By Carmen K. Sisson
Students often ask me for advice about writing, photography, freelancing, and life. In no particular order, here are 20 things I know beyond a shadow of a doubt. As a bonus, some of my favorite sources of inspiration (and a few of my past posts) are linked throughout.
1. Journalism is not dead, so don’t let anyone discourage you. The way we do it is changing. The way we distribute it is changing. That’s all.
2. You need to like it — a lot. You need to like it so much you won’t be discouraged when no one accepts your pitches and your bank account is terrifyingly low.
3. You WILL get discouraged, even if you love it. Understand this is normal. Don’t let temporary boredom or frustration become a permanent career killer. Talk to your peers. Don’t isolate and drown in desperation.
4. Make friends and mentors who do what you do. Find the best and walk in their footsteps. Don’t be afraid to ask questions. People love to help.
5. If you’re not active in social media, dive in. Twitter is huge, but you get out of it what you put into it. Find people you admire to follow. Then find people who are sharing things you want to know, do, learn. Imagine gathering everyone you ever wanted at your kitchen table. That’s Twitter.
6. If you don’t shoot pictures, learn. It’s not enough to write anymore. You don’t have to become a great photographer. If you’re competent with lighting and composition, you’ll be ahead of many writers. “That’s not my job” is not an acceptable answer.
7. It’s vital to have a deep, rich online presence. If you don’t have a website, get one. NOW. It takes time. It’s frustrating sometimes, because all you want to do is write. Sadly, none of us are “just writers” anymore. You have to be good at a little bit of everything. It sucks, but it’s life. Deal with it.
8. Save as much money as you can. If you want to go freelance, don’t do it until you have at least six months of savings AND have a stable enough freelance income you can leave that savings in the bank and only touch it in dire emergencies.
9. Learn to make do with less. Money is a problem for many freelancers. If you like the best in clothes, furnishings, food, tech toys, etc., you may find it a hard life. Become good at seeking bargains and taking care of your things. Buy quality, not quantity.
10. Never say no for someone else (stolen from Steve Buttry). Your job is to produce your best every single day. That’s it. Your job is not to second-guess your clients or doubt your abilities. It doesn’t serve you. Lose the fear and shoot for the stars.
11. Take every opportunity offered, even if you can’t clearly see how you will benefit. Someone wants you to write a guest blog post? Do it. Someone invites you to lunch? Go. You’ll never regret the things you did, only the things you never tried.
12. Don’t be afraid to walk your own path. The days when conformity was king are over. Editors pay you more for how you think than how you write.
13. Read constantly and broadly – nonfiction, not fiction. Unless you’re a fiction writer, in which case you need to read it, fiction is a leisure you can rarely afford. So is most television. (Stop watching f*cking LOST.) Never stop learning.
14. If you’re not good at time management and organization, learn. Many creatives find organization somewhat stifling. There’s a mystique around the scattered, harried artist. Lose it – FAST. Being disorganized costs money. It costs clients. It will cause you more stress and lost opportunities than you can imagine.
15. Make time for fun. Don’t forget your friends and loved ones, because you need them more than you think. If you ditch them constantly in the all-holy pursuit of work (and trust me, you will), life will be harder — and lonelier — than it has to be.
16. Keep abreast of industry news. Things change rapidly. This is a game of anticipation. You must know what your peers and competitors are doing — not today, but in five years, ten. The writer who knows what is coming is the writer who will have food when everyone else is starving.
17. Help others achieve their dreams. You’ll gain more by helping others than you will ever gain in the single-minded pursuit of self-gratification.
18. Write something every day, even if no one reads it. Incorporate daily writing practice into your life. Schedule it into inviolable blocks of time. Writing is an exercise, and you’ll find it easiest if you keep yourself limber.
19. The easy path is not always the right path. Know yourself and follow your instincts. You’re smarter than you think you are.
20. Forget your limits. There are no limits. You are as good, as brave, as talented as you think you are. It doesn’t matter what has happened to you. It doesn’t matter where you’re standing. The only thing that matters — the ONLY thing — is where you’re going. Past is past, and present is over before you can type the word. Face forward. Always.
Chin up. Life is beautiful, even in all its breathtaking pain and sorrow. Nothing is as bad as it seems, and no situation is so hopeless that it can’t be fixed by a good night’s sleep, a decent meal, and a little hard work. A good writer will use it all — every ounce.
Go be brilliant. The world needs your voice.