Thoughts on Writing
It has been 45 years since I first got the idea of writing things people would notice. The first things I wrote were descriptions of electronic circuits I had designed – how they worked and what they would do. I did not have the literary skills of an author, but I had technical competence and a decent command of language. Most of all, I had a gift for explaining things in ways others could understand.
I did not realize it at the time, but those first missives were instrumental to success in my career in electronics. No one paid me for my writing, but it was my written words that brought me the work that sustained me. Even when my work spoke for itself I still had to write notes and proposals to get more.
In the mid 1980s I had moved into “executive” jobs where I was a manager, not a technical person, and it seemed like much of what I did was write and attend meetings, where things I had written about were discussed. In hindsight, I see the ability to write clearly was very important. Writing kept me employed, even though my job title was engineering manager, not writer.
When I quit electronics to fix cars, I set aside the Parker pen and the IBM Selectric typewriter. Now, I would be another kind of tradesman, picking up Snap-On wrenches instead. But the need to write was still there. I had to promote my fledgling business fixing cars. I had to establish my expertise. To do that, I began writing articles and submitting them to enthusiast magazines. I knew I could never buy a full page ad in a Land Rover magazine, but I was able to publish a full page article at no cost at all. The same was true for Rolls-Royce, Jaguar, Mercedes and other car magazines. I sent stories to all of them and most were accepted.
My business prospered and I saw links between my writings and people who brought work to the shop. “I read your article about . . . “ was the start of countless interactions.
Later on, when I looked on Internet writing forums, I saw how critical people were of that practice. Magazines who published the work of people like me without compensation were said to be taking advantage of us. I stopped giving people my articles for free. I began publishing them on my own websites, and licensing words and photos to groups who were willing to pay.
At some point in that journey I learned I am autistic and decided to write about that, in order to help young people like me see they could grow up to have good lives. That was the first “altruistic” writing I did. Seventeen years ago, my father died, and I wrote a story about that. My brother put it on his website, from which it was picked up by NPR and hundreds of thousands of people saw it. I was shocked. At the same time, my younger brother had written a book about our childhood that had become a bestseller, and I found some of his readers suggesting I write my story.
I did that, and when Look Me in the Eye came out, it and the writing that followed put me in front of millions. That book was the right story at the right time, and the success of the first book led me to write a second, a third, and a fourth. I wrote a dozen chapters for academic books and hundreds of articles. So many people read them that I became known not as an engineer, or a fixer of cars, but as an author. Despite that, I have always felt like a tradesman who uses words in furtherance of the trade.
While I was writing on autism and neurodiversity I continued working on cars. Or rather, I continued running a business that worked on cars. While the car company still does a lot of service, I found a more creative outlet in the restoration side of the business which has grown from nothing to most of what I do in the past decade. Writing is absolutely essential to that.
In the automotive sphere there are many large companies. An individual like me can never compete with them for ad space. The only way to build a reputation as a restorer was how I started in the 1980s – by writing stories about fixing cars and offering them to magazines. Sure, I read how magazines took advantage of “poor writers” like me, when they printed my stories. And I understand, the market may seem limited. If you were a publisher, how much would you pay for a 2,500 word article on rebuilding convertible tops on Bentley Azures? With fewer than 1,000 such cars in North America that is a pretty niche market, compared to writing about growing up with autism – something that affects one in thirty American families.
Let me share a secret. The “free” articles I have written about those arcane topics have brought a ton of work into our shop. They established our company as top experts and were instrumental to the success we enjoy today. Don’t think for a second I was taken advantage of by letting those magazines print my stories.
If I look at the return, per word, for the specialized car articles versus my bestselling books, the return per word on car articles is much greater than anything else I have written. Now, plenty of people would argue that the social value of my writing on autism and neurodiversity has brought far more to the world. I agree, and I’m proud of that, but it does not change the fact there would never have been a Look Me in the Eye if I had not first built a business that gave me the freedom to take the time to write on autism.
If you are someone who dreams of making money from writing, there is an important lesson here. It is incredibly hard to write a book, get an agent to read it, and get a publisher to buy and publish it. Once it comes out the odds of having a bestseller are tiny. Real financial success is so rare.
Writing those “free” stories – as I have done for 45 years – and using them to advance in business, build a reputation, or gain work for yourself or your company – that is surprisingly easy to do. If you do it right, you don’t need a bestseller to make a living from your words.
It’s just like when I got into engineering rock and roll music. Millions of kids dream of being a hit singer, and the competition is intense. Who dreams of being the sound engineer? I was able to walk in and go right to work keeping the shows running. So what if I didn’t sing.
Many people believe you get a job in academia by going to college, getting a doctorate, and then applying for work. In my case, my academic appointments at William & Mary and then at Landmark College were a direct result of the power of my written words. No doctorate was involved. That may seem unusual today but 100 years ago it was common. Words have a power that transcends more ephemeral things like a college degree. A degree cannot convey your powers of reason the way your words can.
People ask what my next book will be. I expect I have more to say, but at this time I don’t have a topic. I do have ideas. Whatever I end up doing, know this: Any book I write will be made possible by the money and security I have derived from writing seemingly pedestrian things all my life. If you want to be a writer, that is the path to success. Don’t try to write a bestseller. Be a tradesman with your words, and write what is useful and build a life around it.
Sometimes success in writing isn’t what you think it is. Writing is what got me where I am, but not in most direct manner.
John Elder Robison