Write for a Living?

I just finished a long and demanding editing job, right on deadline. For the last 10 days or so, it’s been taking up seven or eight hours of every waking day. I’ve learned over the years that my daily capacity for demanding word work is about seven or eight hours. Beyond that my brain goes on auto-pilot.

deadline miracleWriting and editing aren’t the same, but they both qualify as “demanding word work.” Over the last year or so, I’ve managed to maintain a pretty good balance: edit for five or six hours a day, write for up to two. The writer grabs the first two hours after waking, my absolute best creative time. (I’m an early riser, but my internal editor tends to sleep late. I’m also easily distracted by the events of the day once they start unfolding.)

So for 10 days or so, I’ve neither blogged nor worked on the novel. My writing has consisted of a few emails and the occasional post to Facebook. This is scary. The further I get from the practice of daily writing, the more certain I am that I’ll never get back to it. My writing, I fear, is like a fire in the woodstove. If it goes long untended, it will go out.

If only I didn’t have to work! I think. If only I could write for a living!

The same thought has probably crossed your mind. Maybe more than once. Maybe whenever life — specifically your paid job — gets in the way of the writing that you’d much rather be doing. Sound familiar?

When time-pressed writers imagine writing for a living, or at least writing as part of their job, they often aren’t thinking about going into journalism or academia. They aren’t thinking about writing lengthy reports for think tanks or government agencies, or how-to manuals for computer software and hardware. They definitely aren’t thinking of writing ad copy and jingles, although this may pay better than most of the other possibilities.

The fantasy is usually about making a living writing what we want to write. The big attraction is getting paid to do what we want to do.

I get it. Most of my life I’ve been able to make my living doing work that I enjoy, that I’m good at, and that seems useful to other people and sometimes even the world at large. It has nearly often involved the written word — but it’s rarely involved writing. During my several years working for a weekly newspaper, I got to write pretty much what I wanted to write — stories about interesting people and events — but my job description was “editor.” Editing has been my bread and butter, and occasionally my beer and chocolate, since the late 1970s.

If you’re determined to write for a living, or even for a substantial chunk of your living, I know I can’t talk you out of it. I’m not going to try. For sure some writers manage to do it. If you look closely, though, you’ll often see that other factors are helping them stay afloat economically: maybe a partner with a well-paying job, maybe a trust fund, maybe gigs teaching writing in one way or another. Take a hard look at your own resources before you even think of quitting your day job.

Think about this too: For me to make my living as a freelance editor, someone has to be willing and able to pay money for what I’m selling. The same goes for writing. The money coming into your checking account has to come from somewhere. It may come from a publisher. It may come direct from readers who are dying to read your books. It may come from newspapers, magazines, or online media that want to buy your feature articles and maybe send you off on assignment to write more.

These things are not going to fall into your lap. You’re going to have to hustle — to do all the research and self-promotion necessary to reach those willing and able to pay for what you’re selling, then to persuade them to part with their money. While you’re hustling, you probably aren’t writing what you what you write. You’re writing proposals, synopses, query letters, and press releases. Is it starting to sound like a day job yet?

Here’s another question: How often do you spend your hard-earned money on other writers’ writing? How often do you take a chance on a novel by someone you’ve never heard of? Will you do it for $9.99? for $2.99? for free? What would make people who’ve never heard of you take a chance on your book? This applies to attracting agents, editors, and publishers as well as to engaging individual readers in the emerging online marketplace. Perhaps even more so: If an agent, editor, or publisher takes you on, s/he will wind up investing far, far more than $9.99 in you and your work.

The real bottom line here is that if you want to make a living writing, you have to write what people are willing to pay money for, and you have to keep doing it. You’ll have deadlines that can’t be blown off. Your fallow periods and blocks will become even scarier than they are now because they’ll threaten your livelihood as well as your sanity and your sense of self-worth.

Writing, in short, will become your job.

And it may well get in the way of your writing.


9 thoughts on “Write for a Living?

  1. This reminds me of why I dropped out of college. My entire life up until then had been based on the expectation that I would become a commercial artist. I had an early, outstanding, and much-supported talent — until I went to art school, at which point I recognized that I did my art for me and could not adopt the mentality of doing it for others on demand. By a long, circuitous route, I ended up an editor and writer.


    • I bet there’s one hell of a story in that “long, circuitous route”! This is so interesting. I hate to get into the distinctions among trade, craft, skill, art, and all the rest, but at the same time I think they’re worth keeping in mind. Some things can be harnessed to the demands of assignment and deadline. Other things can’t, at least not willingly. And even if they can, there’s usually a trade-off, though we’re often not willing to see what we’re giving up.


  2. Another great blog and you ask good questions. People who daydream about being a writer full time, often don’t realize the amount of work that entails. To finish a book requires discipline to get you through what I call the “can this marriage be saved?” parts of the book where the whole project seems like the stupidest thing on earth. And finishing the book is only the beginning, whether or not an author is indie or has a traditional publisher. The people I know who have made it have been realistic and treated their writing career like a job–meeting deadlines and putting in long hours. And, as you mentioned, most have had some form of supplementary income.


  3. I think a lot of people underestimate how much work really does go into it. They put TV, naps, trips with friends, and so many others things on the priority list, but then they expect to be able to write 1000 words or so a week and build a career off of that. They don’t do deadlines, or they continually push them back. I think when they imagine the job, they picture the author typing in a small cabin in the middle of nowhere, sipping wine and finishing one book (or two) a year. Then the author hits the big selling lists, movies are made off their books, and they’re household names. I don’t think they visualize the emails, social groups, edits, revisions, bookkeeping, cover artists, and other work that goes into the books.

    And another thing that often get glosses over is how up and down sales are in publishing books. It’s not a stable income. You could be making a living today but not tomorrow. As you said, you have to be willing to write what people will pay for, and you have to keep doing it even on days you don’t feel like going to work.


    • I suspect that the big appeal for some writers, at least until they start looking at the practical side of it, is “I won’t have to interrupt my writing because I have to go to work.” As a freelance editor, I know about the ups and downs, the cash-flow crunches, and the challenges of organizing one’s own time and meeting deadlines. It’s got its rewards for sure, but it’s not for everybody, especially if they’re self-supporting. Quite a few people who “write for a living” aren’t. There was an op-ed recently in the New York Times about this (which, of course, I can’t manage to find at the moment) in which a writer talked about how her husband’s good income made her writing career possible. I wish more writers would be more honest about this. Writers who think the playing field is level — that trust funds, high-earning partners, family support, and connections (etc.) don’t matter — are going to get slammed.


      • I hadn’t thought about the appeal from that angle. I agree with you. I do think that’s the big appeal.

        It’s only because of my husband’s job I’m able to write as much as I do. There is no way I would be able to do it without him. The ups and downs of sales are too extreme, and then there’s taxes to pay on top of that. It’s too stressful. I wouldn’t be where I am today if it hadn’t been for him, and I’m constantly thanking him for working so I can keep writing without having a job interrupt me.


  4. Great post! When I was younger I definitely used to dream about being a writer full-time, but by “writer” I meant “novelist”. I currently hold down a (not really related to writing) day job but am really trying to find a way to at least align what I’m being paid for with what I’m interested in. Then I have doubts–what if I get a new job and it sucks away all my time? Right now I’m rarely in the office past 5, so I have plenty of time to write on the side. Decisions, decisions…


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.