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Tuesday, December 12, 2017

THE WRITE STUFF

   After 30+ years in this weird, wonderful industry, I’ve pinpointed an undeniable, common thread running through every professional writer:
   They all started out as amateur writers.
   The other day I was doing some mundane grocery shopping when a 20-something recognized me. "Hey, how do I get started?"
   Other than, "How in the heck do you land Sybil?!", it's the question I've been asked more than any other over my career. My answer, invariably, is simple:
   Start writing.
   You’ll likely need a couple breaks to become a professional writer – a friend of a friend already in the business or perhaps just being at the right place at the right time. But something you can’t short-cut is the act of writing. Again. Again. And some more again. If you don’t love it - and if you haven’t done a lot of it - you might as well attempt to open a Lemonade Stand without a single lemon.
   Yes, the demonstrated ability to consistently observe, opine and write is your currency. It's your product. Your main asset.
   So now that I’ve totally empowered you, go get ‘em! Good luck and never give up and … Oh, my story? Well, sure okay.
   Allow me to, um, write it for you.
   No way around it, I was born with the tools essential for writing – creativity, curiosity and a vivid imagination. Mom says I often stretch the truth yet I simply rebut that characterization, based on the fact that she herself has a vivid imagination. While my younger brother would merely dab some peanut butter between two slices and enjoy lunch, I’d get out a piece of paper and spin a yarn about how exactly it came to be that Mrs. Baird herself happened to deliver a loaf of bread to our house. I dunno, somehow it made my sandwich taste better.
   Meanwhile, Dad led me into sports as soon as I could walk. I was always fascinated by big words, which facilitated a decent vocabulary and, voila, my foundation as a writer. So when did I begin?
   When I was about 7 years old I’d go in the backyard with my baseball glove and a tennis ball (I initially used a real baseball, but one shattered window later I involuntarily downsized the danger). I’d throw that ball off the side of the house, off the roof, off the barbecue grill, off the neighbor’s latticework. All the while producing a running commentary in my head, as if watching real baseball players throwing, hitting and fielding.
   After an hour or so I’d go inside and write the story of the “game” I’d just played.
   Hello, amateur writer.
   In high school I idolized Isiah Thomas and Bjorn Borg. But despite my finely-tuned vivid imagination, I eventually realized my 5-foot-8 frame wouldn’t be garnering me millions of dollars playing sports. So, I reasoned, why not get paid instead to go to games writing sports?
   I grew up reading Blackie Sherrod in the Dallas Morning News, Skip Bayless in the Dallas Times Herald and Rick Reilly and Gary Smith in Sports Illustrated. I was the editor of my high-school newspaper in Duncanville, majored in Journalism at UT-Arlington and, upon graduating in 1986, landed an entry-level job at the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. (My first assignment was to write a story about a sport I had barely heard of and never seen or attended - Dallas Sidekicks indoor soccer. Imagination, activate!) I’ve been writing – for newspapers, magazines, blogs, books and even radio and TV websites since.
   And, yes, I’m the dork who will still – in lieu of buying a gift – simply write a poem or a story for a friend’s, or my wife’s birthday or special occasion. (Trust me fellas, that trick will come in handy.)
   To me there’s nothing as rewarding as writing. The feeling after nailing a story is the equivalent of a runner’s high. The process of having a thought, processing and refining it in your brain and through your creative filters, bringing it to life through your fingertips, and then having a total stranger both read it and “get it”? Priceless.
   It’s the reason I write.
   So you’re willing to write. On your own time. With zero compensation, for now. But at some point you’ll want to advance your hobby into job, and hopefully a career. From my experience, here are a few things to consider:
   Be Your Own Boss – If you’re resourceful and organized and motivated, you can make a decent living as a freelance writer. Get on the Internet and search job posts. “Writing Jobs” is a simple, solid search to begin with. Spend an entire day doing it. Maybe two. Make a list of contacts. You’ll be pleasantly surprised at how many websites, blogs, magazines, etc. have a need for unique, original content. No matter fast and far our communication advances, content remains king. Every platform - whether it be cute 140-character takes to long-form 14,000-word exposes - needs fuel to run its engine. And that fuel is content, written by - tuh-dah! - writers.
   You can write about sports, food, electronics, concerts, the likelihood of a major earthquake taking down Dallas. Anything. And you should write about them all, as long as you don’t compromise your quality with too much quantity. Individually, each gig won’t make you rich. But cumulatively, you’ll be able to keep the lights on. The great thing about freelancing is that you’ll also be honing your skills, building your portfolio and making invaluable contacts in the literary world.
   Don’t Hire An Agent – Unless you are an accomplished writer looking to move to a new city (like say, ahem, Hollywood), my experience is that it’s not worth it. Nobody knows you better than you. And nobody will fight harder for you, than you.
   Pay Your Dues – If you’d rather wedge your foot into the door of a newspaper than try to go it alone, it’s doable as well. Most publications accept interns and there are certainly entry-level, fresh-outta-college jobs. Just be prepared to get coffee in the morning and to cover wacky, irrelevant assignments at night. At the Star-Telegram my rookie year included writing stories about a darts tournament, a high-school power-lifting meet and even a tractor pull. But within three years I was at Texas Stadium covering Cowboys games. Was it worth it? You know that answer. When initially commencing your career, nothing is more valuable than sweat equity.
   Degrees of Experience – I loved my college years and I wouldn’t trade my UTA education. Obviously I’d recommend working at your college newspaper and earning a degree in Journalism. A degree will open a lot of doors. But, honestly, you can trump that piece of paper with a quality portfolio of your writing. Most of my editors have cherished experience over education.
   Pad Your Portfolio – Blogs, websites, magazines, etc. are looking for versatility. You'll open more eyes - and doors - if you can write both copy (scripts, ads, marketing brochures, etc.) and content (blogs, stories, features, etc.). The more topics you can write about, the better your chance of landing a gig. So fill your portfolio with variety: Long-form stories. Short featurettes. Opinion pieces. Poems. Maybe even your favorite Tweet.
   Popularity Contest – If you’re a freelancer, it can be difficult to achieve a very important goal en route to becoming a successful writer: Building an audience. These days you can do this via Facebook with some intriguing posts and corresponding “Likes.” But I recommend starting your own blog. I know, but hear me out. It’s cheaper – and easier – than you think. It looks great on a resume. And it’s a way to earn a following of fans that dig what you’re delivering. Don’t go into with grandiose, irrational visions. Just write what you’re passionate about, shove it out via your social media and watch the saplings sprout into Redwoods. Yep, that’s how it starts. Who knows, maybe that blog – at first just a vehicle to tote your writing – will develop and mature into the career you were searching for in the first place.
   Dream Of Success, Prepare For Rejection – One of the most important arrows in your quiver is a thick skin. You will get rejected. You will write horrible stories. You will make embarrassing typos. Writing isn’t for the faint of heart or fragile of ego. Learn from your mistakes. Experiment with your style. Stay true to your passion.
   Because, after all, the best part about amateur writers?
   They grow up to be professional writers.

6 comments:

  1. Love reading your work, even if it's about.....your work!!! (hahahha)

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  2. Richie,,, always love reading your blogs,,, even the ones I disagree on,,,no matter what side of the fence I land on, after reading your piece,, it always leaves me thinking,,,""how in the world did you convince sybil to marry you"",,,..just kidding,,..actually I think,,, somebody, or some affiliate is making a grave mistake,,, you should be back on the radio airwaves , doing afternoon drive.......best of luck to you, and family,,,...thank you

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  3. Richie, as a former "ink stained wretch" your advice was spot on and I join those who appreciate your writing, even when you're wrong.

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