Monday, March 25, 2019

What's the best advice I can give to writers?

I majored in journalism in college (Lehigh University). We were expected to be able to write about anything—from technology to food to wrestling—even if we had no interest in or affinity for the subject.

This versatility can be critical for a writer who needs to eat.

I've written many hundreds of articles about all kinds of things for newspapers and magazines. I was an award-winning advertising copywriter. I've written more than 40 books.

I'm a proud member of the first cohort of the Baby Boom, just a few weeks away from age 73, and I can write about almost anything.

I had a demented high school English teacher [she's in Stories I'd Tell My Children (but maybe not until they're adults)] who made 'surprise attacks' on our class. One day she commanded us to "write 500 words about tobogganing." Another time she wanted 500 words about "How Capri pants are the downfall of western civilization."

I hated the evil idiot, but she provided good preparation for later life when my financial well-being depended on my being able to write about things I knew absolutely nothing about.

My first job after college was being assistant editor of a magazine that went to hi-fi equipment dealers. I had an impressive title and worked in the media capital of the universe, but my salary was a measly $115 per week—which did not go far in Manhattan, even in 1969.

I initially lived in a YMCA room smaller than many jail cells. I don't remember the rent, but it was so high that my daily food budget was less than two bucks, and I walked to work regardless of the weather.

The Y's manager knew that I was a writer/editor and asked if I could produce a fundraising letter. I had never done one before, but I said I could do it. It was easy work, it turned out well, and my rent was cut in half. That was a big help until I could afford a real apartment, and provided an important lesson.

The company I worked for published business magazines in various fields. Although I specialized in hi-fi, when editors at other mags were ill, overworked or on vacation, I had to figure out how to write convincingly about health food, auto accessories and art supplies. I did it well and my versatility increased my importance to my bosses, and my salary.

After a few years I made a jump from writing articles to writing advertising.

At first I specialized in hi-fi, but in a pinch I could be counted on to produce competent advertising for computers, Castrol motor oil, Volvo cars, Perdue chicken, Hebrew National hotdogs, wo
men's bathing suits, vinyl flooring, wristwatches, light switches, wallpaper, an airline and the Metropolitan Opera.
  • There is zero security in advertising (and in journalism). The day to start looking for a job is the day you get a job.
  • Specialization can help you get a job. If a magazine, manufacturer or ad agency needs a writer with skill and experience with portable nuclear reactors or left-handed monkey wrenches—and you're one of just two appropriate people in the world—you can probably negotiate a great deal.
  • But if you want to keep your job, it will be good to be able to write about underwear, apple-picking, music and politics.
Versatility is important for books, too. Some authors specialize in certain genres, but specialization can be boring, and you may run dry. It's good to be comfortable writing books about several things, even many things. You can have multiple specialties, or be a generalist.

I've written successful books about my life, and about technology, publishing, animals, politics, food, crime and more; and some 
books planned for the future will deal with religion and toilets. I write nonfiction, but one of my books has a novelized backstory. Will I write a full novel in the future? Who knows?

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