Letter to a Young Writer

Recently I received a question from a young aspiring writer.

In fact, I’ve gotten several questions from aspiring writers (of all ages) lately.

If I’m being honest, I will admit that this sort of thing makes me automatically turn around to look behind myself – you know, for that other, much older, wiser, and more experienced writer who can actually answer these questions.

Reason being….

When I was in college, a mentor of mine suggested that I might like to read a thin volume with the intriguing title “Letters to a Young Poet”. I was a poet at the time. I suppose I still am a poet (after all, when does a poet become a not-poet? Probably at about the same time a bird-lover becomes a non-bird-lover….ha. As if.)

Pearl. Me. Beak to “beak”.

So, being at that time the type of young aspiring writer who was slavishly grateful for even the tiniest grains of feedback or mentoring about my awkward (but copious) verses, I bee-lined it to the local library and checked out Rainer Maria Rilke’s “Letters to a Young Poet”.

In this short book I found enough mentoring – on writing and life – to last me a lifetime.

I ended up buying my own copy. I am looking at it right now as I type this.

The book begins when a young poet named Franz Xaver Kappus writes to Rilke, a famous poet, to ask a simple question: “is my writing any good?”

Rilke replies – and this is EPIC:

“You ask whether your verses are any good. You ask me. You have asked others before this. You send them to magazines. You compare them with other poems, and you are upset when certain editors reject your work. Now (since you have said you want my advice) I beg you to stop doing that sort of thing. You are looking outside, and that is what you should most avoid right now. No one can advise or help you – no one. There is only one thing you should do. Go into yourself. Find out the reason that commands you to write, see whether it has spread its roots into the very depths of your heart; confess to yourself whether you would have to die if you were forbidden to write. This most of all: ask yourself in the most silent hour of your night, must I write? Dig into yourself for a deep answer. And if this answer rings out in assent, if you meet this solemn question with a strong, simple, “I must“, then build your life in accordance with this necessity; your whole life, even into its humblest and most indifferent hour, must become a sign and witness to this impulse.”

Clearly Rilke’s writing is very good. 🙂

Rilke and the young poet corresponded for years, though the book includes only Rilke’s replies, and their conversations ranged far afield from writing into life, love, career, finance, soul – in fact, “Letters” functions sort of like a manual on life, by which I mean that no matter what page I open to on any day, I find timeless wisdom that applies to whatever I’m wrestling with at that very moment.

What a gift to have a mentor such as this (and as I myself have my own Rilke in my long-time mentor Lynn, I can absolutely state this for a FACT).

I also feel, as Rilke must have upon first receiving the young poet’s query, distinctly uncomfortable advising others who write to me asking for tips on how to improve their writing. Because the only tip I truthfully know is to keep writing. Just keep doing it. You know when it is your best work. You know when it could be better. You will learn to feel that inner “click” inside – the intuitive feeling of linguistic gears shifting into perfect alignment – in the same way that you know when you have placed your car firmly in “park” and can now turn off the ignition and step outside.

So, longest-ever disclaimer aside, here is the letter I received…along with my response.

Hi Shannon – I am a soon to be college student. Just recently I’ve come across the wonderful world of online blog posting; and getting paid to do so!  I stumbled across your web page and you seemed like a wonderful person to ask about this strange new world. So here I am, bearing many questions; but not so many answers. 🙂  I’d just like to know if you could give me any pointers. I don’t have a blog yet, only a facebook page, and I haven’t been out of high school even 3 months yet, but I’m very interested in blog posting and possibly receiving compensation to do so. Sorry if i contacted you through the wrong address, I’m in a bit of a rush at the moment as I’m about to get my driver’s license in 15 minutes, finally!! So if you could just email me back with some places to start, some “tips and tricks” i would really love it. I’d also understand if you don’t as you must be a busy person. You might not have time for a kid like myself and that’s ok too, but either way; thanks for reading and thanks for your time. 🙂 I hope to hear from you soon, maybe you can help me out!  -An interested young writer

My first thought upon reading his letter (of course) was, “I failed my first driving test.”

While I am now a parallel parking master, it is safe to say that parallel parking was not in my skill set when I was 16. It probably didn’t help that my Mom sent me to the test in the “safe” (read: block long) car. And I was safe all right – because no way was that cop going to give me a license after watching me try to parallel park it! My Mom had to drive me home again.

Ok. Focusing.

Here is my advice. And this is not in the order I did it in, either. But if I had it to do all over again – building a writing career, that is – I would probably do it this way instead of the haphazard, very insecure, unfocused process through which I went about it.

  1. Be intentional and professional right from the start. If you have read Rilke’s passage above and have concluded that you “must write” then you are a writer. You are. It doesn’t matter if you have one word or thousands of words to your credit. You know you are a writer because you write. So your efforts from here forward will be focused on connecting with others (these folks are usually called “clients”) who do not write, who like how you write, and who want to hire you to write for them. Each of these connections will be a win-win for both of you.
  2. Create a writer website or blog. “Write the World” is mine and I used a free WordPress template to create it. Feel free to use it as a guide if you like – I picked several writer websites/blogs out to use as a guide when I created Write the World, and this is a good way to do it. Find one you really like that looks like “you” and just copy it.
  3. Post samples of your BEST work in different genres. Make SURE each piece looks totally professional – ie, no spelling or grammar errors, font size issues, or other such visually unattractive mishaps. If your writer blog/website looks good, you look good.
  4. Share who you are in the writer photo you pick – and be sure to select a photo that looks like “you”. (So, for instance, if you are not a glamour shots person – I certainly am not – then don’t put up your graduation or wedding photos. Clients are hiring a person as well as writing talent so show them who you are. Although here I suppose I should clarify – show them who you are as a WRITER and a creative person. I would shy away from that photo of you chugging from the keg with your buddies – unless your writing aspirations revolve around reviewing beers.)
  5. Be honest and forthright in your bio about your writing interests and skills. What kind of writing do you want to do? What are your strengths? Your clients won’t know this so you have to tell them. Do NOT tell them you have never gotten paid to write before. If you are good, they won’t care, and if you are not good, they will quickly figure that out and won’t rehire you.
  6. Have an idea of your rates before a prospective client asks. While more experienced writers can charge more per hour or project, new writers most likely will charge between $25-$35/hour. Some writers only charge by the project. Some writers will charge by the hour for some jobs and by the project for others. Some jobs should cost more (by hour or by project) – for instance, if the job requires lots of administrative work (meetings, travel time) or independent research time. THIS POST has some great links to business-oriented writer blogs where you can research how to set your rates. No other writer can tell you what to charge. This is often the most difficult part of working for yourself so take it slow, be patient with yourself, expect to make some mistakes and even lose out on some jobs because of those mistakes, and trust that as long as your overall rates are in alignment with the type of writing you do and how well you do it, you will eventually figure out what works for you and start getting work. You can also join one of the many writer forums available online today and find a writing mentor who can help you with these types of new-writer issues.
  7. There are many, many, many online platforms (content fulfillment houses) that say they will pay writers to create blog posts, articles, product reviews, and other content. Not all are legitimate. Not all pay fair rates for where you live and what you do. (For instance, what is a fair rate in India might not be the same as a fair rate in the USA. Do NOT write for a rate you cannot afford – unless it is just to get experience and build your resume, and then have a specific end-date in mind for accepting jobs that pay you less than you can afford to write for.) If you find a platform that interests you, you can also do a browser search on “(Platform Name) reviews” to find out what other writers say about working for them. Do this research FIRST before you do the hard work of setting up your profile, uploading writing samples, etc. Do not waste your valuable time and writing talent on employers who are not honest and willing to reward you fairly for your writing skills. Here again, expect to make some mistakes – do not be hard on yourself when you do. We all do – this is how a new writer learns (and even experienced writers always keep learning each and every day).
  8. Encourage yourself. Going into business for yourself (which is the scary, exciting venture you are entering into as a freelance writer) means you have to wear all the hats – accounting, marketing, administration, contracts and invoicing…and of course, writing. Figure out which tasks you are good at and are able and willing to do for yourself. Put the others (if any) on the list to outsource as soon as humanly (ie, financially) possible. Build an encouraging network of mentors, writer friends and colleagues, and turn to them when you need support. Do NOT turn to your clients for support (see #9).
  9. You are first and foremost in the customer service business. You serve your clients – period. If you enjoy serving and encouraging others, you will thrive as a solopreneur, whatever field you enter into. If you do not, consider a career change. Communicate consistently and clearly with each client (good, bad, and indifferent), establish right away how you can and cannot help them, do what you say you are going to do each and every time (even if they do not) and do not be afraid to drop the clients you do not enjoy working with for any reason when the job ends. Build a client base of folks you enjoy and admire – but never forget that you serve them.
  10. Remember that absolutely everything that goes out with your name on it represents you. If you send an email, make a post via social media, send a letter, make a phone call (or record a voice mail greeting for others to hear), it all combines to convey “this is who I am” to clients and to friends and colleagues who might refer you to clients. As a writer, spellcheck will be more important for you than for your non-writer friends. As a writer, and as a freelance writer especially, your private and public personas will blend at some point, whether you want them to or intend for them to or not. Make sure both are compatible as best you can with your writing goals.

I hope these tips are helpful to you, my young writer friend, and to others who may happen across this blog. Go out and find a copy of “Letters to a Young Poet” to read and treasure, and believe in your talent, your passion, your drive, and your desire, for these represent a true calling to write.


Published by Shannon Cutts

Animal sensitive and intuitive with Animal Love Languages. Parrot, tortoise and box turtle mama. Dachshund auntie. Freelance writer and author. www.animallovelanguages.com

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