Here’s how writing saved my life.
Two years ago I living in an abandoned house, scraping by on welfare in one of the most expensive countries in the world, and when that fell through, “making a living” by playing harmonica and other instruments in the streets.
It was, I’m sorry to say, par for the course for a liberal arts major around here.
When I signed up for a BA in English Literature I wasn’t exactly thinking about putting food on the table. I was very young, I loved to read, and university was still free in Ireland, so I thought “why not?” I started attending college at the tender age of 16, and the future was the last thing on my mind, but on it came.
I graduated with honors at 19, took off my robe and funny hat and thought “What the hell do I do now?”
I decided to become a writer, of course. But I didn’t start right away.
First I became an English teacher. Procrastination was a strong suit of mine at the time, and being told what to do by someone else was less scary than figuring it out myself. I got a job in my local city, and built up the experience and courage necessary to make the biggest, most procrastinating decision of my life so far… I ran away to Mexico.
Well, first I accepted a job there.
I got in touch with an English school in the middle of nowhere, Mexico, said goodbye to my poor parents, moved to Central America, and I stayed there. For a year. Know how much writing I did during that time?
Oh, I learned, sure. I grew as a person, I developed myself. But the writing skills that I had honed in my three years at uni went un-nurtured as I worked split shifts and went to parties and generally put off achieving my goal of learning how to become a writer, being my own boss and writing to change the world.
OK, OK, you get it. I screwed around, basically. I moved to Mexico, moved back to Ireland, taught English until I could afford to move to Spain, and so it went. The teaching jobs paid just enough money to afford the move to the next teaching job. Enough was enough. It was time to get serious.
It was time to become a writer.
So I moved to the city, and made the rookie mistake that so many others make – I signed up to a content mill and started scrabbling for work at any price. In my case, it was Freelancer.com, but maybe for you it was Upwork, or Fiverr… or maybe this post caught you in time and you haven’t gone there yet.
Trust me, don’t do it.
You’ll find yourself undercutting people to write five dollar articles, working almost for free in the hopes that you can get enough good reviews to escape from the rat race and finally make it as a writer.
Weren’t we already trying to avoid the rat race by doing this? Wasn’t that kind of, you know, the point?
For me, it was. My former jobs weren’t so bad, but working 9-5 with a shirt and tie so I could earn little more than minimum wage with no hope of promotion wasn’t exactly what I had planned as a kid. I wanted to become a writer and write words that would move people and help people, and I think that now, at 26, I’m finally on the right track.
What I Did Wrong; The Things That Slowed Me Down
Remember the part where I was living in a squat and performing in the street? Yeah, that really happened, and it’s how I spent about two years of my life. I was basically homeless, and I forgot to include the part where I was “a writer” as well.
There was no heating, the constant threat that I might be kicked out by the cops – throughout the whole thing there was the blessing and the curse of knowing that I had options. I could always stop this, try to go back to teaching, maybe even move back in with my parents. When the first winter came around and I could see my breath frosting the air in my bedroom, I doubted everything I was doing, but I didn’t give up.
I had a laptop that I would take to the nearest source of wifi and electricity and scour the depths of Freelancer.com, editing scripts, compiling press releases, and even writing 50k word novels, all for rock bottom prices that wouldn’t have paid the bills if I could have even afforded to have any.
Rock bottom is kind of the key phrase there.
Despite getting hundreds of jobs over those two years, I made more steady money playing music in the street for an hour a day than I did writing business reports for international companies. Not because the work wasn’t up to scratch, mind you – it was because the people hiring knew that they could throw scraps to the hungry masses and still get the results they wanted for next to nothing.
It was an unethical situation, and I came to despise it more than the 9-5 jobs I had sworn I would never return to.
First Mistake – Working for a Content Mill
You’re wasting your time pursuing content mill work. Yes, sometimes you’ll see someone scoring a sweet gig paying hundreds or even thousands of dollars, but you have to bear in mind that those people have poured in hundreds of hours grinding away to land the reviews needed to get noticed.
Go ahead and skip that step, because it’s a waste of your precious time. Speaking of which…
Second Mistake – Undervaluing Myself and My Craft
I was young and eager when I started working online. The prospect of it excited me, and I got insights into strange worlds I’d never seen before.
Working for Kuwaiti oil companies, French marketing firms… it was exciting, and I wasn’t taking myself seriously enough to realize that I was giving away increasingly expert services for almost nothing. I didn’t believe in myself or my services enough to price them appropriately, and that was a big mistake that delayed my progress for years.
What I Did Right; How I Pulled Myself Together to Become a Writer
I’ll be honest. This step is a work in progress for me. When are you a “real” writer? When is it ever good enough?
The first step was taking myself seriously. I reached a time in my life when I couldn’t afford to dabble around in a million different things. I decided to either make it or drop it and move on to something else.
To get that done, there were a few things I needed to take care of.
Step One: Make a Website
You can’t become a writer these days without an online presence. It’s as simple as that. I’m going to outline some of the ways that you can establish an online presence, and you don’t have to do all of them, but a website to display your work is a must-have.
“Why do I need a website?”
Your website is a business card, portfolio, and marketing platform rolled into one. It sends a message to your prospective clients that you’re a business, not another freelance writer floundering in the depths of the internet. It displays your previous work for them (if you haven’t been hired yet, just write your own samples!).
Your site shows them that
- You’re tech-savvy
- You know what you’re doing
- You’re confident in your abilities.
Don’t feel that any of that’s true?
Follow these steps and I can guarantee you that you will. You’ll pick up skills along the way relating to HTML, Search Engine Optimization, and all sorts of tricks of the trade that will increase your value to potential clients tenfold. All you have to do is get started.
Pick a domain (it can be your name, or you can do what I did and pick a brand that represents what you’re about). Figure out what web host you want to use – I recommend Bluehost, the host I’m using for my own site. Host a domain, follow the instructions to install WordPress, and start taking yourself more seriously as a business.
Pick a niche Don’t worry about doing it right away if you don’t have any experience. Figure out what kind of writing appeals to you, and start specializing – employers don’t want a jack-of-all-trades, they want a writer that suits their needs, and there’s enough work out there for writers to pick one field and be great at it.
“How am I supposed to get a job when I don’t have any experience?”
Honestly, you probably won’t. That’s why you need to start guest posting on other people’s blogs, and submitting articles for publication to sites that fit your niche. Put in the time now, and you’ll have something great to show clients when you get talking to them.
Step Two: Start Hunting For Work
When I had taken care of the site I was able to start confidently charging more for my services and getting fair pay for good work. I dug myself out of the rut, and started taking real pride in my work as a freelance writer.
After struggling so hard to get on top of things, moving away from race-to-the-bottom bidding and getting real writing work has been the most satisfying thing in the world.
Here are some places you can find good, honest writing work;
WritersMarket: This is an amazing resource that allows you to shop around by category (aka niche!), so you can find a site that needs content and see how much they’re willing to pay for it.
ProBlogger Jobs Board. Lots and lots of work to be found here. Easily confused with…
BloggingPro Job Boards. Is this one the chicken or the egg? Doesn’t matter – both are a great source of freelance work from reputable clients.
All Freelance Writing Jobs: Blogging, copywriting, proofreading – there’s plenty of work if you know where to look.
For more sources of writing work, check out Heather Van De Hoop’s article on the subject.
“How do you know all this, Oh Wise One?”
That’s easy. I read it. I read it after doing hours and hours of research, checking out blogs from people who knew more than I did until I slowly caught up with them. Now I can put everything I’ve learned into one place for you to read it, and you can tell someone else, and the beautiful cycle of information sharing can continue, helping more and more people to realize that they have options, autonomy, and freedom.
I said it before, and I’ll say it again now. Writing saved my life.
Think you don’t have it in you? Is it too much to learn, too much to take in?
Don’t listen to those doubts. Just start.
Become a writer.
I started freelance writing and blogging when I was living in a squat with no electricity. If I can do it, you can do it.
All you have to do is begin. Start reading, start writing, start a website, start hunting for work. Break free from your old life and take the reigns. Nobody will do it for you, and if they did it wouldn’t mean as much – it has to be you. Nothing is more freeing than taking control and paving your own path in life.
The path I took was hard and weird and full of dead-ends and false turns. Yours doesn’t have to be. You’ll make mistakes, but that’s how you’ll learn.
Not too long from now, you’ll look back on this as the time when you stopped doubting yourself and changed your life completely.
You’ll remember this as “How I Became a Writer”.
Maybe you’ll even write about it some day.
All you have to do is start.
Become a writer.