One question I get asked regularly is, “How did you become a writer?” Well, it’s kind of a funny story.
My path wasn’t really ever in the cards to become a writer. Sure, I had always loved writing, scribbling notes onto napkins and journaling every day. But writing for money? That idea didn’t come until much later. It fell in line after ballet dance, harpist, artist, art historian and international ambassador. I confuse people even further when I tell them that I graduated college with a degree in political science.
As soon as I got to college, I loved politics. I took an intro political geography course with a professor who would later become my advisor. I took my love for the world and transformed it into a field. I studied all sorts of politics, including the political ramifications of suburbanization, politics of the South, and of course, European politics. But it was one class I took out of curiosity that led me down the path to writing. After an intro communications class, I took a writing class with a teacher who turned out to be a badass lady. Sure, she may write for Women’s Wear Daily, but during the summers she taught journalism in secret to people in Burma. The first time she critiqued my writing, I wanted to cry, but she taught me the first lesson of writing: don’t take edits personally. A good editor will have a way of telling you exactly what you need to change without making you feel like a complete failure.
From then on, I continued to take writing classes, but it was too late to change my major without taking an extra year of school. So instead, I got an internship at the Charleston City Paper where I worked for over a year as an advertising intern, editorial intern and eventually, freelance writer. It was the best learning experience I had during my four years. Once I moved home after college, I wanted to keep up the momentum, so I interned at another newspaper that ended up going under a few months later. Which brings me to lesson number two: you never know what’s next. It’s always a possibility that an opportunity you thought would be a long-term gig turns into nothing more than a mistake. I wasted months there doing menial labor just hoping for the chance to write one feature, but now I don’t even have clips to show for it.
In college, I started my blog as a way to keep myself sane during a breakup. At first I was just posting pictures and diary entries from old trips, but soon I was using it as a way to keep track of my life in Charleston. And it kept me writing. Eventually, I was guest posting on other blogs and starting to take my site more seriously. I thought about making money out of this whole writing thing. I took a job at Examiner.com, which never ended up paying, but gave me some ideas about what I did and didn’t want from a company. And then I went traveling.
After a few guest posts on Her Packing List, Brooke emailed me asking if I wanted to write for the site regularly and get paid (!!). I, of course, said yes. And I’ve been doing so ever since. After I got back from Australia, I started to make it a priority to find myself writing work. I got my first piece published by Matador Network and have had a few since then. I did some guest posts for Viator and RoamRight. I published a piece on Plum Deluxe and a few on Travel Mindset, as well as a few upcoming posts for Eagle Creek.
The biggest news of my career, however, was the work I received from AFAR.com. For the last year, I’ve been an Ambassador for the magazine and website, but my (unpaid) work on their website led to (well paid) freelance work. It started with a project called Westin Finds, which is a curated microsite for Westin hotels throughout the world. I wrote two guides for two Atlanta properties with different things to eat, drink, shop and do nearby and recently updated them. Soon after, I was charged with creating the Atlanta guide for AFAR.com, a massive project in and of itself. I’m very proud of what I created and excited to be updating it every few months with new and exciting things to do in my city.
I would love for writing to become my only job, as it’s currently about half of my income, but I’ve still got a long way to go. I will say that my income from writing has more than doubled since last year. But I’ve been pleasantly surprised at where my work has come from and I hope to continue to find myself working for great companies, editors and publications. I won’t pretend like every day is perfect, as most of the time I’m stressing over deadlines, running around like a crazy person gathering photos, staying up late editing and sending passive aggressive emails to chase down payments. But I love it and wouldn’t be happy doing anything else.
Lessons Learned from Becoming a Writer
1. Unpaid can turn into paid. Sometimes. I’m not trying to say that you should work for free. Your work is valuable and you should treat it as such, but sometimes it is worth it to work for free. For example, my Her Packing List, AFAR and Eagle Creek came from guest posts or unpaid content I’d done. But this is the exception, not the rule. Don’t expect to write for free for years and suddenly start asking for money.
2. Everything comes from connections. I never could have guessed that meeting Brooke on my second night in Australia would turn into my longest running writing job. Most of my writing work has come from people I’ve met or people who have recommended me.
3. You are your own accountant. You have to make sure you keep track of how much you are owed and when it is due. And unfortunately, you are in charge of tracking down people when you aren’t getting paid. I keep an Excel spreadsheet of every idea I pitch, everything that is accepted, the amount paid and when it’s paid and the article is published.
4. Develop thick skin. As I said before, you can’t take every edit personally. Even when you think you’ve nailed it and wrote exactly what the editor asked for, your draft could still be sent back covered with notes. It doesn’t necessarily mean you’re a bad writer, but you have to take what the edits are and use them in the future to improve your work.
5. Write every day. It doesn’t matter if it’s a grocery list, your diary entry or a critique of the latest episode of Downton Abbey. Your writing skills are a muscle you have to exercise frequently.
So if you are trying to break into writing, I recommend reading good writing (and a lot of it!), setting goals for yourself about what exactly you want to accomplish (ie. write a novel, get published in a glossy travel mag, write a guest post for a popular blog) and not giving up at the first rejection. And if you’re looking for where to start pitching, follow my monthly travel writing round ups for publications and websites looking for great travel content! Some pay varies from $25 per post, but many pay more.