I watched the professor of my advanced poetry class open the lid of a metal box crammed with 3×5 cards. He wiggled out one of the worn cards covered with notes and held it up.
On this card was the title of one of his poems along with the date of the latest version. Below that he had written names of literary magazines where he’d submitted that poem, followed by their response.
“One poem per card,” he said.
He showed us how he tucked the card behind the month when he was supposed to hear back—a simple system to follow up with every submission.
He passed one of the cards around the room. I held it in my hand and studied the notes he’d scrawled on the front and back.
There was no magic to his system. It was not fancy or expensive. Yet, he was a respected, prolific poet on campus for a semester, showing us how it’s done.
When the last student finished looking at the sample card and handed it back to him, he slid it back in its spot.
I stared at that box.
I was in an advanced poetry class because I’d already had The Moment; that is, I’d already begun to think of myself as a writer.
The day of the box was different.
After class, I walked straight to the bookstore and bought a pack of 3×5 cards and a maroon plastic box with a hinged lid. Then I headed to my room where I started logging each of my poems on those cards: one card per poem.
While I’d had The Moment, this was different.
I walked into that bookstore because I’d experienced “The Shift.”
What’s “The Shift”? It’s when I shifted from viewing the work as an assignment or hobby to something deeper, more serious.
It’s when I committed.
Like that poet with his metal box packed with poems, I too was committing to the craft and to a lifetime of word-work.
It would still be several years before I made any money as a writer, but I saw myself differently.
I was a working poet. And because of this shift and the resulting commitment, I organized myself—however simply and humbly—with the intention of writing and submitting my work to publications.
Looking back, that plastic box seems like so much more than a storage container. It held my intentions, my resolution.
I don’t know what it’s like for other writers, but for me, the day I bought that little box was the day my life tilted in a new direction.
The professor gave us vision. We got a glimpse of who or what we could become. He nudged us to take a step forward.
And it worked. I was ready to send my work. I was ready to ship.
One card per poem.
One piece at a time.
I had to write the poem, record it, track it, and ship it.
Seth Godin recently released The Practice: Shipping Creative Work. On the first pages, he explains why he chose those three words in the subtitle. The first word, “shipping,” he says, is “because it doesn’t count if you don’t share it.”1
He included “creative”: “because you’re not a cog in the system…you’re a creator.”2
And he added work “because it’s not a hobby. You might not get paid for it, not today, but you approach it as a professional…and the work is why you are here.”3
The Shift led to The Practice.
The Shift was my realization that the work was why I was here, a writer.
The Practice was how I would fill that box.
Compelled to action, I stepped out and followed through to get in the game and take the hits.
I began the practice of writing, recording, tracking, and shipping the work.
Over time, I saw new possibilities. Next thing you know, I was, in the words of Steven Pressfield, “turning pro.”4 Because The Practice makes The Pro.
Jason Pinter, interviewed for the podcast How Writers Write, says:
“If you’re really going to be serious about writing and you want to either make a career out of it, make a living out of it, or even just make a little bit of money out of it in any sort of way, you do have to treat it like a profession.”5
At various points in their lives, most writers move through this path: first, embracing that initial Identity of a writer; then, becoming a committed writer. Finally, they become a pro. They begin to treat their work like they’re a small business owner, and business owners have to understand their industry if they hope to succeed.
Whether you’re going into freelance writing, submitting to literary magazines, or pursuing traditional publishing, you need to understand how the publishing industry works as a whole. You’ll also want to dive into how each of those specific writing industries operates.
“Learn the industry,” Pinter says, “because it’s not all about the writing.”6
My initial training was in a university creative writing program of an English department. Aside from the poet’s box of poems, I was never taught anything about the business side of writing or writing as a profession.
After I graduated and headed into the world, I decided to pursue freelance writing and corporate writing. Later, stepping into the world of traditional publishing, I learned Pinter’s advice: it’s not all about the writing when you’re The Pro.
The interviewer asked Pinter his top advice for writers. His response:
“Learn the industry and hone your craft…because those are both hand-in-hand.” That is to say, “[I]t’s not just writing a book…it’s ‘How is your book going to bring in readers?’ And that’s the intersection between creativity and commerce.”7
Commerce! That’s what most writers exclaim. That’s like writing to market. That’s how you lose the art of your craft.
But when we treat our writing like a profession, we’ll want to be the best writers we can be. So it can be both! We can improve our art while we build the business aspects of the writing life.
Thinking and acting like a professional doesn’t mean you abruptly quit your full-time job, though. It doesn’t mean you need to rent office space and buy a new laptop.
These professional, business-minded decisions can be incremental. As needed. Writing can be a lean profession that grows slowly over time, step by step, card by card.
Don’t Start from Scratch
Jason Pinter urged listeners to learn the industry, but you don’t have to start from scratch reading every article ever published all on your own. Others who know the industry can accelerate your path to publishing.
Learning the industry is easier than ever. You can:
- Research articles
- Attend a writing conference
- Hire a coach
- Join a writing community
Hope*writers, for example, is a writing community that helps “writers make progress while balancing the art of writing with the business of publishing.”8 They help writers identify what stage they’re in and offer suggestions for how to flourish at that stage. They also show you how to level up to the next stage when the time is right.
Fill Your Box
Whether you follow their map or not, you need to identify where you are and learn how to build a writing profession.
Think like an entrepreneur launching a business. You’ll continue to grow as a writer. You’ll continue to improve your core competency—the word-work and the love of literature that got you into this in the first place. That doesn’t have to fade. That doesn’t have to be sacrificed.
But that growth that can happen when you commit to this business aspect, this profession—it can happen quickly for some writers and it can take years for others.
In a recent summit presentation, business advisor Kari Roberts pointed out that there’s a phrase used in the running world that can apply to writers or to anyone starting a new thing:
“Your race, your pace.”9
This is your race, friend. Don’t try to run it at another writer’s pace.
After my big purchase all those years ago, I dropped my backpack in my room and started to sort papers. I copied out every poem’s title onto a card all its own.
After one last search to ensure I’d documented every poem, my box was still pretty empty.
I thought of the professor’s box packed so full he had to wiggle the cards in to squeeze them into their slots.
But I didn’t feel bad. I felt like I was exactly where I needed to be. My plastic box had plenty of space to fit in years of poems.
I was at the beginning of my journey. One day, if I continued to write—to take my work seriously—I knew my box would be full, too.
The box doesn’t start full. I’d have to write—and send—poems. And I have to do that at my own pace.
My race, my pace.
The day I felt The Shift—the day I turned pro—was the day I bought that box and started to drop cards into it, one poem per card. That’s how it’s done.
- The Practice: Shipping Creative Work, by Seth Godin (affiliate link to Amazon listing)
- How Writers Write podcast
- hope*writers (affiliate link; at no additional cost to you, if you join I receive a commission as a thank you for sending you their way)
- Kari Roberts (Instagram: Kari and Company)
- My Writing Life Beginnings (“The Moment”): Part 1 and Part 2
- Godin, Seth. The Practice: Shipping Creative Work. PORTFOLIO, 2020.
- “Turning Pro: Steven Pressfield.” Steven Pressfield | Website of Author and Historian, Steven Pressfield., 6 May 2020, stevenpressfield.com/books/turning-pro/.
- Moran, Victoria. “Episode 62 – How Jason Pinter Writes.” How Writers Write, 20 Jan. 2021, www.howwriterswrite.com/episode-62-how-jason-pinter-writes/. Brian Murphy is the host.
- Hope*Writers, hopewriters.com/.
- Roberts, Kari. “How To Launch Your Digital Product With Limited Time,” Thursday, May 20th, 9am EDT, Rebel Boss Summit, rebelbosses.com/.
Megan Willome says
Ann, I read this when you first posted it, but today I needed to read it again. I did, in fact, start a box with index cards and submitted for a year, but got discouraged when I only got one acceptance, and that, to a very small, regional magazine. Thanks for the nudge to start sharing again.
Ann Kroeker says
Now you’re a published author and a freelancer with decades of bylines. But that discouragement…it’s so hard. Next week in AK Coaching, I’m going to create some chat channels for people to talk about this kind of thing, the discouragement, the joys, the successes. It’s lonely out there. We need other writers to tell us we can get through.