Don Meredith Professional Writing Services

Notes for New Writers (last update: 2010 January)

Each year, I receive a few inquiries about how a person becomes a professional freelance writer. The following is a brief summary of some the things I have learned over my 30+ year writing career.

You will not get rich from writing. Despite the few success stories we all know, the vast majority of freelance writers struggle to make a living from their writing—most depend on the support of a spouse or another job. Why? Because we are like farmers and ranchers: we have little control over the price of the product we sell (corporate writing—see below—being an exception). As a result, we work for wages that are well below the minimum needed to earn a living. If we should be bold enough to ask for more money (and depending on the publisher and our history with that publisher), the publisher can easily find another writer to work for the lower fee.

Despite the best efforts of prominent writing organizations, writing is not a true profession. Anyone can claim to be a writer, and many are happy just to see their names in print. Being paid is a secondary issue. Many are hobbyists with whom we so-called professionals must compete every day.

You will find many reasons not to write. You work alone, most likely at home. There are lots of distractions. One of the most used excuses is so-called "writers block". Unless you set a regular time to write each day and stick to that schedule, you will not write and you will not be published. If you think you suffer from writers block, don't believe it. You are procrastinating! We all do it. But the true professional recognizes it for what it is and works through it. If you truly can't get motivated, get up and do something totally different. Take a walk, mow the lawn (or clear the snow), till the garden. But return the next day at the scheduled time and write, even if it's crap! Get your ideas on paper. Remember the old saw: "There's no good writing, only good re-writing". If you stay disciplined, success will come eventually.

If you want to be a professional, act like one! Learn how to treat your writing as a business. Negotiate realistic deadlines and Keep Them! Don't take editorial criticism personally! Accept requested changes for what they are—attempts to make your writing better. On the other hand, changes should be negotiable and should not change the meaning or intent of your writing. Do not negotiate your principles.

Keep a ledger of your income and expenses and report your gross and net income on your income tax form each year. Register for collecting the Goods and Services Tax (Canadian GST) and collect it. By doing so, you tell your clients you are serious about your writing business and maybe are someone they will want to hire again. Also, you will be rebated the GST you paid on the equipment and supplies purchased for your business. That's money in your pocket!

Don't be bullied by book publishers! The book publishing industry is in crisis. In a nutshell, there are more writers who want to publish books, more readers who want to read books, but fewer traditional book publishers willing to consider the work of new writers (for a variety of reasons beyond the scope of this piece but having to do with digital technology and "big-box" bookstores). There are many alternatives to the traditional routes.

Despite what book publishers will tell you, multiple submissions are now the rule. Ignore requests for exclusive rights to read your manuscript, e.g., "we do not accept multiple submissions." Of course they do, they just don't know or admit it. Don't tell them you're submitting to several publishers, it's none of their business! Your job is to sell a manuscript in the shortest period of time to the highest bidder with the best marketing and distribution system, not have it sit for months in a large pile on some nimrod's desk. Don't grant exclusive rights until the publisher shows genuine interest. Then don't grant them in writing unless they are particularly asked for. Of course, once you have signed a contract, the publisher has its exclusive rights (if so negotiated).

Contracts are negotiable! However, because of the book industry crisis, many publishers are trying to take advantage of authors by having them sign contracts that effectively take all the author's rights. This is wrong! You must control your copyright and only grant licences for the services the publisher will actually provide, i.e., book publishing. Before you get involved with a book publisher, go the the Writers Union of Canada website, Union Publications, and order the Contracts Self-help Package (which includes a Model Trade Book Contract). It could be best money you ever spend on your book.

Corporate Writing. Do you really want to make a living from writing? Are you an expert in a specialized subject? I have been able to make a living off the fact I'm a trained wildlife biologist who likes to write. It got me a full-time job with Alberta Fish and Wildlife for 13 years. It has been the basis for my freelance writing career. Businesses, organizations or governments who hire me to write scientific reports, newsletters, annual reports, brochures, etc. pay me for my time and not simply for the number of words I produce. As such, I receive fair remuneration for the amount of time I spend on research. If you must pay bills and put food on your table with your writing, don't overlook corporate writing. You can make a living out of it.

Writers Organizations. Join them. Misery loves company. Seriously, you need to network with other writers to find out what is going on in the industry, that you are not alone in your writing problems, and what workshops, courses and conferences are available to attend. Although writing is a lonely business, it cannot survive without a network of contacts and confidants.

The first writers organization I joined was the Writers Guild of Alberta. This group accepts all Albertans with an interest in writing. You need not be a professional. It offers courses, workshops, conferences and an all important newsletter that keeps you abreast of these things and markets. If you are an Alberta writer, you should belong to the WGA. If you don't live in Alberta, most other jurisdictions have similar kinds of groups. Check it out.

Other organizations of note for published writers are The Writers Union of Canada and the Professional Writers Association of Canada (PWAC). TWUC promotes the rights and seeks to improve conditions for book authors. It also has many useful brochures on book contracts, agents, publishers, etc. that are available for free to members and for a small fee to non-members.

PWAC's web site has much useful information for all writers, including what fees to charge, etc. Check it out!

Read, Read, Read. Professional writers must be professional readers. You have to be aware of what people in your chosen genres are writing, what is good, what is bad and why. If you write non-fiction subjects, you must read as part of your research. You must be thorough and confirm your sources. Most importantly, the wider variety of writers you read, the more you learn about affective use of language, the more vocabulary you employ in your own writing, and the more you develop your own unique voice.

Write, Write, Write. Write it, rewrite it and rewrite it again. You rarely write a piece correctly the first time. Write every day, even if it is just your thoughts in a diary. You can never master writing, but through constant practice you can come as close as your potential will allow you.

Have fun! Writing is a beautiful art that lets you express yourself, go to places where you would otherwise not and resolve issues for yourself and others. Enjoy it!

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Check-out Don's adventure novels:

Grizzly One
The Search
for Grizzly One
Dog Runner
Dog Runner