Last week's commentary on becoming a full time freelancer was about setting reasonable expectations at the start. This week I want to talk about a piece of advice every aspiring writer hears at one point or another.
So, Lesson Number Two in How to Become a Full Time Freelancer: What do you know--not that it's really all that important.
One of the most common piece of advice beginning writers hear is write what you know. To some extent, that makes sense. After all, if the closest you ever came to understanding a particle accelerator is watching coins disappear down a spiral coin wishing well funnel,
you may find it tough to explain what happens inside the Large Hadron Collider. (And what all the fuss was about -- Some kind of fear that black holes would suck up our world and everything in it from the inside out.)
But why would you try? Well let's see. My first writing paycheck was for $35 from United Way for an article I did for them on the Arthritis Foundation to use in their annual campaign. It had something to do with new treatments and helping people learn about them so they could make informed, competent decisions. My second pay check was also for $35, again from United Way, for an article about a program from the Diabetes Association to help people understand the importance of controlling blood sugar levels.
I had been a political science major before dropping out of college and going into restaurant work. I knew nothing about health care or medicine or managing chronic diseases. But the editor liked the pieces and I had my first professional credits. The key is, I did know something. I knew how to find out what I needed to know, and I knew how to ask questions and listen to the answers; so I could interview people and get the information I needed to write the piece the editor had asked for. In a sense, I did write what I knew. I knew how to learn and I wrote what I had learned.
Now there's all kinds of caveats attached to that. Notice, I wasn't writing for an audience of doctors. And I wasn't writing patient education pamphlets. I've done both those things multiple times throughout my career, but there was no way I could learn enough in a short period of time when I first started out.
So there are really two lessons to learn here. The first is that a would be writer cannot be handcuffed to the admonition to write only what you know. If that's all you do, you'll have a very small niche in the writing world indeed. And will you become a writer? Probably not. You'll be a barista who writes articles about double mocha lattes. Or a rocket scientist who knows how to make space travel interesting to audiences who read your occasional articles in Discover. But you'll always be a writer second.
A writer is someone who knows words and knows language and gets turned on by using both well (and by seeing other people do the same thing). A writer is someone who is curious about a lot of different things, and knows ways to satisfy that curiosity--how to research, who to ask, and what to ask in order to get the right information to share with readers.
That's not to say a writer doesn't specialize. For the last 13 or 14 years, I've made a good living writing about and editing works on health and health care for both health professionals and health consumers. And even though articles about health was what I got paid for when I first started, this one time college drop out glorified waiter and bartender wrote articles about beekeeping, running public parks, building a career as ceramic engineer, opening a general store, how books are bought for the library, subversive curriculum, literacy, writing a collaborative novel.
My first article in a national publication was about crepes. Even though I had worked in restaurants, I had never done anything with crepes (except for crepe suzette). But I was curious, and I created 20 crepe recipes. I even took pictures of the dishes and got paid for the photos. It wasn't that long after the Arthritis Foundation piece. And it made me feel really good about what I could do.
Now the second big caveat (the first was don't let yourself be limited by what you know) is know your limitations. For those of you who are still with me, lesson three will be The Great Hotel Fiasco--Don't bite off more than you can chew. (I'll tell you about my first real failure.)