To Be a Writer, You Must Do Some Writing

There is one way to be a writer. It’s not as complicated as you might think.

There are a lot of things you learn when you offer advice on the internet. One of them being that the best advice given on the internet is channeled through something like a blog or column — places where people choose to read (or not) your opinion and react accordingly (and this is something you intended to happen).

Possibly the most important thing I’ve learned about dishing out writing advice — sometimes on Twitter, which is always a mistake and never ends well for me — is that an alarming amount of people who fall into the “want to be a writer full-time” category have never published a single piece of writing anywhere. Ever.

The term “publishing” doesn’t hold quite the same meaning it did before the internet became a daily thing for most of us, but if we’re being honest, that change happened long before that. Before, if you wanted to be a published writer, you either had to submit something to a publication or hire an agent to do it for you.

That’s not how it is anymore — evidenced by the fact that what you are reading right now was created by me sitting down at my laptop, dusting off this website’s interior, writing a bunch of words, and hitting “publish.”

If it weren’t for the .com domain I pay for because -BRANDING-, this process would be free and would cost nothing but my time. If I took the time out of my day to list every free site that lets anyone anywhere host their own blog, I’d be here the rest of the day. Dinner would never get made. My kitchen would remain dirty. I might pass out from lack of hydration. You never know.

I’ve been publishing content on the internet since 2009, because high school me wanted to be an author and was obsessed with Meg Cabot, and because Meg Cabot was (is still) an author and had a blog, this Meg also needed one. I can’t say I regret it, though it did take a while for teenage me to understand that not everything needed to be shared online, even on a blog with 2.5 followers. There are a few more of you now, I’ve heard.

I’ve been around a long time, and trust me, I’m not old enough to forget what it’s like to want to write but to fear not the act of writing, but instead the possibility that someone might read it, or worse, have opinions about it.

But because that fear of being read never goes away (sorry to break it to you, but I’m also not), I must offer you yet another nugget of writing advice you’re going to hate. It’s my specialty.

Suck it up and publish your words.

Mean! Awful! How dare I! I know. I’m the worst.

But here’s the thing: So many people say they want to write for a living. But this is quite literally impossible if you never publish a single thing on the internet.

It’s not that you have to write every day (in fact, I strongly recommend not doing that — there’s a reason I stopped posting daily to this website in 2020). It’s not that you have to be published in The New York Times or BuzzFeed or whatever the “look ma, I made it” equivalent of these things are in 2022. You just have to publish something, Preferably many somethings. Good, bad, it doesn’t matter.

It. Doesn’t. Matter.

When I’m reviewing writing applications (with the aim of, yes, hiring writers to write words in exchange for currency — what a concept!), the first thing I look at is not the resume, or the reason someone wants the job (we all know it’s the currency, WE ALL KNOW). The first thing I look at are a candidate’s already published writing samples.

It does not matter to me where these samples are published. I’ve hired writers who have only ever published articles on Medium (free) or their own personal blogs that don’t get much traffic (can also be free). In fact, because I will never forget what it’s like to be in that awful space in life where you want to write but no one will let you do it for money, I make it a point, whenever possible, to recruit writers who aren’t already published in the NYTs or the BuzzFeeds.

Of course high-traffic bylines help. But speaking from experience, the only thing a writer needs to prove to me at first glance is that they can write.

If you have no proof, you have a very low chance of getting hired.

I understand that publishing content for free is hard. It’s draining. It takes a lot of time. And that’s all on top of the terror that often accompanies sending any of your words out into the void.

You have to do it anyway. If you want to write professionally in any capacity, you have to prove to anyone who might be looking that you are worth being hired.

This is not necessarily true for traditional publishing — the majority of manuscripts are not published before they’re sent to agents.

But if your goal is to freelance, or to become a staff writer somewhere, the only experience you have to prove you can do it is the content you publish yourself.

Which means you have to — actually — write — things.

This is challenging. I’m writing this post deep into a writing drought. I do not feel like writing. None of my ideas seem interesting. I have little desire to share my words with anyone, even myself.

Why am I writing anyway? Because I have to. If it weren’t my job, but I wanted it to be, I would also have to.

THAT is the mindset you must adopt if you want to become a writer.

It doesn’t matter what, where, how much, how often.

You must write.

That is, it turns out, the only way to be a writer.

Meg Dowell is the creator of Brain Rush, dedicated to helping writers put their ideas into words, and Not a Book Hoarder, celebrating books of all kinds. She is an editor, writer, book reviewer, podcaster, and photographer. Follow Meg on Twitter for tweets about nonsense and Star Wars.