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What got me writing

tomfern profile image Tomas Fernandez Originally published at tomfern.com ・4 min read

When I started freelancing, I never imagined I would end up writing for a living. Never in a hundred years. Yet, I've been doing it full-time for almost a year now.

I got interested in freelancing because I wanted to try something different. I needed a break from the office routine. The job was OK. I had excellent colleagues and was friends with everyone. And while it wasn't making me rich by any means, I never lacked for anything. It was a comfortable job—perhaps too much.

The trouble was that going to the office got harder and harder as time passed. It got to the point that I started sensing that the whole thing was a terrible waste of time. Meetings and busywork consumed most of my and everyone else's workday. Going back and forth to the office four days a week (+1 home office day) took too long and squandered too much energy. At least that's how I perceived it.

Now, don't get me wrong, I know meetings and some degree of paperwork is unavoidable. I do. I'm fine with that. I made my peace with that; it's just how companies work. But there is a point where bureaucracy takes over, and I felt we had long gone past it.

At first I thought that maybe I needed to change jobs. So I updated my resume, went to a few interviews, and even landed an offer that would have meant a substantial pay bump. In all honesty, when it was time to make the decision, I realized that I wasn't too excited about the change—it felt like swapping one office for another. I realized that more money just wouldn't cut it.

One friend who was already a freelancer recommended me to try Upwork. The way he described it sounded great, just what I needed. So I created a profile and started sending proposals for jobs I thought I could do.

Freelancing was a whole new and intimidating universe. It was exciting and scary. I did a few programming jobs here and there, I coded a chatbot, I did some database migrations.

One day I saw a job post asking for a 2000-word PHP installation tutorial. I knew PHP and MySQL pretty well, so I figured that it was easy money. By that time, I already had a personal blog with a few posts, and I thought that alone qualified me. So, without thinking too much about it, I sent my proposal. After all, how long could it take? Two thousand words... easy peasy, piece of cake... easy as falling off a log.

I landed the job and said I would have it in 2 days, 3 tops.

Boy, did I planning-fallacy-ed the thing...

I spend 2 entire days just writing down the steps and taking screenshots. Then 3 more writing the damn thing (all this while I did my daytime job). It dawned on me that proper writing is much harder than blogging for fun. It was exhausting, fun, and sleep-depriving. And when the draft got accepted, I was incredibly proud.

That was the point I started considering writing as a job.

In the following months, a lot of people were very kind and let me write for them. One person took a big chance and gave me enough work to take the plunge and try writing as a full-time job, for which I'll be eternally grateful.

So, what I like about writing

It's different

Professional writing is different than any other job I had. For me, it's the perfect mix of learning, playing, and working.

It's challenging

Putting words on paper is easy. Making them make sense and tell a story, not so much. Finding the correct tone, showing just the right amount of information, and figuring out how best to deliver is a balancing act. It's the kind of challenge that makes me want to keep trying harder.

Give something back

It feels good to contribute, even if it is only a grain of sand in the infinite expanse that is the Internet.

View things in a different light

Any text that doesn't consider the audience is destined to fail. Writing forces me to put myself in other people's shoes.

Has its own pace

There's no on-call duty, no overtime, no meetings back to back, and (usually) no super-long hours. Within certain limits, I can choose how many hours I want to work.

The other side of the coin is that staying productive at a consistent pace it's a lot more difficult. Some days I'm on fire. Others, I can't write a word to save my life. And there is no way of knowing until I sit and try.

Learn new things

Writing is a way of learning. If you ask me, it's one of the best ways. It has given me the chance to play with many wonderful technologies that I otherwise wouldn't have paid attention to.

Defrags the noggin

Writing forces me to put things down and examine them in the critical light of the narrative. I frequently find that what made sense in the nebulous circumvolutions of the mind breaks down into a mess of disconnected sentences and repeated words as soon as I put them on the screen.

Relearn old things

We've all been tripped by an innocent question while explaining something that we thought we knew well.
Without fail, writing reveals the flaws in our thinking and shows how well (or bad) we understand things.

Give it a try

Some people say that writing is art. That may be true for the likes of Poe or Bradbury. My problem with calling it art by default is that it puts it on a pedestal. For me, writing is like carpentry. It's a skill that must be honed every day. Something that takes time and effort, sure enough, but is entirely within reach of anyone.

So give it a try.

Discussion

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Mike Bybee

Some people say that writing is art. That may be true for the likes of Poe or Bradbury. My problem with calling it art by default is that it puts it on a pedestal. For me, writing is like carpentry. It's a skill that must be honed every day. Something that takes time and effort, sure enough, but is entirely within reach of anyone.
So give it a try.

Michelangelo didn't sculpt David the minute he decided to pick up a chisel. Beethoven had obviously been established in the music biz for a while before he was commissioned for his 1st Symphony, let alone his 9th. Or more relevant to the discussion, Victor Hugo didn't just immediately set to writing Notre Dame de Paris, let alone Les Miserables.

Writing is very much an art. Like any other form, it requires a great deal of practice and passion to master. Those who have mastered it absolutely deserve to have their works placed on a pedestal.

Even when writing an instructional blog post, those who excel find a way to keep the reader's attention. That may be achieved through humor. It's worth noting that nobody has managed to make me giggle like a schoolgirl quite like two of my favorite literary artists: Voltaire and Hunter S. Thompson. It may come from evoking strong emotions from the reader - I've yet to find someone as capable of tugging at the heartstrings like the aforementioned Hugo.

Why am I citing such examples? Because you can choose to settle for mediocrity, or you can aspire to create something great - and the great works if others can be a fantastic guide. What you write doesn't have to be The Brothers Karamozov, and that isn't the point. The point is that mediocrity is easy; something worthwhile (even as a blogger or a beat writer) takes practice, aspiration, and dedication.

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Tomas Fernandez Author

Hi Mike.

I'm not sure what part of what I've written could be construed as advising that we settle for mediocrity. I don't believe that at all. I'm all for continual improvement. If you work every day on something, there is no way of not improving.

That being said, I think there is a difference between literature and technical writing. The former allows, and even calls for, a measure of poetry and evocativeness that would get in the latter's way. In technical writing, we want to produce a chair, a reliable chair people can lean on and support them when they go about their work.

I'm not qualified to tell if writing is an art or not, who am I to say? But, in my experience, calling it art tends to dissuade people from trying it (it did for me, at least for a long time). And it's a shame, because writing is thinking, and we should practice thinking as much as possible.

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Mike Bybee

A chair can still be beautiful, even (and I'd argue especially) when form follows function. And sure, anybody can attempt to saw, lathe, and finish some wood into a chair, but you're going to need practice to make a good one - and nothing inspires practice (and innovation) like the desire to create something beautiful.

As for technical writing, you may not have the poetic license that I have writing songs, but there is still a need for some ingenuity to avoid being overly dry and to ensure conceptual understanding.

I could go on for hours about how our educational obsession with STEM outcomes (even in so-called STEAM programs) is killing the mixture of art and science (or if you prefer, craft) which is required to truly inspire rather than dissuade, but I hope this will suffice (otherwise, you're in trouble, because my verbosity is on par with Hugo's and Dostoevsky's, even if I haven't achieved the same poetic flourish in my prose).

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Tomas Fernandez Author

A chair can still be beautiful, even (and I'd argue especially) when form follows function. And sure, anybody can attempt to saw, lathe, and finish some wood into a chair, but you're going to need practice to make a good one - and nothing inspires practice (and innovation) like the desire to create something beautiful.

That's what I'm saying. Don't worry about art, just write and keep writing. The rest comes on its own time.

I could go on for hours about how our educational obsession with STEM outcomes (even in so-called STEAM programs) is killing the mixture of art and science (or if you prefer, craft) which is required to truly inspire rather than dissuade, but I hope this will suffice (otherwise, you're in trouble, because my verbosity is on par with Hugo's and Dostoevsky's, even if I haven't achieved the same poetic flourish in my prose).

I really couldn't comment on that since I'm not familiar with the American education system.

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Mike Bybee

I guess what I'm saying is this: Art is fuel for the soul. It shouldn't be thought of as a bad word, or something discouraging.

Done right, it gives us a vision of life as it can and ought to be (or conversely, rails in righteous indignation at life as it shouldn't and can't sustainably be). It takes abstract values and represents them in a recognizable, concrete form. We need it to envision a path forward. When we behold art which "speaks to us," the internal response is a life-affirming "yes."

That need can be seen across Dev in all the "What are you listening to while you code?" posts.

An example for the community at large: A common compliment to someone who writes software which is elegant, eloquent, and easy to read is "___'s code is poetry."

I think it's more discouraging to diminish writing as something more utilitarian than the art form it truly is.

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Tomas Fernandez Author

You have strong opinions on the subject, and I respect that. It sounds to me that you would enjoy writing a post about this topic, I would definitely love to read it.

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Diana Chin

This was a wonderful post. I’m currently learning full stack web development, but every now and then I would spend a few minutes a day writing some prompts and short stories. I might consider looking into Upwork again to see if they have any writing jobs available.

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Tomas Fernandez Author

Thank you! They do, and there's a lot of writing jobs posted. I'm can't say if Upwork is the best platform for that, it's just how I got started.

Best of luck on your learning!

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Lin Carters

This was a pleasant read, thank you for sharing your experiences.

"... what made sense in the nebulous circumvolutions of the mind breaks down into a mess ..."

I fall prey to this myself.

However, I recently came across an article, discussing that you should be able explain any topic in a way that a five year old could understand it, and that only then do you yourself actually understand the topic. I think that is an insightful viewpoint.

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Tomas Fernandez Author

Thank you. I agree 100%

Then again, 5-year-old children are far smarter than we give them credit for.

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Andrew Baisden

Good article what do you use for writing? I have been using Typora

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Tomas Fernandez Author

Thank you!

I use Vim + plugins for the initial outline and draft. Then, I do the edit on the Grammarly editor. Finally, I use pandoc to convert the draft to the final format, usually Markdown or docx, but it works with almost any other format.

I didn't know about Typora but it looks neat. I'm gonna give it a try.

I wrote about the plugins I use here: