What This ‘Real’ Writer Does

I am an avid reader of blogs and sites offering advice on how to write, when to write, and what to write. I’ve read so many now, that I am well aware that there are some pieces of the advice that will always pop up as standard: write everyday, write what you know, write what you love – as well as some that are controversial: ‘write lots of bad writing to improve’ versus ‘write carefully from the beginning, craft every word’ etc. Unlike many of those other posts, I am writing strictly about my own personal experience, so there isn’t going to be much in the way of pontificating advice; rather, I’ll just tell you what worked for me and why…

Growing up in Zimbabwe, I have always wanted to be a writer. I did want to be a vet for about two years between the ages of seven and nine, but I realised that I wanted to be a vet so that I could write wonderful anecdotes about the job, a la James Herriott…

I always had something published in the annual school magazine – usually poems in which every line rhymed – and was the inaugural editor of the weekly school newspaper in high school. This meant that I was quite confident that I was good at writing, and I began to hunt around for work in that field. In those days, and in that place, there was precious little going. Any commissions were snapped up by journalists  and writers who had all the right connections, and my many, many letters of enquiry received multiple ‘no thanks’ or ‘we will keep your info on file’.

My first paid commission was an interview with a local news anchor.  I was paid something like ZW$45 for the piece, but ended up spending ZW$35 on a lunch for myself and the anchor in question. I also slaved over every word, coming in at exactly the requested word count, and including lots of interesting information about the man. When the piece came out, it had been slashed to about two-thirds the size, my carefully crafted words had been pruned massively, and the editor had switched around several paragraphs. After a couple of hours sulking I read through the piece as published, and then compared it to what I’d originally written. The printed piece was better; easier to read and the layout, in some indefinable way, looked more professional than my school-girlish offering.

This was my first lesson: Don’t be precious over your work. Editors know their onions!

Now, the way I got that first commission was an eye-opener too. I met my now-husband when he was renting a granny-flat on a property. The landlord’s daughter was the editor of the magazine, and it was my boyfriend telling her about me, and how I wanted to write for a living, that got me the job. My next commission in the world of writing was for a bunch of weekly crosswords for an independent newspaper. I compiled ten small crosswords and one big one per week (one small cryptic and one small easy for Monday to Friday, the big one for a Saturday being something of a mix of all types of clues) for the paper which came out daily, Monday to Saturday. I got that job through my tried and untested system of writing and offering my services. The only difference with this letter was that it landed on the editor’s desk at exactly the right time – his current compiler had been becoming more and more unreliable and had just arrogantly demanded an immense increase in pay for his work, believing that the editor would struggle to find a replacement. He phoned me on the spot and said ‘If you can submit two weeks’ worth of puzzles in three days’ time, you have the job.’ I said, ‘I can do it,’ put the phone down and, sweating nervously, set to work, getting them submitted to him with half a day to spare.

Second lesson: Be aware that work will come up in weird and wonderful ways – look out for opportunities and seize them. Traditional methods of finding work DO work – but often it’s very much a case of being in the right place at the right time…

I compiled crosswords for a few years, and it was great! I began work on a Monday, completing the weeks’ work on the Tuesday evening and submitting it on Wednesday. I worked from home, so I could look after the children and do the school run, using their nursery and nap times to get my work done and dusted. It was great, and for that two days’ work, I was paid about the same as a fairly low-level, but full-time secretary – more than enough for our needs, until rampant inflation made a mockery of the economy.

It was around this time that we gave serious consideration to moving to the UK – my mum was British, as was hubby’s dad – as our whole way of life were at risk. The children were rapidly approaching school age, and we  would need to raise school fees for them. Our home was a rented cottage on a farm that had been designated for seizure, and farm violence was breaking out all over the country as the economy tanked. And my crossword job was for an independent paper, which meant that they were a nuisance to the government who were making threats to shut down the independent media. The decision was more or less made for us: it was a case of move or starve, so we sold up everything in order to be able to afford our tickets, and set off.

Once we were settled in the UK – a matter of around a year, time made longer thanks to the vagaries of a viciously nutty sister-in-law (a story worthy of its own blog post one day!) I once again looked into writing for a living, sending out emails and letters offering writing and crossword services. However, my efforts came to nothing, and I (reluctantly) went back to work as a secretary/ admin assistant.

All this time, I wrote fiction in my spare time, occasionally entering competitions or submitting to magazines – but quite halfheartedly, I wasn’t terribly confident in my creative writing abilities any more after all that time raising the children and not having much in the way of adult conversation, never mind stimulating repartee…

As I could only work part-time because hubby’s job made the school run impossible for him, the jobs I could take were rather limited – and then I was made redundant twice in a row. After the second time, I decided that the ‘security’ of salary was maybe not as secure as it should be, and began to cast around for any kind of work that could be done at home, with a special eye out for any writing work.

I found work at home as an online call-centre operator, and it was alright. It paid the bills and offered advancement, but after a very short time I found the work soul-destroying. We had a very limited script, weren’t allowed to chat to the customers (and for some, I very much had the impression that these calls represented a large part of their total human interaction every day…) and had a fair number of hard sell products to persuade customers to purchase. It was during a particularly trying period that a couple of the other ladies who worked for the online call centre were chatting on Facebook, when one of them mentioned that she had just found an online writing site that she had signed up with for extra pennies.

It had been about five years since I had last looked for work at home as a writer and I was amazed! There was writing work available by the score! I signed up with Textbroker, the site mentioned by my friend, and pretty soon, I was writing so much that I was neglecting the calls. I was able to write up to 8 pieces a day, and this made me almost enough money to get through the month… Enough, anyway, that I was able to stop taking the soul destroying calls and write instead.

Lesson 3: Choose your compromises. I was happy to write for less money, but would have needed a lot more money in order to continue with the (better paid) phone calls… Ensure your sacrifices are manageable.

This was in 2011. I worked purely as a freelance writer for the next three or so years, and thoroughly enjoyed it, although the money  was highly unreliable. Some months I would do well, and pay all my bills and be able to treat the children; other months were a trial, constantly scrabbling to make sure that minimum payments were met and that there would be milk and bread in the house.

One thing I noticed pretty quickly was that I got very much faster at typing. I would begin to plan out what I would write as I read through the brief, and was able to strip down my research so that it didn’t take up too much time – when you are paid by the word, you learn to put words down faster!

Lesson 4: You will acquire skills without intending to, simply by practising your craft.

Then, in 2014, our eldest son was ready for university. My husband asked, out of the blue, ‘Have you never wanted to go to university?’ Well, yes, I had. In Zimbabwe I hadn’t been able to afford it, and I’d been working full time, or looking after children – but now… Our youngest was in high school, and I no longer needed to be home for the school run in either direction – I was suffering something of an almost empty-nest-syndrome. So I applied for a place at the local uni and was fortunate enough to be offered an unconditional place, which I accepted immediately.

While I was taking my degree, all the hard work on the writing sites started to pay off. I scored a couple of private clients, who are wonderful and send me work when they can. I still write for Textbroker and a couple of other sites as and when I have time, in between my on-campus job and my private writing.

My degree was fantastic, so good that I’m currently waiting to start my master’s in October. I’m much more confident in my creative writing once again, and have recently started writing a blog for another private client – he essentially buys our groceries these days! I’ve started work on my portfolio, and hope to have a good solid base of work that I can improve on and workshop  during the master’s.

Lesson 5: Write whenever you can.  If you have fifteen minutes and an idea, write. if you are on the train for half an hour, write. If you have a it of time while dinner cooks, write. Don’t say things like ‘Oh, I’ve only got twenty minutes, that’s no good.’ You will be quite surprised to realise just how much writing you can get done in a very few minutes, especially over time. At first, you might not manage any more than one sentence or the ghost of an idea, but with time and practise, you will soon be able to rattle out a couple of hundred words in that twenty minutes.

And, one piece of advice that still rings true comes from Jodi Picoult: You can always edit a bad page. You can’t edit a blank page.’ Write. Write a lot, but write with purpose. I’ve never been one for meaningless exercises – being paid by the word taught me to put a value on my time, and I won’t waste it unnecessarily.

As I said at the beginning (of this rather longer than expected blog post) this is not exactly advice – it seems to have turned into a ramble along how I got into writing instead of how I manage the process!

I hope you’ve found it interesting, and here is a link to my latest story that has been published by the University of Chester’s Pandora’s Box – click here.