Wednesday, January 07, 2009

How I became a writer

I have had many people over the years ask me how I became a freelance writer. Many people seem to be interested in getting into this line of work but aren't sure how you go about doing it.

Since I am retiring my current post any day now, I thought it time to share my secret. (That's a joke. As you'll read in this post, there really is no secret.)

I did decide, however, then I should blog what I can tell you about this line of work and how I got into it, so that in the future, when friends contact me (or friends of friends contact me as is often the case) and ask me how I became a "writer", I can just point them to the post instead of restating the little I do know over again.

So, how I became a writer . . . where shall I begin? (Oh, and by the way, that picture was taken at my job at the Mayo Clinic where I worked next to my buddy Char. I miss her!)

First of all, my major in college was English writing. My minor was Journalism Education. I always loved to write. Honestly as far back as first grade I have memories of writing stories for my teachers. Plays, poems, the newspaper, the yearbook. Anything I could write, I did. Somehow my parents obtained an old manual typewriter for me when I was really young. I used to sit in front of that thing for hours and type stories. Eventually, my Dad got a computer in his office and during his practices (he was a coach), I would sit and type.

I truly believe it is all those days of typing stories that I never finished set the groundwork for my typing skills today. The last time I was tested, I could type 130 words a minute. It has made my job/s much easier and quicker. Being able to type fast is incredibly helpful, especially when conducting phone interviews. I put my headset on and start typing away as the interviewee talks. Sometimes I record a call, but oftentimes, I just type.

So anyways, being as I loved to write but not knowing what I could do with that skill without a real job, I got into teaching -- a profession I had always wanted to be a part of. I taught High School English and was also the newspaper advisor at Franklin-Simpson High School (FSHS) in Kentucky from 1999-2003. I truly loved working at FSHS. Writing was definitely my specialty. I taught literature, but it was teaching writing that I felt I was good at. I loved my job in Kentucky. I also coached basketball as an assistant and was the head volleyball coach as well an advisor for the Fellowship of Christian Athletes (FCA).

From there, we moved to Minnesota. I taught one year at St. Charles High School in Minnesota. Unfortunately, it was during that year that we became aware of our infertility issue. Daily appointments, a thirty minute drive, terrible weather, and quite honestly, dealing with kids outside of the "Bible Belt" of Kentucky left me emotionally drained. I specifically remember the day I decided to resign. It was one student saying one thing that was just the final straw. I remember she said something negative about God. I remember I picked up the phone and called JB and asked him I could quit. That night over dinner I made the decision to resign from teaching. I turned in my resignation letter the next day. I finished out the school year of course. I also surprised and disappointed a lot of people. But I just knew that I needed to do it. I needed to put the stress of teaching behind me and focus on my marriage and our infertility issues.

The same day I turned in my resignation letter, I received an email from the principal of a neighboring school. He had interviewed me and planned to offer me a job when I had accepted the Saint Charles position. He asked if I would consider coming to his school. A few weeks later, the principal of my current school asked if I would consider taking a different position at the school I was at. I turned down both offers. It was time to do something new.

But what was that new thing I should do? I honestly had no idea what I would do if I didn't teach. But here's what I did know. I had to find something less stressful. I didn't care how much money I made. I just couldn't teach anymore. Not for awhile at least. I was completely and utterly burnt out. In addition, JB was in medical school -- a time-intensive investment. I wanted to be around more to spend time with him.

So I started applying for other positions. I applied to be the assistant director of my church's pre-school. They had over 400 children and were in need of someone to back up the director. At the same time, I applied at any job at Mayo Clinic I could find that was anything I could remotely see myself doing.

I sent in a resume to dozens of job openings at Mayo but only got one interview at Mayo Clinic with one physician. That was, thankfully, all I needed. He offered me the job to be his administrative assistant and work 24 hours a week for him. On the same day I was offered the job at my church's pre-school. It was full-time. I knew taking the full-time position made more sense. But I could also see that it wouldn't be too different from being a teacher. It would be more stress and also a longer commute everyday. So, not knowing how I would fill the other 16 hours in my week, I accepted the job at Mayo Clinic with Dr. K. in Cardiovascular Research.

Shortly after accepting this position, I was called by the RLS Foundation to come in for an interview. I told them I had already taken a 24-hour-a-week job, but they said I should come in anyway. I had applied for a receptionist position at their organization weeks if not months earlier after I saw a newspaper advertisement. However, they told me at my interview that they didn't understand why I was applying to be a receptionist with a Bachelor's Degree. "I want a job that I do not take home with me," I explained. "I do not want to be stressed out. I don't want to dread going into work on Mondays." They asked me if I'd consider doing some writing for them instead. They needed someone 16 hours a week! I had two jobs equalling 40 hours. Hurrah! God had totally ordained my steps.

Two days later I was offered another job at Sylvan Learning Centers tutoring students in the evenings. I turned that job down and felt very content with my two writing positions. Sylvan was interesting to me but working in the evenings was not something I wanted to do.

My job at Mayo was, originally, strictly administrative. I did a lot of scheduling, filing, organizing, etc. But as my boss and I learned each other, he learned what I was capable of and the job began to turn into that of an Editorial Assistant. I did a lot of PowerPoint and Endnote, and edited his manuscripts, letters, and other publications. I liked the mix of Editorial and Administrative work. It really kept my days varied.

My job at RLSF was really focused on writing from the beginning. However, I was not closed to the idea of doing other things as they arose. If they asked me to venture into an area not strictly writing related, I usually agreed. I simply wanted to get paid for 40 hours a week and not be stressed. And I was getting just that.

In addition, RLSF was three blocks from our Condo. My job at Mayo was three blocks in the other direction from our Condo. I could walk to work, both of my "works" each day. Both jobs were very flexible in working around my weekly, if not daily, infertility appointments. Both jobs let me occasionally work from home as the need would arise as well. As time went on, I would simply make a schedule each week based on what each organization needed. Sometimes I worked full days, sometimes I worked half days.

Our Condo building was mostly senior citizens. One day, Lesley J. and I learned that there was an older lady in the Penthouse who was in need of help each evening removing her compression hose. It sounds like a very small thing, and it was, but to her, it was something that could prevent her from living independently. Lesley and I each took a few nights a week and would go up to the penthouse to help Mrs. R. with her hose.

I soon learned that Mrs. R. was quite a prominent figure in the community. She had helped establish a reading center in town and was very involved with education. One day, she showed me her picture on the front of Rochester Women magazine. She gave me a copy. I brought it down to my condo, read the article, and then sat it on my endtable.

Two days later I hosted a baby shower. One of the ladies that showed up at the shower was an English teacher I worked with at St. Charles. She wrote for Rochester Women and was friends with the Editor. She encouraged me to email the Editor and share some of my writing with her.

I did. I simply shot her an email, told her I was interested, and attached a few samples of things I had written. These were mostly pieces for RLSF -- human interest pieces. She hired me for their next issue. I started writing freelance pieces for nearly every issue.

It was through that magazine that the Editor of The Wedding Magazine in Rochester got my name. Could I help her with some pieces for the bi-annual publication? Yes I could.

Through Rochester Women I also got a great job (or so I thought) writing scripts for a real estate company that did online video home tours. This is a sore subject as they owed me almost $500 when they went out of business. Lesson learned: don't keep writing when you haven't been paid for what you already wrote. That was quite a bummer for me. I really enjoyed this writing as I could take it if I wanted or turn it down if I didn't. Unfortunately, the economy got a hold of them very early on.

When we got word in 2007 that we would be heading to Eglin AFB in Florida, I had no idea what I would do for a living when I arrived. I had thought I would be a stay-at-home Mom half a decade ago. I never dreamed I'd still be working. But I was. And now, with no motherhood in sight, I had to start thinking about working in Florida. I didn't want to get back into teaching despite the fact that I had kept my license up-to-date. I wanted to do something flexible so I could be off when JB was off.

RLSF immediately offered to allow me to continue my work from home in Florida. Hurrah! We agreed on about 30 hours a week, and JB and I decided that this would be enough work for our family. However, my boss at Mayo jumped on the bandwagon and asked if I would consider telecommuting for him as well. Okay. I dropped RLSF to 20 hours a week, gave Mayo 20, and moved to Florida with my jobs completely intact. Another amazing blessing!

When Isaac arrived, I resigned from Mayo. And when Elijah arrives, I will retire from RLSF. I did continue writing for The Wedding Magazine, but Rochester Women only hires local writers (of which I no longer was), so that position was behind me. I also decided not to look for more writing locally in Florida as I was quite busy with my other work. Once Elijah gets here, I have decided to take at least six months off of basically any writing. I need some time to adjust to two little babies.

All right, so that is my writing story. The problem is, when offering advice, is that I didn't really pursue writing as a vocation. It just sort of happened. It is for that reason that I truly don't have a lot of "wisdom" to pass on regarding how to get into writing. I don't feel like I am an overly skilled writer. I just can write and the right jobs, thanks to the Lord, fell into my lap.

But here is what I can offer you in regards to the profession:
  • People are willing to pay people to do what they cannot do. Writing is a skill that some people just canNOT do they are therefore forced to pay someone to do it. Why can't that someone be you?
  • Non-profit organizations are great places to start. These organizations often have a lot of "small" things that need to be written and edited: their website, newsletters, brochures, etc. Their budget may be limited, but they often can afford to pay something.
  • Online is another great place to look. There are quite a few websites that offer writing jobs for a bid. Some of these you have to pay for. Some are free. I would never pay to get a writing job. I just wouldn't do it. The only exception is the possibility of posting a newspaper classified. Otherwise, I'd avoid it. Go to the free sites and see what you can find.
  • If you live in a college town, students need their papers edited. Put an advertisement in one of their student publications. I know my friend Melissa did this and I inherited at least one of her clients that she was too busy for.
  • Any local area has a local magazine, a local website, a local newspaper. These are great places to seek employment. They may not pay that great, but they will get your foot in the door. The writing community in most communities is a network. People quickly share names as Rochester Women did with The Wedding Magazine. Don't hit the big time papers, but find the small "Mom and Pop" establishments and start writing!
  • Keep everything you write in college and for any publications you can get. People like to see samples and sometimes their requests for samples are specific. You want to have a large pool to draw from.
  • Don't be afraid to do some free writing in the beginning to help you get a sample pool. A great place for this is a local church or volunteer organization. Volunteer your time (I did this for our church's women's newsletter). Not only is volunteering good, but you can get some samples and make some contacts at the same time.

So there you have it. Like I said, my story is not anything flashy. It's a simple story and my advice is rather limited. But hopefully, this will provide some insight for other people hoping to get into the writing field.


AW said...

Wendi, I love this. Thank you for sharing your story. I've always been envious of your jobs, as I too, love to write! I was on the school paper in HS all four years and always did very well in any writing class. I always said that when I grow up I want to write. Well, blogland doesn't pay that well, but at least I get to continue what I love doing. Maybe someday the Lord will open writing doors for me, like He did with you. Thank you for giving me hope!

TAV said...

i want to retire from residency and be a freelance reader (particularly, of your writing) :)

Blessed Blackman Bunch said...

WOW! Cool to know. You write wonderfully. :)

Anonymous said...

These were the most helpful to me:

God had totally ordained my steps.

and the idea of having lots of examples to draw on -so volunteering -that was helpful!

...I love how the Lord orchestrates our lives when we are seeking Him. He loves us so much!

i love you too!

Ashley said...

I am so glad I have found your blog! Emily Dillard and I are good friends and I keep up with her blog pretty regularly. She asked me one day if I remembered Coach K. because I too went to FSHS and you were my English teacher my sophomore year. She told me that she loved reading yours because you always have encouraging words and great wisdom. So, I too have started keeping up with your blog and love reading it!!! Keep them coming!