving goals out there; choose a system and stick to it.

    3. Many beginning writers get discouraged because they don't learn to give their right and left brains equal time. In his excellent books, Peter Elbow suggests you make writing a two-phase process: first a creative, no-holds-barred, thank-goodness-no-one-will ever-read-this-mess creative "brain dump," followed by meticulous, detail oriented self editing. The additional third step I would suggest is to read it all out loud carefully to yourself and listen to your gut when it tells you something needs changing.

    Then of course the key final step is to have someone like John or myself read it for you. No one can really be objective about what we write. Build a network of clear-eyed people willing to be cajoled into helping you and treat them like he gold they are.

    But please don't give up, Sheryl. You'll always be in the most important league of all-the league of folks who care deeply. Writing is the best way I know of to maintain your membership in that select group, while allowing yourself to experience the best of life even when you're alone and have nothing with you but a pen and paper.

  • Robert Schark

    John, you're a very special and unique person. Nice work.

    I'm going to share something VERY exciting with you: two Young Adult books that will no doubt become HUGE sellers! One, "Big Fred", is about a very special African gorilla who changes lots of people's lives. The other, "Josh Powers in Sinnter's Winter", is the first of a seven-book series about a young boy who is kidnapped on Christmas Eve and finds himself in all sorts of kooky adventures….

    With Harry Potter now old news, the world is craving new heroes and new stories. EVERYONE knows that the next big thing is just around the corner! Hurry–this is your chance to cash in the next big thing before somebody else does! Get in touch with me right now for more details!

    — Robert Schark

  • Robert: Are you kidding? Or being real?

  • sheryl


    Thank you for your advise it was invaluable. Sorry about the typo. I was going to check to see whether it was the correct spelling for that word, but was so sure of myself I didn't feel it necessary. Does that tell you something about my writing? What you said will be very helpful (if it doesn't escape this middle aged brain of mine). What I'm wondering is "If it doesn't come natural, if it takes a lot of work is it still considered a gift?" What I want is for my first draft to be my only and best draft. I had a creative writing instructor one time who acted like my eraser was disease, not to be touched. I get so confused about writing sometimes. And in a way I have given up on myself, because I'm not perfect like the rest of you. Don't get me started or I'll start crying. I'm taking Nyquil right now (due to a cold) and my defenses are down. But it's making me very liberal with my words.


  • giudiciwriting

    Dear Sheryl,

    The more you describe your uncertainties and confusion, the more you sound like someone who should be writing. Rejoice in the edge that comes with those feelings; draw strength and resolve from it.

    It's a cliche worth repeating that a "gift" is something from heaven; what you do with it makes it valuable. The less effort you put into what you do with that gift, the less valuable it will be to your readers. Guaranteed.

    I've never heard of a really good writer who followed your ex-instructor's advice. If you haven't seen them, get the series of writer interviews that Paris Review published in the magazine and later in books. They offer new inspiration and some amazing technical advice; and all of the writers rewrite–even that prankster Jack Kerouac, who floated the myth that "On The Road" was the result of one binge session.

    The mark of a real writer is to love rewriting; it's like cooking something you love again and again. What you've writtten will only get better with every rewrite, if you can stay passionate about it.

    Go drink some chicken soup, young lady, get better and happy writing!

  • sheryl


    Thanks for your advise. You sound very knowledgeable about the field of writing. I went to the Paris Review website and was quite impressed. Mostly it whetted my appetite for more. As I was reading, I would get hooked with an interview and then be left hanging. I guess that was the intent though, to get me to buy the book. One of my favorite sayings is "So many books, so little time". Now I'm starting to say "So many websites, so little time". Sometimes I wonder if this computer is a blessing or a curse.

    You mentioned the advise I got from my ex-instructor, about my eraser. Thanks for your thoughts regarding that. One time I was so distraught by my instructors feelings regarding my eraser that I wrote her a letter in defense of it. She read it in class (lol).

    You also mentioned rewriting. I spend a lot of time rewriting with some of my pieces. A lot of times it depends how intense my emotions are. If they're very intense sometimes I can scrawl out my thoughts and be done with it. But other times I struggle.

    Thanks for the chicken soup suggestion. I'm on my third family size box of tissues. I've got to be on the mend at this point. Thank God for soothing Hall's cough drops. And thank God for Google spellcheck.

  • sheryl

    Mr. Shore,

    Did I miss something? Did I say something wrong? Was there some kind of dialog between you and Carey about what he had written to me? I don't know what is going on.


    Confused in Indiana

    P.S. Sorry about your stepmother. May God be with you doing this difficult time

  • No, Sheryl, there's nothing hidden between any of us. Everything that's been said by or about you is … right here!

  • giudiciwriting


    Please accept my apologies for barging in to your blog site. Guess I got carried away by your kind comments and got into a closed dialog with Sheryl. I’ll butt out so your readers can listen to your very helpful advice.

    Take care.


  • G: No worries; I can delete / edit comments if anything about them is making me uncomfortable. Nothing you were saying was; I thought you had good advice.

  • Yes, the most important thing I can do right now is help my “editor-client” and be thankful for my steady tech writing gig. I need to remember the “it’s all about the editor” advice even if I eventually manage to earn a writerly living in a way that makes me want to wake up in the morning and start another workday. The Lord uses editors and clients and especially “editor-clients” to attain a far worthier goal: Christ-likeness. The kind of attitude you’re advising writers to have seems aimed at this goal as well as the goal of getting in print. Thanks again!

  • Kim


    I am getting remarried, starting a new career and as one of the other "bloggers" mentioned had thought I would go back to college and as an English major. However, I don't think I'm ready for that yet. I do write for my own pleasure but I also hope to "enlighten" others to the volumes of history locked up in the lives of our senior citizens. I feel as if I don't write their stories down, they may be lost forever. What a tragedy!

    There is a Senior Citizen community in my hometown that mostly houses retired missionaries and others who have spent their lives in ministry. I could just sit and listen to them all day long and you know what? They are so willing to share them that I could make a compilation of short stories that would fill a library and still never run out of material. Do I think I could make $ with this, maybe? But more than anything I want to tell their stories and it seems to me magazines or local publications would be exactly the type of venue to do that in. Keep the blogs coming…

  • thepriceswritepublishing

    Hello! I’m a freelance writer who is just starting to take myself seriously. I have tons of stuff written — jammed in various computers I have had laying around over the past 10 years. Who knows if any of the stuff can even be opened in some readable format. But, nonetheless, here I am. I look forward to reading your posts.

  • Coolio. thanks for stopping by!

  • I really liked the way they came off