How to Start Your Writing Career

February 10, 2003

I've been writing for newspapers since I was 14 years old, and writing short stories and essays my whole life. While pursuing a Ph.D. in English, I wrote for some local publications, including The Texas Observer, where I got back to more serious journalism, then did some short pieces for Salon and Lingua Franca. On the whole there were pretty personal reasons -- call them demons, and you won't be far off the mark -- behind the decision I made to call off my academic job search, finish an adjunct gig, and begin pitching articles like crazy as a freelance writer.

How do you get started writing for nonacademic audiences? Things fell into place for me as much by luck as by anything I actively did. I had some advice, encouragement, and good role models; some reliable information about how the whole thing worked; relationships with a few editors; some good clips; some lucky breaks.

The point is, as a friend of mine counseled, you have to "put yourself in the way of life." That's how things happen. Here are some moments on that path: a woman I was dating, a freelance writer, put me in contact with an editor of hers, and shared loads of info about her days at places like The New Yorker and The New York Observer; she, a remarkably generous person, also passed on an assignment for Nerve when she couldn't do it, which grew into an assignment for Lingua Franca, which became a Rolling Stone piece; an editor at The Atlantic contacted me out of the blue because she'd seen a Lingua Franca piece I wrote, and I eventually did a piece for her; an old editor at Texas Monthly began working as a literary agent, and now he's mine. (Or I'm his. Whatever.)

I'm not showing off. The truth is that I've probably lost as many connections as I've made, if not more. But when people ask me what I do, making and building relationships has been an important part of the trajectory -- especially if you consider that I live in Austin, Texas, which is not exactly one of the white-hot media centers of the world.

For instance, the piece I just finished for Wired has this genealogy: I pitched a story cold to Salon (in 1999), then wrote another, then got passed from that editor to one at Lingua Franca; after that mag closed in 2001 I was contacted by another LF freelancer asking if I knew about payment, and I asked him if he knew anyone at Wired; he didn't, but he passed me on to someone at Wired News, who recommended my current editor at Wired, who is great. I pitched her stories for five months until she took one at the end of 2002.

If I have one piece of advice for someone who was thinking about writing for other audiences besides academic ones, it's this: build relationships.

The next time you travel for a conference, arrange to have a drink with someone in the local media, publishing, or arts scene. It helps if a mutual acquaintance can smooth the way, to make it clear it's a professional connection, not slumming. Tell the person you're not looking for a job or for publicity, but that you'd like to learn more about what they do and how. If they turn you down, what have you lost? Ask someone else. If you do meet someone, you'll learn some interesting -- and sobering -- facts. Last winter in New York City I met an ex-lawyer, a literary agent who's just starting out, who shared some telling details -- for instance, that his small agency regularly receives so many unsolicited manuscripts that they cannot even stick a form rejection in the self-addressed envelope and mail it back.

In fact, think of the proposal to write an article as a key step to building a relationship with an editor. A pitch letter tells who you are, of course, and that you're smart. More importantly, it tells the editor what the payoff would be from your article for the publication's readers -- and that you know this. For a feature article, I usually write 300 words, particularly if it's someone I haven't worked with before.

Writing these proposals is also a good intellectual exercise: I've learned that if I can't put an idea in that nutshell, it probably won't work as an article. The editor you talk to has to sell the story to the editor above her, and so on up the editorial chain of command, so nobody has time for hand-waving. Another thing I've found useful is to always over-research the proposal. Even before I know there's a story there, I'm usually corresponding with people in the area. When it comes time to write the pitch, I can tell the editor what work I've already done -- not what I want to do.

Having to write a proposal presumes, of course, that you have a story to pitch. As for me, I love developing stories and writing pitches. I don't have a set of topics I write about generally, and I view the search for topics as a kind of research. I like battling with a learning curve, the steeper the better. I find a topic that I'm interested in, learn as much as I can in order to become fluent in the topic, then go looking for the narrative line through that body of knowledge: the conflict, the characters, the implications.

Still, one aspect of formulating stories has been hard for me to accept. When you write for nonacademic audiences, you're writing for people who can stop reading at any moment they want. That's a profound idea. It's like an ax hanging over you. This wasn't my mind-set when I wrote my dissertation, or academic papers, or book reviews, and I didn't grade my students' writing with that criterion. I did want ideas to be clear, the arguments forceful. But I asked no questions about whether a reader would want to continue.

Another cognitive switch: I had to give up the hope that the world would be a better place, people's eyes clearer, if only they appreciated what I knew about, were interested in the same things. It's a teacherly attitude that I've been slow to lose. By slow, I mean slow.

That doesn't mean I don't write about ideas anymore, but I do pay more attention to story. People love a story, and intellectual pursuits and academic arguments offer untold tales and fascinating characters. A while back I wanted to write a retrospective of the field of linguistics since 1957, when Noam Chomsky published his first book, Syntactic Structures. But I couldn't figure out who would want to read it -- or publish it.

Then when I opened the book, I saw I could take a slightly different approach. For a nonlinguist, the most fun thing about it is Chomsky's wacky sentence, "Colorless green ideas sleep furiously." This sentence has had an interesting career, and that's what I focused on, writing an intellectual biography of the sentence that's going to appear in The Boston Globe. The topic unexpectedly intersected with other issues, making the whole thing more interesting than the 45-year retrospective I began with.

Getting something published depends on timing as well. A year ago I wrote a story about George Lakoff, a linguist at Berkeley who came to Texas in 2001 to help Democratic Party political consultants. His visit back then (and the beginning of the campaign season) gave me a hook for summing up Lakoff's fascinating career, and for presenting some of his ideas about metaphors and politics. And for an audience of Democrat-watchers and politics fans, the story wasn't trivia. That's why questions of looking for, and thinking about, and trying to meet the right audience are crucial. I don't think that academics think very much about audience, since they typically don't take pride in, or get credit for, working with many audiences at once.

In this way I've learned about disparate, fascinating bodies of knowledge: Canadian aboriginal law, gasoline distribution, abstinence culture, mental-health law. I couldn't have done this work without Ph.D.-level conceptual skills. I have a unique way of conceiving of stories, and because I'm not afraid of research, I try to understand the issues more deeply before I write. I always over-report my stories; now I'm learning how to over-report my article proposals, which seems to be working.

If you're someone in an academic setting who wants to pursue a career writing for nonacademic audiences, you have one other difficult hurdle: Dealing with your academic colleagues who will look down on your work. You might be one of those popularizers. To this I'd say: Press on. They know that the days of academic publishing are numbered. They sense that the future of the university depends on people who are willing -- and who know how -- to communicate with audiences beyond the ivory tower. They just don't know what, exactly, to do about it.

Michael Erard, a Ph.D. in English, has left academe behind to pursue a career as a freelance magazine writer.