1. Get organized.
Many writers feel that a chaotic environment is a stamp of creativity. Um, no. The few steps required for a highly functional personal office—file folders, properly labeled storage devices, logical configuration of equipment—can make a world of difference, and it will help you keep your head on straight as you cast about for assignments and engagements. In this business, you get exactly one chance to make a good first impression. Part of being organized is knowing exactly which queries, articles, or manuscripts you’ve sent when and to whom. There is no greater poison to freelance success than inadvertently sending a query to an editor you already contacted about the same idea two months earlier! If you’re going to be diligent about anything in your career, make it this.
2. Never stop when you think it’s great.
“Easy reading is damned hard writing,” said Nathaniel Hawthorne, and he was damned right. Whenever you read through a query or manuscript and pronounce it ready for sending, put it aside and then come back to it at least a full day later, committing to making it just a little bit better, even if that only amounts to tightening one paragraph or replacing one “almost” word with a better one. Since you possess a talent most others don’t—the ability to make words sparkle—you owe it to yourself to set your standards high. Once a piece is done (that familiar feeling of quiet elation will let you know), get it out there, and don’t worry if another edit occurs to you three days later. There is scarcely a writer in existence who looks back on a manuscript and believes it’s perfect. Or, as Anthony Burgess put it, “You don’t say, ‘I’ve done it!’ You come, with a horrible desperation, to realize that this will do.”
3. Practice equilibrium.
Every writer needs to learn to resist with equal vigilance the exhilarating highs and desperate lows that are occupational hazards of the trade. Mostly this requires time and experience, but bullheaded practice helps, too. Query rejected? Curse up a storm, give yourself a pep talk, have a piece of chocolate—then get back to work. Land a sweet assignment? Fist-pump the air, tell someone important to you, have a piece of chocolate—then get back to work.
4. Don’t work in a vacuum.
Even if you don’t think it’s for you, force yourself to network with others, whether via a local writing group, a national association, or the numerous writing-related groups on social media sites like LinkedIn. Yes, writing has traditionally been a solitary pursuit, but those days are long past. Even for writing groups that charge dues, one or two assignments typically make you back your original investment. Plus, these days, things happen much faster than they used to: information gets circulated instantly, assignments get snapped up, research is done fast, and fact-checking even faster. The good news is that there are more opportunities available to more writers than ever before. The bad news is that you can’t afford to fall asleep at the wheel. Being connected to others writers, and to the writing and publishing world at large, will keep you plugged in.
5. Embrace the writing experience.
Says lauded British novelist Julian Barnes, “It’s easy, after all, not to be a writer. Most people aren’t writers, and very little harm has come to them.” In other words, since your choice to write is probably less a choice than a fundamental, irrepressible need, take it in your arms, squeeze it, cuddle it, and love it for all it’s worth. Don’t buy into the stereotype that writers are lonely, unkempt figures forever despairing over what they haven’t published. Instead, celebrate every single word you write, even the ones that never see the light of day, as part of a lifelong process. This difference in attitude will translate into better consistency, higher productivity and, in the end, greater success.
IJ Schecter is an award-winning author, essayist, and interviewer, whose work appears regularly in top markets throughout the world. He is the author of two recent bestsellers, the golf humor collection Slices: Observations from the Wrong Side of the Fairway, and the insider’s guide to freelance success, 102 Ways to Earn Money Writing 1,500 Words or Less. He is also the ghostwriter behind several leading titles, spanning genres from business to true crime, and a popular webinar host.