If you want to be a professional writer…

“I want to be a professional writer. How do I get started?”

Lately, I’ve received quite a few emails from people asking that question.

Here’s my advice:

Just start writing stuff. Write whatever you can, wherever you can, as often as you can. Tell people “I’m a writer and I’m especially interested in doing [whatever you want to do].” Tell everyone you meet. Also, don’t worry if you don’t have a clear “career plan” right away. The plan will become clear as you move forward.

When I decided that I wanted to be a professional writer, I was in my very early 20s. I was fresh out of college, living in Minneapolis, hoping to work as a writer-broadcaster-storyteller-creative-media-ish type of person. I didn’t really have a “dream job” in mind, but I knew I wanted to do “something with words.”

I owned a futon couch, a laptop, a toothbrush, and, as I recall, a bottle of crème de menthe which I sipped on periodically because it made me feel very suave and fancy. Also: I had unlimited Wifi. And that’s pretty much it.

I remember going onto Craigslist (remember Craigslist? Do people still use that site?) and I would comb the site for anything that had “writing” in the post title or description.

Almost daily, I would find a whole bunch of extremely random gigs and opportunities, ranging from “Erotic stories: wanted!” to “Part-time editor needed for a magazine focused on innovative medical devices” to “Entries wanted for one-act play contest.”

I applied for almost every single thing that I discovered.

Interview with an up-and-coming local musician? I could do that!

500-word article on the latest developments in the catheter industry? No problem!

I didn’t have a big “strategy” for launching my career. I just wanted to write and get paid to do it. So I threw myself out there, haphazardly, yes, but very optimistically. I applied for writing jobs and part-time gigs and other opportunities like crazy. Not everyone responded. But some people did. Piece by piece, I built my writing portfolio and honed my style in the process. That’s how I got started.

Things have evolved a lot since then, but my point is, if you really want to write for a living, you don’t necessarily need an advanced academic degree, and you certainly don’t need to wait for anybody’s permission.

Just start. Apply for writing jobs and internships. Re-write your mom’s résumé and then do your aunt’s résumé and then her best friend’s. Write a cool email newsletter for your local gym to use, free of charge, as a little “taste” of what you can do, and then see if they’ll become your first copywriting client. Start your own blog. Post pieces on a community-driven site like Medium. You know. Do stuff.

In time, as you wade your way through various projects, you’ll start to feel clear about what, exactly, you want to write about and how, exactly, you want to make money. In my experience, real clarity comes through action, not contemplation.

As Rumi says, “As you start to walk out on the way, the way appears.”

And as RuPaul says, “You better work!”

No one’s stopping you, right? So write. That’s how you get started. You just… start.


PS. If you’re curious, here’s a chronology of my entire career as a writer. With photos!