Here is What it Really Takes to Earn a Living as a Writer
Here is What it Really Takes to Earn a Living


I was not meant for day jobs.

I mean, I do what I have to, but I really can’t stand working for someone else. I enjoy learning how to do new work, but once I’m competent, resentment sinks in and I can’t bear it.

When I sold my first novel, I quit my day job so fast. It didn’t matter that the first check from my advance was only enough to cover three months of my income, plus a trip to Book Expo America in New York City (that I really thought I was supposed to take.)

Over the years I’ve worked at a variety of jobs, interspersed with periods where I’d managed to cobble together enough income streams to work for myself for a while. Usually as some kind of a writer.

I’ve been a full-time writer for nearly four years now. These days I spend a lot of my time talking to other writers. Lots of them want to be full-time working writers. They want to learn how they can quit their day jobs, too.

What I’ve noticed is that there’s a big gap between what they want (to quit their day jobs and be full-time writers) and what they actually say and do.

I hear things like:

  • I haven’t written anything this week (or month, or year, or . . .)
  • I’m not motivated.
  • I’m not inspired.
  • I wrote a book, but it didn’t sell.
  • I wrote three books (or five books, or ten books) and they didn’t sell.
  • I don’t like marketing.
  • I’m not prepared to build an email list yet.
  • I have an email list, but I don’t use it.
  • Blogging/publishing/journalism is dead. Even reading is dead. (Really, that’s what I hear.)

Those things and being a full-time writer? They don’t actually go together very well.

When most people think of when they think of being a working writer who doesn’t have to work a day job, they imagine writing something that brings them fame and fortune.

They think about their favorite writer and shoot for that goal. They imagine writing novels or screenplays or a popular blog or whatever — and if it’s good enough, fame and fortune will follow.

If that doesn’t happen, it’s easy to write it off to bad luck, a lack of opportunity, a too-tight market. Or any number of things. Including just deciding that you’re not good enough.

But the truth is — being a full-time writer takes a certain kind of determination, mind-set, and personality. There’s a lot of work involved that isn’t particularly creative or fun.

Here’s what’s involved in being a full-time writer. Once I figured these things out, I was finally able to create a business around writing that let me quit my day job and become a working writer long term.

It’s lonely work.

So much of our work happens inside our imaginations. We get to invite our readers into it, but not until the work is done. While we’re writing — it’s just us.

I fact, it’s kind of essentially lonely work. Anyone who has tried to write at home with people constantly breaking their creative flow knows what I mean. It’s so much harder to do the work with other people in your space.

If you’re a full-time writer, you won’t have co-workers and the structure of a regular 9-to-5 job. Make sure you’re prepared for that. Not everyone is. I know many people who thought they wanted to be full-time writers and ended up hating the isolation.

Make sure that you have a comfortable place to write. That will probably mean a space in your house at first. Libraries and coffee shops are popular writing spots, too.

Once you’re making some money, you might consider renting an office. I did this summer and it was the best thing I’ve done for myself in a long time.

Finding feedback is essential.

The flip side of the loneliness of being a writer is that you can’t actually stay isolated. You have to find a community. Because you’re going to need feedback and mentorship and other writers to connect with.

I don’t know a single full-time writer who has made it without this aspect. At the very least, you’ll need an online community. A strong one. A mastermind group, maybe. A workshop. A friend or two who are also working writers.

You need eyes on your work and feedback from your peers. If you’re so introverted that working alone will keep you from being part of a writing community at all, you’ll struggle to be successful.

You need to be prepared be rejected. A lot.

There is no line of work that I’m aware of that’s more full of rejection than writing. You might already know that on some level, but until you start really putting your work out there, you might not really get it.

Even when you’re successful, you’ll be rejected. A lot.

Here’s an example. When I signed on with my current agent, I sent out 140 query letters. I had seven offers — which is kind of amazing. But it means that I had more than 130 rejections. I was getting rejections after I’d signed with agent. I was getting rejections after my agent sold my novel. It took a good year for the rejections to stop.

You can’t fall apart when you’re rejected. You can’t take it personally. You can’t let it make you quit. You have to learn how to identify the kind of rejections that mean you’re improving, and see them as positive.

And you can’t let rejection keep you from shipping your work. You have to ship — a lot — if you want to be a full-time writer. And that means that you will be rejected.

You will never feel ready.

Speaking of shipping — there is never going to be a time when you feel ready. You will never be prepared enough. Your work will never be good enough.

You’ll never feel like you’re good enough.

And, conversely, you have to know that you actually are. You’ll have to develop the kind of audacity that allows you to believe in your work enough to send it out into the world. Even though you don’t think it’s ready.

Weird, I know.

Full time means full time — motivated or not.

Imagine that you have a job — you work for someone and you’ve got a schedule. You’re expected to show up five times a week, at nine a.m., and work for eight hours a day.

It probably wouldn’t even occur to you to tell your boss that you can’t come in to work on any particular day because you lack motivation.

If someone’s counting on you to show up, you show up. You might take a day off if you’re sick or you have an emergency. But you’d never tell your boss that you’re just not motivated to work today.

When you are a full-time writer, you are the boss. And your business isn’t going to last very long if you only work when you’re motivated to. You’re going to need to be able to respect yourself as much as you’d respect anyone else you’ve ever worked for.

There is no muse.

While we’re on the subject, there definitely isn’t a mythical being responsible for your creativity, inspiration, or motivation.

Trust me. I wish there was a muse. I sometimes say that I light a yellow candle to call mine — but really? All I’m doing is indicating to my brain that it’s work time. And I have to work, whether I feel like it or not.

When you shift to full time, writing stops being only art. It doesn’t get to be mystical and semi-magical anymore. It’s work. Actual, real work.

There is no writer’s block.

I think one of the biggest advantages I have, when it comes to working as a writer, is experience as a journalist. When you have an actual 9-to-5 job where you’re expected to turn out creative written work regularly, with deadlines, the idea of deadlines dies.

You can’t have both.

Writer’s block is a convenient excuse for not working. It’s a reason for not pushing through the times when you don’t feel motivated or inspired. If you’re going to be a full-time writer, you have to convince yourself that writer’s block isn’t a thing.

You are a marketer.

I hear this so often.

Writers just want to write. They don’t want to to have to worry about things like email lists and buying ads and actually selling your work. They want to write it, put it out there, and if it’s good enough, people will buy it and read it. The end.

Except, that’s not how this works. For anyone.

Successful writers are also marketers. No one else cares about your work as much as you do. No one else is going to do the work of selling it — especially in the beginning. It’s your job. Especially if you want to earn a full-time income as a writer.

If you can’t wrap your head around that, you might be in the wrong business. Or, at least, you might be happier as a hobbiest.

You will probably never really ‘make it.’

By ‘make it’ I mean this: you are probably never going to get to a point where you don’t have to try so hard. Where the next book you write is automatically published or the the next post you publish is automatically viral. Even having one bestseller doesn’t mean that you’ll have another one.

There are a few people who reach that level. By a few I mean a very, very few. So few that anticipating being one of them is an exercise in futility. I mean — aim high. I’m a proponent of dreaming big.

Here’s the thing. Aim high. Dream big. But you’re going to have to come to terms with the fact that you’ve chosen a career that requires constant effort. One success doesn’t guarantee the next. If that’s going to upset you, then you’re going to be pretty miserable.

You will have to multi-task.

There are very few working, full-time writers who only do one thing. Only write books or only write a blog or only write screenplays or whatever.

You’re probably going to have to do a bunch of stuff. I write novels and blog posts and non-fiction. I teach. I coach. I run workshops and an online community.

Are you ready to consider writing your business? If you are, you’ll have to be ready to do the work that will bring funds into your business. Even if it’s not all exactly the creative work you love doing most.

You might surprise yourself, though. I know that I have. I want to be a novelist and of course I would love it if my novels earned enough money to fully support my family. But I love the rest of my work so much, I don’t think I’d give it up.



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