We’ve been talking about “making a living at writing,” and I had several people ask what essential tools are needed if someone is going to do more than just type up a manuscript at home. A fair question…
I suggest there are nine essential things every writer needs:
—A time to write. That is, a set time when you’re going to sit down and write every day. When I decided I was going to make my living at writing, I had a regular job, so I got up early and sat down at my computer every day from 6 to 8 in the morning. I’m not a morning person at all, so this was a sacrifice… but I had three small children, and it was the only time when I thought I could get uninterrupted writing time.
—A place to write. You may need peace and quiet, or you may do best with the buzz of a lot of people around. You may like music playing, or you may insist on silence. Some writers use a spare room in their house, others want to take in the atmosphere at Starbucks. But whatever the exterior trappings, most writers do best if they have one place and one time, when they KNOW they are going to write.
—A project to write. When you sit down to write, you’re not journaling or searching for your muse — you’re working on a project. It might be a blog post, or an article for a website, or the next chapter in your book. But when you start, you know exactly what project you’re going to work on.
—A writing goal. Many writers set a goal of creating 1000 words per day. Others set it much higher. When I was writing full time, I had a goal of a chapter per day. The trick is to set some sort of goal, so that you can gauge your success. Novelist P.G. Wodehouse set a goal of writing 1100 salable words per day — something he kept up for more than 60 years, and the reason he published 90 novels and hundreds of short stories.
—A bank account. If you’re going to start looking at your writing as a business, you’ll have money coming in and going out, so you’ll need a way to track income and expenses. This will help at tax time, since none of the money you earn writing will have taxes withheld. Start the business account in your company name, even if it is something simple such as “Janet Smith Writing and Editing.” In time, you’ll find you want to tie a credit card (to track purchases) and a savings account (to retain a portion for quarterly taxes) to this account.
—A website. If you’re going to get the word out on your writing business, you’re going to need to invest in a decent website — something that tells potential customers who you are, what you do, who you’ve worked with, and how to get in touch with you. You’re probably also going to want some other elements: business cards, a social media presence, etc. But you probably don’t need to spend a huge chunk of money on them any more. You can get it all relatively cheaply by doing a bit of looking online.
—A filing system. Whatever system you use, you need to have a way to keep track of people, projects, and information without digging aimlessly through old emails or file folders. So learn to track your work and file it in some sort of system that makes sense to you. My grandfather used to say, “Some people have twenty years of experience; others have one year of experience twenty times.” The people who track their work are the ones who don’t have to keep re-inventing things.
—A network. With time, you’ll want to know other writers, connect with editors, meet with publishers, bounce ideas off of others in the industry. So go to conferences, make friends, and get to know other people who are doing this. Much of your work will come from your growing network.
—And, course, an up-to-date computer and software. I hate talking about this, since I’m not a tech guy, and used my first Macbook for six years before I decided to replace it. But if you’re going to work in the world of publishing, you’re going to have to know and use Microsoft Word, and you’re going to have to own a relatively recent version of it. Sure, you can create documents in other programs, but eventually you’re going to have to use Word to work effectively with everybody else. So, yes, Bill Gates owns your soul.
I suppose there are other things you could put on this list (an understanding partner, good internet access, a decent coffee maker), but these are things I’ve found essential to making a living with words. Would love to have you leave a comment with what other tools are essential. What would you say are the essential things you need to get your writing career going?