You want to be a writer? Let’s talk about it.

Matt Zhang

I’m happy we had the time to sit down and talk. What’s on your mind?

I’m in college now and I want to be a writer.

Wow, that’s great. What kind of writer?

Well, I like writing both fiction and nonfiction, and I want to make a living writing books.

Awesome. I’ll be honest, it’s pretty hard to make a living writing fiction — way too much talent chasing too little opportunity. And to be fair, I don’t really know that much about fiction writing. So let’s talk about nonfiction.


Let’s start with your major. What are you majoring in?


Ah, the classic choice. But not really the best if you want to make a living doing nonfiction writing. Nonfiction writing is writing that accomplishes a goal. That means you should be getting practice doing writing that accomplishes a practical goal — and that’s not what classes in English tend to be focused on.

The other problem is that analyzing literature is not what you’re going to be doing out in the working world. The stilted, bloated, and passive language that works in English lit classes is not the kind of practice that will help you succeed. I’ve had to train that tendency out of students over and over in the working world.

Wow, that’s a brutal takedown. What would you suggest?

Major in an area that requires writing and aligns with your interests. For example, business, marketing, political science, or journalism.

Ah, I’m sure I could pick one of those. Just so long as I don’t need to write a lot of papers. I hate writing papers.

Well, writing in the working world has a lot in common with writing papers. So perhaps you’ll need to get over that.

When I write papers I typically wait until the last possible day, then pull an all-nighter and do a lot of cutting and pasting and as little rewriting as needed to avoid the plagiarism checkers. I’m good with words, so I can get away with that.

That’s a pretty poor process for a practical writer. If you want your writing practice in college to prepare you for writing in the real world, you’re better off setting aside time for research, ideation, and rewriting.

Rewriting is a pain. I hate going back over my words.

Rewriting based on feedback is fundamental for working writers. If you can take classes that allow you to revise your work based on feedback from professors or peers, you’ll learn more quickly. And those papers will be something you can share and be proud of when they ask for writing samples.

I guess so. Sounds like work.

Writing is work. Speaking of work, what kind of work did you imagine yourself doing?

I’m not sure. What do writers in the real world do?

Well, if you’re not a journalist — and those jobs are hard to come by — you’ll probably be writing “content” for a company. That means you’ll be writing blog posts, technical documentation, newsletters, research reports, promotional emails, ad copy, press releases, web copy, that sort of thing.

Isn’t that boring?

Not if you come at it with the right attitude. You’re telling stories. You’re researching facts. You’re often writing about people — either people within your own company, or your company’s customers. You’re providing advice. You’re narrating the truth (at least if you are ethical) in a way that is supposed to benefit people.

I could get my head around that. But I want to write books. How do I do that?

You need two things to write books. First, you need to have something to say. Living in the working world for a while will give you the experiences to have a knowledgeable point of view on that. And second, you need to become good at writing. For that, you’ll want to gain a lot of experience writing just about anything in a corporate setting. A job with a lot of writing in it will help with both.

What else would it help with?

Well, you’ll learn to work collaboratively. You’ll learn to address, and eventually give, feedback in the form of edits. You’ll see what it takes to promote good writing so that more people can see it. And you’ll develop skills with all the different tools for print-formatted writing and web writing and social media writing. That’s all useful for any writer, and eventually, any author.

How long will it take until I can write books?

That’s hard to say. But it will take a lot less time if you start now. Point your trajectory in the direction of learning the skills a writer needs, in college and at work. Not only will you learn what you need to know . . . but if you really love writing, you’ll also love a lot of your work. The destination is important. But the journey is, too. Good luck!

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One Comment

  1. Such a pervasive attitude: “Writing isn’t really work, after all, so I’ll become a writer and have instant fame and riches. But I don’t want to have to actually write. That’s too much work. Why should I have to learn the business to be successful? Why can’t I just lean back and let the dollars roll in? Isn’t that what writers do?”

    So much of it really does boil down to changing one’s attitude toward the profession. Considering the work of writing drudgery as opposed to a challenge to be met and mastered will never make one a successful writer. (Personally, I love revision – it’s exciting to find new nuggets to incorporate into the story, that flesh out the story’s framework and give it depth.)