Making a Living Writing


There are some dilemmas that twist and tear at you in the depths of night. To choose this career or that one? To marry this person or wait? To stick with a bad job or face a volatile job market?

Then there is the dilemma that rips at the heart of every writer:

To make a living by writing, or to make a living and still try to write?

I’ve been there. I’m sure you’ve been there. Most of us will ALWAYS struggle with that dilemma, even if we’re ostensibly making a living from words.

“Making a living as a writer” very rarely involves writing whatever you want and getting paid for it. Rather, commercial writers write what they’re TOLD to write.

It’s like coloring in the lines: you’re given a drawing and told to fill it in with THESE specific colors in THIS specific style … and if you don’t do it the way you’re told, you won’t get paid.

That’s not exactly what you where thinking of when you dreamed of making a living writing, is it?

So should we just “give up” and write in the scarce snippets of time we can snatch away from daily life?

Not necessarily. The way I see it, we have three options:

1. To commercialize our skill and get a job as a journalist, copywriter, freelance writer, etc.
2. To make a living in some other way and write in our spare time.
3. To affiliate with a university.

Don’t Quit Your Day Job

Notice that there is no Option #4.

4. Quit your job and write the Great American Novel. Sell it to a big publisher and live happily ever after on the royalties.

That option is available to so few people that it’s not worth including.

Sure, if you have a spouse who will support you financially or a tidy investment that returns enough to live on, go for it!  Just make sure you can honestly answer the following questions:

  • Are you using the dream of writing full-time as a way to procrastinate, because you’re not really sure you can write that great masterpiece after all?
  • How will you pay your bills if you don’t start selling your work right away?
  • How will you discipline yourself so that you don’t fritter away your days on distractions like folding the laundry, making lunch, surfing the net, or posting on social media sites?
  • Will the pressure to perform choke and kill the Muse?
  • Will you get lonely?
  • If it doesn’t work out and you have to go back and get a job, how will you ever face yourself again, knowing that you’ve failed at the one dream that mattered most?

Too many writers waste their time fantasizing about having the time to write when they could be finding the time to write. But there’s an easy cure: REALITY.

It’s possible—likely, even—that staying at home all day to write is not as ideal you think it is.  You might even appreciate having the time to write MORE when you have to scavenge for it.

So let’s go back to the options that we genuinely have open to us.

Option #1: Commercialize your skill.

I’ve written about the challenges of being a commercial writer in my post, “So You Don’t Feel Like Writing?”

Not all writers will want to commodify their direct line to the Muse.  For many of us, our words are our BABIES. They’re to be treasured, not sold on like we’re some kind of … baby factory.

But if you’re not so precious about your work, becoming a commercial writer is the best way of improving your skills AND your profits.  You’ll learn how to write in a simple, direct style.  You’ll learn how to hook an audience and deliver value.  You’ll also learn something about the publishing industry, whether it’s newspaper publishing or online publishing.

Most importantly, you’ll begin to understand what it takes to be commercially viable.

Commercially-viable books become bestsellers, while literary masterpieces with greater merit languish at the back of bookstores.

Having a writing job has its drawbacks. If your dream is to write a particular kind of material, you’ll find yourself in the unenviable position of having to burn the candle on both ends as you go to work to write and come home to write some more.

I’ve been there, done that.

Because I was young and single, I didn’t mind TOO much. What I DID mind was that my writing style changed irrevocably as a result of my professional writing.  Because I was so immersed in self-help writing, I was losing my ability to describe a scene.

So, before you decide to go down this route, consider the following questions:

  • Will you still be honoring your art if you channel it into commercial outlets?
  • Will you still have the energy to write your own stuff, if you’re spending your days writing for other people?
  • Are you able to write for a full 8 hours a day, when you’re used to writing only when inspiration takes you?
  • Will being able to call yourself a “writer” make up for the fact that you’re not writing what you want to write?

Option #2: Write on the side

Many of us would like to think that we can’t become the “great writer” we’re meant to be without having 40 hours a week to spend on writing. But history continues to prove us wrong.

Many of the greatest writers of all time achieved fame without giving up their day job. Just look at the day jobs of famous writers. I’ll wait here.

Are you back?  Great. Did the list surprise you?

It shouldn’t. Modern life requires money, and you don’t earn money sitting at home writing stories or books.  You earn money by SELLING what you’ve written.

And if you can’t sell what you write, then you need to sell something else, like your labor.

Here are a few questions that can help you determine whether or not this option is for you.

  • Is your job the kind of job that leaves you mentally free to daydream or write in your head?
  • Can you find several hours to set aside for writing every day without fail, such as in the wee hours of the morning?
  • Does your job take so much out of you that you don’t have the mental energy for anything else?
  • Will your family respect your needs as a writer by giving you at least some uninterrupted time and space?

Option #3: Affiliate with a university

I recently got a personal essay published in a literary journal I respect highly, Concordia College’s Ascent, and the editor contacted me to submit an updated contributor’s note.

As all of the “About the Author” sections I’d written in the past were tailored to my identity as a dating expert or a travel writer, I decided to look at the other Authors’ Notes to see what sort of things they included.

I was horrified. Who was I to be included in such illustrious company?

Here were people who’d had their essays and poems published in countless literary journals.  They’d written books (REAL ones, not ebooks) and won awards. They were teaching creative writing courses at universities and colleges across the country.

One thing became clear to me in that instant:

The writers who are getting published in the country’s best literary journals are there because they have to “publish or perish” as part of their job.

Colleges and universities are havens for literary writers. Having a high-caliber teaching staff is the best way to attract new students, so lecturers and professors are expected to publish in the best journals of their field.  In the field of creative writing, that means literary journals, which—surprise, surprise—are often funded by other colleges and universities. Common wisdom says that getting published in literary journals is a stepping stone to getting a book published.

It’s a writer’s dream come true.

Creative writing professors also have that one commodity that neither of the other options has: TIME.

They’re supported in their literary aspirations by their university, which benefits from each and every high-profile article or book that one of their staff gets published.

Creative writing teachers are “in the know” when it comes to what literary journals are looking for, because they can network with the editors. Writing for publication rather than an income frees them up to focus on literary merit rather than commercial potential.

No wonder so many of today’s brightest literary stars are affiliated in some way with a teaching institution. Either they’ve just come out of an MFA program, or they’ve never left the university environment in the first place.

Writers know that a college or university is the one place where they can get a salary that will enable them to write whatever they want, as long as they can continue to get published.

Of all the options I’ve listed, this option is the one that seems to be the most popular among “literary writers” today. Just look at who is writing the stories, essays and poems that appear in the country’s top literary journals.  My bet is that at most of them are affiliated with some college or university.

And why not? Get paid AND given time for writing, without any restriction on what you write except that it has to get published? Sounds good to me.

Except… Check out the starting salary of a creative writing teacher first. And the number of jobs available in your area.

Guess I’ll stick with being a writer for hire.

Category : Writing

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