If you spend enough time around writers and you’re going to hear a couple of things, guaranteed.
- It’s impossible to make a living as a writer.
- You might as well not even try.
I totally understand your anxiety. Thinking about your prospects of earning a living as a writer can be daunting. Because the bald truth is, very few writers actually get there.
I’ll tell you a secret. Most writers don’t get there because they give up before they get to be professional writers.
I mean, imagine if most people who wanted to be teachers decided it was impossible because they weren’t hired after their first year of college.
Writing isn’t the kind of profession where if you go to school and study real hard, you’re pretty much guaranteed a middle-income job at the end.
But we’re coming up on a new year. And I’m here to tell you that it’s possible to be a working writer. You just have to wrap your head around what that really means and then make a plan.
Writing can feel more like a skill-based lottery.
If you work real hard and have some base-level talent, maybe you’ll catch lightning in a bottle and be one of the very few writers who makes eye-popping advances.
That would be really awesome. And it’s the kind of thing that makes people say things like it’s impossible to make a living as a writer.
But the thing is that there’s a whole bunch of room between the rare gazillion-dollar advance and making a living as a writer.
There are a lot of writers who earn some money, even if it isn’t an eyeball threatening amount.
Mid-list writers, indie writers who’ve figured out how to use Amazon ads, the myriad of bloggers out there who have who gained some traction — they all earn some money. The online entrepreneurs out there writing courses, writing copy, writing posts.
You can put yourself at the top of the heap just by being a writer who writes a lot, tries to publish often, and consistently improves.
That’s all it takes to rise to say the top ten percent. Okay, so I’m making that percentage up, but I bet I’m right.
Really. That’s all it takes.
Write a lot. Publish often. Consistently improve.
But I’m going to tell you something, because it’s important for you to know.
Even if you do all that, there is a chance that you won’t ever be able to quit your day job and just write full time for the rest of your life.
It might happen, but it is more likely that someday you’ll sell a book, maybe you’ll get an advance big enough to be a full time writer for a while, and if you do that, maybe you’ll sell another one or maybe you’ll have to go back to a day job for a while.
And so on. And so on.
This is a winding road, in other words. Not a straightaway.
Here’s how that winding road has gone for me.
I sold two books in 2012. One was published in 2013 and one in 2014. I earned an advance of $7500 for each of those.
Obviously, $15,000 for two years work is not enough to live on. But let’s be real. Some one gave me fifteen thousand dollars for novels that I wrote.
Let me repeat that.
I wrote two novels and someone gave me fifteen thousand dollars for them.
So, yeah. That was the biggest fun I’d ever had up to that point in my life.
It’s possible it would have been more fun if they’d given me more thousands of dollars, but it’s hard to imagine. I was literally walking on air. I was not any more excited when five years later I was paid a lot more for two more books.
Although that was pretty damned fun, too.
So, I sold another two books in 2017. My advance for those books was considerably larger. Enough to give me two modest years of full time writing.
Those two years were up right around the time the first of these books was published in 2019.
Writing is usually not a salaried position or an hourly job. It’s work that often pays in fits and starts — a bunch of money now, no money at all for a long time.
It’s also fickle as hell and depends on a market you have no control over and on the subjective tastes of other people. Which means that you can do all the right things, have all the talent in the world, and still never find the right combination of words to breakout.
That’s scary. But it’s the reality of the business you’ve chosen. Which means that you need widen your sights. You need a be a working writer.
Here’s my definition of a working writer: A working writer earns a living writing, often through multiple income streams and a portfolio of skills.
I spent the two years of freedom my last advance bought me to build my own writing life. Besides fiction writing, here’s what I did:
- I finished my graduate degree, so that if I ever need a day job again it won’t be as a teacher’s assistant.
- I created writing-related income streams, including blogging, coaching, and teaching.
- I started treating writing like a job.
Here are my best tips for navigating the whole ‘working writer’ thing.
Embrace your day job for as long as you need to.
Being a writer is a unique job that benefits from lived experience, so you might as well get out there and find unique and interesting day jobs.
I’ve worked as a drug court counselor, a paralegal, a bankruptcy and divorce document preparer, a vintage clothing seller, a teacher’s assistant, a substitute teacher, a small-town newspaper reporter.
All of that work has given me experience that feeds my writing.
I haven’t had to have a day job for three years and I’m not necessarily excited about the idea of ever needing another one, but that doesn’t mean I never will.
The best piece of advice I can give you is to train your brain to think about whatever your day job is as being in service to your writing career.
Waiting tables or teaching or working in an office — whatever it is you do to fill your bank account — puts a roof over your head, under which you get to write.
Plus, every person you meet, every skill you learn, every experience you have — it all filters back into your writing machine.
Your day job is your the first investor in your writing. That’s pretty cool. But remember this: You’re a writer first.
I have a master’s degree. If I needed a day job tomorrow, I’d go be a school teacher. But if the day after that someone asked me what I did, I’d say I’m a writer.
I will always be a writer.
Everything else is just part of the portfolio.
Learn to love the income stream
This Humans of New York post came across my Facebook feed a while back and it struck a chord.
Humans of New York
“I’m a singer and songwriter. And a bartender. And a babysitter. On weekends I host dinner parties for $65 a plate. And…
Writers are self-employed. When you’re self-employed, income streams are key. The woman above sells things, teaches things, cooks things, babysits . . . and all of it supports her creative work (for her, that’s singing and songwriting, but it applies to writers.)
Figure out a few ways you can bring in some money, especially if you’re determined not to have a standard 9 to 5.
Here are some ideas.
This isn’t news, but income streams are important because there’s very little about being a writer that’s concrete. Everything ebbs and flows. When one stream dries up, the others will still be around to keep you afloat.
Really, even a plain old 9-to-5 job isn’t concrete these days.
When you’re starting out, maybe your day job is 99 percent of your income and you make a little money writing. And then you find another writing income stream and another one.
Eventually, the streams build up and phase out the work you’d rather not have to do.
Sometimes, I feel like a broken record, I say this so often, but I’m going to say it again.
The thing that sets any writer who is earning an income apart from all the other writers is work.
The one thing I think every working writer who earns any kind of living has in common is work ethic.
Indie writers who earn enough money to live on are often finishing a book every month or two. Seriously. And if you want to get traditionally published, you’ll have to wrap your head around the idea that you may need to write half a dozen books or more before you get to that level.
Think about it. It just makes sense that writers who are successful are writers who keep writing until they’re successful. Everyone else quits sometime before they get t here.
It’s pretty common for writers to be fickle about their work. There’s even a term for when a writer just can’t work at all: Writer’s Block.
The best thing that being a newspaper reporter taught me was to write through any block. I was on a constant deadline and there was no time for that nonsense.
How much do you write?
I advocate for a daily writing habit that starts with a teeny tiny goal — just ten minutes a day. My experience is that A) that ten minutes usually turns into twice that amount of time or more and B) most writers do not write even that much.
You get to be elite, just by showing up and putting in the time.
Show up to work everyday and see what happens.
Shaunta Grimes is a writer and teacher. She is an out-of-place Nevadan living in Northwestern PA with her husband, three superstar kids, two dementia patients, a good friend, Alfred the cat, and a yellow rescue dog named Maybelline Scout. She’s on Twitter @shauntagrimes and is the author of Viral Nation and Rebel Nation and the upcoming novel The Astonishing Maybe. She is the original Ninja Writer