What it takes to be a professional writer

By Caitlin Kelly

The New York Times newsroom
The New York Times newsroom

It looks so easy.

Write, hit send.

Done!

In an era when we’re inundated with a veritable verbal Niagara — blogs, websites, Twitter, legacy media (i.e. newspapers and magazines), television, radio and, oh yeah, books — writing looks like such an easy-peasy way to make your name quickly.

I’ve been doing this for a living since my undergrad years at the University of Toronto, where I started learning my skills — yes, really — writing for the weekly school newspaper. I never studied journalism, then or later. But I worked for demanding, smart editors. A lot.

I’ve since produced two works of nationally-reported non-fiction, won a National Magazine Award and worked as a reporter for three major daily newspapers; my website has details, if of interest.

The late, great NYT media writer David Carr, a lively and funny speaker
The late, great NYT media writer David Carr, a lively and funny speaker

Here are some of the skills and behaviors you need as a professional writer of journalism and non-fiction:

Curiosity

Without it, don’t even bother. If you’re the person who drove your teachers nuts — and maybe you still do! — with endless questions, this is a great skill. You’re not just being annoying. The best writers are endlessly fascinated by the world and the people around us, whether the woman sitting next to you in a cafe or the homeless man on the corner or the neighbor who never, ever smiles.

What’s their story?

This group of young men, the topic of a recent documentary, The Wolfpack. The film-maker had to win their trust to move ahead with the project
This group of young men, the topic of a recent documentary, The Wolfpack. The film-maker had to win their trust to move ahead with the project

Tact — aka wrangling strangers

I tell would-be journalists that our job is much less that of writing well (which matters, of course!) than the ability to wrangle strangers. If you can’t make a total stranger immediately comfortable in your presence, whether face to face or over the phone or Skype or email, you won’t be able to gather the information, color, detail and compelling anecdotes your story needs to come alive.

Many people are afraid of, or even hate, journalists and their nosy questions. People are shy or scared and/or fear they’ll be misquoted or taken out of context.

It’s your job to soothe their fears — ethically! — and allow them to share their story.

Empathy

No functional journalist can do a good job without it. No matter who your subject is, or how different they are from you, you must seek to understand and convey their experience of the world.

The Paris Unity March, Jan. 11, 2015. Get out into the world! Take notes!
The Paris Unity March, Jan. 11, 2015. Get out into the world! Take notes!

Attention

We live in a noisy and distracted world. The greatest gift you can offer someone now is your undivided attention — and you theirs. People have much to tell us, but in order to hear them clearly we need to listen attentively.

Put down your phone!

Shut the door and eliminate all possible interruptions (dogs, kids, coworkers) while you’re conducting an interview.

Read others’ writing

Every ambitious creative makes time and spends money observing the best of their field — musicians, dancers, film-makers, artists. How else to appreciate the consummate skill and technique they’ve honed?

I now see younger writers sneering at the antiquated notion they actually need to learn their craft. They do.

I read many magazines and newspapers, a few longform websites, (Aeon, Medium, Narratively) and many works of non-fiction. I’m still hungry, even decades into my own successful career, to watch others being excellent and to learn what I can from them.

My first book, published in 2004
My first book, published in 2004

Listen to others’ interview techniques

Like the legendary NPR host Terry Gross; here’s a recent profile of her.

Social capital — aka connections

Essential.

It’s not as difficult as some imagine to forge connections with writers, agents, editors, even those with a lot more experience than you have right now. Attend every conference you can, like this one — for women only, in New York City, November 7 and 8.

Create and carry with you everywhere a handsome business card and be sure to collect others’.

When you meet someone whose work you admire, let them know. If you want to break into this world, reach out to other writers on Twitter, through their blogs, at classes and seminars and workshops.

Writers can be shy and introverted but no one makes it alone.

Patience

No one, I guarantee you, is an “overnight success.” You may only see their front-page byline or NYT best-seller tag, but it probably took them years to achieve the social capital, skills, experience and insights to get there. I weary of newer writers stamping their feet and expecting it all to happen on some accelerated timeline.

My second book, published in 2011
My second book, published in 2011

Persistence

Both of my books, (well-reviewed), were each rejected by 25 publishers before a major New York house bought them, the first by Pocket Books, (a division of Simon & Schuster) and Portfolio, (a division of Penguin.) My agents (two different ones for each book) did not give up.

Many successful writers face tremendous rejection along the way to eventual success.

My story in July 2014 Cosmopolitan (U.S. edition)
My story in July 2014 Cosmopolitan (U.S. edition)

Attention to craft

I can’t say this too strongly.

Learn your craft!

Take a class, find a mentor or coach, read books on how to write well — there are many, from Stephen King to Anne Lamott to Roy Peter Clark.

It’s arrogant and naive to think that simply pushing hard on the heavy doors of the publishing and journalism world will gain you access.

If they do swing open, you’d better bring a strong set of skills!

And now that editors are busy and overwhelmed, very few have the time, interest or energy to mentor you or help you improve your writing and reporting along the way.

So….how to conduct a terrific interview?

How to gather the reporting your story most needs?

How to come up with great, timely, salable ideas?

I offer webinars, (individually, scheduled at your convenience) and have coached many writers worldwide to improved skills and confidence.

One of them, a 22 year old Harvard grad traveling the world alone by bicycle to gather stories of climate change, hired me to get her work into The Guardian — with no prior journalism experience.

Here it is.

19 thoughts on “What it takes to be a professional writer

  1. I laugh rather bitterly whenever I hear someone even jokingly mention that writing is easy. I’ve just started editing a novel, and it’s a lot of work! And that’s when I stay on task. A hundred different things can call my attention away during a project, making getting work done sometimes difficult. Still, I keep at it because, after all persistence.
    And you’re absolutely right about social capital. An acquaintance of mine who shares with me a fondness for science fiction became an editor of a pretty big sci-fi magazine at some point last year. I had this story that I sent him, and while he liked it, he had to pass on it. He did say he would like to read more of my work in the future, so that’s something. And because I know him personally, I was able to let him know about my story after I sent it in so he could look for it. Knowing people pays off, apparently.

  2. Thanks for this mini-refresher. I have written my first biography and I am preparing to read it for the fourth time before sending it to a copy editor. Lucky for me I love to listen to people and I have patience, and research is definitely my thing. I have found that writing a book is definitely more than simply sitting down and putting words on paper and pressing send. I cannot predict what a publisher may or may not do, but I know I have given it my best shot, and I like it.

  3. Thanks Caitlin for another excellent blog. Always feel affirmed or encouraged, as well as often challenged, when reading your posts.
    “When you meet someone whose work you admire, let them know. If you want to break into this world, reach out to other writers on Twitter, through their blogs, at classes and seminars and workshops.” – Good point!!
    “Also, no one, I guarantee you, is an “overnight success.” You may only see their front-page byline or NYT best-seller tag, but it probably took them years to achieve the social capital, skills, experience and insights to get there.”
    Thanks for this reminder too. Have you heard of the 10,000 hour rule? Interesting. I believe that everything I write makes me a better writer, even if only for the practise element.

    1. Thanks, Anna.

      I enjoy writing and am happy to see others doing it, but I do want people to appreciate what it requires to do it well.

      I wonder, after 30 years doing this, how many hours I’ve put in now? 🙂

  4. A friend’s daughter is attending a great journalism school. I am curious as to how they teach students to be journalists now, in an era where anyone and everyone can be a “writer” and self publish. It is a skill set–but seems a hardly recognized one anymore. Am hoping the pendulum swings back.

    1. Indeed. Not sure I’d want to teach in a college journalism program. I think the most useful skill now is knowing how to freelance..and not sure how many schools even teach that as a skill.

      1. I completely agree! I stumbled across freelancing almost by accident when I couldn’t find a full-time editorial job after college. It’s a real-life skill that should definitely be taught in schools.

  5. Pingback: [BLOG] Some Friday links | A Bit More Detail

  6. Why don’t I keep my mouth shut writing to you?

    As usual you complicate things. According to Hemingway “There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed …”

    Oh, and the other thing he said: “Don’t pimp your writing”.

    U

    1. And…I can’t even tell if you’re chastising me again. Or…?

      Complicated is trying to earn $65K + every year selling your words.

      I know writers making $12,000…which is survival only if you live in a tent.

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