How to Make a Living as a Writer

Over the last year, as the Lawrence Grauman Jr. Post-graduate Fellow at the Investigative Reporting Program at the Graduate School of Journalism at the University of California, Berkeley, I had the opportunity to mentor graduate students in journalism. What question did they ask me most often?

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How do you make a living?

For me, the answer was simple. I wasn’t precious about writing. I do one thing well, and nothing else well: I am a very, very good writer. One could say writing is my superpower. Writing is the tool I use to make money. How I use that tool is up to me. There is no one correct way to use the tool. There is you, and the tool, and how you use the tool is your business.

At this point, I’ve been a writer for over two decades. Which is a pretty long time to make a living at something. Along the way, I’ve been many things, but all of them involve writing. I’ve been an investigative journalist, a copywriter, a TV producer, a branding consultant, a publicist, and a speaker, to name a few.

While I know that I can write and well, I have a sort of shrugging attitude as to how I’ve applied that talent.

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  • In 2010, a communications company hired me to be the voice of Pepto-Bismol on Facebook. If you’re not aware, Pepto on social media is a personality. P&G was unhappy with what this company had done to give Pepto a persona. It was up to me to provide that. So, I did. One of the most popular posts I wrote featured the caption: “I partied so hard my cup fell off.” The photo featured Pepto with its cup next to it.

  • In 2009, I wrote and published a 10,000-word investigation of the Great Recession’s impact on the adult movie industry: “They Shoot Porn Stars, Don’t They?” Slate included it in their "Seven Great Stories About Paying for Sex and Being Paid to Have It,” and Longform called it “unflinching and devastating.” Subsequently, an essay I wrote about the project, "The Numbers On Self-Publishing Long-Form Journalism," was taught in “Media, Politics & Power in the Digital Age” at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University and the Studio 20 program at the Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute at New York University.

  • In 2008, I was an editor for a Time Warner-owned digital vertical for 18-to-34-year-old women. During that tenure, I wrote nearly 1,400 posts, oversaw a team of freelance contributors, and directed the site’s digital outreach program, helping grow the site’s traffic from startup to 4 million unique visitors and 22 million page views a month.

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So, who am I? A copywriter? An investigative journalist? An editor? Pretending to be Pepto made $100 an hour and earned me thousands of dollars every month. The porn investigation I published “made” no money but was read by thousands and thousands of people and, according to one reader, “changed the way I think about the business of making pornography.” As an editor, I made over $80,000 a year and learned slideshows are the easiest way to maximize page views. I’ve also developed TV shows, consulted on films, and worked as a branding consultant and a publicist. Was one job better than the other? Was one a waste of my time? Was one meaningful and the rest not? Does it matter? To me, it’s all the same. I’m a writer.

Awhile back, I published a digital short story: “The Tumor.” I had it professionally designed and edited. Every month, people buy copies of it on Gumroad, where consumers can pay they want ($1+) for it. It might be a bizarre fiction inspired by reality and populated by a monster, but it’s also unequivocally mine.

To young journalists, I want to say: Do whatever you want—as long as its yours.

Buy my digital short story, “The Tumor” … “a masterpiece of short fiction.”

The Real Secret to Selling Yourself

Recently, I was approached about doing a 60-minute presentation at a large tech conference. The person who’d contacted me had read this Forbes post: “How to Sell Yourself.” That post has over half a million views, and I still get emails about it. This is called evergreen content, or longtail content, or stuff that is sticky. The steps I outline are pretty simple: Create a superhuman version of yourself to sell stuff for you, be so persistent no one can ignore you, and offer the thing that no one else is offering. There’s nothing particularly novel about these ideas. But they’ve guided me along the path of my 20+-year career at every twist and turn. I’d venture that while all three ideas are important, the key is the second one. Be relentless. At some point, the dam will break.

Buy my digital short story, “The Tumor” … “a masterpiece of short fiction.”

How Journalists Can Think Like Scientists

Recently, I had the opportunity to attend the Russell Sage Foundation’s Social Science Summer Institute for Journalists. Helmed by Nicholas Lemann and Tali Woodward, it’s an intimate seminar that teaches journalists how to write about the social sciences and think like social scientists. Guests speakers included Andrea Elliott and Shamus Khan. It’s held in a Philip Johnson building on Manhattan’s Upper East Side. I’m already using the tools I acquired there. I highly recommend it for everyone: from graduate students to veteran reporters.

[Image via my Instagram]

Buy a copy of my digital short story: “The Tumor” — "a masterpiece of short fiction.”

The Reverse Cowgirl Rides Again

Over on Instagram, I reminisced about how I ended up being not-referenced-referenced in the movie “Julie & Julia.” At the time, I had a very popular blog on Salon. It was called The Reverse Cowgirl. Subsequently, a less popular blog, which was about cooking, was turned into a movie.

Like this blog? Support my work by buying a copy of my digital short story: "The Tumor." It’s been called "a masterpiece of short fiction."

The Girl

I’m taking a comics-making class, and this is something I did in the third session. It’s iterations of my main character. She’s in her underpants. I decided to take the class so I could practice drawing. What I like best about the class is that it asks you to focus on creativity. Sometimes, when you’re a journalist, creativity is not encouraged. But if journalism isn’t an act of creation, then what is it?

Buy my digital short story: "The Tumor." It’s been called "a masterpiece of short fiction."