I want to start this piece about writing by first talking about a musician I know.
Bear with me.
I’ve mentioned a couple time that in an earlier career I ran a martial arts studio. For the better part of 15 years, I helped a lot of kids and teenagers find their passions and pursue them. Sometimes, that passion was the martial arts. A lot of the time it was something else.
For Samantha, it was singing. She had a beautiful voice and a love for it that I don’t have adequate words to describe. In school, she did a lot with choir. When she went away to college, she double-majored in singing and education. Her plan was to teach music while trying to make it as a super-singing-diva extraordinaire.
A year after she graduated, she called me in a panic. She hated teaching. How, she wanted to know, could she possibly keep working in singing and music if she couldn’t be a music teacher?
“You could start working as a session musician.”
And Samantha said to me, “What’s a session musician?”
That conversation happened eight years ago now, and I’m still angry about it. How could somebody so passionate about music, who is college educated as a musician, reach her 22nd birthday not knowing that session work as a musician was a thing?
Really, though, writers have a lot of the same challenge. We all know the traditional, agented, big publishing model of making a living as a writer. We’ve seen it done. We’ve envied JK Rowling, GRR Martin, and Stephen King.
We know that model works…and we know our chances of it working for us are slim.
But how many aspiring writers ever get to learn how to be a “session writer”—a writer who sells their words to people who need them, making a professional salary while building their craft and doing what they love?
My answer: not nearly enough.
Writing the great American novel isn’t the only way to make a living as a writer. It’s not even the most reliable way. The most reliable way is through being a blue-collar writer.
What Is a Blue-Collar Writer?
Some of you might not be sure what a session musician is (that’s okay for writers, less okay for people with an advanced degree in professional music). So let’s break it down.
A session musician isn’t in a band. She’s in three bands, and she records backup music for other professionals, and plays for a commercial one week and a TV show the next. She gives a few lessons to kids. She cobbles together a full-time living doing what she loves with the unglamorous work that makes industry and entertainment function.
Just like a plumber does some of the unglamorous work that makes homes and businesses function, or a person at the Toyota factory does unglamorous work to make your road trip happen.
A blue-collar writer makes words happen for businesses, professionals, celebrities, individuals, and other people and entities that need those words. Some blue-collar writers do this to pay the bills while still chasing the dream of becoming a “traditional” author. Others are perfectly happy doing only blue-collar writing.
Either way, it’s a reliably successful way to feed your writing habit and to be a writer. It’s just not one that the media, or our guidance counselors, or (sadly) MFA writing programs tell you about.
Types of Blue-Collar Writing Work
The main reason more people don’t become blue-collar writers is they’re never exposed to the possibilities. I could fill an entire book (or series of books) with the myriad forms this kind of writing takes. For now, here’s a list of some of the most common and needed.
- Nonfiction articles
- Ad copy
- Website copy
- Social media content
- Niche blogging
- Blogging for affiliate sales
- Catalog content
- Legal, real estate, and medical writing
- Freelance editing
- Translation and transcription
- Grant writing
- Policies and procedures manuals
- White papers
For a more complete treatment of how to find work as a blue-collar writer, check out my post on “50 Ways to Sell Your Writing” or read one of my books on the topic. For now, just let the list above help you stay inspired. The work is out there, if you’re willing to pursue it.
How to Get Started
Like any job, blue-collar or otherwise, you’re going to have to make your bones before you can really earn a living this way.
The first thing to do as a blue-collar writer is to get paid for your writing.
You already know your first client. It might be a restaurant you love but has a terrible menu. It might be the gym where you take yoga that needs better web copy. It might be your friend with a small business who keeps writing awful newspaper ads.
Figure out who that person is, and ask that person for a job. Don’t worry about how much you get paid. Just get paid. Even if it’s in free membership for a month, or a couple of meals on the house.
The point is to get legitimate, professional writing out in the world you can point to when you ask a stranger to pay you more money for other work.
Warning: DO NOT WRITE FOR FREE.
You’ll see a lot of ads on Craigslist and other online boards that ask you to write free “for exposure” or to write for wages like a penny for 100 words. These are not good places to start your writing career.
Begin your apprenticeship as a blue-collar writer with the understanding that you deserve to get paid. At first, that payment can be in barter, but never, ever write for free. Never. I cannot stress this enough.
Once you have three to five professional pieces to your credit, pick the most appealing options from the list above and start applying for work. You won’t be a writing millionaire overnight, but if you’re systematic and consistent in your search, you’ll be making more than beer money faster than you’ll believe.
Your Very First Step
So. You like this idea. You want to earn money honing your craft while you work part-time on the writing your muse is calling for. What do you do right now to make that happen?
Make your website beautiful. Look at what you have. Make a list of the differences between what exists, and what a professional writer’s website should be. Today, fix the first item on the list. Tomorrow, fix the second.
Get a template to help you out if you need to. But commit to making it happen—your website is your calling card, and it’ll help you get and sustain the kind of work you need to be a full-time professional writer.
It’s really that simple. Now go out there and get your hands dirty.
Read on for more tips on how to be a successful professional writer: