Is my writing ever going to pay my bills? Should I be investing my time and energy into writing? Should I be doing something more safe or more productive? What if I sink all this money into producing my book and it never pays off? What if I work hard on my masterpiece and no one reads it?
As a writer, you can spin over these questions for days, months, and years. You might procrastinate on writing while you feel paralyzed with anxiety, discomfort, and uncertainty. You may even find yourself asking why writing is a priority for you in the first place.
Behind all of these questions and fears, what you are really wondering is, what can I guarantee I’ll gain from doing the work?
And the answer is…
There is no guarantee.
We don’t always have control over how our work is received. We don’t know how much something is going to be viewed, shared, or purchased when we are writing it. We don’t know what will be a hit and what will be a miss an what will be ignored completely.
There is relief to our anxiety. We can talk ourselves off the ledge. We can beat procrastination and keep on trucking, despite the uncertainty we face.
Step #1: Decouple the Work from the Outcome
You probably have several outcomes you hope to gain from writing. Here are some of the the most popular ones:
- “I want to quit my job and become a full-time writer”
- “I want to become a bestseller”
- “I want to make a lot of money”
- “I want to have a flexible schedule so I have more time with my friends and family”
- “I want to have my dream job making money from my passion”
- “I want people to read my ideas”
- “I want critical praise”
- “I want to leave a legacy”
All of these outcomes are lovely, noble goals to pursue. You shouldn’t feel bad or guilty for wanting them to manifest.
However, none of these outcomes are guaranteed. Even if you do manifest them, it’s unlikely that any will happen right away in your writing career—so you might as well stop worrying about it for now!
Sometimes, outcomes represent something we’re struggling with in our current lives.
For example, if you want to become a full-time author, it could be that you really just hate going into your office every day. If you want people to read your ideas, it could be that you feel unheard or unnoticed in your personal life or at work. Check in with yourself and dig into the “why” of the outcome you are seeking.
You may also find that you see writing as a solution to a major problem in your life. For example, if you have a ton of debt, you may be looking for another stream of income. If you want to leave a legacy, you may be worried about your health, or you may have a fear of death. Once you identify the root of your problem, you’ll see that the issue has nothing to do with writing at all, but rather a different area of your life.
As you consider the source of “why” you want this specific outcome, ask yourself if writing is the only way to get the result.
- If you hate your job, can you change jobs, change your attitude toward your job, or quit your job and do something else?
- If you want bestseller recognition to prove to your family that you’re worthwhile, can you get a promotion at work instead?
- If you need money, can you find a full-time or contract job that pays now
- If you want to get your message into the world, can you start a blog or a vlog and let them read it for free?
- If you need a flexible schedule, can you talk to your boss about your hours or negotiate remote work?
Once you see that writing is not the only solution to that thing that has you hating life right now, you may find less attachment to that outcome you were hoping for.
When you take away the expectation of outcome, or worse, the need for a certain outcome to happen (“if this book doesn’t sell I can’t make rent”) you’ll find that the writing comes much easier.
Finally, there are some challenges that are going to threaten your writing habit, that you should address first. For example:
- You can’t write consistently if you aren’t eating, sleeping, and paying all of your bills. Solve your cash flow problem first, then come back to writing.
- You can’t write consistently if you are using the praise of your writing to fill a gap in your self-esteem. That’s going to leave you on a roller coaster of elation and depression, which isn’t healthy in the slightest.
- You can’t write consistently if you aren’t physically healthy. Your diet, your stress management, and your movement routines all play a huge factor in your energy levels. No energy, no writing!
These are just three examples of poor habits that will kill your writing habit before it starts. Check in with yourself to see if you have a habit that is a major blocker to your writing habit, and address that first.
Step #2: Reevaluate Your Goal
Once you decouple the outcome from the work and strip your expectations away, you can see whether you truly want to write the book or the blog or the project… or not.
Assuming you never make a profit, never reach the bestseller lists, and never get a 5-star review, does this project still matter to you?
Don’t feel bad if the answer is no. I remember a goal I had for years, to learn to play guitar. I loved the idea of being able to sing and play my own instrumental at house parties — just pick up a guitar and start! I would be the life of the party.
But when I stripped away that outcome, I realized that I didn’t enjoy playing the guitar at all. It’s been collecting dust next to my nightstand for the last 10 years as a reminder that sometimes it’s okay to drop a goal or hobby that isn’t right for you.
Step #3: Reignite Your Original Passion For Writing
You likely wanted to be a writer because you had an idea, message, or story to share. Writing was a natural medium for you to express yourself. In order to start writing again, you need to tap into whatever inspired you to come up with your story or idea to begin with.
There are dozens of ways to do this. Here are a few:
- Touch base with a colleague, coworker, or client who inspired your original ideas
- Start talking about your story, message, or idea to everyone you know
- Send your post or an early chapter of your book to a writer friend
- Join a critique or accountability writing group to stay motivated (in-person or online, either works)
- Write down your notes for your idea or story (in outline form or another structure, like a mind map or timeline)
- Pick up some books similar to the one you want to write and go on a reading binge
- Reread your past work and keep track of what you love about it
- Attend a writer’s conference, a book signing, or even just take a visit to the library or a bookstore
- Give a speech, make a video, or write a blog post on your topic
When you re-inspire yourself, you activate your inner “why.” This is an incredibly powerful motivator that should at least get you started. From there, the rest should fall into place easily and keep you going.
Step #4: Experiment Freely With No Expectations
Usually when we learn new things we expect to be bad at them for awhile. For example, if you have never kicked a soccer ball before, you probably wouldn’t expect to walk onto Manchester United’s turf and kick it halfway across the field, right between the goalposts.
Yet, for some reason writers approach their writing career as if their first effort is going to make them rich and land them movie deals.
There’s nothing wrong with wanting or needing money now. At the same time, your writing career is going to have many ups and downs over the years. If you are in a down period, it means it’s time to switch things up, which means you will need to approach your work like a beginner, with curiosity and eagerness to learn.
If you can see your current or next project as one big, fun experiment, you will never have to question whether it will pay off again.
Experiments always have a payoff because they help you learn and grow. They also help you detach from outcome because every outcome is acceptable. You are merely collecting data on what works and what doesn’t, so every outcome meets your goal.
I’ve fallen flat on my face dozens of times during my writing career, and it hasn’t killed my opportunities or my sales yet. I’ve launched books that have gotten terrible reviews, I’ve sent annoying emails, I’ve set release dates that I couldn’t hit, I’ve received horrible feedback on a blog post, and I’ve said the wrong thing while trying to promote my work.
Anything worth doing in life is going to have opportunities to fail. Think of every move you make in your writing career as an experiment and embrace any failures or setbacks you might come up against.
I’ve been making a full-time living at writing since 2015. Join my email list to learn my exact income streams through my report, How I Make a Living Writing.