Wednesday, July 25, 2012

It's a Living: Q & A on Making Money as a Writer w/ Yi Shun Lai

I am so happy to introduce my readers to Yi Shun Lai. 

Yi Shun Lai ( has been a writer and editor for over 15 years. She's written or edited for The Los Angeles Times, the Christian Science Monitor, the J. Peterman catalog, and Audubon magazine. She makes her living writing corporate copy and executing content strategy. 

She writes literary essays and short fiction and is the fiction editor for the Los Angeles Review ( She is currently earning her MFA at the Northwest Institute of Literary Arts ( She tweets as @GoodDirt.

I am grateful that Yi Shun graciously agreed to answer a few questions about the art of making a living from one's words.

Q: What are some of the most common misconceptions you encounter when people hear that you are a writer?

1. "That's a real job?"
2. "What do you do to make money?"
3. "For a magazine or a newspaper?"

A1. YES.
A2. I write.
A3. Every kind of printed or digital media; it's not mutually exclusive; and those aren't the only options.

Q: What sort of groundwork or foundation would you advise a writer to lay before expecting to see much income from one's writing? 

Have a portfolio ready to show people.  A couple of good clips can go a long way.

Know your basic skills, like who to talk to and how to query each media outlet: If you're querying someone about populating their social media feed, you need to know who's in charge of managing that part of the company, and what they're looking to do. If you're looking to write for a hyper-local news source, be ready to show the editor things they'll want to see, like blog posts about the community you want to write for. If you're trying to get into the copywriting gig or journalism and you don't have clips, be ready to do some work on speculation--that means you won't get paid for the work if the company doesn't take it, but at least you'll have your foot in the door.

And for God's sake, know your grammar and your basic rules of punctuation. Something as basic as that can set you apart from the pack.

Network. Get to know your fellow writers and editors, from people who write advertising copy to folks who write literary essays.

Know your worth. Don't sell your words short.
Q: Is it all about the bottom line? Or are there instances where giving one's expertise away can help a writer's career?

It's definitely not just about the bottom line. A long time ago other writers bought me meals and gave away their expertise. I take their example and do the same things for other beginning writers. Our community may feel large, but word gets around. Being selfish with your knowledge, expertise, and connections will get you nowhere.

Beyond that, though, let's take this situation: If an editor for a magazine approaches me because I've written for her before, that's always a good thing. If she asks me to write an article about a story I have no background or experience in covering, that's flattering, but it also might be a recipe for disaster. It's more than likely I'll know someone else who has better experience--and connections--in that field. So I make the introduction. And now the editor's happy because she's got another writer in her stable; the other writer is happy because she has a new story to cover, and I'm happy because I could facilitate the connection. But further down the line, the editor will think of me as a trustworthy source, and the other writer will think of me when she comes across a story she may not be able to cover.

On a more quotidian scale, things like joining a LinkedIn group that focuses on writing and editing will help you to share your knowledge. Answering questions for others boosts your expertise, and that's a really good thing: You may show up more often in searches that prospective editors or employers are conducting for writers.

Q: What are some things writers do that can jeopardize their income potential?

There are those writers who are unwilling to try new things. That's never a good move. Stretch your wings; see language in all of its different applications.

Q: What are some ways a writer can maximize his or her income?

Know what your value is: Don't sell yourself short.

Take the time to do it right the first time, even if you're writing 300-word blog posts or 140-character tweets. Every. Word. Counts.

Remember, too, that the things you write, from the tweet to the educational or technical article, can be re-crafted. I don't mean to imply that you should re-sell the same article over and over (your contract will preclude that, anyway), but you should take the knowledge you've gained from working on that article or in that field and parlay it into something new.

Q: What are some things a writer can do RIGHT NOW to improve his or her writing-related income?

Make sure you're updating your online profile consistently. If you've written something new, tell your network, even if it's just on Facebook and you're just telling your pals.

Start exploring things you're interested in: companies who sell the things you enjoy or media outlets that cover what you love to do might just be in need of writers or editors.

Sharpen up your editing skills. And, if you're terrible at timeliness, start working on that. Now.

And read. Start seeing everything as a potential place to practice your writing skills.

What is your favorite tip for maximizing your writing worth? Comment, please!


Claire Gebben said...

Great interview, thanks Amy and Yi Shun. The tips are stellar. I also find joining a local organization of professional writers for face to face contact is a terrific way to learn and share knowledge.

Miss Midwesterly said...

Thanks, Claire! And yes, you're right...writerly camaraderie is an excellent way to boost both your own knowledge and help others, and should be a primary step to making writing a business! Thanks for pointing it out!