How to become a writer in the 21st century

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We have a lot of preconceived notions about what it means to be a writer, not all of them related to the 21st century. Many of these images stem from the past, when vastly different technologies dominated our society. The typewriter, for example.

This fact is important, because as someone who’s life’s ambition is to become a writer, the job opportunities must be clearly defined in order for me to realise my dreams.

Writing myths

There are a lot of myths and stereotypes attached to being a writer, not least because it’s a ‘creative’ career but also the fact that it is a ‘profession’. Because of these associations, only certain people seem like they are allowed to become writers.

And then there are the thoughts, what if I’m not good enough? What if no one likes what I write? What if they do?! Then what?

In school, you’re encouraged to study subjects at A Level that you’re good at and you may want to carry on to university. In some schools (not mine), children are encouraged at quite a young age to start building careers as doctors, politicians, bankers or journalists.

In my school, they were happy if you went to university, it being a relatively under-funded comprehensive school.

Gathering dust

So with the focus on just getting people to pass their exams, I never really grasped how I would pursue my dream of becoming a writer. It began to gather dust, especially as I went to university, had fun, and learnt about academia.

But then I graduated and had to make a decision about life, so I moved to London with vague plans of becoming a writer. Ha!

All my plan involved was wandering around tree-lined North London streets with a notebook, musing, and people raving about my genius – you know, Virginia Woolf style.

Real adult life was a rude awakening, to say the least. It took me five years, a lot of disappointment, frustration and depression, to get to where I am now.

Lessons learned

I’ve learned it’s not enough to vaguely say I want to be a writer. I’ve got to plan for it in a way that society will pay for, so naturally my thoughts went to becoming a
journalist.

But I didn’t want to play that game. I didn’t have the money to spend on another postgraduate qualification, especially after my ill-advised masters. I didn’t want to keep my finger on the pulse of all the trivialities and tragedies that we call news. I didn’t want to work long, anti-social hours.

Other types of writers are novelists – but it doesn’t pay the bills when you’re writing your bestseller for several years. Also, I don’t want to write a bestseller – I want to write a
classic. This is going to take many years and I’ve already been working on my fantasy novel for more than a decade – I started it when I was fifteen!

I worked in communications, but ironically I wasn’t officially allowed to do any of the writing. I had to work on the technology side of things instead.

Which, amazingly it turns out, launched my career as a freelance blogger (among many other things, of course).

The power of the internet

I learned how the internet is an incredible medium for people to connect with audiences.

I’d long been exposed to derogatory opinions about the internet from journalists writing in the newspapers I read, I imagine because it was threatening the model of traditional print media and its monopoly on ‘the news’.

Well, that ship has sailed now. In just a short few years, the internet has blazed like wildfire through our society, with some good and bad consequences.

A good consequence is that it’s possible for you to make up your own job. No, really. As long as people will pay you for it, you can use the internet to connect with them at relatively low-cost. The barriers for entry into business have been drastically lowered.

Try to wrench your mind away from precocious YouTube stars and celebrities on Instagram. Of course, competition is stiff, but that’s where persistence, experience and defining a niche comes in.

Getting paid to write

I love freelance blogging because it is amazing to have so much fun and get paid for it. I’ve chosen clients in a niche that I love, which is technology, and often focus on issues affecting women in the technology sector, which I feel really passionate about.

I run my women in tech blog, Away with Words, partly to showcase my abilities and interests for professional reasons, but I genuinely love thinking of and writing new posts. It’s so rewarding when people engage with them and give me their feedback.

So, being a freelance writer in the 21st century looks a little different from when Samuel Pepys was writing his diaries as London was burning, or John Keats was penning his sonnets during the time when women weren’t even allowed to vote.

Avoiding pitfalls

Of course there is still space for the traditional journalist, but this is not the hallowed career it once was. Journalists must manage the interests of the business that owns their paper, limiting their capacity for true freedom of expression. The weakening of unions means that they’re not protected from losing their jobs if their writing is dissident from established values.

And novelists must write for the mass market, unless they’re Jonathan Franzen. Communications professionals are contracted to write the views of their company.

That’s why I love being a freelance blogger. I choose the clients I work with, and they seek me out based on my blog, so we have similar values. I don’t write anything that makes my skin crawl.

Contact me on catherine@awaywithwords.co if you have any questions about becoming a freelance writer, or anything else.

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5 Comments

  1. Yeah, my brother became a journalist in the early 2000s when it was still a thing, and while his newspaper are trying to shift to suit the digital paradigm, a lot of their subscribers still want a print edition…but it’s not really sustainable going forwards. The internet has been brilliant for fiction writers (it’s highly unlikely any major publishers would have picked up my books since they’re difficult to put into one genre) but it’s also led to an astonishing amount of competition. Still, for job opportunities for more flexible workers, the internet has been a godsend to writers!

    1. Hi Icy, yeah I definitely agree that the internet has really impacted some more traditional jobs and newspapers have been struggling. I would like to see a revival of the traditional ‘investigative journalist’ role where the journalist has the responsibility of communicating and uncovering truths for society. I think that could almost be classified a social good rather than part of the ‘media’ and we could fund it in the way we do charities. Glad your books have benefited from the internet! Competition is hard but the best works will still stand out 🙂

      1. You should ask your brother… It may be that there isn’t the budget for proper investigative journalism because it’s all about the 24 hour news, and selling the most newspapers with lurid stories. 🙂

      2. I think the biggest issue is people get their news from the internet now – why wait to read about a story that’s at least a day old when you can get it as it breaks on Twitter, or 24 hour news channels?

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