My Last, Best 10 Tips on How To Make It As A Writer

Take it seriously. It’s just about impossible to make a living writing, so doing so means Fanatical Focus. When I decided to start making a living a writing, I wrote (for free, for all kinds of local publications) every night after work for four to six hours, and throughout every weekend. Six months into that I was offered my first job as an editor; three months after that, I was making a great living as the main entertainment features writer for (then) new website of the San Diego Union-Tribune. Lesson being: Sweat pays.

Decide right off what kind of writing you want to do. Journalism? Fiction? Nonfiction? Magazine articles? Plays? Poetry/song lyrics? Each of these fields has its own rules, outlets, primary players, processes — and each is filled with talented people who are totally dedicated to only that form of writing. Decide what you want to write, and immerse yourself in that kind of writing. You can really only swim in one pool at a time.

Learn to think before you write. So many writers think that beautiful thoughts come from beautiful words. Wrong. First have the clear, beautiful thought, and then let the only words that can express that thought naturally attach themselves to it. That’s how you get a style. Put developing a style first, and at best you’ll end up as a writer with a nice enough technique, but nothing to say. The world has plenty of those. Never forget that the only point of writing is to serve thought.

Cultivate relationships. People in publishing are just like everyone else in the world, and everyone prefers to do business with people they know, or at least people who know people they know. Buy a Rolodex. Get busy emailing, phoning, writing, networking. Be proud; never act like you need anyone more than they need you. But make it so that when as many people as possible do need someone, they think of you.

Believe in your lack of competition. It’s true there are a zillion writers out there, but 99.99% of them have no idea what they’re doing. A decent writer (let alone a great one) is as rare as rare gets. You know all that great writing you see in magazines? That was all done by editors who shaped whatever they got from their freelancers into whatever you read. Writing is freakishly difficult (because it’s so hard to make what’s subjective objective). Very few people are good at it. Become one of those few, and within a very short time you’ll have more work than you can handle.

Start where you are.You’ve got to work your way up. You’d think that you could write stuff so great that an editor will see it and basically pluck you from obscurity and publish it — but boy, would you be wrong. Everyone along the food chain of publishing is already swamped with people and material appropriate to their level of publishing. You can’t just step into an arena you don’t naturally belong in. Start where it’s not at unreasonable to expect you could get a foothold. Get that foothold — and then take the next step. Try to go around, or try to take a short cut, and you go nowhere.

Don’t sweat rejection. There are an infinite number of perfectly good reasons why anything you write might get rejected that have nothing whatsoever to do with the quality of the rejected work. If someone bounces your work back to you, forget it, and move on. It means nothing. Keep submitting. There’s always another outlet you can approach. And it only takes one to publish you.

Get an agent. Trying to publish a book with one of the larger, mainstream book publishers without an agent is like trying to fly without wings. It can’t happen. Publishers depend upon agents to bring them stuff to publish. If you take your writing career seriously, know that you do need an agent. And as is true in every field, agents are aligned along a power hierarchy. About 5% of them sell 90% of the books. You want an agent in that 5% club. And that means you’ve got to have a body of work behind you that makes at least one of them want to participate in your future. (And forget whatever nonsense you’ve ever heard about agents not being worth their 15% of your money. A good agent is worth twice that.)

Believe you’re a genius. Hey, someone’s gotta be. Why not you? And it’s surely not your goal to be a mediocre writer, is it? Believe you’ve got a unique, valuable, indispensable, irreplaceable voice. Because you do. (That said, though, let me cram this in here: Do not think that just because you can talk you can write. They’re not the same thing at all. They’re exact opposite uses of language, actually. Which is actually a whole other piece I’ll be happy to write if anyone wants me to.)

Write a lot. A lot. For years and years and years and years. And not for yourself, either: For others. For publication. Subject your work to the brutality of the marketplace. Learn to hone it, trim it, shape it, toss it, bend it, maul it, polish it, lose it. Write for so long, and so consistently, for so many different kinds of outlets and editors, that eventually you come to know, without reference to what anyone else thinks, what’s good. That knowledge is your ticket. Costs a lot. Worth a fortune.

Okay! Thanks! I don’t know if I’ll write any more of these How To Write-type posts, since … enough is enough already, I would imagine. Then again, since this stuff is basically my entire life, I could … go on until every last one of you insists I stop. Anyway, thanks for reading them. I appreciate it.

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  • instantenigma


    No I dont I keep myself occupied when I'm alone so i write …

    you do it for living?

  • I believe he meant me. (And thanks very much, Insta, for your kind words. Very sweet!)

    Billy: Too funny. Excellent.

  • John,

    Congrats on cranking out a succinct how-to on creating copy. I'd elaborate, but have a bad case of writer's blog.


  • Thanks for all the helpful advice.

  • Hey John,

    I'm poised on the edge of the dock, toes hanging over the edge, ready to jump. Actually, I've used my writing skills in just about every way possible EXCEPT the writing I'd love to do but have been to scared to do — and now, here I am. Sick and tired of the community needs assessments, evaluations, web sites, ad copy, fundraising packages, grants, press releases, and you-name-it.

    Every time I think I'll start writing the stuff that makes me wanna stand up and shout for joy, I think of my writer friends who wear their fingers to the bone writing magazine articles and books for $20K per year — and they're still not doing what they're capable of because they've got to produce such a high volume to make ends meet.

    So, here's my question. To someone who's making a living as a writer, does this sound like a reasonable, rational response to a crazy industry or an irrational fear of someone who's too much of a wimp to cut it?

    I'd love to get your take on this.



  • mysteryshrink

    Thanks. I love how you get right to the point with each tip.

  • Thanks a LOT, man.

    I hate to see the series end, but…now you'll go out and write THE book, right? 😉

    Thanks a lot for your generosity, man. You're a real blessing.

    God bless you!


  • Trace

    "Do not think that just because you can talk you can write. They’re not the same thing at all. They’re exact opposite uses of language, actually. Which is actually a whole other piece I’ll be happy to write if anyone wants me to."

    Yes, please.

    Thanks for all this. Wonderful stuff. I'm listening.

  • tia

    nice :]

  • instantenigma

    I write on random stuff …Is it bad?

    I think you have to be a synthetic thinker to grasp concepts well then penning down your thoughts …you have all three qualities

    nice blogspace

  • Loved this series. Thanks for all the tips! Most helpful.

  • Billy B

    Writing is too painful. I have to take an advil after signing my signature. Even this short note will probably cause me a couple of days off from work. And you do this for a living?

  • Thanks again for the helpful info. Good stuff!

  • Do you think these rules are applicable for screenwriters as well? Obviously some things need to be tweaked, but these rules/guidelines should be pretty universal, yes?

  • Nettie: Yes. I mean, that's the thing: I'm writing to "writers," when of course there are so many different KINDS of writers. But yeah, you know: You can see which ones are universal enough in nature to apply to … anyone, really. But yes, just looking at them real quick again, it seems they all apply as well to screenwriting as any other kind. None of this is really very complicated: Do tons of exceptional work, and keep submitting. Of course, the REALLY interesting stuff in all of this is the question of how, exactly, does one do any, let alone tons, of exceptional work.

    wdp: For what it's worth, you don't need a platform to publish a novel; the whole "platform" thing is really for non-fiction writers. (Does everyone know what a "platform" is? Should I explain it in a separate post?)

  • Hey, all. Thanks for the very kind thoughts. It’s killer you guys would take the time to say what you have here. Awesome. (“I have writer’s blog.” Very funny! I’m stealing it.)

    Trace: OK, I’ll write that thing about writing vs. talking. Thanks for asking for it.

    Kath: I’m not sure if you’re asking whether or not I think you can make a living doing whatever sort of writing you most want to do, or whether I think giving it a shot is worth it no matter what, or … ? I DEFINITELY hear what you’re saying about watching your friends pound their fingers off for 20K a year, though. One thing is: What do you think of their work? Do you think it’s worth more than 20K a year? Why do you think they aren’t making more?

    It’s so freakin’ HARD to make a living writing, for sure. No one buys or reads fiction anymore (outside of genre fiction, and all those categories are already jammed at their tops with established bestselling authors), and publishers won’t even look at a nonfiction book by an author without a platform and a previous book that sold 35-50,000 copies. That’s a LOT of copies.

    Anyway, that leaves newspapers and magazines. Newspapers are laying off people right and left because the web has knocked the crap out of them, and magazines are … still good markets, I think. But they don’t pay that well, and–like I”m sure your friends are doing–you have to write so much for them to make ends meet.

    Anyway. I don’t know. It’s weird. I think the best advice I gave above is the one that’s for sure easiest to zip right by: Think you’re a genius. Do you think YOU’RE a genius? If not, I’d say stay afraid. If so, what can stop you anyway?

  • wdp

    My faves: Take your writing seriously and sweat pays (#1), the part about really good writers being rare (#5), and the good advice about climbing one rung at a time, starting where you are(#6)–really good stuff–all 10 were great, but these “speak to me” where I am right now.

    I sympathize with Kath, who says: “I’m poised on the edge of the dock, toes hanging over the edge, ready to jump. Actually, I’ve used my writing skills in just about every way possible EXCEPT the writing I’d love to do … ” (Only, I’m on a suspension bridge or maybe in the air free-falling already.) How does one finance a fiction addiction these days? I took a Gotham Advanced Novel Writing course to see if I “have what it takes” to at least impress a variety of other novel-writer-wannabes and the instructor; the results were overwhelmingly positive, and that, of course, fueled my fire to pursue my first and only true love (in this context–God and husband being a given). Then reality set in, and I realize I’ve still got to write school finance documentation to pay the bills, somehow “build a platform” to make me attractive to a good agent when I get my novel finished … and that leaves precious little time to actually write the novel.

    As for thinking clearly first (#3) … yes, definitely before the final draft. I’m big on clearing a path in my mind, outlining, timelining, etc., but I also find that my thoughts are distilled and gelled as I write so that writing becomes part of the thinking process, too. I sort of dance in that circle until the music stops, which is how I know I’ve reached “final draft.” The advice on cultivating relationships (#4) is hard to do from the backwoods, but maybe I should join the ACFW instead of just talking about it, hang around the web, and keep blogging until I get good at it.

    And YES, PLEEEZ, write about the differences between talking and writing. You’re so right on about that, and I’d love to see you lay out the reasons for this.

    Thanks, John, for more great mental fodder! I love grazing your blog. There’s so much to ruminate on afterward.

  • I thought you meant “market/speaker’s platform” but now I’m confused, which is not uncommon for me.

    Thank you for your writing series. Your tips are very encouraging. Yes, even the work hard for a long time, cultivate relationships, immerse yourself, don’t sweat rejection, etc. Your tips are affirming and therefore, encouraging.

  • This peice conveys a lot,thanks.

  • ok…im back…thank you for the big 10…makes a lot sense…especially no 3….i was getting hung up in words…and getting nowhere…thank you for the clarification…forever onward….

  • Yes. I also will add my thanks to this appreciative (adoring?) chorus. 😉

  • I think we should go with “adoring.” Although I do like the way “appreciative” is so readily associated with “appreciate,” which ties right in with “increasing in value,” which is half a step from people actually sending me money.

    So “appreciative” it is, then.

    Tough call, though. Sort of.

  • John,

    I’d like to add accolades as a lot of ground you’ve covered appears in the “Business Writing in a Technical Environment” course the corporation I work for sent me to today. Management hopes to groom me for a tech or proposal writing position. Works for me. It’s not where my heart is but definitely keeps shoes on the kids’ feet. In the meantime I can pursue magazine writing on the side.

    Again, since reading your blogs encourages me both as a Christian and writer you’re invaluable. You wrote somewhere that – to paraphrase wildly – becoming a Christian doesn’t mean troubles end but you see a way through them easier. It’s like a fog lifts and you can see things clearer.

    Writers like you help sharpen our focus.


  • Write a lot. practice makes perfect.

  • Platy

    Thanks for the tips. I'm following at least eight of them already. I'll be looking for a good agent this year – currently smack bang in the middle of a trilogy. While I'm writing the first draft of book 2, I'm doing the second draft of book 1. Fun stuff.

    I'll get to work reading your other "how to" blogs now.

  • Ray

    "Never forget that the only point of writing is to serve thought."

    "Write a lot. A lot. For years and years and years and years."

    That are the (and your) two most important points in my opinion. Nice tips.


  • Kazakhnomad

    Thanks for these tips! As a writing teacher in the former Soviet Union, I need all the help I can get to encourage my students to WRITE their own thoughts and not to plagiarize!!! They DO have worthwhile and compelling stories about their grandparents’ tragic past and if they don’t write them up, I will be forced to. Eventually…

  • Adrian

    “I think we should go with “adoring.” Although I do like the way “appreciative” is so readily associated with “appreciate,” which ties right in with “increasing in value,” which is half a step from people actually sending me money.”

    But that’s a huge half-a-step.

    Thanks for the 10 tips and the other writing articles. I appreciate (in a non-monetary cents) you sharing your experience.

  • Hi, LV. Thanks. I did write the tallking/writing one: it's here:

  • L V

    Thank you for this. I caught the last one and will go back and read what came before very soon.

    I would just like to ask you to PLEASE write the article about talking and writing. That sounds fascinating to me.

    Thanks again,


  • Great stuff, John! I've read about, seen, or experienced most everything you've mentioned, but you communicate your ten points in a highly readable and encouraging manner. I'll have to check out your other posts.

  • Avalee Vernon

    Excellent encouragement Mr John,this advice is worth a fortune. I am the type that expresses it better on paper than verbally, it seem when I allow my mind to journey through life there is so much more I appreciate and graphicly imagine that gives me such desire to tranfer it in another person mind.These tips really give guidance. Thank you.

  • Wow. You're welcome. Thank YOU.

  • Jemima

    You’re very gifted and it is very useful to me so thanks! I’d love to do some sort of writing, editor, publisher, copy editor. just got to find out which one i want to do! But i know that i want to do it for God and work for some christian magazine. That would be awesome!

    God Bless x

  • KJ

    Thank you for helping me stay jazzed about writing. It’s not always easy to stay above the self-recriminations for not succeeding as fast as I had hoped, but finding blogs like yours encourages me to not give up. Thanks, thanks, thanks!


  • Absoluely, KJ. Thanks for leaving this.