How I Live and Work as an American Expat Writer (and You Can Too)

by Jerry Nelson Mar 03, 2017, 0 Comments

Expat Writer's Life

I'm the guy you read about in the ads promising a lazy life overseas as you pen the next major novel.

The guy that works from any of the hundreds of sidewalk cafes in Buenos Aires, travels to Uruguay to wander the avenidas, fishes for Piranha in the Amazon, camps in Patagonia, watches the monkeys play in the rainforest and spends the night in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid's cabin in Bariloche.

And then I write about it.

I live the life that thousands of people say they want to live. Someone said if you want to be doing something in life, find someone who is doing it, and then do what they do. I want to peel back the veil and show you what I do.

When it involves writing, and the expat life, there is no one-size-fits-all. Nothing I share will work for everyone. But everyone can find something that works. Find that thing. Make it your own. Take the rest and modify to fit your situation.

Typical Work Day

My day begins at one of the hundreds of sidewalk cafes. Check email. See what clients, new or old, may have requested overnight. Order coffee, pastry and get busy. It can be a simple glide into the writing zone when you're sipping espresso as the sun rises, the fog lifts from the river and the street sweepers sing their Spanish cadence.

My writing office this morning

That's when the words flow freely. Editing will come later. Now, it's time to get several hundred words in bits and bytes, so there is something to edit.

The challenging part of writing is not writing. It's getting started. It doesn't matter if the draft is shit — the turd will be polished later.

Writing Tools

ProWritingAid

Grammarly, AutoCrit and CopyScape are good tools. I used to make use of them a lot. Now, however, I've let them gather dust on my hard drive since I discovered ProWritingAid does everything they did and more, and it integrates with Scrivener. With PWA as my 'go-to,' I don't have to keep copying and pasting from program to program. It's all done in one place.

Scrivener

My favorite. Hands down. When I write, I'm not smart enough to write in a linear fashion. I skip. I jump around. I backtrack. Scrivener fits the way I write instead of forcing me into the boilerplate of conventional word processors.

Google Docs

Useful for anything that requires multiple links. I highlight the word(s), click the link icon and get a selection of appropriate URLs. I can also insert my own if Google doesn't find one that's perfect.

Scapple

Made by the Scrivener people, Scapple helps by making outlining and story structure easier to accomplish.

Twitter

Not just a marketing tool, but an excellent research platform. Doing an article about immigrants in New York City? There's probably a #hashtag on the subject. Twitter is top shelf for finding possible interviewees.

Evernote

My external brain. At my age, there's no way possible keep every article I've ever read where it's mentally retrievable. Another challenge is finding links and connections between what I'm currently working on and what I may have read last week — or last year.

Evernote accomplishes both.

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Workflow

One of the last things I do each evening is research for tomorrow's articles. For example, a Las Vegas lawyer may want an article looking at the problems created by the deportation of illegal immigrants in The Silver State. Typing in the Google search bar, "Nevada deportation challenges" returns just over a half million sources.

Right-clicking on a few which look promising I send those into Evernote. Then it's out to my balcony, which overlooks Rio de Plata, with the tablet and review the items and export the selected items in RTF for Scrivener. When I'm ready to write, my research is done.

Remember what I said about the hard part of writing is getting started? Compiling my research the night before helps here. Ernest Hemingway said, "Write until you come to a place where you still have your juice and know what will happen next."

Like Hemingway, I never face a blank page in the morning. Prior research puts me in a continuous and productive mode.

Marketing

Learn to market yourself and your work. Writers lean towards the introverted side of life and find it difficult to "put themselves out there." You can be the next Hemingway, but if no one reads your work, then your record-breaking novel will just reside on your hard drive taking up bits and bytes and won't journey past the keyboard. So learn to market yourself and your skills.

Start Where You Are

Don't wait until you're settled overseas. Start now. From your kitchen table. Wherever life circumstances find you, start now – and pitch. A lot. I'm fortunate in that I've been at this for a few years and have a sizable Rolodex and following. Work comes to me. If I was starting out today, and know what I know now, I would do two things:

  1. Pitch. Send out plenty of pitches. Finding a magazine, or website, is like mining for gold. You have to move a ton of earth to find that small nugget. One pitch a week won't do it. One a day won't work. Five to ten pitches each day would be a good start.

  2. Begin a blog. You'll get momentum on your side. You'll start to build a fanbase (see marketing above). You'll come to the attention of other travel writers and, with a little luck, travel magazines, and respected travel bloggers.

Then, when you land in your new paradise, you'll have some experience, a portfolio and much-needed exposure behind you. You'll have traction.

A Couple Last Tips

Never Work for Free

Your time is important, get paid for it. Beware of the Craigslist-type ads that tell you that writing for XYZ will be good exposure. People die from exposure. Writing for content mills is one small step away from writing for free. Pennies a word won't pay you a living wage.

Write for Free

However, there are a few times when pro bono work is the best choice. For example, a large part of the writing I do is about social justice issues. If I learn of a non-profit group that is doing an interesting — and worthy — body of work, I'll volunteer my time. It's not only altruism that goads me either.

Non-profits utilize volunteers. People that volunteer with non-profits tend to have discretionary time. Many of them own their own business and volunteering is their way of giving back. Do you see where I'm going with this? By writing an article for a non-profit which benefits the organization, my name will be seen by people who would otherwise never have learned about me or my work.

But be selective. If a physician contacts me to ghostwrite a blog for him, I'll invoice it out at $1/word. Nothing less. He's a professional and will be using my work to gain business. So, he'll pay me for it.

Is there an easy way to tell whether you should write for free or not? Yes. Who approached whom. If a site approached you about writing for them -- free -- it's probably best to run away and say no. With that in mind…..

Never Say No

There's no risk in saying no. There's no reward either. If the request is not immoral, unethical or illegal, I tend to say yes, and I say yes a lot. There's a payoff. Within each yes, a world of opportunity unfolds.

Read this next: Why Every Confident but Struggling Writer Needs a Blog


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About the Author:

I am an American freelance writer and ghostwriter now living the expat life in Argentina. Never far from my coffee and Marlboros, I am always interested in discussing future work opportunities. Email me at jandrewnelson2@gmail.com and join the million-or-so who follow my life and work on Twitter @ Journey_America. My latest book, Don't Polish the Turd and Other Writing Tips is available on Amazon.

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