Tough, but not as tough as in the olden days
Question: "What do you call an aspiring writer?" Answer: "Waiter!" The life of a writer is often hand-to-mouth. Even some salaried writers at magazines, newspapers, and publishing houses need to supplement their somewhat meager incomes with freelancing or other work. However, writers now have more career options open to them than those who toiled with the pen in the time of Chaucer or Shakespeare - or even in the time of F. Scott and Hemingway. The exploding high-tech industry seeks out technical writers with knowledge of a certain field to infuse dry, complex material with clarity and style. Copywriters at advertising agencies write content for print, broadcast, and television media, and command slightly higher salaries. And many burgeoning content web sites are finding that writing talent is a hard-to-find and precious commodity.
Still, the high-profile writing jobs at national magazines and newspapers are hard to snag without a long publishing history and an "in" at the magazine. And the "day job/night job" class of writers, who spend their days waiting tables or, like Franz Kafka, clerking at an insurance agency, is far from extinct. These writers are often working on novels, screenplays, and television scripts while they wait for an agent or a studio to "option" or agree to consider, their work. The most successful writers are those whose passion for their work pushes them to keep writing and keep submitting, even if it takes years to see their work in print.
Writers seeking employment with a general newspaper or magazine should have at least a bachelor's degree in journalism, English, communications, or literature. Those applying for a technical writing position should be either well versed in their subject matter or hold advanced degrees in the field. Newspaper journalists need a good portfolio of published clips to get in on the ground level as reporters.
Writers in entry-level positions at small firms may get writing opportunities almost immediately, but moving up the corporate ladder is a whole other story. On the other hand, writing opportunities at large firms only come after putting in the time doing research, fact checking, and copy editing, but the chance for advancement is much higher and quicker.
Freelancing for prestigious publications is difficult for an unestablished writer. Submitting to small, regional papers and magazines (for free) is a good way to get published. In order to get a story published in a newspaper or magazine as a freelancer, a writer must either be an expert on the topic, or conduct extensive research and interviews. Writers have to be adroit salespeople to pitch their services. Rejection is par for the course, and can take a toll on a writer's sense of worth.
Dynamic lifestyle;Wide variety of career options
Long hours;Scarcity of jobs;Fierce competition
Averages about 40 per week
Median entry-level salary: $21,000;Median entry-level web writer salary: $29,500;Median salary for entry-level technical writer: $40,200
There is no "magic formula" for making it as a writer. Most aspiring novelists would have a better chance of transmuting base metals into gold than of signing a book deal. Others write bestsellers their first time out. In general, though, it takes a long time, ("sometimes years and years and - you get the picture," says one contact) to make a living as a writer, whether your milieu is "science or science fiction." An English or journalism degree "doesn't mean you can write," insiders point out, and many authors were lawyers and geologists before they began writing. Writers must "force themselves to set aside writing time," which takes an "enormous amount of dedication."
An old cliche says that a writer should "write only what s/he knows," which is true only to the extent that anyone who wants to write needs to have a "cache of personal experiences and a way of making the world microcosmic." In other words, travel, reading, talking, and listening to other peoples' stories strengthens a writer's ability to "illuminate, educate, and entertain." The job can be stressful, if only because of the "emotional difficulty," the "bouts of self-doubt and rejection," and "deadline pressure from slavedriving editors." However, the payoff for persevering through draft after draft and one "ding" letter (trade speak for a rejection) after another is "a little piece of posterity - your name in print."
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