Monday, July 26, 2010

Okay, So You're In It For The Money

Last week I discovered (via the endlessly witty and delightful Rejectionist) John Scalzi's "utterly useless" (read: super useful) advice on writing professionally.

So, yes: caveats.

It is absolutely possible, as John states, to make money (even a lot of money) writing professionally. Also, note that I have never said you can't make money writing (even though it sort of looks like I did, and I should have been more clear). What I should have said was: you're probably not going to make a lot of money writing fiction.

John makes his money writing a variety of articles on everything from entertainment to personal finance, and building such a repertoire—in addition to the requisite (and now probably figurative) Rolodex of contacts and clients—takes a lot of time and effort. John mentions his starting salary as a journalist was very low, and sadly, things haven't changed much in the business since then.

At one time you could make a lot of money writing for television, and to some extent that's still true, but with the preponderance of unscripted "reality" TV shows out there, it looks like there are far fewer well-paying jobs in Hollywood than there were ten or twenty years ago. You could try screenplays, but it's a tough market made tougher by the recession and California's relentless budget crises.

I think your best bets are article writing (à la John), technical writing (writing manuals and... well, technical things), translation (are you fluent in a foreign language?), or copywriting/copyediting (requires a lot of experience and contacts to get good rates). Fiction, memoir, and poetry command lower rates (in descending order), and most people who stick exclusively to creative writing are lucky to make more than a few thousand dollars a year doing it. Also remember that, as a full-time writer, you are self-employed, meaning you're subject to self-employment tax and will have to pay for your own health insurance, retirement planning, &c.

Questions/praise/vitriol? To the comments!


  1. Nice to see you mentioned technical writing, that's what I'm studying now.

  2. I went freelance just over a year ago (after many years in in-house writing-based jobs), and also began writing fiction. My paid work comes from various commercial sources - there is certainly work out there. But I can confirm that building up the contacts and experience you need to keep a steady stream of well-paid work coming in is very hard. As a self-employed person you are responsible for absolutely everything, and all the non-paying things take up a lot of time. If you NEED an income now, don't give up your day job while you're building up those initial contacts!

    That being said, I wouldn't swap this life for anything. I do not expect to make money writing fiction, but I love what the experience does for me as a writer. I love working out of my own house, even if it does mean I'm never away from the office. I love the hunt for new and exciting projects. I feel that I'm finally able to put all my skills to use. I could go on and on about what I love about being my own boss.

  3. Technical writing is hard to break into unless you actually have experience/education in technical reading. The recession and the shifting landscape has left a lot of technical writers out of work. If you think to leverage your time as editor of your school literary magazine, you'll find you'll lose the job to someone who has five years of genuine technical writing experience and was laid off from his previous company.

    Likewise, copyediting is tightening its belt. Some companies skip copyediting, relying on the work that was already done to get to that point (or perhaps only a quick proofreading). Others and by others I mean LOTS are sending that work to India where the workers are paid 1/6 what the same position earns in the US and often with a greater understanding of the language rules (though a lack of idioms or an understanding of the differences between American and Queen's English). Really, Indian copyeditors are incredibly frustrating, but they get the job to a point where someone in-house can wrap it up without requiring the expense of a full-time employee. You might see a temp or a freelancer involved.

    If you're going to be a freelance editor, 1) Be flipping amazing, on time, and profession. 2) Know someone at the company you work with who will be your advocate otherwise you may be the victim of the bottom line.

  4. I can speak to the "other" side of writing for money, something I've made a living at for the past 20+ years. I've done catalog, advertising, marketing, technical, and proposal writing, mainly working full time at large corporations, though I've had a few stints at freelancing. I'm single and have made a decent enough living on my own. The steady pay check and bonuses in the corporate world are nice. My total annual salary is in the upper 5 figures and I have some pension money, a 401K, health benefits, and 3 weeks of vacation. Plus the company I work for now lets me work from home, supplies my computer and internet connection, and even ships me free printer ink.

    When I worked freelance, I asked for and received anywhere from $50 to $75 per hour. If I knew I would be at a job for several months, I was willing to work for $50/hour. For short, one-off projects, I requested $75/hour. As a freelancer, I worked for companies based in Texas, California and Michigan, and found pay rates to be about the same in all 3 states. (Caveated to say I've been a salaried employee now for several years, and I suspect the hourly rate has dropped a bit with the recession.)

    Remember that, as Eric pointed out, you have to pay for health insurance (if you don't have a partner carrying it for you) and self-employment taxes out of that freelance money, plus put something by for retirement. And when you go on vacation or aren't working otherwise, you aren't making money. Freelancing can be more lucrative, but it's also tougher. Especially in the current economy.

    Do I love writing for hire? Please. But it sure as heck beats any number of other occupations out there. And it keeps my skills sharp for when I'm ready to apply them to creative writing endeavors.

  5. Why is good advice something we don't really ever want to hear?

  6. I'd like to emphasize (as Phoenix says above) that full-time writer doesn't necessarily mean freelancer. Working in an office has its benefits - for one thing, interacting with other humans helps me make my fictional characters more realistic.

    Anyway, I always find this topic interesting. It assumes that one wants to write professionally, as opposed to wanting to write fiction professionally. My "real job" has been nonfiction writer for most of the past decade, but I've heard "don't take a day job that involves writing because then the last thing you'll want to do with your free time is write" many times, so there must be a lot of people who don't want to write anything but fiction.

  7. Another factor that's really impacting freelance writing is the number of "write-for-hire" websites out there - they are driving down prices on the one hand, but on the positive side they are giving a lot more writers a fighting chance in the market. Some, of course, are scams that exploit writers; some are earnest attempts to give writers paying work. And there's often a fine line between the two, so writers, beware.

    Writers are not alone - graphic design, programming, website development and many other freelance industries are faced with the same kind of competition. The way to thrive can be summed up thus: work hard, be 100% professional at all times, and continually find ways to improve your writing. Strangely enough, those are the same rules that apply to getting your fiction published! Repeat after me: THERE ARE NO SHORTCUTS. YOU HAVE TO WORK AT IT.

  8. I think I can spare you a rousing Bab's ...Don't Rain on my Parade ... since what you wrote makes sense. BUT ... remember ... there are hundreds of thousands of people out here in the hinter-lands doing some form of writing. Making it, not making it.

    Everywhere a hopeful newbie or a midlist writer turns, they are faced with depressing statistics ... bad time for publishing, don't get your hopes up, it isn't the money, it's the love of the craft.

    Then there was a man who spent close to ten years doing a blog "Newbies" And he told of his thousands of miles of endless book signings, mailings to booksellers and libraries. He reminded us every way from Sunday that all these extraordinary efforts (mind you he plotted his "plight" on a map on his site) and how we should never expect to get much out of it but the satisfaction of traveling a great deal.

    Read the last six months of his posts. It is no longer for Newbies ... it is now a daily rant extoling the wonders of "e" books, how much he sold, how much he made. He never knew life could be this good. Compared his "e" sales to Paterson and estimated the over $100,000 he'll make on books he used to give away.

    Eric ... no one can ever say never. Maybe it's actually what Anthony Robbins has said for decades ... the only people who say money is the root of all evil are the ones who have it all.

  9. I just applied to a professional writing certificate program through the Univ. of Central FL (online, 3 semesters) - technical writing is one of the things included in it. I am dead set on pursuing that because I'm tired of minimum wage jobs. I know it's not as exciting as fiction, but I'm not prolific in the creative stuff anyway. (Wish I was!)

  10. So much food for thought. Unfortunately, I'm getting mental indigestion!

  11. This is a good follow up to the previous article.

    You contributed to my decision to go back to school and get a degree. Working retail as I perfect my craft is certainly romantic, but the prospect of doing that the rest of my life makes me want to put a screwdriver in my ear.

  12. OK, here's how it works. All the years I earned money writing for radio/TV & video, I also had a husband who earned bigger bucks and had health insurance. So, I say, before venturing into a career in writing of any kind, find a spouse or significant other who can pay the bills. OUCH! I feel the poison darts coming at me now. But really, a good husband trumps a good agent any day.

  13. I've been a professional technical writer since the 1980s. I have an unusual background (5 college degrees) and a lot of experience in a niche market (underlying source code for computer programs).

    I make very good money, the longest I've been unemployed is 6 months, and I really enjoy my day job (and my night job as a fiction writer). I find that the two mesh very nicely. I have 17 fiction books out in 3 years and I'm not slowing down. It can be done.