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Three Ways to Make a Living while Living as a Writer

When I was ten years old, I published my first short story in the kids’ section of the Oakland Tribune newspaper. It won first prize in a children’s fiction competition and there was to be a prize. In the words of Ralphie’s dad in the movie Christmas Story, I was going to get a Major Award.

My award came in the mail a couple weeks after my story was published. I opened it excitedly to find: A pencil box. Complete with three # 2 Ticonderoga pencils, sharpened and everything. Plus a tiny notepad and a fat pink eraser. I turned the box over in my hands as my parents looked proudly on, and said, “What a piece of crap.” That was my introduction to the lousy remuneration writers get for their work.

Of course, as everyone knows, it’s easy to get rich as a writer once you start getting published regularly. As soon as you move up to literary journals that actually pay, those $20.00 checks start adding up fast. Then there are the royalties on your books (10% of $12.98 x 10,000 books =  more than 2 cents for every hour it took it write them). Add to that the money you make off your blog, and you have yourself nearly .01% of the salary made by the average factory employee. Bonanza!

Okay, so that’s the sad-but-true truth.You can complain about it (and lord knows, writers do). Or you can figure out how to live with it. And that’s what this post is about. How to live well and happily despite the lousy pay. It’s the first part of a list of what I believe are all the possibilities for feeding yourself while keeping up a writing career. Although I sometimes post joke lists, this is not one: It is a serious list of actual solutions to the making-a-living issue. [Note: If you are one of the ten authors in the world who has gotten rich off your writing, you can stop reading this now.]

1. Write for corporations. Yes, you can make a living writing, if you’re willing to use your skills in specific ways. Just last week, I blogged about corporations needing writers. If you want to write marketing and promotional material, technical guides, annual reports, and the like, you can make a better-than-decent living as a writer. There are various other possibilities: I know one writer, for example, who pens reports for scientists who can do science but can’t write. They give her data, she gives them back words. 

These are great options for many writers. At the very least, these types of jobs pay the bills while simultaneously enabling you to legitimately call yourself a professional writer.

The downside is that they take a certain personality. Many writers simply don’t like doing this kind of writing, and others aren’t happy in corporate environments. If you have a poet’s spirit or a novelist’s temperament, you might find writing ad copy simply sucks out too much of your soul.

2. Teach at a college. If you want to use your skills, work with writers, and get a little bit of prestige, college teaching can be a great choice. You have a flexible schedule. You get to use your skills for the good. You work with people, many of whom actually want to learn how to write.

The problem is that these jobs are not easy to get. Part-time teaching jobs are plentiful, but they tend to be sporadic and ludicrously low-paying. The job market for full-time college professors—especially for the coveted tenured university professorships—is downright brutal. Plus, you need an M.F.A. or a doctorate. Still, if you're willing to put in the time for the degree, and can manage to land a position, these jobs are one of the best options out there for writers.

3. Find a non-writing-related job you like. Okay, so you can’t earn a living writing poetry and neither of the previous possibilities I’ve listed here chimes your bells. What else can you do that you enjoy? Really, think about it.

At one time in my life, I actually trained to become a speech pathologist because I thought it was something I would like doing and it would pay the bills while I wrote. And it might have worked out if I hadn’t ended up in a program whose director sexually harrassed every woman who stepped foot in his office.

Well, that’s not the point. What is the point is that there are a lot of professions out there, many of which have their own charms. Pulitzer-prize winning playwright Margaret Edson teaches 6th grade. Louisa May Alcott worked as a nurse. Herman Melville farmed. Amy Tan worked with developmentally disabled children. Can you be happy painting houses? Selling insurance? Working as a dental hygienist, computer programmer, or gardener? If you play your cards right, you can find enjoyable work, put food on the table, and still have time to write.

If none of these options appeal to you, don’t despair. At least not yet. Tomorrow, I’ll list three more possibilities for supporting the writing life. We’ll find a way for you yet.


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Your advice is very useful,

Your advice is very useful, Jill.  Thank you.  I am currently training to be a translator.  I hope, this way, to set my own hours, work from home (hence be able to move out of unaffordably expensive London), and have the time to write.  I used to teach English as a Foreign Language.  I found that I came home so exhausted, I couldn't even think straight, let alone write.

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Thanks for sharing your

Thanks for sharing your experiences, Katherine. I would love hearing from more writers about how they create this balance between making a living and writing. 

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Sound advice

As always, Jill, your insights are fabulous.  It's true, that writing is not the most lucrative of professions, except for a chosen few of course!  I find it a hard balance to strike, especially since, I also have three children who I try to be there for always.  The balance between family, writing, and trying to find actual income is a precarious one at best.  Currently, I am looking for a job teaching riding (horses are my other passion), which will allow me to work part time, still be there for my family, and give me time to continue on the adventure of writing.  It means that nothing gets as much attention as I would like it to have, but it all does get some attention, which for me is better than nothing! :)

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Yes, it's that balance we

Yes, it's that balance we want, isn't it? Writing, earning a living, family, friends, other passions and interests. You're right--we'd all love to give everything 100% of our focus, but have to settle for dividing out time. Good luck on finding a job!