So, you have spent most of your life leafing through one magazine or the other, taking it all in, admiring the good and wrinkling your nose at the bad, all the while watching the seed of an idea sprout in your mind. "I could have written that," you think to yourself. That essential observation is what brought you here, hoping to find some undisturbed stone under which lay the secret of how to become a writer. Look no further because you are about to find out it is not a secret at all.
If you are like the rest of us, you probably read something so gripping or beautiful or transformational that you decided you wanted to become a writer like insert-famous-writer-name-here. Just like the rest of us, you have probably also read things over the years that made you frustrated that insert-infamous-writer-name-here wrote that awful thing that made it into the magazine that you would love to write for - if you only knew where to start. If only someone could just tell you how to become a writer and succeed at it, you would do it.
This is the journey of every writer, everywhere. This is the good news - you are already on the road to your goal and did not even realize it. The bad news is that most magazine writers are so busy harassing editors for assignments that few have the time to stop and write out a step-by-step guide to how they got where they are in their career. But, fear not, we are here to give you the map we followed to get where we are - a map passed down to us from those who came before and to whom you will one day give to someone else who will look for you to tell them how to become a writer.
Do You Need a Degree?
Realistically? It certainly helps. Writing is a skill like any other that must be honed over time if it is ever to become sharp enough to do the job. The best way to do this is to get an English, Creative Writing, or Journalism degree. There is nothing quite like four years of writing essay after essay about every topic imaginable - finished off with a dozen 20-30 page academic papers in your final couple of years - to learn how to properly use the English language.
English professors might coddle non-majors misusing commas and semi-colons, but not you. Oh no, you will learn to cringe at little read cross-outs on your hastily written and non-proofread papers, but you will learn from your mistakes, and you will become a better writer for it.
In addition to a degree, some things you can do right now include writing at least 500 words a day, going to the local bookstore and buying The Elements of Style by Strunk & White Every, and reading as much as you can from those you consider to be great writers. Many writers confess they became great writers by reading from great writers. The same may be true for you!
The thing about being a writer is that your credentials are in the email you send to an editor, the pitch you draft and redraft time and again. It is the sample articles you write that might just be good enough to pique an editor’s interest enough to remember your name.
When that happens, few—if any—will ask where you went to school. As a result, the only credentials you will need to justify your skill is the quality of the writing you sent in your initial communications with the editor.
What About Experience?
Some of the greatest writers of all time had no formal training. What set them apart from the rest is that they kept sending letters out for months and years at a time receiving no response from anyone, but kept writing new material while they waited. Until the day someone first accepts your submission or your pitch for an article, it will feel like you are screaming into a void, pretending to be a writer when you feel, deep down, that you are no such thing. After you are published for the first time, however, you will spend the next couple of decades feeling like an imposter, always on the look-out for when someone will come along and expose you as a fraud. All of this is normal.
Whatever you do, do not stop writing. Persistence and dedication are what it takes to become a successful writer.
Write well and often. Over time, you will be a writer.
The non-secret to this kind of success is the non-stop writing you need to do. Nothing can make you a great writer, or even a good writer unless you first spend the time to get all the truly awful writing out of your system. Many Pulitzer writers struggled and produced sub-par writings at first. Yet, what got them the Pulitzer in the end is that they resubmitted improved articles where countless others did not. Such perseverance speaks volumes about a writer's character while also building the writer's determination for success.
Keep writing. Keep reading great writers. Rewrite bad articles in the magazines you want to write for. (Rewrite this article if you want to. We won't be offended!) Keep a notebook and write down any ideas for new articles that pop into your head during the day. Interview your mom and write it up like she was the President. Interview your toddler and do the same. Buy a book on feature writing or just Google the structure of a feature article. Follow it rigidly until your writing starts to resemble the real writers you admire so much.
Each experience you can get right now will bring you further along the way to becoming the writer you dream of being. The work is worth it - even it does not feel like it.
How to Become a Writer for a Magazine
Now that you have been writing a while, save your work and pull out three or four of your best pieces to keep on Google Doc files you can send to anyone who asks for portfolio samples. You should no longer be asking how to become a writer at this point. Writers write. You write. So, call yourself a writer.
The last thing left is getting someone else to give you work. Google 'how to structure an article pitch' to read up on the various formulas people use. Find an approach you like, open your notebook, and write up some of your article ideas into pitch form.
Google “magazine writer’s markets” and look at the sites that list publications open to submissions or pitches. A submission is a complete article or feature, and a pitch is an attempt to convince an editor to accept a story idea before you have written it. This is usually the most common thing for new writers to spend their time doing, so learn how to do it right and you give yourself the best chance of succeeding.
When you begin pitching ideas to different magazines, keep a spreadsheet of what stories you have pitched to certain publications. The worst thing you can do is what every writer has done, pitch two different editors with one idea and have them both accept it. It is best to wait until one has rejected the idea before sending it to a second magazine. Failure to do so can cause legal and publishing issues you do not want to deal with when starting out as a writer.
One day, you will get an email or a phone call from an editor saying they loved your idea and want to run with it! Congratulations!
Once this happens, get to writing. Use all that experience you got about how to become a writer by pretending to be a reporter in the field and actually go be one. If the editor tells you she needs something in three weeks, give it to her in two and make sure you proofread it several times over before you send it. Better yet, have someone else with grammar and spelling proficiency proofread it for you!
Pro tip: if you do not have a writer’s group in your community, look for one online. About 95% of these groups exist just to give helpful guidance and reciprocal proofreading of each other’s work - invaluable when getting ready to send your work into an editor. Nothing will make a good impression better than making someone's life easier, and editors are a busy, overworked bunch.
Next, hit that send button on the email or upload the document file and pat yourself on the back. You are now further down the road today than you were yesterday, and this is an amazing accomplishment!
There really is no secret to writing, it is simply a matter of time, practice, and perseverance. Yet, if you commit to write and stick with it, you just may go further than you ever dreamed possible! In the meanwhile, focus on learning the structure of a good article, interview, and feature as well as the structure for a good pitch. When you get more confident, the formulas and structures will become more liquid and your own style will emerge.
If you become a consistently good, reliable writer for an editor, they may not even wait for you to pitch, but will instead reach out to see if you can write something in the niche you have developed for yourself for an upcoming issue. If you keep at that long enough, they might even ask you to join their staff - one of the most coveted positions in the industry. After that, if you are not calling yourself a professional magazine writer, feel free to start using it on your tax returns and at the occasional dinner party. You have long since earned the title.
We hope this article has helped you learn what it takes to become the great writer you dream of being. With some practice, patience, and perseverance, we are confident you will figure out how to become a writer in no time. What are you waiting for? Get to writing today!