The Upside of Selling Out
By Carol Tice, of Make a Living Writing
Back before I was a freelance writer, I was a songwriter, when I lived in L.A. I worked a day job as a legal secretary to support my dream of being a rock’n’roll star.
I knew some other songwriters and musicians who didn’t have a day job — to support their careers, they played Top 40 tunes in casinos 40 hours a week.
In other words, they were sellouts.
I wasn’t about to sully my creativity by playing old Foghat tunes while people ate free shrimp and played blackjack at 10 a.m.! That was like a living death, my bandmates and I sneered. I was better than that.
Bet you can guess the end of this story. I eventually got tired of starving and hanging around smoky clubs at 2 a.m. I discovered the world of freelance writing, where I could get paid a bit per article, instead of having to pay to four-wall a hall to play a gig. I’m not a songwriter anymore.
But some of those Top-40 players I knew ended up playing in great bands, or being killer professional studio musicians. They knew something I didn’t: Anything that lets you practice what you want to be in a professionalal setting helps you become it.
The advantages of selling out
I flash back on my rock’n’roll days when I meet would-be novelists who can’t seem to get their book written. Many are also too good to sully their hands with writing an article or Web content for a business.
“I’m a creative writer!” they tell me. “I couldn’t work on — gasp — an assignment someone else gives me!”
From personal experience, I’m telling you that’s the wrong attitude to take toward your writing aspirations.
Here are some of the many advantages of “selling out” — taking some paid writing work while you work on that novel:
You learn discipline. If I had a dime for every novelist that can’t quite get around to actually writing, I could retire right now. This happens partly because there’s no accountability in writing that first novel — no editor standing over you expecting pages by the end of the week. When you write freelance, you get introduced to the wonderful world of meeting deadlines. You can take this skill back and apply it to your novel, setting deadlines with yourself for when chapters are “due.”
You get feedback. Working with editors can be a revelation. They know things about how to make articles compelling, and they share those tips with you, free! You start learning how to make your work better, and better, and better. Then, you can go home and apply what you’ve learned to your novel.
You get to play with words more. If you spend some of your time writing for pay, you’ll simply spend more time writing. More writing is better than less writing when you’re looking to hone your craft.
It builds your writer cred. Ever notice how much easier it seems to be for longtime journalists to make the leap to being a novelist? The fact that they’ve been working with words professional for years seems to impress many publishers.
You meet people. Circulating in the writing world as a freelancer, you have the chance to meet people who could help you get published. Obviously, I didn’t meet many record producers at my secretary job. But my writer friend Candace Dempsey kept plugging away at the freelance articles over the years…until one day, at a networking event for writers, she told another writer about why she was the perfect person to write a true-crime book about the Amanda Knox murder case in Italy. She knew Italy well — she’d been writing and blogging about it for years. That writer handed her his agent’s phone number. Her book, Murder in Italy, came out last year.
You avoid the soul-killing “day job.” Many writers have the equivalent of my secretary job — a thing they do to pay the bills while they write nights and weekends. If you can avoid needing a day job because you can earn from writing, that puts more flexibility into your schedule and hopefully cuts you more time for writing your own projects.
You build your fan base. I’m constantly blown away by how many people call me up to pitch me a story idea — because they know me from a writing gig I had five or more years ago. People do read and follow bylines. So freelance writing can grow you a built-in audience of people who might take an interest if you put out a novel, a trait publishers seem to hold in high esteem these days.
It builds your self-confidence. There’s no ego boost like seeing your name in print. Published work is a fear-slayer that kills the little voice in your head that says, “Maybe I’m just not a good writer.” But the wait to see your name on the cover of that novel can be long. Feeding your ego along the way with the occasional magazine article can keep your courage up.
There’s a myth that novelists are pure-art types who never sully their hands with workaday writing. Let me just puncture that balloon now. Longtime newspaperman Mark Twain wasn’t above it, nor was Salman Rushdie, who wrote copy for Ogilvy & Mather. The road to novel success is often paved with freelance articles.
Carol Tice helps freelance writers grow their income at the Make a Living Writing blog, which was recently named one of the Top 10 Blogs for Writers. Her upcoming Webinar is How to Break In and Earn Big as a Freelance Writer.
Note from Larry: Amen to that. This blog led to my new book, and freelance writing led to my novels and screenplays. And then back again. Now they co-exist, and I actually get paid, and well, for the articles and projects I sell and write on assignment. I encourage you to discover Carol’s site, it’s a gold mine.