How I Became A Writer

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I met Helen online. I never thought I’d be the kind of person to find ‘the one’ over the internet, but that’s what people do now. Between working all day and avoiding the gym all night, there’s almost no time at all to break out the duty-free aftershave and pretend 30 is still young enough for night clubs. After two restaurant celebrations in one month where I dined opposite an empty chair while my three best friends sat across from their various wives and fiancées, things were getting silly. I resolved to jump into online dating. It seemed easy enough. I picked a site. I wrote a bio. I uploaded some pictures. Things were quiet to begin with, but then around day six I hit the jackpot. Helen, 29, nurse, tall, brunette, blue eyes, freckles. I had to say something, but what? She looked like she knew a thing or two about fashion, so I sent a message asking whether I should purchase a black or a grey suit for an upcoming family wedding. An hour later, I got my reply. Blue, she said, with brown shoes. That was two and half years ago. Ever since, she’s learned everything there is to know about me. But if there’s one thing she’s never quite fully understood, and I must admit it’s something that a lot of people tend to question, it’s how on earth I came to be gainfully employed as a writer. Tapping away at a keyboard no doubt reminds people of boring work emails and the obligatory once a year Facebook reply to that persistent ex school friend who not only still wears a festival wrist band from Springsteen at Glasto ’09 but who insists on calling everybody bro-ski. How can writing be fun? Who would want to do words for a living? Well, for Helen, and for anybody else who may be curious, here is my story.

 

Mike wanted to go to Greece and Spain and Finland. I told him that we only had 15 days to get around Europe and that these places were too far apart to make sensible use of our time. I instead opened a map and plotted a journey that would take in seven countries, starting in the Czech Republic and skirting around the edge of Germany until conking out broke and sleep deprived in Holland. Mike agreed that this was a much better plan. We bought flights, train tickets, walking shoes, and satisfyingly large backpacks that came with convincing chest straps and shoulder reflectors. Snazzy. Mike even bought a notepad and a pen, unbeknownst to me. But more about that later. This was 2008. I had just graduated from uni and I wanted to see some of the world before resigning myself to a life of rainy commutes and pension schemes. Aside from anything, I had no idea what I wanted to do with my life, and 15 days’ grace sounded excellent.

 

Somewhere in the Swiss Alps, on an overnight train that had bunk beds stacked three high, Mike produced his notebook. We’d seen Prague, Vienna, Munich, and Milan. Now en route to Zurich, Mike decided he was going to pen his thoughts on the trip so far, for posterity. He flipped open the plastic cover and clicked the pen to attention. “Who was the girl with the ponytail in that bar? Remember?”, he asked. “And her mate, and what was that place with the big building that we went up?”. Over the next few minutes I watched in quiet frustration as Mike scribbled some barely legible notes that made no mention of anything useful, and in fact amounted to a list of girls’ names next to a drawing of Prague’s Astronomical Clock Tower. He couldn’t spell Astronomical, so a picture would have to do. I tactfully asked if I could take over, and he gladly relinquished command of the stationary, realising he was in over his head. Then something happened. Slowly at first, but never the less transfixing and all the time gathering momentum. Two hours passed. I wrote down everything. Absolutely everything. The people, the architecture, the red poster on the door of our first hostel that forebodingly advertised some sort of nearby retailer of whips and leathers. I found I could recall everything with crisp clarity, all ordered in perfect chronology with little jokes here and there thrown in where I’d noticed something funny. This was awesome.

I kept avid and thorough notes throughout the remainder of my European travels. Upon returning to British soil, I set to work on compiling my hard work into a book. A travel diary, of sorts. This took around six months. I took work in a call centre in the meantime, but I knew that writing was the only thing that would interest me. But how to get paid for it?

 

I hopped online and did my research. I joined an agency who asked very little in the way of experience, but did require a sample of writing before being considered for one off paid blogging work. I sent in a chapter of my book, and I was accepted the same day. I was given the contact details of my assigned editor, to whom I was to submit my writing. But the call never came. After a week or two I searched again for writing work. I came across a host of music and movie sites that were desperate for freelance writers. I used my silent agency as my way in. I submitted some of my own blogs and passed them off as paid work. I was welcomed aboard. The pay wasn’t up to much, and sometimes all I was guaranteed was reimbursement for cinema tickets. But I did receive free albums in the post, and I knew this was all good experience. Again, I received the contact details of an editor, this time a chatty American who told me that the in-house style was to use the Oxford comma and to always update the FTP in full to avoid duplication with other writers. I had absolutely no idea what he meant by any of this, and I set about copying and pasting entire chunks of his email into Google. The Oxford comma was straight forward enough. I was happy with that. The FTP needed a bit more work. It stood for File Transfer Protocol, and it was essentially an online hub that allowed multiple users to download task requests and upload the completed work. Fine. I thought. Let’s do this.

 

A month later, I joined another movies-and-music style website. My knowledge of FTPs came in handy. Then I joined another, and another. I soon found I was selling travel insurance by day and rushing home to moonlight as an arts and entertainment critic. But still it wasn’t enough to give up the day job. I searched for local full-time writing jobs. I knew I was still learning and I knew I couldn’t exactly apply to be the next editor of the Telegraph just yet. I’d been doing this for around a year, and I found a small part time role that would provide the ideal next step. I was to become the copywriter for a small online business magazine. The company was home to three staff and a dog called Buster. I was required to present myself twice a week, which suited me fine as my call centre work afforded me some mid-week time off, so long as I could make up the hours at the weekend.

 

A month passed. I was now working for seven movies-and-music websites from home and one local business website, where for a few hours a week I shared a desk with another wannabe writer named Jen, who was about my age. She was on something of a similar career path to me, and told me that there was a new lifestyle magazine opening nearby soon. She was moving away from the area and wasn’t going to apply, but she encouraged me to give it a go. I sent a speculative email and I was instantly invited to an interview. The director of the magazine was impressed with my online work and, after giving me a once over, gave me a full-time job as a writer for his magazine. This was it. I had made it. I quit the call centre and never looked back. My friends couldn’t believe it. I had an office. A proper office. To myself. With a desk and a phone and everything. But things are never that simple, however, and the start-up magazine folded under pressure from established competition within a year. Now unemployed, I needed options. After a brief search, I discovered a local law firm was advertising for an SEO copywriter. A what? SEO copywriter? What is this SEO stuff? I quickly learned that Search Engine Optimisation was the way forward for me and my career. Learning how to write for the web such that the writing could be found and ranked by Google was a welcome and rewarding challenge. I was invited in for an interview on the strength of my magazine and online experience, and I decided to come clean and explain that my knowledge of SEO was in its infancy but that I was hot on the trail. I listed my sources of online self-learning on the topic, and to my surprise I’d been researching the latest SEO updates much more thoroughly than the web team I was trying to join. They asked me what I made of the newest updates, and how these updates could potentially impact the company, and what I’d do to stay on the right side of Google. I answered and they made notes. One of the team even followed me to the lift on the way out and wrote down everything I had to say on page title length and opening sentences. I started the following Monday.

 

To cut a long story short, years later here I am. Still writing. About to enter my ninth year of writing, in fact. Since learning the dark arts of online copywriting, I have produced SEO content for virtually every industry going. Restaurants, a record label, real estate, a live stream doctor app, a jazz club, you name it and I’ve probably got a page ranking top spot on Google out there somewhere. I have now joined the most qualified, bright, moreish marketing gang on the planet. Here at Marketing Signals, everybody is open, friendly, and wildly knowledgeable on what it takes to make Google take notice. My journey has brought me here, and I couldn’t be happier.

 

There may be many ways to become a writer. But that is my story.

 

Thanks for reading.

 

Ben Atherton
Ben Atherton About the author

Ben is a grammar guru with a passion for the written word. Upon graduating in 2008, he trekked across Europe and produced his first travel book. A career in SEO copywriting for the law, music, and food industries followed, before recently spending a year in the role of magazine editor for a national publication.

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