I am Frank Melling and for the last 45 years I have been writing for magazines, newspapers, film companies and now, increasingly, websites. To date, I have written around 1200 feature length articles, a lot of shorter material, twelve books and a whole cupboard full of bits and pieces like film scripts, speeches and advertisements. I am still producing three, feature length articles each month. In short, I know how to be a professional freelance writer.
Wannabe Hacks is such an interesting website that I have broken the first, and most shiny of golden rules for a freelance: I’m writing this article for free!
The reason I am doing this is two-fold. First, I really want to encourage those of you who are nervous/unsure/concerned/in awe of ever being a journalist or writer.
The second reason is to let you know about my new book: A Penguin in a Sparrow’s Nest which is the not too serious story of being a freelance writer. Have a look at my website and you can read some free excerpts.
Education and training is important, and can only help in becoming a professional writer, but if you put all the NCTJ diplomas, degrees, internships, training and family connections on one side of the scale they will be heavily outweighed by what I am going to say next.
This means you have to want to write more than eating, sleeping, making money – or even those hormonally driven activities which, as a young person, I hope are very much on your mind!
You must go to bed dreaming about writing and wake up in the morning itching to write. You must ache to write and never be satisfied unless you have written. This is the magic key to the door of being a professional writer.
So, you can’t brush your teeth in the morning without thinking about writing and you can’t walk down the stairs without seeing a story line. You’re ready to go! Really, that’s all there is to it.
The second bit is also easy.
I look upon myself as a sort of literary brick layer. Tell me what you want and I can write a competent piece on any subject. Occasionally, it might even be not too bad but for 100% certain it will have accurate grammar, punctuation and spelling. I want everyone to look at the literary wall I have built and say that it looks neat, tidy and well made.
Good, sound, solid writing – which an editor can use quickly and easily – will win out every time over magnificent prose which has to be extensively re-written.
When an editor orders 1000 words from me, he gets 1000 words which are instantly useable. That’s what will keep you employed over the long term. Good, sound, reliable prose which is submitted on time and to specification. It sounds deadly dull – but I have spent four decades of being reliably paid by following this maxim.
Not to copy or plagiarise their work but to learn their trade skills. Currently, the best prose writer in the English language is John le Carré. “Smiley’s People” ought to be a text book for precise, disciplined, accurate and economic writing.
Another masterpiece of precision and economy is John Steinbeck’s “The Grapes of Wrath.” Read this and note how disciplined Steinbeck is when the subject could be so easily overwritten.
Say what you want to say. Say it accurately – and maybe even entertainingly – and then shut up.
The next part of this article could only come from a hard core, recidivist freelancer.
Yes, listen to the brief. Yes, make sure that your copy is sound and is of the correct word count but then stand up and be proud to be you.
So much of the advice given to aspiring writers is based on what they should do and what they can’t do and how difficult life is and will be. My advice is to be yourself – and to be so with a big smile and lots of pride.
This is how the principle works in practice. First of all, write for you. If you don’t look at that opening paragraph and think it’s a neat piece of writing then for 101% certain your editor won’t.
Laugh at your own jokes – if they are funny – and smile proudly when you have a written a well-crafted phrase. In short, be proud of your work – or put it in the bin, literally or electronically.
This is why being a good tradesman is so important. If your writing is sound and accurate, your editors will allow you the freedom to be you. If they have to sub your work to death before it’s useable they won’t. Again I know, from a lifetime of being paid to write, that this is true.
I can make an extensive list of the reasons why not to follow this road, and all are valid, but none are as important as the ‘free’ in freelance. If ‘free’ isn’t as important as a regular salary then you will never make it as a freelancer. If it is, stand up straight, walk with your head held high and with a big smile and let the world know what a wonderful writer you are.
I will be interested to hear of your experiences.
Take a look at Frank’s book on his website here: http://www.frankmelling.com/. All images curtesy of Frank Melling.