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What Kind of Writer Do You Want to Be?

by Terje Johansen

New writers looking for a career do not always realise just how many paths there are to choose within the writing field. It is easy to see the writer's role in the production of a book or a newspaper, but writers are present in practically all types of scripted activities for public viewing -- be it the evening news, the morning cartoons or political speeches. Of course, most writers find it necessary to do more than one type of writing! The art of shaping words is employed in an incredible number of job types.

Academic writers are all those who write for scientific journals, university magazines etc. They are basically article writers and/or book writers, but unlike most other writers they don't write for money directly. The thing about academic magazines is that being published with them is considered an honour; there's no other pay for it. The reason those writers fight to get in is that being published there furthers their academic career; indirectly those articles help them keep their jobs as teachers, professors and/or scientists. The articles and/or books published are results of years of studies within the writers' field, and can make or break careers. Aspiring writers should steer away from this type of work: Leave it to the academics.

Article writers include all the non-fiction writers who do short pieces on specific themes, topics or news items. Travel writers, food writers, medical writers; these are all specialists on their topic and usually write for many magazines. Article writers can be freelancers or staff writers; what they have in common is the ability to write articles in a concise and crisp language. The market for well-written articles is vast, both on and off the Internet. Experienced and highly regarded writers with a deeply specialised knowledge (medicine, bleeding-edge technologies, international shipping, shares etc.) can make a very good living in commercial, pro-level magazines.

Business writers are those writers who work for the commercial business magazines and newspapers for high-income readers. It's like any other type of article writing except for strict demands to language skills and relevant business knowledge; the readers are cutting-edge professionals and the writers must be on roughly the same level -- or better. Business writing is done both by freelancers and staff writers, but not by amateurs. Business writing is considered well paid work, and there are many markets both on and off line.

Columnists typically make their living by following and commenting on trends rather than news. Columns are a staple item in newspapers, magazines and newsletters. The better class of columnists is syndicated, and their columns can appear in hundreds of newspapers. Writing a new article every week for the same column can be a challenge, though! In larger newspapers and magazines there often are staff journalists with an established name who provide the regular columns.

Copywriters are among the best-paid writers in the whole business. All marketing is written in order to sell something and normally a good marketing text ('copy') sells more products than a mediocre text, so good copywriters get paid well. There's little public fame to find in this line of writing, but being known and respected among the professionals in this line truly comes down to cash. Copywriters' most valuable virtue is the ability to evoke interest and enthusiasm about a product while retaining the readers' trust. A dollar or more per word is quite attainable for average freelancers, and many copywriters are staff writers in marketing bureaus.

Erotica writers usually prefer to be anonymous, but it's hard to beat the more expensive erotic magazines for payment; being paid up to a dollar per word for short stories is not to be sneered at. Writing erotica requires a suitably lurid imagination, a not too coarse language, knowing the handful of standard plots and formulaic scripts that most erotic stories follow, and a knack for not getting easily bored. Many well known writers have a past as writers of erotica, although most of them will be reluctant to admit in later and more publicly successful years. Like other storywriters they mostly work as freelancers; book writers may work with only one publisher, and even on contract with advance royalties if they are really good. The main customers, naturally, are erotic magazines.

Freelance writers are by definition all those writers who do not make their living of one fulltime writing engagement. The term isn't usually used about novelists, though, even if they write for several publishers. Being a freelance writer has a lot to offer in terms of freedom; you can work when you like and as much as you like, combine your writing with parenting or take breaks for long vacations. That sort of thing tends to affect your income a lot, however. Many beginning writers will find freelancing work a lot easier to get than staff writing positions, but only veterans working full time can make a decent living from it.

Game Writers are a specialised kind of screenwriter. They write the plots, create the characters and describe the surroundings in general terms, and also write the dialogue used in the game. Unlike many other types of writing this is done in close cooperation with a team. The programmers and artists must be involved from the start to ensure that the game not only will be possible to create, but also that the mechanisms vital to any game are provided: playability, action curves, smoothness and the necessary distance from the other current games in the genre. Hardcore gamers spend a lot of money on games, but demand a lot of the games -- and of the game plots. Larger game companies have staff writers, but most of the small studios selling game prototypes to the big companies engage freelancers for this. The latter typically pays in terms of royalties, which means that if the project fails there's no pay. Writing games is fun and highly creative work, but the quickly changing demands of the project team leads to rapid and incessant rewrites. Writers can earn well, once they have a couple of successes behind them -- but the success depends on the entire team succeeding.

Ghostwriters are an anonymous but quite large subgroup of book writers. Like speechwriters, they have specialised in writing for other people as if they were these persons. The customers are primarily business leaders and/or people with a high media profile. In order to write these books the writer must plan the book with the customer, perform a number of interviews with the same, do research on the book's topic (in order to understand it) and be able to capture some of the customer's writing style. The work is challenging, requires substantial people skills and much patience -- considerable rewrites are often necessary. Naturally, the ghostwriter is obliged not to reveal his or her work in the book. Depending on the customer's media profile, the work can be from mediocre to very well paid. This is not an easy market to break into.

Grant writers are copywriters in a class of their own. Their specialised skill is how to write applications for grants from governmental and private institutions that hand out cash for various purposes. This type of writing normally requires substantial knowledge of law and business language. Since the decision of the grantgiver is based on this application and if positive will reap a large financial result, successful grant writers tend to be paid extremely well. Many grant writers are lawyers by profession. Large institutions that base their income on grants will employ grant writers as staff writers, but there is definitely a place for freelancers in the business if they have the necessary deep knowledge of philantrophia.

Journalists are a mixed group of writers. They are the writers read by the most people; working in the national and local newspapers and magazines that are read every day by millions of people. Working as a journalist in a newspaper or magazine staff normally requires a college degree in journalism, but there's often a place even in those staffs for people with a nose for news and the skills to communicate them effectively. The one unbreakable rule: Keep the deadlines. The problem with writing news articles is that the works normally are outdated fast and can't be resold. It can be helped somewhat by turning each news item into several articles. Many journalists are freelancers, who live by the quality of their work rather than their school papers. Full time and experienced journalists are usually able to make a living; part-timers can make a respectable side income.

Nonfiction book writers are a large group of writers that includes academic and technical writers as well as people with even more enthusiasm than writing skills. What they have in common is the ability to take a large chunk of information within a specialised field and turn it into a systematic and readable text that will leave the reader satisfied after reading it. Non-fiction book writing is pretty much like article writing in that it requires fact checking and research, no matter if it is a deep political analysis or an account of a historical event. Non-fiction books can be written for love, money or both; what matters is that the writer has sufficient knowledge of what he writes about. Non-fiction is usually written in co-operation with a publisher; the publisher is usually quite willing in helping to plan the book outline. As regular non-fiction book writers usually work with a few narrow fields, there's very seldom room for them as full time book writers. Most of them will work with a publisher one book at a time, just like novelists. If they also are technical writers it's quite a lot simpler to find such work.

Novelists, also known as authors, write long stories. Much can be said about the craft, but the prime virtue of a novelist is the ability to plan and complete the work. These days a fiction book is easily 200,000 words long for some genres; keeping track of the progress of the plot and the characters' development requires forward planning and much patience. With an annual turnout of at best two books for most fiction authors, it's a long way to the best seller lists where you have to be to make a living. Non-fiction book writers have a slightly better chance as there are many companies with projects they'll pay advance for, but you either make a living as a best-selling author or you have a second job. On the other hand, that second job can be a writing-related one!

Online writers are best described as those who do a major part of their writing for websites and e-zines. Most are freelancers, many have no previous background as writers from the paper world, and the vast majority has other day jobs. This group includes article, poetry, short story and even book writers. The pay for being published online is lower and the prestige less than for being published on paper, but the online market is vast and practically bottomless. Unfortunately, many low-class markets are based on getting work from authors for free. It is possible to make a modest living just writing for the paying online markets, but experienced and successful online writers may profitably work for the more lucrative paper market instead. For amateur writers the online world is a Godsend, as it provides them with an outlet for their work and allows them to climb upward as they progress in their skill.

Play writers are the most glamorous writers in the writing profession, but the potential for fame is greater than the potential for making an income of it. With a highly limited number of theatrical ensembles, there's a market for only so many plays per year. To get a play script accepted it is essential to live in the right place and have the right connections in the theatre business, and the number of hopeful beginning playwrights outnumbers by far the ones who get lucky. Amateur theatre companies will accept the occasional manuscript, but there's very little income in that. Radio is a market, if you can get in. There's also competitions.

Poetry writers (poets) have the unenviable position of being the lowest paid writers in the entire writing business. Poetry simply doesn't sell, even if many read poetry. Many poetry writers find themselves paying to enter contests where the top prize is being published and get a complimentary copy of the magazine -- or in the worst cases, be asked to buy the resulting anthology afterwards (that only the submitting authors will be interested in buying.) A number of poetry websites and e-zines purchase the occasional poem for small sums, but poetry writing cannot be called paid work for the vast majority of the writers who indulge in it.

Resume writers are a small subgroup of business writers who specialise in helping other people present themselves; the customers are exclusively high-income business workers looking for a new job. These writers work as independent consultants or in resume-writing companies; there are a large number of those. A resume writer's job is to take the information given by the customer, interview the customer to find further information, and then reshape the result to focus on the customer's best sides and most important accomplishments. These resumes are the customer's key to be considered for very well paid and prestigious jobs, and writing them is a job for writers well-versed in the relevant business language and career coaching. The work is, like most business writing, well paid.

Reviewers are expected to have very good knowledge of their subject. Be it books, movies, cars or computer models; the reviewer must be both informative and entertaining without -- visibly -- be repeating himself from review to review. Reviewing has nearly as many writers as the product genres have enthusiasts, so getting a regular--paying--gig can be difficult for freelancers. The pay for freelance reviewing is at best mediocre. Sometimes the pay is the product itself (unless we are talking luxury/expensive items). Critics of events manage somewhat better; their work is more profiled and can make them celebrities on a certain level. Many a website is based on free reviews provided by enthusiasts! In larger newspapers and magazines staff writers usually provide the reviews, but freelancers do get in the occasional job.

Screenwriters are the most numerous group of scriptwriters. They write scripts for movies and television, and when the movies or TV series make a hit the writers responsible can make tidy earnings as well. Getting a script accepted is as hard as getting a book manuscript published; only one in a hundred submitted scripts are accepted for production. Not to mention that many productions never make it to a screen. For getting movie scripts accepted, it is usually considered crucial to live in the vicinity of the studios in order to be able to do changes during the production; this explains why the majority of US screenwriters seem to be living in Los Angeles. Networking is very important.

Songwriters are seldom paid much for the texts they write; a successful writer with several decently selling musicians or studios as customers can make a living, but for most the song writing is just a side income. Many songwriters are musicians in other respects as well. Recording studios are the most frequent customers and pay at least moderately well, while a number of well-doing music artists buy material from writers with a reputation in the trade. As with screenwriting, living close enough to the customers is important.

Speechwriters are essential for covering up the fact that many leaders can't write speeches for larger audiences. Company leaders and politicians depend on speechwriters shaping their clumsily phrased messages into media-friendly communiquŽs complete with sound bites and jokes. Top-notch marketing bureaux and political parties keep a number of excellent speechwriters on their staff, while some freelancers work one-to-one with speakers who are known to the public for one reason or another. Writing for CEOs and board leaders can be very financially rewarding, but requires expert knowledge of both topic and the speaker's style. People on this level often have writers on their staff just for this purpose.

Staff writers are writers with full time engagements -- permanent or otherwise -- in the staff of larger newspapers, magazines, marketing bureaus, publishing houses and in some cases other types of companies with permanent needs for writing work. A staff job means that you are a hired hand with the pleasant inherent job security, but it also means that you'll be told what to write, what not to write, and that deadlines become vital to keeping your job. Not to mention that all the work becomes the company's property. On the other hand you get to work with professional colleagues, which does wonders for daily motivation and long-time skill growth. In most cases a staff job has a better income potential than working as a freelance, too.

Storywriters are a large and very creative subgroup of freelance writers. They are specialists in writing short tales of one or more genres of fiction, and have a big market of magazines to sell to. It's normally not very financially rewarding, unless the writer makes it to a nationally recognised magazine or manage to win a high-profile story contests. There are many writing contests to participate in, but there is often a substantial reading fee and the pro will have to be very careful about where he'll join in. Many well-known book authors have started out as story writers, and then moved on to book-length stories as that's where the money is.

Technical writers don't win much fame for their user manuals and system documentation, but in these days of incredible technical development and product turnover it is a lucrative writing business. Once a writer is engaged by a company to write documentation, he can reasonably expect further work updating old and writing new documentation for other products. This type of work requires professional level knowledge in the relevant technology and product, a methodical nature and some teaching skills. Technical writers are often employed as staff writers in bigger companies, but can easily find work as freelancers for small companies.

Translators are not the best paid workers among writers; the rates are usually per completed page and the translator is expected to deliver the same quality of language as the author of the original work she has been given to translate. Neither is there much fame in translation; a translator is lucky to have her name on the cover of the work she has translated. On the other hand, publishers tend to come back to their translators with further jobs. Translators are usually freelancers; exceptions happen in major newspublishing companies where translations must be done urgently. Becoming a professional translator often requires an university degree! Not everybody will accede that translators are writers as such!

Copyright © 2000 Terje Johansen
This article may not be reprinted without the author's written permission.


Terje Johansen is Norwegian, married, and a computer engineer by education, and writes because he loves to. In addition to writing about electronic publishing, he does a little bit of web design, mulls over antiquated and dilapidated camping stoves and walks the occasional forest path. He reads a lot, fiddles with hammers and screwdrivers once in a while, and generally likes to have his hands occupied.

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