3 Things to Never Say to a Writer

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I’ve been writing professionally now for more than 16 years. So trust me when I say you do need to hear some constructive criticism if you want to improve and be successful in this craft.

The key word, though, is constructive. If you want people to take you seriously, then you need to set them straight when specific hurtful things come out of their mouths. And if you want to support authors, journalists, etc., then you need to know what to refrain from saying and why those things are so offensive.

1. “Yeah, but what’s your real job?”

This comment is the #1 thing to never say to a writer for a reason. It implies a host of nastiness, including that writing cannot bring in a living wage, that writing requires less work than other types of jobs simply because it’s creative and thus shouldn’t be treated seriously, and that there’s no place for writers among “real” professionals.

The reality is, many people don’t make tons of money writing. And that’s because, quite frankly, either they aren’t good enough to or just don’t have the business savvy or situational support to approach the job in a lucrative way. Even if they don’t make 6+ digits a year, as many people in other positions (e.g., teacher, cashier, home health aide) can testify, that doesn’t mean they aren’t putting in full time hours trying to make it all work, or that they’re not spending real time agonizing over how to improve and connect with the right people. Income by itself doesn’t mean people aren’t working.

But today’s writing situation also isn’t what Grandma had. We can tap affiliate marketing on blogs and websites. We can use third party sites to find and connect with clients all over the world. Businesses need excellent copywriters for technical documents, marketing, social media posts and much, much more.

So please. Look at my time tracked, hours billed and paychecks cashed. Then you can tell me I don’t have a real job. And while you’re at it, you can take note of every news article you read, every business letter you hold, every Kindle book you read, and for that matter, every scripted movie you watch as you down Cheetos on your couch. Because none of those writers have real jobs either, apparently, right?

2. Self-publishing isn’t real publishing/you’re not a writer if you self-publish.

Let’s highlight some statistics on self-publishing, shall we?

  • In 2016, self-publishing represented 300 million units and $1.25 billion in sales out of the entire $6 billion U.S. publishing industry.
  • Digital self-publishing accounted for more than 30 percent of American sales in 2014, just 5 years after mainstream digital publishing became widely accessible.
  • A typical traditionally published, unagented writer earns just 7.5 percent of their book’s cover price. Self-published authors earn between 70 and 96 percent, depending on whether they sell on their own websites or use platforms like Apple Books and Amazon.
  • Experts expect the global book printing market to be worth about $49 billion by 2024, with a compound annual growth rate of more than 1% during 2018-2024, Self-publishing is the fastest-growing segment within this market–its CAGR stands at roughly 17%.

So not only do self-published authors represent a big chunk of the overall industry, they also earn more than traditional authors and are a driving force behind the growth for the entire publishing world. These figures demonstrate that the idea that writers must go through a traditional publisher to be successful is woefully outdated. Although not everyone who puts out a self-published title will get good sales, serious writers no longer have to depend on traditional publishing houses to connect with readers. This is fantastic news, as overwhelmed, traditional publishing houses have been incredibly exclusive, preventing many great writers from getting into the market and allowing previous sale trends to determine which writers to work with.

3. You’re only a writer if you’re selling books.

See point 1 above. But that aside, many revered authors sold just a handful of their manuscripts, if any at all. Many were discovered or became famous only after they died. Among them include Emily Dickinson, John Kennedy Toole and William Faulkner. Other authors, like Anna Sewell, wrote just one book. Still others, such as Franz Kafka, kept their writing private as they made a living from other jobs.

And the heart of the thing is this: Most writers, like Herman Melville, admittedly do want some fame and financial security. That’s the dream. But ultimately, we write not to sell, but because the story demands that we put pen to paper (or these days, fingertips to keyboard). This is what makes one a genuine writer–an insatiable drive simply to deliver the tale, to bring readers to another world while at the same time somehow connecting with them and conveying a part of who we are. We feel at home in that task and obligated to it. To deny that someone has that sense of accountability to the job, solely because they cannot quantify it according to a biased norm, is ridiculous.

Writers deal with quite a bit. We learn how to say “Meh” to rejection letters, write with kids demanding snacks or screen codes or cuddles, and spend countless hours debating single sentences. Goodness knows we have our share of Internet trolls and broken editorial links/emails, too.

So non-writers, cut us some slack. Think before you talk. And writers, be proud. You have a right to stand up for yourself. Burn the arguments above into your memory and regurgitate them. Tell people how it is. Because none of us deserve to be told, either implicitly or explicitly, that we are less than anyone else.

Should You Work as a Ghostwriter?

If you talk to most people who want to be writers, one of their main dreams is to have their byline become familiar to others. But thousands of writers are flying under the radar as ghostwriters. Let’s explore ghostwriting a little more in depth so you can decide whether it’s right for you.

What is a ghostwriter?

A ghostwriter is someone who writes for a client, who then publishes the writing as their own work. In lots of cases, the ideas in the writing are actually the client’s. The writer simply puts them on paper, ideally capturing the client’s own voice in the content. Sometimes ghostwriters also fix or expand existing manuscripts to make them flow and read better. Most people who hire ghostwriters do so because they don’t feel like they are good writers themselves, or because they are too busy to focus on a manuscript by themselves. A good ghostwriter can help a client gain some additional exposure and reputation.

Lots of practice

One benefit of being a ghostwriter is that you get tons of practice not just generally writing, but also in being more aware of differences in formats, dialects and tone. You’ll have the opportunity to learn about a lot of subjects and industries, and to meet plenty of interesting people with incredible information and stories. This has the capacity to shift your thinking and way of looking at problems and the world.

Pay

Ghostwriting can be lucrative, especially if you find a larger project or a few clients who want to work with you for the long haul. But most ghostwriting projects are one and done, such as a single article for an online publication. They also often do not provide any sort of royalties. So you can’t necessarily guarantee a steady income, and you will need to continue to look for clients.

On the other hand, just as with bylined work, you need to protect yourself against scams. Bad clients are out there who consistently aim to grab content without compensating authors, so make sure you have your agreement in writing, try to get references/referrals, and get a downpayment and establish payment milestones. Be aware that if you get shorted, taking legal action isn’t always an option, even if you have a clear contract-based case, as the cost of the project can be much less than the cost and time involved in a lawsuit.

Your career

When you are trying to get editors to publish your work, most of them will want to see pieces you’ve published that you can prove you authored. The trouble is, with ghostwriting, part of the deal is that you’ll stay mum about the fact your client didn’t write “their” work. So while you can say you’ve done work as a ghostwriter, it’s tricky to let editors know which specific publications or people you’ve worked with without violating this confidentiality. Subsequently, it’s incredibly difficult to build a real resume, post your work on social media, or put clips on your website.

For this reason, ghostwriting can work better for people who already have some standing as authors. If you already have a few published clips, then you can use those to earn new ghostwriting jobs. You can start out ghostwriting just for the income, too, of course, but without the bylines, you’ll likely have a difficult time landing more permanent work, such as staff writing or a column. Many writers combine ghostwriting with bylined work to get the best of both worlds.

One thing to think about related to the above is that ghostwriting clients are often considered experts in their fields. That expertise has pull when editors are considering publication. So what sometimes happens is, your client will submit your work and get accepted based in part on who they are. If you were to submit similar work independently, the editor very well might reject your content. This double standard can be ridiculously infuriating, since you know the editorial decision isn’t always based in the quality of your work by itself. No matter how well you write, no matter how well you source the text, reputation bias can work against you. So if your clients get accepted and you can’t on your own, don’t automatically assume there’s anything wrong with what you’ve put on the page.

So how do you work around this? If the venue is one you know you’d be personally interested in, then once your client has a good relationship with an editor because of your work, see if the client would be willing to recommend you to the editor. This way, the editor is going through someone they already trust.

As a last note here, be aware that some publications do have strict non-ghostwriter policies. You never want to put yourself in a position where you and your client would have to admit you violated this policy. So know what venues expect before you sign contracts, and ideally, have the client agree to be upfront in their queries/submissions that they have or plan to work with a ghostwriter. That way, they can be honest with the editor about how they know you. If the client has been published with a venue with their own writing, then just have the client tell the editor that you’ve done ghostwriting for them for other purposes. Even with a recommendation, be ready to provide some samples.

The final word

Ghostwriting can provide an income and let you learn an incredible amount as you network. But it does not give you an easy way to promote yourself and your writing experience. You might even find that editors accept your work when they think it is from someone else, and that they reject it when you offer it under your own name. Combining bylined and ghostwritten work can be a happy medium, but you can choose one path or the other depending on your goals and needs.

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As a professional copywriter, I created this blog with a few goals in mind. I wanted to:

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