How To Become A Professional Writer: 4 Things I've Learned

It’s been almost a year since I cold emailed a #1 NYT bestselling author and asked him for work. And as much as my life has changed, a lot has stayed the same: I’m still a teenager who’s in way over his head sometimes. Yet, somehow I get to collaborate with brilliant people, discover new forms of content, and write about obscure philosophy every single day – and somehow get paid to do so!

My transition into a semi-professional writer was not nearly as smooth as people thought it was, however. I was 18 years old, still trying to find the balance between essays and work, homework and content, and I became overwhelmed. It was a revealing time. There were certainly struggles and (steep) learning curves associated with my work that I didn’t anticipate, and some that I definitely haven’t fully incorporated yet. It’s been one of the most challenging, yet simultaneously rewarding experiences of my career.

Yet, despite all of the difficulties, it’s certainly been a period of growth. I never thought my writing would go out on the Internet, nevertheless in my own name. I never thought I’d be responsible for thousands of people at a time on an email list. I never imagined that I’d be watching some of the most brilliant writers in the country explain their craft.

And, most of all, I never thought I’d learn so many remarkable things about life, storytelling, and the creative journey in the process. There’s simply too many to choose from – but here’s a few of them:

no 1: don't edit -- write

I know this may seem fairly intuitive, but it’s changed my entire perspective on the craft. Ask any copywriter, journalist, technical writer, author you know and I assure you they’ll tell you the key to productivity is killing the editor inside your head. Disregarding the structure, the form, the content. Spitting it all out, even when you think there’s nothing to say.

There’s a reason why I put this as the first lesson – it was by far the hardest one for me to implement. I had thought if there was nothing for me to say, there was nothing for me to say. I wouldn’t let anything out. I was a stereotypical perfectionist: nothing could touch the page until it was perfect. Writing less at a higher quality would be better than filling pages and pages with nonsense – right?

Clearly not.

Writing this, I was reminded of a quote from Voltaire: “perfect is the enemy of good.” Wanting to make every sentence, every word perfect was preventing me from getting any writing done, from doing my job in the first place.

The only way to get out of this paradox, this trap is to just let the words flow. Pour it all out. When I sit down to write, sometimes what I put down on the page doesn’t resemble a tangible sentence. Sometimes it’ll just be random letters or scribbles or half-assed drawings of something at the top of my mind. All the conventions essentially disappear.

But it doesn’t matter. As long as you’re putting something down, the creative act has begun. The words will come and the sentences will form themselves essentially. They may not right now, but they may tomorrow. Or the next time you sit down to write. Opening your computer tomorrow to a bunch of half-baked thoughts is a lot better than opening it to a blank page.

Somebody else gets paid to be an editor – you don’t have to do that to yourself. You can always come back and clean up your mess, your words, even if you can’t fully develop them.

But you get paid to be a professional writer – so write. Anything that comes to mind. The words and the sentences can always be edited in the future, but the idea you have in that instant may never return.

no 2: be consistent

“Your actions reveal how badly you want something. If you keep saying something is a priority but you never act on it, then you don’t really want it. It’s time to have an honest conversation with yourself. Your actions never reveal your true motivations.”

I read James Clear’s Atomic Habits shortly before I began my writing career. I’d had no experience with him or his work beforehand, but quotes like the one above have, in a way, changed my life. It’s profoundly changed the way I work, and the way that I surround myself not only with other people, but with my writing as well.

Take this other, more profound quote from the book: “The seed of every habit is a single, tiny decision. But as that decision is repeated, a habit sprouts and grows stronger and stronger. Roots entrench themselves and branches grow. The task of breaking a bad habit is like uprooting a powerful oak within us. And the task of building a good habit is like cultivating a delicate flower one at a time.”

I always thought that I was a good writer growing up. Not that I was a generational talent, but certainly that I was better than average. But I didn’t do anything to help improve myself. I didn’t spend my time writing or reading like other aspirational writers did. Looking back, I’m sure there were (and still are) tens of my classmates from school that are better writers than I am. Because they made the small decisions everyday to read, to write, and to get feedback on that writing.

The first editor I ever worked with told me over the phone once that there’s only one thing that I can do to become a better writer – write. If I wanted to become the best writer I could be, I had to make writing a habit, and if I wasn’t making writing a habit, then I didn’t want to be the best writer I could be.

I remember it so vividly. It was a revelation to me. That doing the job wasn’t nearly enough to call myself a writer. I had to engrain myself in the work, to make it a priority of mine every single day, regardless of what was thrown on my plate throughout the day.

Immediately after they hung up the phone, I walked to the CVS around the corner and bought myself a new journal. I scribbled down everything that came to my mind for five minutes straight, a brain dump of anything that could be remotely worth writing about. The next day I returned to those scribbles, which would become the seeds of my first newsletter.

Months later, and I still do that same scribble every day.

Consistency equals habits. Habits equals improvement.

no 3: keep learning

It’d be misleading of me to discuss influential books without bringing up Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers, a book which attempts, essentially, to explain what makes a “successful” person (besides the fact they all claim they work really hard). Regardless of their fame, wealth, or professional status, Gladwell said that there was one key to success that most people typically overlooked:

“The sense of possibility so necessary for success comes not just from inside us or from our parents. It comes from our time: from the particular opportunities that our particular place in history presents us with.”

Take all the macho-self-help activists that talk about their self-made success and their ‘no need for support’ – and throw them out. Success is multifaceted. We can’t become successful solely by relying on our own skills and intuitions. We can’t block off the rest of the world just to work, even if you want to keep it a secret.

Note that Gladwell also claims it wasn’t just successful people that they were surrounded by. Of course, Bill Gates and Robert Oppenheimer were surrounded by people with money and status and resources. But they were surrounded by education as well. By learning. By books.

Every writer has to be a reader. You can’t become better at writing without learning how other people write, how they tell stories, the different ways in which they use their words, etc.

The difference between Gladwell’s characters and ourselves is that everything is so accessible nowadays. Social status and power are no longer prerequisites to learning. Practically every book from before the 20th century is available online somewhere, along with the plethora of informative content that we’ve started to spew out now. The playing field has been leveled*, in a way.

If you want to write, you have to read. You have to listen. You have to learn.

“You get what you deserve,” Marcus Aurelius said. “Instead of being a good person today, you choose to be one tomorrow.” The output is reliant on the input. Take more time to read, listen, research today and the writing tomorrow might just get that much better.

*That is, of course, for people with access to technology. The 1) social status and 2) power that Gladwell claims to be prerequisites for success would most likely translate to 1) wealth and 2) access to technology in our time. Just like Camus said, we often “changed parts, but it was always the same play.”

no 4: stay patient

Another defining, yet stereotypical, characteristic of the successful people from Gladwell’s book is that they didn’t wait for permission. They went out and got it. They did what they wanted to do, and worked their asses off to be good at it (this is where his famous “10,000 hour rule” comes from as well).

And yes, of course, they had both the time and the resources to go out and do these things. Bill Gates couldn’t have spent 10,000 hours at a computer while worrying about his next meal or how he was going to get home.

But what he didn’t emphasize was that despite doing what they wanted to do, despite working extremely hard, 10,000 hours is an extremely long time. Even if you didn’t want to be a master, and just wanted to spend, say, 3,000 hours developing your craft, that’s still 125 full days solely doing the thing you want to get better at.

Regardless, it’s going to be a long time. And it’s going to test your patience.

Beginning to work for a content creation agency, I thought that it would be smooth-sailing. That I would put out the writing at an exceptional level, I would be recognized for it, I would leverage my connections immediately, and then I would inevitably start to rise the ranks of writers (I was ridiculous).

This still hasn’t happened. I’m not sure if it ever will.

But the work itself has been enough for me. I’ve been grateful just to be able to write and work with people at such a unique time in my life that I’m okay with being patient. I’m ok without seeing the results for now.

Gladwell also said that “hard work is a prison sentence only if it does not have meaning.” If the work itself has meaning, the 10,000 hours should be no problem. With a clear purpose, the time will melt into the pursuit of something bigger.

You won’t be a good writer instantly. It surely never happens. Just as Hemingway said that “the first draft of anything is shit”, the first draft of yourself as a writer probably is too. But that doesn’t mean the time won’t come for the second or third drafts, or even the final product. It just means that we’ll need to stay patient. And keep doing our job.