Everything I've Learned about Being a "Professional" Writer in One Post
All the tips about submissions, taxes, queries, and careers I can give you in one place
Last week there was a bizarrely contentious Twitter debate about whether MFA programs should offer professional advice to students or whether it should be a sacred space for art without the messiness of business. I won’t wade into all the threads, but I’m firmly on the side of publishing demystification. I always dedicate part of my MFA courses to answering student questions about submissions, agents, etc. Perhaps this is because I had to figure all of this out myself while so many writers around me seemed to have been passed all this knowledge in secret. I don’t mean that I’m not privileged, but just I didn’t have any family publishing connections or professional mentors or even know any authors growing up. I wish I’d gotten more of a professional education, from banal things like freelance taxes to general advice like how willing you have to be to promote your own work—did you know I have a SF novel called The Body Scout publishing on 09/21 that you can preorder today???—and so I figured I’d just write down everything I’ve learned here in the hope it helps someone else.
Here we go:
General Professional Writer Advice
There Aren’t Any (Useful) Secrets
There aren’t any hidden secrets to succeeding as a published writer. You can find all the generally correct advice about the basics—on query letters, lit mag submissions, contracts, whatever—with a few hours of Google searching. That doesn’t mean there aren’t writers whose success seems like a secret. Family connections, inherited wealth, professional nepotism, etc.—not to mention bad taste—are all at play in publishing as they are in any aspect of life in late-stage American capitalism. But there is no secret way to get those things if you don’t have them already. (Or at least I don’t have useful advice on going undercover as a person of affluence on a luxury cruise liner to seduce then swindle an aging billionaire publisher or whatever.) The real “secrets” you can use are the obvious ones: work hard, don’t give up, learn your shit, do good work.
Figure Out How to Separate the Art from the Business
Don’t let the commercial concerns and administrative tasks destroy your artistic spark. It’s important to separate the art side from the business side. Maybe it means dedicating different days to writing and to administrative drudgery. Maybe it means fiction writing on the couch and professional emails at your desk. Figure out what mental, physical, or temporal barriers work for you.
Don’t Be an Asshole
Publishing is a business, sure, but it’s also a community. If you reply to lit mag rejections with curse-filled tirades, insult editors who pass on your work on social media, or are in general rude and unprofessional it’s likely going to come back to bite you. Editors talk. Agents talk. Writers talk. Perhaps if you get to the level of major award winner or regular bestseller you can be an asshole without hurting your career (although I hope for the general pleasantness of society that you don’t) but at that point you don’t need my advice.
Aim High While Setting Expectations Low
People with minimal story credits get accepted to MacDowell. Young writers win Guggenheims. Emerging authors can publish in The Paris Review. An author whose debut sold poorly still might be picked up by a big press for book two. I’ve seen all this happen to my peers or myself over the years. On the other hand, writing is—as everyone says—an unceasing storm of rejection and torment from whence we can never escape. So aim high, but set your expectations low.
Use Your Connections (But in a Non-Gross Way)
If you are involved in your given literary field, you will make connections in it whether via Twitter, MFAs, parties, or festivals. You shouldn’t be afraid to use them. To, say, submit to that agent who expressed interest in your book or to ask an author you know and love to blurb you. But you also can’t treat people purely as stepping stones for your career. It’s very obvious which writers have genuine connections with you and/or real interest in your work, and which ones are merely looking for ways they can use you. No one wants to hang out with—or frankly even give advice to—the writer who only ever reaches out demanding favors.
Reach Out Without Connections (But in a Polite Way)
You might be surprised at how many big authors are more than happy—without any kind of professional or personal connection—to submit a piece to a tiny lit mag, blurb a debut novel, or otherwise help a emerging lit world people. But you might also be surprised at how many people make these requests without any kind of professionalism or evidence of sincere interest. Shoot high with your requests, but don’t slide into a stranger’s DMs and just say “Hey you should blurb me.” (Yes people do this.) Write a professional, proofread note emphasizing how much you love the person’s work and your chances are probably decent. And if the person passes, don’t hold it against them. Big writers often get more requests than they can handle even if they wanted to.
Only Use Social Media If You Enjoy it
New writers often stress about this. Their publisher says they should start a Twitter account or they read an article that says they need to be on Instagram. I waste a lot of time on Twitter and am certainly not anti-social media. However, my experience is that social media only works if you authentically enjoy it.
A big social media platform can absolutely help you sell books. Hell, I’m pretty sure more than one bad book has been bought purely because the author had a big following. But building up a social media following takes a ton of time. I have over 20,000 Twitter followers—follow me here!—but I’ve been on the platform since 2008 and tweet virtually every day. And even 20k isn’t going to raise publisher eyebrows that high. If you join Twitter or Instagram a month before your book comes out and just spam “buy my book! buy my book!” you will not get any followers and not see any kind of benefits. It will just be a waste of time.
But Do Get a Website
Make some kind of simple author website where your work and contact information is available. Use Wordpress or Wix or whatever. You don’t need to be on social media, but you shouldn’t be impossible for editors/agents/etc. to find.
Promote (But Don’t Overdo It)
Your friends and followers do, mostly, like you and want to support your work. If you have new work in a magazine, share it! If you sold a book, tell people about it! If you write a Substack, insert information about your forthcoming science fiction novel!
But also don’t overdo it. If you’re overly braggy, or don’t post about anything except your own work, people will simply mute or ignore you. It’s a fine line to walk and there’s no perfect answer, but try not tip over into that writer territory.
Freelancing as Brand Building
If you’re mainly freelancing to “get your name out there” instead of income, then focus less on money and more on outlet. Many of the big important sites in the literary world pay little to nothing. I wish that weren’t the case, but it is. Should we work to change this? Yes. But that’s beyond the scope of this article. If you’re freelancing as a means of income, see below. And if you’re doing both, then figure out what balance will work for you.
This is obvious, but also look to freelance in a way that fits what you are doing. Write about horror fiction if you’re writing a horror novel. Do features on climate change if you’re writing climate science fiction. Etc. “Synergy” I guess they call it…
Freelancing for $$$
Decrease Your Unpaid Workload
Freelancing to pay your bills as a writer is extremely hard and I don’t recommend it if it can be avoided. In my experience it’s best as side income on top of a regular job. Still, if you’re going to freelance for your primary income, know that an inordinate amount of your time will be taken up by brainstorming, pitching, and following up. You will never get paid for this time. As such, the best thing you can do is decrease it. First, establish relationships with editors. Learn what they like and how to pitch with them to cut down on the time wasted on pitches that go nowhere. Then ideally you and your editor(s) come up with some kind of recurring feature/column/thing that can be done on a regular basis with minimal pitching. The less time you spend on the unpaid part of freelancing, the more you can spend on work that earns money.
Look into the Anonymous Writing Gigs
The most money you can make as a freelance writer isn’t in lyrical essays, deeply researched features, or insightful book reviews—at least not until you’re at the level of a frequent New Yorker contributor. The real money is (surprise!) in lame corporate work. Luckily, this work is often anonymous. The most money I ever made as a freelancer were things I didn’t have my name on and wouldn’t want my name on. I wrote popular college guides. I wrote tweets for corporate brands. I wrote sponsored content articles (aka ads pretending not to be articles) for big magazines. Etc.
This kind of work is doubly nice because it both earns you more money and doesn’t hurt your author “brand” (yes an icky word). So if you’re worried about being a famous writer one day and having fans find your hot take listicles you wrote in 30 minutes for a mere 50 bucks a pop…
Being Professional and Reliable > Being a Genius
In our age of online “content,” in which magazines must publish as much as possible as quick as possible, editors are looking more for reliable freelance writers than genius ones. If writer X does B+ work that’s filed on time and error-free, and writer Y does A+ work that’s always weeks late, filled with errors, and requires tons of work… most editors will return to X over Y. Consider one of your jobs as a freelancer to be making your editor work as little as possible. (Note: I’m discussing freelance non-fiction work done for income, not literary novels or experimental poetry chapbooks. Genius may [although this is debatable] go further there.)
Look for Passive Income Streams
The ideal way to earn money is to not work. Duh. But how do you do that? Passive income is money you get without really working. If you own stocks, you get regular dividends paid out without lifting a finger. If you are a landlord (ew), you get monthly checks. (This is why it’s nonsense when people think the rich work harder. The rich quite literally make their money not working in America. Bill Gates’s fortune keeps going up long after he retired even though he gives tons of it away.) Anyway, it’s hard to get a lot of passive income as a writer but there are some ways. Book royalties are passive income of course. Video lecture/class sites like Skillshare and Masterclass will pay you each month for a class you only record once, at least if people watch it. If you have a popular blog you can do affiliate marketing (ideally with a place like Bookshop.org rather than Amazon.) Etc.
Get a Freelancer Retirement Plan (If You Can Afford to Fund It)
If I could go back in time and give myself a piece of money advice it would be to open a Solo 401(K) or SEP IRA a decade ago. If you earn 1099 income (freelance gigs, book advances, lit mag payments, etc.) and you have any money left over after your living expenses, look into these. These plans are easy to set up via places like Schwab, Fidelity, and Vanguard and decrease your current tax bills. (The money is taxed when you pull it out in retirement, but theoretically your income and thus taxes will be lower then.)
You can also look into forming an LLC or an S Corp but those are a bit more of a hassle and generally speaking aren’t useful unless you make a lot of money (at least over 75k) a year in 1099 income.
Don’t Forget Taxes (Especially FICA)
At a W2 job your taxes are withheld automatically, but at a 1099 job you’re going to owe money at the end of the year or else in quarterly installments. Your tax burden is also a bit higher than equivalent work in a W2 job thanks to FICA aka Social Security and Medicare, which are roughly 15%. When you work a W2 job, your employer pays half of those and the other half are automatically deducted from your paycheck. When you get 1099 income, you have to pay both halves.
If you are bad at saving money, open a separate business bank account and park your tax money there. If you are really bad at saving money and you work both a regular job and freelance, here’s a tip: increase your paycheck withholding at your W2 job. The IRS cares about the total money you owe, not which income streams it comes from.
Expense Everything You Can
The downside of 1099 income is FICA taxes and no benefits, but the upside of 1099 income is you can deduct a whole lot. Books and magazines you buy in your field? Deduct it. The part of your apartment you use to freelance? Deduct that portion as a “home office.” The cost of flights to literary festivals, meals with your editors, author website hosting? All of these can be deducted to lower your tax bill. Look into it. An easy way to keep track is to get a separate business credit card—ideally with points or cashback rewards.
If your 1099 income is significant, get a CPA who is used to working with freelancers. You can find ones for only a few hundred dollars who will save you much more than that.
Submission and Queries
Cast a Wide Net
Writing is full of rejection, and often this rejection has nothing at all to do with the quality of your work. An agent might not be taking new clients at that moment. A lit mag might have accepted another brilliant story with similar themes. Or maybe the unpaid intern reader was having a bad morning. Who knows? You’ve all heard the stories about bestselling books or award winning short stories that were passed over dozens of times before they found a home. To a certain degree, publishing is a game of odds. So submit to lots of mags. Query lots of agents. Apply to lots of residencies. Keep at it, over and over and over.
Persist, Persist, Persist
I’m repeating myself but it’s important. Keep at it! The writers who succeed in my experience are the ones who submit constantly, who start the next novel when the current one is rejected, who keep querying. I might go so far as to say that persistence is the most important trait for an author. Many poems are published after dozens of rejections. Many novels are bought after dozens of rejections. Many authors have abandoned books in their drawers (or rather files in their hard drive) before their debut. Keep going. Never stop. Persist, persist, persist.
Keep Cover Letters Short
Over the years I’ve done many panels on submissions and for some reason questions about the cover letters outweigh anything else. I don’t know why. Cover letters aren’t that important, at least for lit mag submissions. Keep your cover letters short and sweet. Your cover letter is unlikely to sway an editor to publish you, but your attempts at goofy humor (“Sally McWriter is a crazy cat lady who might just go even crazier if she doesn’t get this poem accepted! Gah! Please!”) or chest puffery (“Penwick Von Author’s attached story is a philosophical wonder unlike the garbage in most lit mags today, so publish it if you dare!”) might turn them off.
For agent queries, I would still err on the side of shortness, although for queries it should be a few full paragraphs and there’s more you need to do. The advice you find online is generally right. But don’t write 10 page emails to agents or editors. As a general rule, editors and agents are always overwhelmed. Don’t give them extra homework.
Pick the Right Comps for Agent Queries
Comp(arative) titles come in a few different forms. There are the “comps” you use to indicate what work inspired you, the comps you use when pitching your book to agents (and that your agents use pitching you to editors), and the comps the publisher uses to promote your book. These don’t necessarily overlap. The important one to know about is the comps you should use when querying agents. Ideally, your comp titles will be recent (last five years) works in that genre that sold really well. Recent is important. Don’t pitch your fantasy novel as “the next Lord of the Rings” or say your literary novel “will appeal to fans of Jane Austen and William Shakespeare.” You want agents to be thinking of how the book will fit into the current marketplace (and to also display your own knowledge of your field).
At the same time, don’t merely pick the most obvious titles that every single other author would pick. One publishing professional gave me this advice: pick books that were at the bottom of the best seller list in your genre/style. Ones that did well enough, but not ones that seem irrational. So no “My novel is Where the Crawdads Sing meets Harry Potter and Gone Girl all in one!”
Understand What You Need From an Agent
If you want to self-publish or publish in small presses, you can avoid having an agent. If you want to publish in larger indie presses or the big traditional publishers they are essential. Know that the agent-writer relationship is different for everyone, and that what agents will do varies wildly. Some agents will submit your short stories all over the place, others will only submit short stories to The New Yorker, and others won’t bother with story submissions at all. Some agents will talk to you every week, others won’t check in until you have a finished manuscript. Etc. Learn what you need from an agent—do you prefer to be left alone? want someone who will be reading tons of drafts?—and ask potential agents the right questions before signing.
Don’t Be Afraid to Change Agents
The agent relationship is fundamentally a business one, and if it isn’t working for you then you need to change agents. It’s a scary idea, but I can promise you many of your favorite writers switched agents—often multiple times.
MFAs Are Neither as Helpful nor Harmful as People Act
I loved my MFA experience. I had great professors, made great friends, was introduced to new books, and most importantly got a lot of writing done. If you think a dedicated time and space to write with a group of peers who really care about writing is for you—and you can get a funded program and/or afford a non-funded one—I say go for it! If you don’t think you’d fit in there, then don’t! You can meet fellow writers, learn about new books, and get your writing done in other ways.
The massive bitter MFA debates that happen every few months are all overblown to a truly absurd level. The idea that an MFA programs have completely warped American letters and all “dull diamonds” and “churn out a bunch of clones” is nonsense. An MFA is a few semesters of classes. It’s not a writer’s entire career. Your many years of reading and writing before an MFA (and of course after an MFA) are going to be far more influential to your (hopefully) decades-long career. And the tastes of the big publishers is often quite different than the tastes of MFA programs, something correctly pointed out in Chad Harbach’s famous MFA vs. NYC essay… not to mention the fact that the most popular authors are writing commercial fiction with little MFA influence.
Anyone who thinks MFA students all write the same simply hasn’t been to one. Anyone who thinks writers without MFAs are all wildly original simply hasn’t read submissions. (Most writers aren’t original, MFA or not.) On the flip side, there are so many MFA programs today that the career benefits are minimal. Go to an MFA for the dedicated time and space to write if you want to… and also if you want the degree to be able to teach. Don’t stress about it if you don’t.
Find a Program that Fits You
As noted, an MFA degree per se doesn’t necessarily get you anything. So when applying to programs, think about where you will thrive. MFAs run the gamut from low residency programs that meet in person rarely to full residency programs where you live on campus. Some MFAs admit as few as 2-6 students per genre per year, and others admit several dozen. Do you want to be a big city with a vibrant lit scene like NYC? Or do you want to be in a quiet college town and just focus on writing? Do you want a big class of peers or would you prefer a small intimate group? And, of course, figure out funding and if you can actually afford to attend.
Don’t Be Afraid to Climb the Ladder
Everyone wants to debut in the New Yorker or Paris Review and be an overnight sensation. Most of the time that doesn’t happen. Instead, most of us have to climb the ladder in whatever our field is. Publish in tier 3 lit mags until you have a reputation to make the tier 2 ones take notice. Freelance at small websites, then use those clips to pitch to bigger ones. Most people who end up in Granta or Lightspeed or The New York Times or [insert your favorite venue here] work their way up. If you wait around to debut in the biggest magazines, you may wait for forever.
But Also Don’t Think of it as a Ladder
Don’t get overly caught up in worrying about which “rungs” are above you. On one level, there is a hierarchy to publishing with certain magazines and presses having more prestige or paying higher rates. But on another level it doesn’t really work that way. A small indie press might really push your book while a major publisher might let it die on the vine. Small lit mags might provide opportunities that big ones don’t. A big name agent might be awful for you and end up stymieing your career while a young up-and-comer might make it soar. Focus on what helps you as an individual and fits your specific work.
Follow Your Opportunities and Evolving Interests
You may never know what opportunities will open up or where your interests might lead. Perhaps you got an MFA in poetry, but will end up being a movie critic. Maybe you wanted to write experimental literary novels, but end up writing weird science fiction (*looks around awkwardly*). Maybe you’ll be happier writing children’s books than memoirs, or editing at a big press instead of writing at all. I graduated from an MFA over a decade ago, and my peers have all gone on wildly different paths. The ones who are happiest, I think, embraced the opportunities that opened up to them.
Apply to Residencies/Fellowships/Grants (If You Can)
Some of my fondest memories and most productive writing times have come from writing residencies. There are residencies all over the country (and world) all with different set-ups and different lengths of stays. Obviously residencies are hard for many writers, especially parents of young children, but if you can swing a few weeks or months at a residency I highly recommend applying. Similarly, there are tons of fellowships of different sorts (some just give you money, others might require teaching, etc.) worth looking into. You might even make more money from fellowships, awards, and grants than you actually make from book sales. There are lots of resources for these things online, but as a starting point BOMB keeps a good list.
Embrace the Side Benefits
Writing is a lonely career with little money and no stability. We all know that. God, do we all know that. (Why are we doing it again?) Anyway, the misery of writing makes it important—again to the degree that you can—to embrace the unique side benefits of being a writer. You might not earn as much as your friend in corporate finance, but on the other hand you might be able to live in a country for free for several months as part of a residency (see above). Maybe you don’t have 401(k) matching like your family members with full time jobs, but at least your parties are better. So I say embrace the side benefits of being a writer. University appearances, book fairs, international writing festivals, art residencies, etc. Grab ahold of as many of the pleasures that the writing life offers up as you can.
Did I Mention Persistence?
Keep writing. Keep submitting. When you fail, move on. When you get rejected, move on. Keep at it. Persist, persist, persist. That’s all you can do.
And that’s what I’ve learned about being a professional writer. At least that comes to mind. Here are some other posts on these topics I’ve written that might be of interest:
If you have questions, pop them in the comment section below and I’ll try to reply! (And if you like posts like this and have some extra cash to spare, consider subscribing.)