As A Writer: Five Things I Would Do Differently Now

Whether you are in the early stages or in the middle of a career in writing, but struggling, you may find this post helpful. It arose from a conversation I had recently with an artist friend. We often compare notes about our respective professions and it's always illuminating for both of us.

'Would you do anything differently?' she asked me. 'Knowing what you know now?' 

It struck a chord with me, because it's something I think about quite often these days - how I might have done things differently; how I might have approached things, so that I ended up struggling less and enjoying the process more. Opportunities are very different from when I was starting out: it was better in some ways, much worse in others, so I realise that hindsight is a great thing. Nevertheless, here are some thoughts on where I went wrong. 

1 I would pay a lot less attention to advice about what I should and shouldn't write
Practically every single piece of advice I've been given about what to write as opposed to how to write it, has turned out to be wrong. I don't mean technical development advice. All of us need some of that, and if you can find a good editor or mentor  - somebody who is willing to work with you and whose advice you know you can trust - then seize it with both hands.
We all need to learn our craft.
But I mean the casual, throwaway advice, often from people who are in 'the business' in some way.

Write this, don't write that. 
There's a market for this or this but not for that. 
Don't turn this radio play into a stage play. It won't work.  
Don't write non fiction. 
There's no market for the supernatural.
There's no market for ... just about anything you fancy writing.

When I felt in my bones that I wanted to write something, I was right and they were wrong. Often, I was simply ahead of the game.
Read William Goldman's Adventures in the Screen Trade and then write what you want because he was right. Nobody knows anything.  

2 I would do a postgraduate business studies or marketing course.
I've only learned about the business side of writing and publishing as the years have gone by. I'm still not great at it, if the truth be told, but I'm better than I was. The 'creative industries' are full of writers who don't know nearly enough about the business side of writing and publishing, about being self employed and running your own business.

This means knowing your responsibilities as well as your rights. Being professional. Meeting deadlines. Writing for love but publishing for money and treating it as a business at the same time. Knowing what the cost of running that business involves, even if you're working from home.

All those years ago, when I started out, a knowledge of business wasn't deemed important for people working in the arts, on the creative side at least. We left all that to the middle men and women. Silly us. Because suddenly, we found that we were working in something called the Creative Industries, while still being advised not to worry our little heads about such things. I suspect even now, many university creative writing courses do little to address the business and marketing side of creative practice.

Understanding the business side of things is vital for anyone hoping to build a career as a writer - and it would have been so much easier if I had known more about it earlier.


3 I would never work for any big company on the promise of exposure or jam tomorrow or a  future commission.  
This is closely linked to 2 , above. I've done this two or three times, mostly with television proposals. I don't mean a basic proposal or submission. Getting a foothold in any area of creative practice means actually doing it. When a fellow writer told me, a long time ago, that the only way to learn how to write was to write, he was absolutely right and most writers do an awful lot of writing on spec before publication or production.

This was something different. I already had a track record, but this involved months of unpaid work, encouraged by a script editor. When I look back on the waste of time, I could scream, and yet it was my fault. I was a willing volunteer. I went along with it in pursuit of all that lovely jam tomorrow. Eventually, it occurred to me that the script editor was being paid - not handsomely, but a whole lot more than me - to work with a number of different proposals, most of which would never be made. This would have been fine if they paid development money for the work involved. But they never did. There was 'no money in the budget'.

Whenever anyone says this to you, bear in mind that it means that there is, in fact, a budget. They have just never included the writer in it.  There should be a fee for this kind of speculative work that they are asking you to do. And if they decide not to use it after all, there should be a kill fee - a sum of money to give you some compensation for your time and effort. 

4 I wouldn't write radio drama at all. 
This is a big - and quite emotional - issue for me. I began my writing career as a poet and short story writer (with a decent publication record by the time I was thirty) and in parallel with that as a radio playwright. I loved the medium. But with hindsight, radio drama was a dead end for me.
I worked with some fine producers, people I still admire and they taught me plenty.
I used to say that radio taught me how to write dialogue, but I was pretty good at that anyway and I could have learned.

As a career pathway, it was useless.

After a while, radio drama that had once been exciting and experimental for me, became something of a treadmill, albeit an enticing one. It was hard work, but it was fun to do. It was difficult to turn down commissions, because it paid some of the bills, but it wasn't nearly as well paid as a 'proper' job would have been, and yet it was equally time consuming and tricky. While I was writing for radio - sometimes ten part serials for the Classic Serial slot - I wasn't writing other things. And yet I was always a single commission away from financial disaster.

There was only one real outlet for an experienced radio dramatist, and that was via the BBC. If the work dried up, as mine did, almost overnight, there was nowhere else to go, no other outlet for a very singular set of skills. Just at the point of commission, there was a change of personnel and the plug was pulled on a major series. I did a bit of audio work for various visitor attractions. I turned to theatre for a while, and enjoyed the experience, but eventually I returned to the work I should have been doing twenty years earlier: writing fiction and popular non-fiction. I'm glad I did, but I wish I'd done it much sooner. Radio allowed me to feel that I was making a living as a writer, but the reality was that I was going nowhere and had relinquished control over my future to a single editor.

5 I wouldn't be ever so humble.
The truth is that now, writers do have options, self publishing, blogging and podcasts to name a few. As I said at the start of this small rant, hindsight is a great thing and most of us find it hard to plan out a creative career. Life takes us where it will. Perhaps all of us should - with the provisos of being polite, businesslike and responsible - learn to be a little less accommodating.

As with every single area of life and work - and the creative industries are no exception - people will want to look after their own interests. This doesn't make them bad people. It just makes them human. But the 'creatives' working at the sharp end tend to get into the habit of seeing themselves as supplicants, of being scared to rock the boat, of assuming Uriah Heap levels of humility. Actually even this isn't always true, and I'm told by publisher friends that those with the least talent are invariably the most entitled and rude. So don't let's get carried away with ourselves!

All the same, what we are looking for is a modicum of professionalism in the way we are treated, with the proviso that we behave professionally in return.

To that end, we need to be aware of our own agency, aware that we are sole traders, navigating difficult and precarious waters for the sake of ourselves and the work that is so important to us. In the words of Bill and Ted, we should at least try to 'be excellent to each other.'

That shouldn't be too much to ask for, should it?


Starting out. 











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