Featured, Theory & Essay

Six Tips For Everyone Who’s Ever Emailed Me For Advice On How To Start A Blog Or How To Write For A Living

1. Perhaps, because I’ve managed to create a popular blog and etch out a career where people pay me money to write words about things on a computer screen so that people can read them, you’ve assumed that I have unique insights to offer. This is understandable, as you’re not the first and will not be the last person to assume that all successful people have unique insights on being successful that would be applicable to everyone, but you specifically.

Unfortunately, this is not true. I have no template to offer and no substantive and specific advice to give. I could, however, tell you how it worked and continues to work for me. That the only reason that VSB is what it is today is because I can’t (and don’t want to) do anything else. That the only way for a nigga from Pittsburgh with…

a) no interest in leaving Pittsburgh

b) an aggressively underwhelming resume (and no interest in getting a masters or PhD)

c) no ambitions to use writing as a springboard to eventually leave writing to do something else (like radio or TV or something)

d) no real interest in social media (or in being particularly social)

e) no connections to any Ivies or HBCUs or fraternities or universities or newspapers or large media platforms or NYC or D.C. or ATL or Chicago any other networks often available for us (Black people in media) to lean on for instant credibility or support

…to be able to do this for a living was to create my own shit and build it to the point that hopefully, maybe people would email and call me because they damn sure weren’t going to answer my emails and calls. That living in Pittsburgh actually helped me, because the cost of living here is so low that I was able to survive for a couple years on freelancing, steady but frequently late paychecks, and timely grants in a way that I wouldn’t have been able to in a bigger city. That I wasn’t very good at writing when I started blogging but worked very hard to get better because I was scared to fucking death of what would happen if I didn’t. That I vacillate daily — hourly even — between believing I’m the shit and believing I’m still not any good. That fear and a sneaky ambition to be the best at what I do are my primary muses. My only muses, really.

But, again, this is what is working for me. I do not know if it would work for you, so I can not tell you to do what I did and what I’m doing because I have no fucking clue what would happen to you if you did.

2. I can, however, tell you to just figure out what you want to write about, and just start writing, I guess.

3. And, if you do choose to do that, know that you’re going to suck at it for a while. You are going to be fucking terrible. If you keep with it and, over time, get better, you’re going to read the shit you’re writing now, and you’re going to cringe so hard that you’ll want to jump out of a window.

(Also, I should probably let you know that back when I wasn’t getting my emails returned and pitches accepted, my first reaction was incredulousness. It was them, I thought, not me. Because I was fucking awesome. But it was totally, absolutely, 100% me. I just wasn’t good enough. Your friends and family might not tell you that, but time will.)

4. Know that if you want to get better you have to get used to being lonely. Because it’s going to take thousands and thousands of lonely hours reading and writing (mostly reading) for you to do that. Actually, getting used to being lonely isn’t enough. You have to enjoy loneliness. Prefer it to (most) people, even.

5. Also, become well-acquainted with doubt, anxiety, sleeplessness, fatigue, jealousy, jitters, the tenuousness of mettle and confidence, angst, disappointment, vacillation, worry, and, occasionally, panic. These will be your new best friends. Treat them well, and feed them peanuts. (They like peanuts.)

6. Or don’t do any of this. And just keep living the life you were living before you sent that email.

That’s all I have. I hope this helps.

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Damon Young

Damon Young is the editor-in-chief of VSB. He is also a columnist for GQ.com And he's working on a book of essays to be published by Ecco (HarperCollins). Damon is busy. He lives in Pittsburgh, and he really likes pancakes. Reach him at damon@verysmartbrothas.com. Or don't. Whatever.

  • Roz

    “Just Do It” – an advice to be used as applicable.

  • Courtney Wheeler

    You just gave me hope Damon… *sigh*
    https://media.giphy.com/media/Btx7hTw6C8EqQ/giphy.gif

  • Very well said. I know that it’s difficult to tell people work your a$$ off without coming off like a jerk, but you did it. I’m proud of you.

    This is reminiscent of my days on the bench. There’s an old chestnut in the academic science world about undergraduates being glorified babies, and looking back, I definitely understand. There was the day I mucked up some data collection because I was too hung over on Kamikazes to do anything other than walk and shower, somehow. There was the hours doing data analysis on stuff that I’d do, and have done, while commenting on VSB. Or while watching Lexington Steele’s latest oeuvre. Or following the latest sports game. There’s the confusion about how to do basic things, and the polite smiles from your colleagues as they show you something that comes off as basic as the seashells in Demolition Man.

    But anything worth doing requires effort. It’s just when it comes together, it becomes something beautiful. There ain’t no freebies.

    • Alessandro De Medici

      Isn’t that kind of the strength or the myth behind the self-help industry and the relationship advice hustle? A strategy to avoid the risk of failure…

      Most of the advice people want is how to follow a blueprint and then voila arrive at the same result or zenith that the person they admire did, or you know, find their dreams ha. However, it’s like MJ used to say about working out in the gym and waking up at 4:00 am to work out and shoot hoops…success comes with a lot of pain, suffering and misery, the stuff that’s usually missing in the biographies and self-help books.

      The secret is that there’s a thin line between success and addiction…and no, there’s no such thing as a healthy addiction.

    • Valerie

      Mass Effect Andromeda is currently distracting me but I agree you have to limit distractions. I wanted to move out of desktop support so I started looking for what roles I could move into and I got interested in servers. Instead of asking someone to teach me I installed Linux and got to work.

      • TheUnsungStoryteller

        I liked your new Avi! I haven’t heard about Linux in awhile. Like since I was a teenager. My dad taught me how to use it.

        • Valerie

          Thank you. Yeah people still use Linux. Valued actually. Without being too technical they have different flavors out there for different preferences.

      • How is Andromeda? I’m a huge Mass Effect fan but I’ve heard so-so reviews.

        • Valerie

          The game is great. Combat system is so fluid. You can actually move and the game is made to where staying in cover is not good. The crafting is awesome. You can make your own strong armor and guns. People are complaining about how weird the humans looks compared to aliens but honestly it’s not bad. I feel like people are nitpicking. The character customization could be better. Oh and the story starts off slowly.

          I love the game. Don’t listen to other people. Once you’ll play it you’ll love it.

          • God, I have so many games on queue. Still got the two DLCs for the Witcher 3, Final Fantasy 15, Zelda, and now this….

            • Valerie

              I’ve never played the Witcher series is it really that good?

              • I never played the first two games. The Witcher 3 is so much fun. Immersive, challenging, funny.

                • Valerie

                  Challenging? How?

                  • My character build is very strong and I still get wrecked by monsters if I’m not careful. You can taken on humans easy enough but just running off to fight monsters without the right buffs gets you slaughtered very quickly.

      • Young Olu

        That is the beauty of IT… You can teach yourself pretty much any aspect of it. The challenge becomes being able to communicate that to the recruiter to get you that interview.

        • Valerie

          Exactly. I think I’m going to it on my resume as Side Projects or something. It is hard trying to communicate what else you know on a resume if not directly tied in with your job.

    • Val

      “Working from home is fun!”

      It is. But it requires some serious discipline.

      • Alessandro De Medici

        I do it, from time to time…and yeah discipline is an understatement…

        Especially when working with startups.

      • miss t-lee

        I don’t think I could do it. Plus I need the social aspect of leaving the house daily.

        • Val

          VSB actually fills most of the social aspect of work that I missed in the beginning.

          • miss t-lee

            That’s awesome.

          • kingpinenut

            I got to get out the house a few times each week for my sanity….

            • Val

              Lol I can leave the house, KP. And I usually do.

      • It definitely does. It requires more of it now that it’s my part time thing. Boundaries are key.

      • I couldn’t do it. I don’t care for people like that but I need to leave the house.

        • Val

          That’s the great thing, Wu. You can leave whenever you want. I went out this morning.

          • check the price of guavas please

            • Val

              What does a guava look like?

      • Roz

        Same with online schooling.

        • Alessandro De Medici

          Did that too.

          Honestly, it was better for me. I hate the college environment, outside of parties and sheit. Plus everything I’ve learned, worth knowing and that has been of practical value to me, has been learned outside of school, because I wasn’t doing it for the grade.

          • Roz

            I like the traditional classroom and the thought to going to class in the morning. I also am easily distracted.

      • Ess Tee

        I started a new gig six months ago, and the option to telework exists. A couple times my manager has brought it up, and while I did an ad-hoc telework the week of the inauguration because I work downtown, I learned that week that it really does require discipline.

        I already have my little office nook carved out in my apartment, but still there are many distractions. I also want to be able to separate my work life from my home life, so I’ve not opted into telework.

        • Val

          Takes a while to get into a rhythm. But once you do it’s great.

      • Glo

        I’m too extroverted for that. I had a job where I had to work from home 3 times a week, and I almost lost my mind.

        • Val

          it does take a certain personality type. I’m an introvert, so it works great for me.

        • TheUnsungStoryteller

          Yeah…I NEED to see people constantly 9-5 p.m. in a job.

      • I work from home and I hate it.

        • Val

          Really? It’s not for everyone. What exactly do you hate?

          • I like building highly functional teams. Can’t do that at home.

      • La Bandita

        I don’t want to work from home, I love my home. It’s were all the luv and chex and making vegetables into pasta goes down.

    • KNeale

      I would love to see a post about balancing ‘other’ jobs/obligations while trying to write (as well as get writing related work). I can and wont anytime soon be able to quit my job. Life situation is not there AT ALL. And it is so hard to do ‘my thing’ (write!) in a serious way when you are so drained and so busy with other schitt!! And all I want is to take myself serious! Lol. Thats sounds silly but I want to be able to say (no matter if it never leads to money or publishing or accolades but really and truly for myself) that I write everyday (or some kind of commitment). I need help with time management and multi taksing!

      Tell me how you multi task. I lose steam on certain things if I turn my attention away too much or too long. When I gets to commenting on VSB for example its very hard for me to get back to work.

      • The secret, I learned taking Women’s Studies in college. Seriously. :)

        Let me explain. I ended up needing to take Women Studies 101 to fill a core cirriculum requirement for human diversity. (I could have taken Africana Studies, but I would have had to get up at 8 AM on a Monday. NOAP.) I figured out two things quickly. One is that, save for the Black feminists, I didn’t get a good gosh darn about this stuff. Two is that if I didn’t do the reading, there was no way in h e l l I was going to pass this class.

        What I ended up doing was declaring 2 hours a day 3 days a week Women’s Studies time. No matter what else was going on, I HAD to do my reading for the class then, if nothing else. As a result, I was able to keep up with the reading, and even got a B+ in the class.

        Lesson? Boundaries for your time are clutch. That’s the only way I get things accomplished.

  • FarbissinaPunim

    I literally *JUST* contacted y’all about submitting a piece. Needed to read this. #AlwaysOnTime

  • I have a blog that I write on from time to time. It’s just for fun though because I have a lot of opinions and nowhere to put them. I already know it’s a mess, and would be far too intimidated to submit anything to anyone really.

  • #5 is me everyday as is

    • Roz

      There’s a lot of things I legit talk myself out of doing – not because it’s harmful or detrimental or anything, but because “I’m not enough” which sounds harsher than “You need more people” and not as sweet as “maybe tomorrow”. *Le sigh*

      • FarbissinaPunim

        This was me in grad school ALL. DAY.

        • Michelle is my First Lady

          Oh, I was pulling my hair out in grad school.

      • TheUnsungStoryteller

        ME EVERY SINGLE DAY. Even when I KNOW I am a writer.

    • SoonToBeMrs

      Like personality wise? I thought IG thots like confident egotistical over bearing men, no?

      • I’m not aiming for IG Thots my love

        • SoonToBeMrs

          I’m teasing you.

  • Michelle is my First Lady

    #5 is me all day. I am in my head way too much. In terms of writing, I would edit, edit again, and edit once more until I get something perfect.

    • ¿edit?

      • Michelle is my First Lady

        Hi.

        • Hola. I don’t think I’ve edited a single personal thing I’ve written in my life. Unless it was a class writing assignment where the project was to edit, I’ve never edited

          • Michelle is my First Lady

            Lucky you. I always self-edit. There is always a more suitable word to add there… remove this sentence … change that up. Yeah, it gets pretty bad.

            • Gotta be careful with editing. Perfect is the enemy of good.

              I get around it by only allowing myself three edits. After that, you just gotta submit to the professor or post on the blog.

              • Michelle is my First Lady

                Absolutely. You know, that is a good rule to follow. I may have to steal that from you.

  • Valerie

    Well said. When people asked me how do you become a web developer/server administrator, I give them the same answer. You have to do it and put time into it.

    Web development: You must have a passion for what you do, build and code. Learn graphic design as well. Keep building and keep coding. Yes your stuff will suck but you have to keep going.

    For server administration I tell them: get old laptop or desktop, install Linux Server(I like Ubuntu), play around on it. Build your own servers, make it secure. Keep going, keep building.

    • Alessandro De Medici

      Most people ain’t about that life lol.

      • Valerie

        They aren’t which is why I said you have to have a passion for what you do.

        • Alessandro De Medici

          Lol, but I almost feel like that’s way too generic, which is why people don’t get the message. I always point out to people, you know how anti-social most programmers/coders are, are you willing to become like them? If the answer is no, go do something else.

          It’s not that you’re destined to become some kind of anti-social know it all by becoming a developer or programmer, it’s just that a certain type of person becomes that, because of the biases, mindsets and interests that attract people to those fields.

          It’s the same reason why most athletes are unlikely to be deeply intellectual thinkers. It’s not that their not smart, but a lot of their mental energy and focus has been dedicated to developing in one field, usually at the expense of others.

          • Valerie

            To be in the technology field you cannot be scared of failure and you MUST be a problem solver. That is what we do, we solve problems. If your coding or script is off you must fix it. Can’t wait for someone to do it for you. Not everyone has that mentality, some give up. So I disagree with the antisocial stereotypes. If anything coders/programmers/sysadmins are introverts. Constantly thinking and in our heads but that does not mean we don’t like people.

            I specifically make my answers generic because I know most people aren’t about that life. You even said it seemed like a lot of work lol.

  • Michelle is my First Lady

    Also, Panama, if you’re reading this. Nsync all day.

    • fedup

      “Nsync all day”

      Too many questions, not enough time.

      • Michelle is my First Lady

        Panama posted some crazy mess on FB the other day – that the Backstreet Boys were better than Nsync.

        • Roz

          But they are…*runs away*

          • Michelle is my First Lady
            • Roz

              LMFAO!!! I’m stealing this

          • Ess Tee

            Right. Only Backstreet had me all up and through their concert special, singing along in my living room.

            *NSYNC did, however, provide space and opportunity for Darrin’s Dance Groove to exist, so maybe that’s a tally in their column.

            (“Ain’t. No. Lie. Bye. Bye. Bye.”)

        • fedup

          Oh, wow. Yeah, he was definitely misinformed there. BSB better than Nsync? Couldn’t be further from the truth.

        • TheUnsungStoryteller

          He had a point though.

        • Brass Tacks

          Because they are and since when has VSB had a FB?

          • Michelle is my First Lady

            1) they’re not 2) not sure how long but there is one

  • fedup

    “But it was totally, absolutely, 100% me. I just wasn’t good enough. Your friends and family might not tell you that, but time will.”

    Then the question becomes, should we (as supportive family members) tell our loved ones the truth, or should we continue to be the one place where they can come to hear feel good message?

    A member of my family is trying to be a photographer. This person got a nice DSLR (Nikon D3300 bundle), and some other accessories and goodies as a gift. the person can take some really amazing photos at times, but is inconsistent in depth and quality of the photos (unprofessional opinion), and doesn’t spend enough time just going out to shoot to perfect stuff. And, spends more time worrying about building a website (a year on, still unfinished), putting together a pricing plan (only wants to shoot models; spends alot of time on scrolling through IG model pages), and just generally isn’t progressing for having been into this for at least a year and a half. And, whenever the need to get out there and shoot more is mentioned, the person always starts going to the fact that they need a better camera, more equipment, yada yada yada.

    I love this person to death, and I’m trying to be supportive, but also be realistic, and let them know that they could be better, and can be better with more time and effort. But, is that my role, as a family member?

    • Valerie

      Tell them the truth. If they want to be better, they are going have to hear the truth and risk rejection. Sounds like he is distracting themselves and making excuses so they don’t have to work on their passion. They might need a better motivation.

      • Roz

        Some of that truth can be heard as “hating”. There is a proverb in my hometown that goes “A prophet gets no love in his hometown”. You could be a well meaning family member/friend but people would prefer to hear critique from outside sources. On the other hand, some family members can fail to see your talent unless someone else sees or vouches for it.
        In essence, it can go both ways.

        • `Abdu’l-Karim Ewing-Boyd

          luke 4:24. Hardcore for real.

          • miss t-lee

            Whew!

    • A writer ought be getting feedback from other writers. Family members are not impartial and even if they want to be honest, they may not know how to communicate feedback beyond “good” and “bad.”

      • fedup

        Good point. Mine opinion definitely isn’t from a place expertise.

      • Ess Tee

        Not only other writers, but someone who is well-read and whose opinions you can trust on the matter. I’ve sent short stories to a poet friend to read, and he’s given awesome feedback. I’ve also had a good friend who is an avid reader read my stuff, and she was great with the feedback as well.

        • Agreed. Most people seek advice from people who don’t know what they’re talking about.

      • TheUnsungStoryteller

        I learned this like…last week. LOL.

    • I get what you’re saying, and sometimes, you have to realize that you’re going to f*ck all the way up, and make peace with it. I know when I did the consulting thing, I had a plan, but I was also willing to chuck some of it. What ended up making the money wasn’t what I initially thought it was. Being too specific with goals can kill you. Sometimes, you have to say screw it, get hit, and then, knowing your goals, figure out what to do next. Your relative is trying way too hard.

      • fedup

        That’s funny, I think he’s not trying hard enough. But on the “need more/better equipment, need to get my pricing plan down” thing, for sure. He’s young yet. So there’s time.

        But your analysis is my LIFE I am not doing what I went to school for, but am making more money than I would have (whether it’s enough is a completely different story). Even the best laid plans can, and usually do change.

    • Ess Tee

      It sounds as though your family member is under the impressions that spending dough on all the goodies will magically make his talent flourish. That’s gonna be a hard nut to crack.

    • Good Lord.
      It is no way shape or form “the equipment.” Your fam should try to broaden his subject matter, concentrate on lighting, exposure. Stay away from that instagram hype too. Unless his dslr can perform all those functions – skip that.
      Shoot EVERYTHING. Take “photowalks”. Visit sites (like the one I belong to) to get advice and info from novices and experts alike. You go to the forum, type in a question or concern, by the time you log back in…boom, answers galore.

    • cdj

      It depends, I guess. You’re being honest and supportive, which is how family should be, in my opinion. Is this family member the kind of person who has to learn lessons the hard way? If so, maybe a watch and wait approach is best.

    • porqpai

      If he really doesn’t enjoy photography for the sake of photography itself, he just might not be into it enough to make it work. You can’t box yourself in like that with creative works. You gotta really dig the tediousness of going after that great shot. I once stood out in the cold until my camera said, “nah bih this ain’t the move it’s too cold.” Just to get the right shot. It’s te only hobby I have that I don’t even try to get paid for anymore because I love it for itself. Just saying, have hi. Question which parts of all that he’s really passionate about and pursue them.

      And sometimes beingg supportive just means being happy they still have the drive to try. Being happy that they are still getting joy ( if not money ) from it enough to keep going.

    • cyanic

      Sounds like a former friend of mine. She did not like the truth from me. She takes pictures also.

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