Monday, June 10, 2019

"Have I read anything you've written?"

I've been asked a few times, "Have I read anything you've written?" My first smart-ass instinct is to reply, "I don't know, what do you read?" But I don't. Because for some people, meeting a writer is surprising. They don't know what to say and that's the statement that comes out. But once I give them some examples, they often nod and say something like they didn't realize that you could actually make a living as a writer, and they'll watch for my work.

I'm part of a few writers' groups and associations and we often talk about how others perceive us and our work. Here are some of the most common questions my colleagues and I get:

What kinds of things do you write about?

Because I'm a nurse, I focus on health and medical writing, but I've also written on lifestyle issues and other topics. I once wrote about newest design ideas for powder rooms and recently, I wrote about divorce after age 50 and how to volunteer in your community.

Where can I see your writing?

I write for magazines, websites, agencies, and companies. Some of my writing is bylined but much of it isn't. Some of the magazines I write for are for healthcare professionals and others are for the public. For example, if you read Costco Connection, you may have read some of my work, in both the US and Canadian editions. I recently wrote some articles for the Canadian magazine Good Times. Sometimes you will see my writing but won't know it. I've ghostwritten many pieces for healthcare professionals. Their name appears on the byline. I don't mind. It's all part of the job.

What do you do all day?

Write. Research. Prospect. Market.

How do you do that all day?

Just how you do your work at your office or place of work. I sit down and do it. I may jump up and down from my desk more than you do, because there's no one around to make comments or silently judge me, but it really is just the same.

How do you manage to work alone all day though?

This question is answered differently depending on who you ask because writers are as different as workers in any profession. I love being alone to work. I get distracted way too easily to work around other people. When I worked as a nurse, this wasn't an issue because it's a very physical job and you do certain tasks before moving to the next. But distraction was a problem for me at school and again when I worked in an office. I had one job where I went in to the office twice a week and worked from home three days. My production level plummeted those two days a week because of everyone walking around, talking, noises, smells from food, and I found myself reading the same words over and over again, never fully being able to complete my tasks. At home, I sat at my computer and worked, completing everything in silence.

I know several writers who like to work in coffee shops or libraries. I can't. The noise and movement around me distracts me too much. I even have a hard time working at home if there's someone else around.

Don't your chores at home distract you?

No, they don't. Having said that, I do do some chores during the day. Because I take breaks, I wander and may empty the dishwasher, throw in a load of laundry, or walk over to the grocery store or bank. But that's no different than an employee popping outside for a cigarette, running over to a nearby store to pick up a few things, or a couple of employees spending time in the coffee shop for their break.

Do you make any money working at your little job/hobby/work thing?

I do get this question sometimes and I'm never sure what to answer without sounding defensive. Yes, I make a good living doing my "little job." I never imagined this was possible. It's not a little job. It's no more a little job than the job my husband goes to each morning or the hospital job I went to for years. My writing isn't a hobby and it's not something I do for pin money. I work five days a week (mostly) and earn enough to pay my share of the bills and more.

I'm interested in being a writer. How do I do that?

First, it's important to understand what you mean by being a writer. Do you see yourself at a desk, typing out the next prize-winning novel? Do you want to write only for major news magazines or women's magazines? What do you mean "be a writer"?

Most writers I know do a combination of writing, from writing content to articles for magazines. Content is anything you read, from newsletters and articles for trade magazines to captions below photos and the back of cereal boxes. One of my major clients is Sepsis Alliance ( I wrote just about all their content. From describing what sepsis is to providing materials for people to buy or download, that's my work. It's not bylined and you won't see my name anywhere on the text. One of my favorite/favourite pieces is a guide I wrote for caregivers. Again, my name isn't on it, but I know I wrote it and that's what counts.

But I also write bylined articles for other clients. I write content like "what is asthma" and pieces like that for another anchor client and others when they hire me. I've also done some journalistic writing for medical and health stories. For those, I get to speak to incredibly interesting people, from world renowned experts to members of the public. There are so many stories to share.

I don't do long-form journalism. I leave that to others. The longest stories I've written were about 2,500 words. Generally, my pieces are much shorter. I did write my own book, Just the Right Dose: Your Smart Guide to Prescription Drugs & How to Take Them Safely. I do have ideas for other books, but I've not gotten around to actually writing them yet.

So, that's a long way of saying, you need to decide what you want to do to be a writer. Do you want to specialize, as I did, or be a generalist, like many others? Do you have the skills to be a writer? Do you know other writers? Do you know what kind of writing you want to do?

A word of advice if you're starting out.

I'm anti-content mill. Absolutely and totally anti-content mill. Content mills are sites that recruit writers to work pennies, for less than minimum wage. I've seen ads offering $10 for a 300 word or longer article. Some will argue that some writing work is better than no writing work, especially when starting out. But content mills that pay so low do not put out good quality work. They don't (generally) have great editors, which is how you learn to be a great writer. A great editor makes your work much better. And with the content mills, you have to write so much to make any real money, you don't have time to market yourself for higher paying jobs, and to improve your skills.

If you are serious about wanting to be a freelance writer, there are some books and groups I recommend. For example, I highly recommend Jennifer Goforth Gregory's book, The Freelance Content Marketing Writer . (I'm not affiliated, just a big fan of the book and I know Jennifer. She's awesome.) Jennifer's advice is spot on. She explains how to find work that doesn't pay below minimum wage. She also has a Facebook group that is chock full of advice and experience.

Early on, I learned a lot from a group called Freelance Success. There is an annual fee, but I credit this group with my success. The members range from beginners to very experienced, and their input and answers to questions are invaluable. Don't be fooled by the basic website design. I still learn from the other members, but now I'm able to offer information and answer questions myself.

Other tips: 

If you're not sure about basic grammar and writing rules, find a class. It can be online or in person, but refreshing your knowledge is important. For some reason, I kept writing "alot" instead of "a lot," in a college English course. The teacher patiently kept correcting it until I finally figured it out. Read a lot (see, I got it right there!). Read what you would like to write. See how others write, see their style, and how they outline their articles. The best way to learn how to write is to read what successful writers have already published.

Be professional. Even if you're just starting out, you can be professional. That means sending out professional emails and responses. Don't use an email address like Be punctual. Deliver on time. Use spell check, but don't depend on it. Reread and reread again before pressing "send." Back up your work. Your editor doesn't want to get an email asking for more time because you lost your files when your computer crashed. Ask questions when you don't know something. Ask for help if you need it. And listen to your clients' critiques. We don't always get it right the first draft. Sometimes we write in the wrong voice. Or there are times when we don't interpret the instructions properly and we have to redo your work. It happens. How you react to those issues is what distinguishes you from others.

Don't be too hard on yourself. I was lucky. Most of my first clients were wonderful. They had great editors who helped me learn how to adjust my writing for each client. Then I hit an editor who ripped my work apart. Ripped. It. Apart. She made me feel like the world's worst writer and I was devastated. There was so much red in the tracked changes, it looked like there'd been a massacre on my screen. After a day of angst and beating myself up, I rewrote the piece and she ran it. When she retired a few months later, she wrote to tell me I was one of the best writers she worked with. That made my jaw drop. But it also made me realize that although she might have been a bit kinder in her approach, it wasn't *me* that she was trying to fix. It was the writing.

If you want to be a writer, give it a try. But be realistic. Know what you are getting in to and have a business plan. Because you're not just being a freelance writer. You're running a business. One where you are the boss, the employee, and the quality control.