“Your cousin is a doctor, and just look at how nice her life is! She has a big house, sends her kids to the best school in the city, and can afford nice vacations. You can’t do that if you’re a writer.”
You may have found yourself on the receiving end of similar comments from concerned parents following your announcement that you intend to write for a living. Many a child has gone through this phase, and for different reasons. Perhaps the angst that accompanies the turbulent teenage years prompted you to keep a journal, and you fell in love with the cathartic sensation of transferring your feelings out from your inner world and onto a page. Maybe you really enjoyed the Halloween writing assignment in which your favorite teacher awarded candy bars and pumpkin stickers to students who read aloud the scary stories they had written. It could be that your passion for literature translated into a desire to emulate the authors whose works so moved you by composing and sharing something beautiful yourself. For those who aren’t inclined towards writing novels or poems, maybe you felt a calling to report the on the human condition, exotic locales, global crises and trends, or anything else that falls under the purview of journalism.
Whatever your motivation, if you’ve considered writing for a living, you’ve almost certainly faced plenty of condescending skepticism. Most people are convinced that only a handful of authors ever make enough to earn a living, the Kings and Tolkiens and Rowlings of the world.
While it’s true that writers rarely become millionaires without a massive stroke of luck, it’s definitely possible to make a living writing, especially in our digital, interconnected world. However, most professional writers either have a very niche specialization or supplement their income with one or more additional language-oriented gigs. What follows are descriptions of subfields of professional writing, along with two interviews with people who do it for a living.
Freelancing has become an increasingly viable way of earning a living, especially if you can find a few regular customers. It’s not impossible to build a clientele by yourself, but neither is it easy. To those starting out, I would recommend going through a third-party platform—such as Ureed—unless you have a long-standing relationship with a newspaper or journal whose editors regularly turn to you for assignments.
There are definite advantages to registering with a company that facilitates freelancer-customer interaction. It’s a guarantee that you’ll get paid if you deliver what you promise (whereas someone who contracts you via Craigslist very well might commit the digital equivalent of dining and dashing). Moreover, if the company offers certifications or other forms of skills endorsement, you’ll be more likely to be sought out by major clients.
Freelancing is an attractive option for many young people because it allows them to take control of their own schedules and to only accept work that is in line with their principles. It also gives writers the chance to try out multiple genres of writing (advertisements, press releases, video scripts, product descriptions, blogs, etc.). However, for people who dislike extensive client interaction, or who want an identical paycheck every month of the year, freelancing may not be the best option for a primary source of income. Even if that’s the case for you, at the very least, freelance writing and editing is a great way to build experience and earn extra cash on the side, since you can do as little or as much as you want.
Journalism in the 21st century certainly doesn’t look like it did just 50 years ago, but that doesn’t mean it’s doomed—although people fear this. When the New York Daily News let go of nearly half of its newsroom staff in September of 2018, people augured the event as a sign of the profession’s imminent decline. This, of course, overlooks the fact that many of these employees were actually journalists, as well as the near certainty that there will always be people who report news in a text format. What has changed (and will continue to) are the strategies journalists use to research and publish stories. Now, a journalist’s main readership is most likely comprised primarily of an internet audience. Indeed, for news sources such as The Atlantic, Vice, and Mother Jones, the online venue has contributed greatly to their popularity. I suspect that most of my peers are not even aware that these companies also have print publications.
Consequently, modern journalists have had to develop new skills to stay relevant in their evolving craft. Quite a few believe that to maximize the click count on their articles, they should engage with the public via a Twitter account that features links to what they’ve written and/or clever hot takes on recent economic, political, or pop culture events. Maintaining a presence in the public psyche is just as contingent upon having a charismatic online presence as it is on producing quality articles—for better or for worse. Journalists also have to be tech savvy enough to come up with pithy H2 tags; appealing meta descriptions; a catchy title and subtitles; and relevant, well-placed hyperlinks to other stories.
It’s a tough business to break into, but if you manage to land a permanent job at a large publisher (think Business Insider, Quartz, the New Yorker, and the like), it’s certainly possible to make a living. For those who aren’t so lucky, you can be a contributing commentator—you’ll get to write the occasional article, but you’ll have to supplement your income with a second job or with freelancing contracts.
Legal Writing and Copywriting
Having now worked as both a legal writer and a copywriter, I have some insight into both. Legal writing can be hugely rewarding—I personally wrote petitions on behalf of non-citizen researchers and academics who hoped to have their U.S. visas extended. Similar to my own experience, legal writers get to read lots of interesting work, but the actual petition letters and RFEs that they write eventually feel somewhat repetitive. It’s not an arena for extraordinary creativity or inspiration. Nevertheless, it provided me and many others with the chance to use persuasive rhetoric and solid technical writing skills, which was enjoyable. Typically, these jobs are not the highest paying, but they often offer a livable wage and decent insurance.
Copywriting encompasses a wide variety of writing styles and purposes, so there are no absolute parameters for what subjects you will or won’t cover—it’s totally dependent upon the company and its clients. Furthermore, there’s a wide variety of responsibilities you may be asked to take on. You might be tasked with creating and editing website content. Big companies may rely on you primarily for writing product descriptions, which is perfect for writers who are also interested in marketing. Do you spend a lot of your time reading blogs detailing the latest software packages, apps, and phone models? Look into IT copywriting; it will allow you to indulge your passion for both writing and technology. You won’t always have the luxury of writing about your preferred topics as a copywriter, but you can increase your chances of doing so by picking companies whose products are oriented towards your interests.
For all the verbal artists out there, this is for you. I interviewed two professionals—a short story writer and a novelist—to get a better idea of what it’s like to pursue creative writing for a living, and how feasible it is to rely on it as your primary paycheck.
STORM HUMBERT is a short story author and professional legal writer based in Ann Arbor, Michigan, USA. He has an MFA in Fiction and has previously served as a teaching assistant at Temple University.
Becca: Is it possible to make a living writing short stories, or do most short story writers supplement their writing with teaching or a different side job? Does it depend on how far along you are in your career?
Storm: It’s certainly possible to make a living writing short stories, but it’s technically possible to make a living doing a lot of things. So, I guess my answer would be that it’s highly unlikely, and I can’t say I know more than one or two writers who (may) pull it off with short stories alone, and I don’t know a lot about their personal finances. In any event, it would certainly depend somewhat on how far along or established you are as (I would assume) supporting oneself with short stories is as much about selling collections of one’s stories as selling individual stories to magazines.
Becca: What’s the publishing process like? Do people these days publish online or in print? How do you establish yourself?
Storm: The publishing process is a lot of submitting and being rejected. I personally ascribe to advice I picked up (maybe from one of the books in the Dreamsongs collection) that you start at the top and work your way down to find out where you fit in the food chain and to make sure you don’t undersell any of your efforts. This means you start with the big-name, professional rate markets and work your way down. Again, that’s just my own approach (which is borrowed) and there are definitely others. If you’re accepted, there’s a nice editing process with either the managing or chief editor. I would say that almost all print publications have electronic versions at this point but that only the larger markets maintain a print presence (at least that’s how it seems to me).
Becca: Do you need connections in academia or publishing?
Storm: You publish in markets with significant circulation. I don’t think an academic connection has anything at all to do with it. In fact, many editors will say that they don’t care if you have an MFA, so there’s no need to put it in a cover letter. I do anyway, but I doubt it either helps or hurts.
Becca: How many hours a week do you spend writing creatively, outside of your legal writing job?
Storm: Ideally ten hours, but I don’t always hit this mark and try to do more all the time.
Novel-writing is not for those with short attention spans, and it’s not for those whose only goal is to please the crowd. Most people who are able to complete a full-blown novel have a message or story they feel a strong urge to record, for one reason or another. If you have the patience and the passion, though, it’s certainly doable.
NAWAL KSAR is a novelist, a freelance journalist for the Arab Times, and a translator based in Madaba, Jordan. She has written a number of highly-regarded Arabic language novels and has translated works from prominent figures, such as Noam Chomsky, into Arabic.
Becca: How many hours a day do you write, and what’s the breakdown?
Nawal: I write eight hours a day, sometimes more. Because I write for a living (newspapers and translation), the time left for writing a novel is very little—by then, I’m very tired. Nonetheless, I spend one hour (sometimes less when I have writer’s block) a day writing for my novels.
Becca: What’s the process? Do you design a plot and characters first, or do you just start writing and see where it takes you?
Nawal: A little bit of both. When I write about an issue, I have the issue and the characters in mind. I have in mind a main character, and some idea of the smaller characters around him or her. Then I see where the novel takes me, although I know the ending when I start writing. Once, I was two chapters in when all of a sudden, the ending came to me, so I skipped and wrote the ending and then came back.
Becca: Can you make a living writing? Or do you have to supplement it with journalism and translation?
Nawal: Frankly, in the Arab world, it’s not feasible to be a writer of only novels or short stories. None of my friends’ incomes are totally dependent on their writing. Some of my friends are engineers, work in government jobs, companies, other institutions, and write on the side. For me, I translate and do freelance work at a newspaper and with magazines.
Becca: Tell me more about your work history—being a full-time employee versus freelancing.
Nawal: For twenty-five years, I was an official employee with the publishing company. For the last three years, I’ve been doing it on a freelance basis.
Becca: What’s nicer about being a freelancer?
Nawal: The free time. It’s easier to maneuver through life—you don’t have to go into an office, you can work in the place you’re the most comfortable, transportation is much less expensive. My freelancing income is almost the same as that of my salaried job.
Becca: Did you study to become a writer?
Nawal: Well, my minor is in English language and literature. We studied everything from Shakespeare to grammar and phonetics. My major is in business administration, though.
Becca: From where do you take inspiration for your books?
Nawal: People around me, my fieldwork as a journalist, the stories I’ve encountered with women and children.
You well-intentioned parents can be forgiven for trying to put the kibosh on your grade-school writing aspirations, because the truth is, it takes a lot of motivation and persistence to make a career out of it. However, if you decide that it is indeed what you want to do, then don’t be discouraged—even if your main degree isn’t in writing or translation! As previously discussed, there are numerous ways to immerse yourself in the world of professional writing, and you can begin by trying risk-free freelancing. So, what are you waiting for? Get typing!