What Does It Mean to Make a Living as a Writer?
Making a living as a writer is about more than money, but money helps. A lot.
Do you dream of being a professional writer? Have you told anyone about your dream? What advice did you get?
When my family and friends discovered that I intended to support my family from my writing, they staged a series of interventions.
I had just suffered a spectacular failure of a business I had spent eight years building. I knew that I could never work for someone else. I’m too ornery and independent.
I was unemployable — -too educated and experienced for any entry-level job. Many hiring managers worried I would either leave as soon as I found a better offer, or that I might be gunning to replace them.
I knew in my soul that I wanted to be a writer. I knew I could make it work. I had done my research. I knew how to get started.
All my friends and family believed that almost all writers are poor. None of them personally knew any writers. They thought that making a living as a writer was like winning the lottery. Most were angry when I pressed forward.
None of them were supportive.
I’ve been supporting my family for six years as a writer. Every year I’ve made more money the past year. Best of all, I have incredible flexibility. Most days I only spend 3–6 hours on my writing business. I don’t work weekends. I take a lot of time off, sometimes for stretches of two weeks or more.
There are a lot of ways to make a good living as a writer. I’ve studied many of them and tried most of them.
Becoming a rich writer, one with a net worth in the millions or billions, solely from writing, is like winning the lottery. But, how many engineers, accountants, lawyers, and doctors do you know that are millionaires or billionaires? It’s rare for anyone to get to that level of financial success.
When you’re talking about being able to support yourself, that’s the wrong measuring stick.
There are tens of thousands of writers who make a solid living from their writing. Many of these writers make between $50,000 and $250,000 a year. You’ve probably never heard of any of them.
You can also make this kind of money as a writer. You don’t have to be exceptionally talented or incredibly lucky.
You do need to be dedicated and ready to work hard. Most importantly, you have to be ready to view your writing as a business.
If you were to diagram the incomes of writers, you would get a pyramid. At the top, the smallest point of the pyramid, you’d find famous, wealthy writers like J.K. Rowling and Stephen King. In the middle, you’d find a lot of writers you’ve never heard of. Some of these are authors, some are bloggers, and others are freelance writers of one kind or another.
At the bottom of the pyramid, the most crowded group of writers, you will find desperate writers working for horrible rates in content mills, writers obsessed with getting a big break, and writers who refuse to see their art as a business. These are the writers that everyone you know is afraid you’ll become.
Most people don’t know about the happy writers in the middle section of the pyramid.
But, there are lots of writers there. That’s where I operate. That’s where almost all of my writer friends operate — and there’s plenty of room for more writers here.
How much can you make as a writer? There’s no cap on your earnings. Depending on your circumstances and what writing path you choose to take, you can be making $50,000 in your first year as a writer. You can make six-figures as a writer after one to four years of hard work.
It’s simple to earn a middle-class income as a writer. But, it’s not easy.
The Hard Truth
If you want a path to get rich quick, being a writer is a horrible idea. If you want an easy way to make “passive income”, don’t become a writer.
If you want to make a living as a writer, you have to be willing to work hard. You have to be willing to let go of your ego. You also have to be committed to learning about the business of writing.
Hard work will take you farther as a writer than talent will. If you are committed to being a writer, you will also need something more than just hard work. You will need to develop complementary skills. You will need to learn more about the craft of writing.
You will need to be persistent and to bounce back from rejection.
The good news is that anyone can earn a living as a writer if they are willing to put in the work.
If the idea of hard work doesn’t scare you, then this article is for you. If you are more interested in a fast payday, you need to find another career.
Benefits of the Writer’s Life
There are a lot of benefits to being a writer. Once you learn how to earn money from your work, a whole new world opens up to you. You have an inconceivable number of options. Much of what you read on the internet about the writer’s life is exaggerated. Many people write about making a living at the beach with their laptop. But, the beach is a terrible place to try and work. A little bit of sand or water, and your laptop is toast.
But, I have made money writing from a beach house overlooking the waves.
Others talk negatively about the writing life. They complain about getting ripped off all the time, bad clients, and long hours.
I’ve only been stiffed for payment two or three times in my career. I refuse to work with bad clients, and I rarely work more than 30 hours a week.
The real reason I became a writer was not that I was passionate about the art of writing.
I enjoy writing, but I love my writing business. Being a writer has given me more freedom than anything I’ve ever done — and I’ve been self-employed my entire adult life.
I didn’t want a job that sucked the life out of me or that required me to spend 80 hours a week toiling away.
Set Your Own Hours
I have four kids. For the past six years, I’ve been the primary caregiver for our children. That’s one of the reasons I don’t work more. I spend much more time parenting each week than I do writing. I love it! I get to be a part of my children’s lives. My kids range in age from seven to 14. I write when they’re in school. Sometimes, I also work after the younger ones have gone to bed.
But, I get to decide my hours. When my kids are off of school, I can take time off of work. I can adjust my hours any time.
If you are smart with the way you approach your writing business, it is the best job for a parent to have.
It doesn’t matter if you are a freelancer or an author or a blogger, being a writer puts you in control of your schedule.
This flexibility is a double-edged sword. You do have to work sometime. You have to be disciplined and responsible. But, you also get to be creative with your time.
Kevin Casey lives in Australia. He works as a freelance copywriter. He works half of the year, saves money, and then travels the second half of the year. He not only makes a good living, but he also lives a good life.
No Limit to Your Income
The worst thing I can imagine is having to work a “real job”. I have friends who complain about wage freezes all the time. When their employer is having money issues, they don’t get raises. Other friends end up having to switch companies to get a raise.
If you work a traditional job, there is a market cap on how much you can make. You can only generate so much value for an employer. You also only have a set number of hours in your life that you can trade for cash.
As a writer, there is no cap on your income. If you are a freelancer and you want to earn more, you can raise your rates and pitch more clients. If you are an author, you can write more books and do more marketing. You can create intellectual property that makes money for weeks, or months, or years. Writing on Medium is one small example of this power.
You are in control of your income. It’s scary and exhilarating.
One year our family was planning a vacation. A few weeks before we were about to leave we discovered something extra we wanted to do, but that we hadn’t budgeted for. I sent out a few emails to clients I hadn’t heard from in a while. Before I had even finished sending out the emails, I had one client hire me to do a few posts for his new venture. It was enough money to find the extra for our vacation.
Try doing that with a regular job.
Joanna Penn is an indie author. She runs her own writing business writing non-fiction and fiction books. She makes multiple-six-figures each year. Joanna started out making nothing as a writer. Every year she adds new income streams. Unless you’re involved in the world of self-publishing, you’ve probably never heard of her.
Spend Your Day Writing
For me, one of the big perks of my writer’s life is that I get to spend chunks of each day writing. Often, when I’m intently focusing on my writing, the rest of the world fades away. It’s just me and the keyboard. When I’m deep in the zone, I don’t even notice the keyboard to the screen. It’s like I’m in a trance and I’m taking dictation from the Universe.
It’s beautiful. These trips to the zone don’t usually last more than 30–60 minutes. But, each time I come out of my trance, I feel euphoric. It’s a feeling I’ve never been able to access any other way. It’s like a runner’s high, except you aren’t sweating to death.
I love the solitude of writing. I enjoy playing with ideas and language.
I could do a lot of different things with my life, but I can’t imagine anything else that lets me feel as good as writing does and allows me to help as many other people as writing does.
Being a successful writer is about much more than just writing. But, the idea that you can make money from things you are creating from your mind is special. Even if you only write non-fiction, you are still creating. You are taking disparate facts and stories and synthesizing everything in a new way.
Plus, as a writer you’re not stuck in a cubicle. You can work from almost anywhere.
One of the most popular perks in the startup world is unlimited vacation. Of course, most people working for startups feel too pressure to ever take a vacation.
As a writer, you have an unlimited number of vacation days. You don’t have to ask permission. Your vacation isn’t dependent on when someone else in your department is going on vacation. You don’t have to be back by a certain date.
You never have to worry about running out of sick days or personal days.
Again, you do have to work. It’s not possible to make money as a writer without doing any writing, but there are no limits to how you structure your off time.
I’ve taken vacations where I was offline the entire time. Most of the time I spend at least a few hours of a vacation working. But, I love what I do.
More than once I’ve gotten up early at a hotel and worked in the business center for an hour to two while my family slept.
Sometimes I get inspired to write while on vacation — something we have seen or experienced will spark an idea that I have to write about.
I live with an anxiety disorder. Sometimes I need a mental health break. As a writer, I can take off a day in the middle of the week, no questions asked. Being a writer has allowed me to manage my condition without medication. This isn’t possible or advisable for everyone.
But, for me, it’s been life-changing. It’s tough to imagine any employer, no matter how kind and progressive, that would be willing to give me the flexibility I can give myself as a writer.
When you run a writing business you have to pay taxes. But, if you do your homework, you can get some nice tax breaks.
Some writers are able to deduct the costs of their home office. I have a desktop and a laptop that I use exclusively for my writing. These purchases were tax deductible.
If you go to writing conferences, these trips can be tax deductible.
But, for me, and many writers, the holy grail of writing-related tax deductions are research trips. If you write about the places you go and the things you discover along the way, and do so with a profit motive, you may be able to deduct some of your travel expenses.
These tax breaks won’t make you rich. But, it’s a good feeling to know that you are getting to do something you love and that you are getting some tax benefit from it.
You should check with your tax professional before attempting any of these tax deductions. Tax rules vary from country to country and depend a lot on your personal circumstances.
Control Your Career
I get bored easily. I love trying new things. In a traditional job your options for future growth are limited. Typically, you can do your job, or you can become a manager who oversees people doing the job you used to do.
When you’re a writer, your career options are limitless.
Writer Nancy Hendrickson is also passionate about genealogy. No matter what other career she had, she would be doing genealogy. But, she has been able to use her hobby to further her writing business. Nancy has written books and magazine articles about genealogy. It has become another income stream for her.
I have spent most of my writing career as a freelancer. But, I’m now branching out into writing books and magazine articles. I wanted to challenge myself, broaden my skills, and create new income streams.
In the future, I’m interested in writing for video games and VR worlds.
I have the freedom to take my career in any direction I want.
Mitch Albom is a well-respected and talented sports writer for the Detroit Free Press. But, he has also written best-selling books such as Tuesday with Morrie and The Five People You Meet in Heaven, that have nothing to do with sports.
As a writer, you don’t have a manager or HR department plotting against you. You don’t need permission to take a course or develop a new skill. You have control over the direction, and velocity, of your career.
No Need to Toil Away
Hard work is fundamental to making a successful living as a writer. But, there is a damaging myth that you have to toil away for years paying your dues by taking low paying assignments or writing for fractions of pennies per word.
These types of “opportunities” will always exist. But, you can make a good living without subjecting yourself to work for less than minimum wage for years and years.
Starting out you will make less than you will later. But, if you learn some basic business practices, you can start out as a writer making $15, $20, or even $50 an hour — depending on your situation.
The first time I thought seriously about becoming a freelancer I read about how a guy figured he could make as much writing content for a content mill as he could as a barista. His barista job paid $12 an hour. He made $14 an hour as a writer.
I knew $14 an hour would never cut it for my family of four. But, I realized that he was starting to at the bottom and that there was no rule that you have to start at the bottom. Before I learned that you shouldn’t work on a per hour basis as a writer, I decided to charge $25 an hour.
I found a handful of clients. I learned more about the business, and I kept charging more, kept getting faster, and kept getting better.
Writers who are making less than $5 an hour and working 80 hours a week are doing it wrong. There are other ways. You just need to learn the ropes and develop some self-confidence. My mission is to help you learn what you need to do to earn a good living without giving away your soul.
You don’t have to keep sweatshop hours to make it as a writer.
Beyond Paycheck to Paycheck
When you look at the economy, the numbers for working-class and middle-class families are awful. Almost all of us are living paycheck to paycheck.
Writers are not immune to this.
But, as a writer instead of a regular wage earner, you have the opportunity to escape the paycheck to paycheck cycle.
Your income will be irregular. It will be important for you to learn how to save and invest so that when you have a bad month, you have enough to cover your expenses.
But this habit can do more than just cover you for down months. If you cultivate it, and you apply the businesses skills you are developing, you can create enough assets to escape living paycheck to paycheck. You can start to generate wealth.
You may never be wealthy, but writing can allow you to have comfort and security — if you’re willing to work for it.
Deciding to be a writer shouldn’t mean taking a vow of poverty.
There are many ways to make a good living as a writer. It’s time to get out and explore them.