Can you make money as a writer?

Reading time: Just over 3 minutes

Ask me if you can make money as a writer and I’ll tell you yes. But it won’t be in the way that you expect…

I grew up poor. My parents scrambled to put enough food on the table to feed their kids, five of us. We lived in a good part of town, but my parents had bought it when house prices were very low. And they struggled with mortgages all their lives.

Financial fear permeated my young life like a line of mold snaking its way through a block of cheese. As a result, I never wanted my own children to face the scary thoughts I did as a kid. I’ve always had a healthy respect for earning a living.

So that leads me to the inevitable question: can you make money as a writer?

Writers used to be able to get good, well-paying jobs at newspapers. Back in the day, a metropolitan daily might hire somewhere between 100 and 200 reporters/editors, maybe more if the paper was really large. They paid union-scale wages and offered generous benefits plans. (I know. I got braces on my teeth when I was 30 years old and my plan covered 80% of the cost, leaving my non-newspaper friends incredulous.)

And in those days, freelancers also had plenty of opportunity to earn a living. A bevy of magazines commissioned as many as a dozen articles a month and they paid handsomely for them.

Book writing was always a tough gig although smart people like June Callwood could get well paying work ghost-writing memoirs.

Those who didn’t have the stomach or aptitude for journalism could land corporate work in PR or communications departments. It wasn’t as exciting as journalism but it paid better and — usually — had fewer drunken bosses.

But all of this changed with the advent of the Internet. Not that I’m complaining. Email is a godsend. I love being able to do my research in Google. Life is easier. But making money as a writer? Not so much.

The biggest difference is that so many people in Internet-land (and I include myself in this category) expect writing to be free. We read all sorts of useful, interesting stories and we never have to pay for them. We can even read 10 articles a month from great newspapers, like the New York Times, without putting up a cent. (I enjoy it so much, however, that I pay for a digital subscription.)

So how do you make money as a writer? It’s hard. My friends who still work in newsrooms have seen staffing levels put on starvation diets, with numbers so skeletal they make me recall images from the bone church in Kutna Hora.  Worse, the surviving reporters have to spend many hours on work for which they never signed up — blogging, shooting video, tweeting.

If you want to make it as a writer these days, you have to be as flexible as a circus acrobat. I’ve survived by doing a super wide range of work. First, I have my book, 8 ½ Steps to Writing Faster, Better, and my course, Extreme Writing Makeover. I also coach.  I write and edit.  I consult. I work mainly for corporations or for non-profits and I also run an accountabilty group for people who are writing books or theses.

Research shows  that people are happiest and most fulfilled when they find work that’s engaging to them. Here are five factors that William MacAskill, author of Doing Good Better and cofounder of the company 80,000 Hours  suggests that you consider:

  • Independence: How much control do you have over how you go about your work?
  • Sense of completion: How much does the job involve completing whole pieces of work so that your contribution to the end product is easily visible?
  • Variety: How far does the job require you to perform a range of different activities, using different skills and talents?
  • Feedback from the job: How easy is it to know whether you’re performing well or badly?
  • Contribution: How much does your work “make a difference,” improving the well-being of other people?

Having independence is the most important factor for me, which is why I love being self-employed. But that doesn’t suit everyone. So, what do you do if you have a passion for writing and want to make a career of it?

Here’s what I suggest: Don’t look for a job as a writer. Instead, be really good at writing and do something else. Writing is one of those basic life skills that will always pay off in both concrete and unexpected ways. You’ll waste less time on the job. You’ll communicate better with your boss and subordinates. You’ll be dramatically more effective in whatever you choose to do.

And if that doesn’t seem like enough, then write for yourself, without having to answer to anyone else. The Internet and new technology have made blogging and self-publishing both feasible and affordable. The good news? You no longer need permission to write. You just need the determination.

How does writing pay off for you? We can all learn from each other so, please, share your thoughts with my readers and me in the “comments” section, below. And congratulations to Lorraine (email = “rain joy”), the winner of this month’s book prize, Wildmind: Living the Writer’s Life, by Natalie Goldberg for a Sept. 9/15 comment on my blog. Anyone who comments on today’s post (or any others) by Oct. 31/15 will be put in a draw for a copy of How to Write a Sentence and How to Read One, by Stanley Fish. To leave your own comment, please, scroll down to the section, directly underneath the “more from my site” links, below.


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