5 Tips For Making a Living as a Writer

I am taking a blog hiatus, and will feature a combination of previous posts and guest bloggers each day through August 10th. Please keep visiting and commenting!
~Rachelle

Shawn SmuckerGuest Blogger: Shawn Smucker @shawnsmucker

I tapped my fingers on the smooth granite counter tops — they would not be ours for much longer. I glanced across the kitchen at my wife, then looked away. I didn’t want to say the words because my silence would keep it from happening. Right? Freeze time? Change our entire situation? But she said them for me.

“We have to move into your parents’ basement.”

A few months later, the downward spiral of my business complete, we moved 150 miles away from the community we loved to the place I had grown up. At 32 years old, with a wife and four kids, that five-month stint in my parents’ basement felt like the biggest failure of my life.

It was the best thing that could have happened to us.

With two published co-written books under my belt and a few meager leads to follow, I decided to try to make a living as a writer. The following are five things I learned while building a life out of words:

1) Know how much your writing is worth (but be willing to write for way less). Based on previous projects, I could charge a premium to help people write their stories, but that meant waiting for the right project, and time was something I didn’t have. So I took on anything I could find, for whatever amount the person could afford. Sometimes I was fortunate enough to find book projects that represented six months’ worth of income. At other times I wrote one more SEO article, one more blog post for hire. I try to appreciate the projects that fill up the gas tank as much as those that pay the rent.

2) Lean before you leap. My dad uses this phrase, and I can’t guarantee it originated with him, but it’s a wise outlook on chasing your dreams. I got paid to write for two years before leaping into it full time. If you want to make a living as a writer, there’s often an uncomfortable leaning period where you test the water and work double-time (day job and dream job). The alternative is leaping without looking, which I don’t usually recommend unless you have a safety net (e.g. trust fund, winning lottery ticket, or spouse making six figures).

3) Don’t try to start something brand new – utilize the knowledge and contacts you already have. My first published co-written projects were memoirs, so in the early days I focused on finding other clients who needed me to help them tell their story. I had a proven body of work, and it was an easy sell. Recently I focused on helping local pastors turn their sermon series into small, self-published books: I have experience self-publishing, and my dad is a pastor with a lot of contacts. People already exist who will pay you to write within the boundaries of your experience – you just have to find those people.

4) Invest in relationships with other writers. Believe it or not, there are writers out there who stumble on to projects they can’t do or don’t want. Mingle with writers on Facebook and Twitter and, even better, in real life. Be a nice person. Promote their work. It’s much easier to make a living as a writer when you have friends in the field and you work together.

5) Embrace the idea of living an adventurous life. I’m 35 years old and at times I feel like I’m way behind: I don’t own a home or have any sort of financial security. But recently I went on a 4-month cross-country trip with my wife and four children (granted, we did lose our brakes coming down the Grand Tetons, but life can’t be all roses and rainbows). I even finished writing my first novel. When I’m not comparing my life to the lives of others, I’m content.

If you want to make a living as a writer, you can do it. But you have to be creative in monetizing your talent, persevere through lean times, and perhaps work harder than ever before.

What are the biggest hurdles to becoming a full-time writer? What are YOUR tips for writers considering it?

***

Shawn recently wrote Building a Life Out of Words, an E-book detailing his first 18 months making a living as a 

writer. He lives in Paradise, Pennsylvania with his wife and four children, blogs almost daily at shawnsmucker.com, spends way too much time on Twitter and Facebook, and continues to build a life out of words. (Oh, and he has no connection with the jelly people, but thanks very much for asking.)

 

  1. Denise says:

    Your cross country trip with your family is one I think many people envy but might not admit to it! I think it’s fantastic!

    Your tip about ‘lean before your leap’ is a good one. I did that when I started my own business. It was exhausting in the short haul, but worth it in the long run.

    Thanks for sharing!

    • Thanks, Denise. Our cross-country trip changed my life, and while there were many awesome things about the trip, there was also a waste tank that needed to be emptied every two to three days. I’ll let your imagination fill in the blanks on that one.

  2. R.A.Savary says:

    I want to make one comment on Shawn’s statement regarding not comparing my life to the lives of others in order to be content. That contentment is necessary for me to continue with my writing commitment and all the things that go with it. Many of those lives that I find myself comparing to are the writers, teachers, mentors and other colleagues that I am learning from – like Shawn. The hard part is learning how much uniqueness to express, without becoming an isolated, angry ogre.

  3. Inspirational post! Thanks for sharing your journey.

  4. Great post! Your tips are practical and realistic, which is refreshing.

    I’d say my biggest hurdles are skill and the length of time it takes me to make a book good. I’ve gotten first drafting and the first pass at revisions down to a reasonable amount of time, but if a book needs subsequent rounds of editing, it makes the entire project take longer than I’d like. Of course, if I work at that skill thing, maybe my books will need less revision in the future.

    Once/if I do get published, I could see marketing being my biggest hurdle. That’s not just because I doubt I’m naturally good at it, but because I’ll have to balance it against writing time and everything else.

    • Try not to worry about the length of time it takes for you to perfect your book. We all write at a different pace – just get it right!

      Thanks for your comment. Some good thoughts in there.

      • Thanks! That’s the nice thing about being in the pre-trying-for-publication stage: I can take as long as I need to make a book better. Still, fake deadlines help prepare for real ones, and I’m seeing improvement!

  5. Tonya says:

    Thanks! My favorite part was your honesty in feeling behind.
    I’m not a full time writer but in making moves to hopefully becomes is leaving me feeling wwwaaaaayyyy behind everyone else my age. That leads to pressure of feeling like I HAVE to do this which stresses me out. It’s a snowball. That makes me the words of my mom saying “so few are successful at it” ring all the more true

  6. My biggest hurdle to becoming a full-time writer: Myself
    .
    I am not courageous or strong enough to give up on my quest to have everything. I’ve spent the better part of 20 years accumulating “stuff” that defines me. The sad part is, I spnet 3 days camping this weekend, away from all of those things I think my family “needs,” and we had more fun on this trip than we’ve had in a long time.
    .
    Still, unless I have no choice but to take the plunge, I will probably always be scraping by, overextedning, paying down debt, so I can buy the next big ticket item when it hits the stores.
    .
    The rat race is my “comfort” zone. it’s hard to imagine myself not running in it.

    • We’ve had the majority of our stuff in storage for the last six months. Besides a few of my books, I haven’t missed anything. Definitely opened my eyes to the stuff issue you are talking about.

      And regarding having the guts to make the transition…I don’t think I would have had the guts to make this decision. We were kind of pushed into it by difficult circumstances.

  7. Biggest hurdle to becoming a full time writer? 1) Money – Not gobs of it, just enough to exist, 2) Independence – the thought of moving in with relatives – I can’t go there.

  8. What a rich post! I learned so much on so many levels by a read through your five tips, Shawn – and by a peruse through your blog.

  9. Whatever you do – don’t go without health insurance if you can possibly avoid it.

    The stress of a serious uninsured illness, and the choices it forces, will illustrate the monetary value of your life.

    Is life priceless? No, it isn’t. On some level we’re all expendable.

    Learning that will change your ability to write, or your style, or both. While it’s a basic truth to most of the world, for an American at this point it generally isn’t – we are used to being cared for in a way that’s simply miraculous, and losing that cocoon of security on a personal level will likely shock you to the core.

  10. Thanks Shawn. I like your ’embrace the now’ approach. I agree totally about being a friend to other writers. The advice I was given was 90% giving, 10% getting. Re being 35: I’m 62, and in the last 3 months have: launched Facebook page, started blogging, started tweeting (last week) and am now (struggling) to upload to Amazon Kindle. So, age is only a number! good luck. : )

  11. Great post. Thanks for the ideas. I think it’s important that we don’t compare our lives to those of others. Most writers will never make a lot of money, but life isn’t about money, is it? It’s about contentment and following God’s lead. I find there’s little correlation between joy and money.

  12. There are so many hurdles. The pleasure of writing becomes grounded by the amount of work it takes. Making a living is a large hurdle. I am constantly reminded of this because I am an artist. Since I had to retire from painting sets in a well known theatre because of back problems, I’ve been painting and writing. Both pursuits have a commonality in that it is hard to actually make a living at it. It is hard to separate my writing from just being a hobby.

    • You bring a thought to my mind, Joan, and it’s this: making a living as a writer does not have to be every writer’s goal. Some folks create better art (writing or painting) when they do it for themselves, at their own pace, and without the added economic pressures associated with doing something for a living. Often times “just a hobby” is just fine.

  13. Erin says:

    What a fantastic post… reiterates what I’ve felt for a long time. It’s hard to make a living writing– and even more, it’s scary because once you take that leap, you’re getting rid of any hope of a steady paycheck. Anyway, thanks for sharing. I want to add another tip: Don’t assume that making a living as a writer has to be only through books. I’ve signed traditional contracts on 5 books now but I can say honestly that my bread and butter comes from web writing– something I’ve done for seven years steadily. If you want to write– and want to make it your career– I think you need to be willing to expand your repertoire into various genres.

  14. Jeanne says:

    Great post today, Shawn. I’ve only been writing a couple of years, though I’ve dreamed of doing it most of my life. I think my biggest hurdle is finding the time to do all I want/think I should do to figure out how to earn income. I’ve been working on a fiction book, but I’d love to begin building a platform with, say, magazine articles. Finding the time with two active boys and a husband is tricky.

    Definitely keeping this post. I appreciate your story and the way you share the things you’ve learned.

    • You bring up an interesting point, Jeanne. For the last few weeks I’ve found myself thinking a lot about the direction I’m currently taking with my writing. I think it’s time to reevaluate how much time I spend blogging, writing for others, and writing for myself.

      You are right – we can’t do everything. I’m coming to terms with this and hope that for the rest of this year, and moving into the future, I can have greater focus.

  15. ed cyzewski says:

    Capitalizing on previous experience has been key to me. When I started out writing, I write for a few newsletters and magazines about volunteerism and about Vermont since I had experience in both places. I’m moving more toward writing Christian books and blog posts for my full time work, but the steady income from my past experiences has been helpful as I navigate this transition.

    I also think writers need to learn the value of asking. If you don’t ask, you won’t get very far. You can over-ask, but there is a lot of value in taking advantage of contacts and opportunities, especially the ones you ask for!

    • Ed, you are a perfect example of the practical steps a writer can take on this road to writing full time. Thanks for all the great tips you share and your willingness to support me in my own journey.

    • Ed, where is the best place to research where to ask?

      • ed cyzewski says:

        Not to give a non-answer, but I just had in mind the natural contacts you make while on twitter, reading blogs, attending conferences. It’s so crucial to follow up and to ask for help. For example, I met a best-selling Christian author at a conference who writes the kinds of books a colleague of mine hopes to publish some day. When it came time for him to pitch an agent with his proposal, I asked this author on his behalf to check out his proposal in the hope that he would possibly endorse it. He wrote back right away and said he’d be happy to look at it. That may be more of an exception, but it worked out great for my friend!

  16. Kelly Combs says:

    With a name like Smucker, your book has to be good! (Sorry, with the jelly reference I couldn’t resist).

    Thanks for the great tips!

  17. Thank you; I really appreciated the wisdom in this post.

    “What are the biggest hurdles to becoming a full-time writer?”

    Medical bills. When I had to go with COBRA insurance between jobs, it was over $1300 a month, and without insurance I’d be bankrupt.

    “What are YOUR tips for writers considering it?”

    Look at everything you are spending money on and be realistic about whether that expenditure category can be reduced. Food, for example–you can’t go without, and people often fail to calculate all the little ways we nickle and dime our food budgets through the roof, but that category can often be reduced. Health care–nope, you don’t have that option. It costs what it costs, so you need to go get successful while you’re still young and healthy.

    (yes, that last was sarcasm–my own life proves that no amount of healthy living or youthful vigor or even serving God by being a leader of a youth ministry can ward off the demons of ill health when they latch onto you)

    • Good thoughts, Stephen. Regarding age…the other day I was playing I Spy with my kids. My daughter said she spied something white. After numerous failed guesses, the entire family gave up and asked her for the answer. What did she see that was white? My beard.

      Well, there you go, I’m only 35, but it would appear I’m running out of time to make it while I’m still young.

      • Write faster! Write faster! Thirty-five is the sunset of life!

        Joking….

        I waited till I was 43 to really start writing. Lots of (much more) famous (than me) people waited a while, too. For instance, look at Lady Gaga–oh, wait, wrong example. But Colonel Sanders is a late-bloomer success story; he didn’t start in the restaurant biz till he was in his 60’s. Michener, Wilder, and several other famous writers didn’t start till they were in their 40’s, 50’s, 60’s, or beyond. I think it’s even better for us, because writing really is about taking life experience and putting it on a page, and by now I’ve got so much more experience than the young whippersnappers out there.

    • Amen to that. My health is relatively good if you don’t count the seizures, gout, and allergies. 🙂 I’m thankful for a compassionate congregation!

  18. Shawn,

    Outstanding advice! Thanks. I find myself saying some of the same things to “leaning” writers from time to time (including myself). #5 particularly resonated with me. The bulk of my writing in the last two years has been travel-related, and that “work” just stirred something inside me. I love the adventure of travel, what a friend aptly described as wonders punctuated by wonderful catastrophe.

  19. Stephanie M. says:

    My husband is thrilled by my modest royalty checks (way out of proportion to the numbers) But they certainly couldn’t feed all these babies we seem to keep having (they come from where? NA-UH!!!!!) I think if you keep your expectations low in this business you’ll only be disappointed 1/2 the time 🙂

    • Very true, Stephanie. Usually I’ve found it much more beneficial to focus on the work I need to do today, and enjoy it, as opposed to spending a lot of time dreaming and elevating my expectations. This has lowered my disappointment percentage to somewhere around 43% 🙂

  20. Scott Newport says:

    Hey Rachel loved the post and the story behind it. I love to write too. Even though I write everyday I have been paid only a few times. I have found that because of my writing I am invited to speak to various venues on my expertise, they pay pretty well. Yea and my full time job is a carpenter something I rarely write about. a link to what I do http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gtTScLpEAfY

  21. Neil Ansell says:

    I live solely by my writing now, but the only way I can do this is by leading a very simple life. But then I’ve never been particularly materialistic in my ambitions. I am hoping that it will get a little easier as I have more books on the market, but for now what has mostly made it possible is the unexpected bonuses that add to the advances – the feature commissions for newspapers and paid appearances that I never really expected.

    • Good call, Neil. I occasionally look at my wife and mumble something about “wouldn’t it be nice to have a little extra money from time to time.” Good luck with your writing, and here’s to things getting a little easier for both of us!

  22. Great post, Shawn, I agree with you the biggest challenge is being content in what you are doing. It took me a long time to feel comfortable in my skin as a writer even with one book published and my second for release in December. The best thing though is the freedom to work when and how I want, so long as I get the words done. That is liberating!

  23. Rena says:

    I’m guilty of comparing myself to others and that is always a recipe for disaster. So now I try not to do it anymore. Time and time again I’ve heard that writers can’t make a living and I always wonder how much does one need to make to make a living. I can live on practically nothing. It just blows my mind that there are writers out there that have several books published yet still have a full-time job.

    • Thanks for your comment, Rena. From my limited perspective, I think it can take longer to make a living as a writer if you are relying 100% on your own published works to pay the bills. Some writers only want to focus on their own work, and I completely respect that (sometimes I question the amount of time and effort I put into writing for other folks), but I think if you’re talking about trying to make a living at it, there is more opportunity if you are willing to write for others.

  24. Biggest hurdle–Living so far from writers’ groups. I’d love to hang with some writers. Fortunately, I’m meeting people here who are of tremendous help and encouragement. They often boost my rear end over the hurdles. Sometimes I land on my face, which is OK, considering I have the kind of face you could shove in a bowl of dough and make gorilla cookies.

    Anyway, thanks for the helpful post, Shawn!

    • marion says:

      I would be happy to hang with you on-line, if you are lacking critique partners.
      I’m also in a bit of a desert (OK, literally on the edge of a desert) here in Luxor, as far as writing community goes. (One reason why I’d like to move to Cairo.) I do have a couple of people here who have offered to read my stuff, though, and e-mail contact with some folk in TX and someone following this blog.
      My mainstream WIP is set in Egypt and Arabian peninsula at the time of the Pharaohs. The protag. is a historical and Biblical character. (Don’t groan!)
      I’d be happy to read your stuff.
      Just on the table to take or leave.

    • Some of my most encouraging writer friends are of the online variety, PJ, so don’t give up. I’m fortunate enough to have a few that I can meet up with in real life, but these days (with Skype and social media) that isn’t completely necessary. Good luck!

    • Yeah. Me too. I miss the feedback, encouragement and constructive criticism you can get when hanging out with other writers. Working on a solution, though.

      • Let me know what you come up with Adam. I’ve had ideas for a writers group with people from here. We’ve not got one yet, but I feel free to interact with those on Facebook. Something’s brewing, though, my spider senses are tingling.

    • That would be a terrible hurdle, PJ. I’ve gained so much from my local writers group. Do you live close to enough people that you could try to start one yourself?

      Meanwhile, I see others have already mentioned the online idea. I’ve also benefited from several Facebook groups that offer writing support and encouragement.

      • Stephen, a good group online is probably the ticket. (I joined a bad one and now get spam sandwiches for every meal.) Even the small interactions here have proven invaluable. Plus, I met people who have beta read my material and given critique. Perhaps the group needs to build an online coffeehouse together where our posts don’t wind up on Google.

    • Now the sensitive me is hurt – I thought I was part of your writer’s group:)

      In truth, it is often hard to go it alone, but then again, what with the full time real job and the writing; who has time for getting together with friends?

      • Cherry, you’re part of the ones who encouraged and shoved my rear end over hurdles.
        The writers group I’m referring to is the face to face kind that has coffee and WIP’s for breakfast. If we lived closer, I’d definitely join yours as I’ve come to value your input.

        Part of my thinking was that I can’t afford to go to writers’ conferences and book expos right now. Having two house payments and a daughter in college (even with the dean’s scholarship, I put out 12 K a year), I can’t afford to go to book expos and writing conferences when I’m making 33 K.

  25. Susie Klein says:

    Very helpful points, thank you!

  26. The biggest hurdle to becoming a full time writer is the season of life I’m in. I’m a mother to four children ages 8, 6, 2 & 2 and finding time to write consistently is very difficult, but not impossible. I’m using this time to connect with other writers, learn as much as I can about writing and I strive to be the best mom I can be.

    • Good call, Gabrielle. The season of life you are in can to some extent dictate your priorities. I like the point you make, that there are some things you CAN do even during a hectic stage.

    • Wow! And I thought a 2yo and an 8mo kept me busy! Are you taking notes of your life on a day to day basis? I’m betting there are some great fun stories and practical advice SAH moms and dads would LOVE to read. I know I would. 🙂

      • Shawn, I’ve found that there are always things we can do to keep moving forward in our writing careers. We may not be moving as fast or as steady as we’d like, but we don’t have to stand still, either.

        Adam, no matter how many children you have, it’s awlays chaotic! One of my favorite ways to use Facebook is to write daily snippets of my life with four children. I especially like to write down the funny things they say and do and my musings on parenting. It’s a great place to keep those priceless memories together and I’ve had countless people tell me that my Facebook statuses are the highlight to their day.

  27. Christina says:

    Great advice. I especially like investing in relationships with other writers. Not so much for discovering projects, although that would be nice, but I think it’s important to support each other.

    • You’re right Christina – having a community that offers you support and encouragement is a big deal, especially when you are trying to do something that a lot of other people don’t understand.

  28. I think these are all great tips, especially the part about being willing to write for less money. I’ve heard of several writers who felt “entitled” to big paychecks or advances because they heard other writers got them; they don’t seem to understand that those other writers were either celebrities (who didn’t actually do any writing, most of the time) or A-list authors who had been writing and publishing their work for a long time.

    • Now that I’m a few years down the road, I’ve found a niche where I can charge a little more and not have to stay so ridiculously busy. But when I first started out, I had to take anything I could find. Thanks for your comment.

  29. “When I’m not comparing my life to the lives of others, I’m content.” This is a great line!

  30. As a father of three, I can empathize. I can’t take “the leap.” So I’m writing in my (limited) spare time, blogging and “invest[ing] in relationships with other writers” in my (even more limited) spare time.

    I think my tips for writers considering making it a full-time go are:

    1. Live WAY frugally. You often hear about new parents who are trying to decide whether one can stay at home. The advice commonly given is, “Try to live on one salary WHILE you’re both working.”

    2. Discipline. Carve out a writing time every day, and write at that time, no matter what. (Unless you need to take someone to the hospital, or something.)

    • Those are two great tips, Michael, and both have played a huge part in my life during the transition into full time writing. I especially love the idea of discipline.

      Good luck with your writing.

    • Great additional tips to an already great list from this blog post. I really needed this advice today! – Kristen

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