Bob Bly Copywriter/Internet Marketing Strategist

Careers For Writers (VGM BOOKS)


CHAPTER ONE: THE WRITING BUSINESS: MY OWN STORY

Writing is an intensely personal act. Even when you're doing commercial work for an employer or client, you put a lot of yourself in your writing. So it's appropriate that I begin this book on making money as a writer with the story of how I got into the writing business. It will help you to see how writers end up becoming writers in real life. And maybe you can learn from my mistakes.

I didn't set out to be a writer. My earliest ambition was to be a pediatrician because I like children. In junior high, I enjoyed debating and thought I might become a lawyer.

In high school, my favorite subjects were chemistry, biology, and physics, and I decided to become a scientist.

I love books and always have. Throughout school I was a voracious reader. Ms. Shern, our sixth grade teacher, gave sweets as prizes to students who read the most books each week. I was a constant winner and therefore a slightly overweight eleven-year-old.

I didn't read all those books to win raspberry tarts, however. I just loved to read. And still do. I am a book person, "bookish," a bookworm.

Yet it never occurred to me to be a writer. Writers, to me, were artists starving in garrets. As a level-headed boy from a middle-class family in Fair Lawn, New Jersey, I favored going into a "real" profession--medicine, law, science, engineering.

In 1975, 1 graduated high school and began my freshman year at the University of Rochester. My major was chemistry. I was set to become a research scientist.

But a funny thing happened on the way to my degree. As I moved from the introductory to the advanced courses, my ability to see concepts, solve problems, and understand the material began to falter. I soon saw that I did not have the type of brain that would make for a successful scientist. I enjoyed the basics, but the complexities were beyond my grasp. I would always love science, but as a layperson, not a professional. I tell people today that my understanding of science is limited to how Carl Sagan and Isaac Asimov presented it, and no further.

But there I was, now a sophomore and without a clear career direction. Since I did not want to throw three semesters of science and math courses down the drain, I did something really stupid. I switched, without really understanding what I was doing, into the major most closely related to chemistry: chemical engineering.

I was mediocre at chemistry, but positively awful at chemical engineering. I had trouble with the mathematical problem solving and was inept at laboratory work. Worse, I was now "stuck" in a major aiming me toward a career for which I had no aptitude and little interest. My parents were unaware of my aimlessness or that I had gone so far off the track.

But two events happened around this time that ultimately set the direction for the rest of my working life.

The first is that I noticed I had an aptitude for writing. In our labs, we worked as a team: one student performed the experiment; one did the calculations and the graphs; the third wrote the report. I found the report writing was the only part of this I was good at and enjoyed. My instructors complimented my writing even as they criticized my ineptness at handling equipment. One in particular often engaged me in discussions of wording and style; I remember a long debate about the acceptability of beginning a sentence with the word "however." (He was against it. I was in favor of it. However, that's another story. . . .)

Based on this newfound interest, I tried writing short stories and got several published in the student literary magazine. One even got accepted by Galaxy, a science fiction magazine. But the magazine went out of business; I was never paid and the story was never published.

The second event happened in the school cafeteria, where I worked washing dishes The editor of the school paper came up to me and said, "I liked your stories in the literary magazine. Why don't you try writing for the school paper?"

I showed up the next day at the school paper offices, and that's where my real college education started. Although we were a small school, the newspaper was published daily, and there began my intensive training in writing.

Seeing my by-line in the school newspaper and magazine, and getting recognition from fellow students, thrilled me beyond anything that had happened to me until that time. I wasn't an athlete in high school, so never got the recognition and kudos many teenage boys do. But in writing, and getting my writing published, I found my identity, my calling, my satisfaction. I was hooked.

I began spending more and more time writing for the daily newspaper, less and less time at my chemical engineering studies. My grades slipped from dean's list to warning list, but I didn't care: I knew my vocational training was taking place at the newspaper, not in the classroom. Several science and engineering professors allowed me to write long papers to satisfy class requirements, and I thought I might become a science writer.

In fact, the public relations director of the university's laser fusion research laboratory noticed an article I wrote about the lab's work for the school paper and offered me a summer job as his assistant. However, he had the desire but neither the authority nor the budget to hire me, so nothing came of it. I was crushed. I spent the summer moving boxes in a warehouse.

By my senior year, I had developed a keen interest and some skill in writing. But I had gotten into it by accident; I had no clear career path. Although I had not studied journalism, I thought perhaps I could get a job as a newspaper reporter. My friend, the former editor-in-chief of our school paper, got me an interview with the Associated Press in Buffalo, New York.

Since I didn't have a car, I had to take the bus in the freezing dark on a snowy February morning. I was given a battery of tests by the editor. If I passed, I would be a junior reporter in the AP Buffalo Bureau.

Later, over the phone, the editor informed me: "You didn't get the job. Your writing was good, but not the best of those we interviewed. You were a little slow, taking too long to complete the essays; our reporters must be fast. You scored high on the intelligence test, but . . . you failed the spelling test."

Had I passed, I would have undoubtedly taken the job and enjoyed a career as a newspaper reporter. However, being rejected by the AP and not granted an interview at any other paper, I was to take a different path.

A Job Interview Pans Out

Toward the end of each school year, managers from major corporations seeking to hire engineers come on campus and interview the senior engineering majors. Having failed to get the writing job I wanted, I still needed to earn money to live and pay back my considerable student loans. I signed up for the interviews and decided to work as an engineer.

Here was a third turn of fate that landed me in my current writing career: Almost none of the companies wanted to hire me as an engineer. They saw clearly that I lacked the enthusiasm and knowledge of the subject my classmates had.

During the interview, recruiters asked about extracurricular activities, and I talked energetically of my work on the school newspaper, of which I had become features editor, and school magazine, of which I had become editor-in-chief. One recruiter said to me after an interview, "You know, you sound as if you are not that interested in engineering but really like to write. Our company hires technical writers, and with your combined background in engineering and writing, you sound like you would be good for the job. Would you like to interview with hiring managers at a couple of our plants?"

I was amazed. It had never occurred to me that the same manufacturing companies that were hiring my classmates as engineers would also pay me a salary to be a writer for them. In fact, I didn't really know what a technical writer did. I was soon to find out.

I interviewed at two different Westinghouse facilities. The first, in Pennsylvania, was a factory that made nuclear plants. The place was rather drab and industrial- looking. The manager needed to add another person to a group of technical writers who wrote instruction manuals for nuclear power plants the company built. He said, "I have to warn you; these manuals are pretty dry stuff. Are you sure this is what you want to do with your life?"

I went into the room where the technical writers worked. Each sat at a desk writing in longhand or typing copy. They looked bored and I'm sure were. It was hot and musty, and you couldn't see out the windows, which were high up the wall.

The manager offered me the job at a salary of $18,500, which was pretty good for 1979 and almost as much as I would have made as an engineer (most of my classmates were starting at $20,000). But I didn't take it. Aside from the boredom factor, I noticed that all employees wore special badges to measure the amount of radiation they were exposed to daily. While I was assured that the levels were safe, the fact that my radiation exposure would be monitored was a turn-off. I turned the job down.

My second interview was at the Westinghouse Defense Center in Baltimore, Maryland. The area was suburban and clean, the facility modern and cheery.

The manager who interviewed me, Terry C. Smith, seemed enthusiastic, creative, and happy in his work. Terry was interested in my writing and asked to see my articles from the school paper. After I showed him my clippings, Terry told me that he had written a book, a copy of which he proudly pulled off his bookshelf to show me. Its title was How to Write Better and Faster, and it was published in hardcover by Thomas Crowel. I was in the presence of a real author--and duly impressed!

I felt I wanted to work for Terry Smith. He had written a book about writing and could teach me a lot. Also, the writing I would be doing, while technical, seemed more interesting than the nuclear power plant manuals. Terry's department, marketing communications, produced brochures, trade show displays, videotapes, and other promotions used in the marketing of Westinghouse's weapons and defense systems. In contrast to the drab nuclear manual, Terry's group produced colorful, attractive publications.

Terry offered me a job at $16,000. 1 felt this was too low, given what I could earn as an engineer. In between the Westinghouse interviews, I had my one successful interview for an engineering position, and was offered a job as a quality engineer with IBM in up-state New York for $20,000. 1 told Terry of my other offers, and said I could not take the job for less than $18,500. He offered me the $18,500, and I immediately accepted. And that's how I got my first paying job as a writer.

After less than a year with Westinghouse, Mike Mutsakis, a product manager with Koch Engineering, a manufacturer of chemical equipment, called. Mike had also offered me a job out of college, but I felt I could learn more from Terry, and went with Westinghouse. Mike had never filled the position and was convinced I was the right person--apparently, he had difficulty finding writers with chemical engineering degrees. Mike flew me to New York City for an interview and offered me $27,000 plus perks I didn't have at Westinghouse, such as a private office. I also liked the idea of moving to Manhattan. I accepted.

In addition to writing brochures and technical papers, at Koch I was responsible for administering the company's advertising and trade show activities. I liked Koch Engineering, but began to grow bored and dissatisfied for a number of reasons. When the new company president asked me to move to the manufacturing headquarters in Wichita, Kansas, I decided to resign and try free-lancing.

My parents thought I was nuts to give up a high-paying corporate job for the uncertainties of free-lancing. And maybe they were right. But I was young, single, and without financial responsibilities. Although not a risk taker by nature, I went for it. In February 1982, I began to promote myself as a free-lance copywriter and technical writer.

The first year, I earned $39,000 in gross income--more than my engineering firm salary, which had risen to $29,500. However, Manhattan has an astronomical cost of living, and so I lived very modestly. I didn't own a car, and I lived and worked in a one-room studio apartment.

By the way, the best financial advice I ever heard for writers comes from Florida editor David Kohn, who says, "Live below your means." As a writer, you may enjoy a handsome income, or your earnings may be modest. If your overhead is low, you can live nicely on a lower income and not feel constantly pressured to earn more.

The next year I made over $80,000. After that, I was delighted and surprised that I always grossed well in excess of $100,000 a year. Through a series of happy accidents, I had become a full-time free-lance writer, earning my living exclusively through my writing.