Wednesday, June 11, 2008

The Writing Career

Janine writes:
Everyone has a dream job. Mine is reading and researching whatever I want, writing about it [...] If I could maintain shelter, get enough food to sustain me, and perhaps some extra for clothing, I'd be a happy girl. As it is, I've written in the evenings and on weekends, while working full time and for a while, simultaneously earning an MA.

I have a decent list of credits: lots of websites, lots of small publications. About 2 dozen magazines [...] I've written a few press releases for a charity and a lobbying org I like. [...] I also feel called to research in military psychology (what I got my MA in), and I'm about to get a job offer (I hope) as a writer for a foundation whose cause and methods I passionately support.

So what's a girl to do? Is freelancing for a living really possible? How do I know it's what I want to commit myself to ? Or do I go half-way, with a part-time job and writing for the rest, instead of taking the full jump? Or devoting so much time to a "hobby" that the husband complains I never pay him any attention? [...]
Certainly it's possible. All manner of amazing things are possible. Is it probable? That depends on some as-yet-unspecified terms and conditions.

Where do you live? How do you define a living? Do you have dependents? How good is your health? Is this husband you mention purely hypothetical or a real person in a current relationship that you wish to maintain?

Somewhere around here I've got a book entitled, How to Make $20,000 A Year Writing No Matter Where You Live. It's an older book, but if it's been updated recently, I expect the number in the title has been raised to $32K, tops. However, the basic message of the book will not have changed.

Writing for a living is work. Writing as your sole means of support is hard work. Being a full-time freelance writer is actually two job titles: Senior Engineer in Charge of Creative R&D and VP of Sales & Marketing. To make a living as a freelance writer you must hustle, hustle, hustle and sell, sell, sell all the time — and then, you must find some way to carve out the time to actually write that which you sell.

You must develop a client list, of people who will consistently buy your work. You must focus on a fairly narrow set of specialties, either in terms of subject matter or style. You must establish yourself as the "go-to" writer for any work having to do with your specialty, you must write only work that is either pre-sold or as close to pre-sold as is possible, and you must mercilessly resell, rehash, and recycle every single bit of research and writing you do so as to wring as much income as possible out of it.

And then, somehow, you must find a way to carve the time required to actually write out of the rest of your life, and your family, friends, and dependents will suffer accordingly. This is why so many writers are night-owls, or in my case, early birds. This is why so many writers are divorced. This is why writers who have pets generally have cats, because cats can be left to fend for themselves, while dogs require frequent attention and maintenance. If you have children, remember, human children are far more like puppies than kittens.

This is what is required to make a living as a full-time freelance writer. Following your nose and curiosity wherever they lead and writing about whatever fascinates you this month only works if you are a tenured professor, married to a doctor or lawyer, very good at playing the arts grant game, living on a trust fund in one of your millionaire father's spare vacation homes, or have a very low threshold as to what constitutes "a living." If you live in Outer Boondockia, it may be possible to live decently on a low cash flow. Contrariwise, I have met writers who claim it is possible to be a freelance writer and live comfortably in New York City on a cash income of $20,000 a year. Myself, I have a deep-seated aversion to stepping on cockroaches in the kitchen and stepping over crack-heads in the hallway.

Does what I've written so far give you pause? Good, because I haven't even begun to address the question of medical insurance coverage, which is something most freelance writers don't even begin to have. But I've written enough on this topic for one morning, and must now get back to paying work. (For reference, the First Rule of Being a Professional Writer is: "Paying work on deadline always takes priority.")

But before I log off, I want to leave you with one encouraging thought. Or rather, with an encouraging link: In Praise of Brilliant Amateurs.

Kindest regards,