Saturday, February 20, 2010


Please welcome back guest columnist Katherine Swarts, Spread the Word's founder.

Could You Be a Full-time Writer?
A Half Dozen Hints for Taking the Plunge
Writing a book or two is one thing--making writing your sole source of income is another. Ask yourself these six questions before you quit your salaried job.

It may happen after the third book in your series. It may happen after your first novel. It may even happen while you’re still deciding whether to become a writer at all.
But sooner or later, every serious author wonders: Why not quit my “regular” job and write for a living?
For one thing, it’s rarely an adequate living. Only a tiny percentage of writers, mostly commercial or nonfiction specialists, make even $25,000 a year from their word processors. J. K. Rowling notwithstanding, there are few rags-to-riches stories in the fiction field.
But if you insist on considering the full-time option, ask yourself:
1. What is your current writing income? Unless you’re virtually debt-free, with enough savings (or salaried household members) for six to twelve months, the worst thing you can do is quit your job and then start writing. Beginners commonly delude themselves that their talent is so obvious, and publishers so desperate for decent material, that everything will sell immediately. In real life, it takes two or three years to write and publish a high-selling book, or to reach the point of a story a week in major magazines. Wait to go full-time until your monthly writing income reaches at least a few thousand.
2. Are you prepared to write for several hours each day? What was a welcome evening diversion after a day at the office, can become boring when expanded to forty hours a week. Are you willing to give as much time as to any other job?
3. Can you take the isolation? Even if you have no trouble writing all day, you may find yourself going crazy for the sound of another human voice, if only from down the hall. One way to ease the transition is to telecommute, if possible, during the last few months of your current job. (If you hate those few months, at least you’ll know to reconsider quitting!) And after you’re full-time at home, mingle regularly with fellow writers through critique groups and conferences.
4. Are you a good time manager? Some authors, having quit “day jobs” to write full-time, get less done in forty hours than they did in ten. Unstructured time easily turns into wasted time. So before you make writing your regular job, prepare a formal schedule: a specific number of pages (or hours) in the morning; definite limits for lunch and other breaks; a minimum number of submissions a week. And if you don’t have an agent or publisher setting deadlines for you, set some yourself!
5. Are you prepared for a feast-or-famine income—and to put money “in the freezer” for the famine periods? No income flow is completely predictable—even full-time, long-term employees get laid off without warning—but the self-employed are particularly vulnerable to whims of the market. Popular series lose steam. Bestseller markets collapse. New editors remake magazines in new images. If you spend money as fast as it comes in, letting credit bills run up, never putting anything in savings, you may end up looking for a new “regular” job just to avoid bankruptcy. (Incidentally, this can happen even to writers whose work stays on the bestseller lists. The income hasn’t been invented that no one is capable of outspending!)
6. Do you have a business plan? Where do you want to be in a year? Five years? What will be your next three projects? Have you made budgets for travel and publicity?
If you’re still convinced you have what it takes to be a full-time novelist, go for it. May your name always adorn library shelves!


  1. Hah! NO WAY! For lots of HONEST reasons.

    1. I like my daytime career & it provides for a nice lifestyle.

    2. Not sure I would enjoy writing as much if my income depended on my efforts.

    3. I'm not crazy about the work that goes into promoting & that's HAYOOGE. This was one of the reasons behind my decision not to pursue traditional publishing - not that I assume my work would have been accepted - but getting a deal comes with obligations. I would never enter into any agreement if I had doubts about my ability or willingness to keep up my end of the deal. (Besides - no one is knocking down doors to publish books for boys these days, so it's not a commercially attractive genre for pub companies.)

    Good post Katherine - Joylene, you sure do get some cool guest bloggers.

  2. Thanks, Dave. I agree. Great post, Katherine. I'm keeping my day job.

  3. I don't have a job outside of my home, but I don't consider myself a full-time author, either! That would take more computer time and writing time than I am willing to commit at this point.

  4. Hi Katie. I'm like you, a stay-at-home writer/wife/care-giver. I remember trying to juggle things when I was working and raising five boys, and seems to me I stayed up late at night and wrote then. It was the only time left. LOL.

  5. I am so far from making a living at my writing that I can't even see the day happening. But I'm still hoping. Thanks for this, Katherine. Everything you wrote makes perfect sense, and is a checklist of what I need to do to make my dream a reality.

  6. Thanks for your comment, Deirdre. Best of luck with all your dreams. Come back anytime and let us know how it goes.

  7. Thanks, everyone, for your comments! I hope I'm some help both to those who are ready to go full-time and to those who aren't.

    Like my January 20 post, this article was originally published as part of a Suite101 series in 2007; the full list is at

    (Joylene--my regular e-mails to you still don't seem to be getting through. Could you check and see if your spam filter has somehow blacklisted me?)

  8. This is obtainable if I keep my head on straight and don't deviate. Thanks, Katerine. Your posts are superb.

    John Alexander

  9. How right you are that money doesn't come by easy. Although I've developed a good name in the writing community, spend hours on promo, writing, ezine, newsletters, conference, etc., money is still very hard to come by. Then again, if I have to be honest, I'm not actively pursuing money gigs, which I should, but concentrating more on editing for pubs and freelance editing and writing my own stuff.

    So there is a price to pay to make money like in any job and that is directing your efforts to the right venues to make income.

    Thank you for a great post. Truly enjoyed it.

  10. Katherine,

    Great list! Gives me something to think about when I am ready to go full-time, which may only happen at retirement age.

    Cher Green

  11. Great post Katherine and Joylene. It's remarkable how many people actually think a writer makes oodles of money when their book is published. That's one of the top questions people ask me, "How are books sales going?" They really do think I'm getting rich!

    Although I do dream of a time when I can devote more of my time to writing, I know I won't be giving up my job any time soon.

  12. Terrific post. I'm *not* prepared to be a full-time writer.
    -- I make way too much money at my day job, which actually I like a lot.
    -- I'm not a good time manager.
    -- I'm much more productive if I don't have time to waste (see above).
    -- I love writing poetry, and that's not a way to make a living.

    When I retire, I do plan to do more writing, but not as my sole activity.


  13. Great points, Lea. Many argue that the only route to take is the one that pays. I'm agreeing, but sighing at the same time. I'd much rather direct my energy towards my WIPs than the paying venues. Nobody's fault but my own, I guess.

    You raise an important point. I think you have to make a name first so that trust is attached to it. If I saw your name on a magazine or e-zine article, I'd be more prone to pay because I trust that whatever you've written is worth my time and money.

    I guess the same can be proven for exciting titles. If I didn't recognize your name but you had an excellent byline that promised I'd be a better writer if I read your article, I may change paying first.

    That said, I also know that if I spend the time and effort, I'll find free information such as valuable.

    Which makes me think that to make money one has to continually make their name known and to keep writing those novels.

    Am I wrong?

  14. Hi Laura. We're dreaming the same dream! How kewl is that! LOL. Seriously, there's nothing wrong with hoping readers buy our books. Makes writing them more fun, don't you think?

  15. Cher - thanks for your comment, and thanks for always stopping by. Your support means a lot.

  16. Thank you for stopping by, Margaret. Have a great day.

  17. Though I agree with most of what Katherine wrote here, I disagree with one area. I am a full-time writer. My day is spent writing and doing writing tasks AND I get paid for it and I pay taxes on my income. I even have a designated office for what I do. However, there is the income Katherine suggests that a writer needs per month is unrealistic, and only comes through tech writing and/or major blockbusters (and even they have to do other types of writing to keep their name out there and generate consistent income). Expecting to make several thousands of dollars a month is really a lot more than most people generate from a regular job each month. What full-time writing can do for you, if you are suited for it and can produce the product, is offer you satisfying work---and, yeah, it may all boil down to minimun wage. But, it really beats slinging burgers or being a door greeter at a big box store!

  18. Realistically though, I think quitting a day job at a bank or where you'd be guaranteed medical benefits is dumb if you haven't already established a client list. I think that's what Katherine is trying to warn against. I'm a freelance writer, but it took years to build a base where I could do this full time. And though my wages are more like $37,000 a year, I know few that do better than that. If you were working for a national paper, maybe.

    Good post, Katherine.

  19. Anonymous, yes, it would be foolish to leave a good paying job with security and benefits to do this full-time, especially in this uncertain economy. And, you are very correct about very few writers making more than you do. In fact, that's about the ceiling for many independent contractors, whether they do business collateral or offer resume services. In my case, there is a stable primary income in my household that offers me medical benefits. My income would always be supplemental for where I live-and even with a college degree the options here are limited to service industries, unless you're a twenty-something fresh out of school.
    But I do appreciate the discussion that Katherine has stimulated. Writers need to consider their temperment, the economic climate around them, and just how much effort they are willing to put forth in order to do this. For some of us, that's a no-brainer. Managing your own writing business is far superior to working for someone else, even if the pay is low.

  20. Janie and Anony, great discussion. I've always found it fascinating what constitutes a decent living in other parts of the world. Here, it's amazing that anyone can survive with an income beneath $1500 a month. What Katherine says is a good basis for contemplation. Our business is not something to be taken lightly. I know a few who have tried, only to give up after a year. It's a tough business on so many levels.

    Which reminds me that I should go and give my DH a huge hug.

    Thanks for stopping by and commenting. It's always great hearing from you.

  21. I agree, Joylene. I live in North Dakota, and we just don't have high-paying jobs here, except for the standard professionals (doctors, lawyers, etc.). Even my family doctor, who supports a wife and four kids, lives in a very modest house and pays for parochial school. My son who is an executive chef and part owner of a restaurant makes more than my DH but then my DH is a state employee and those jobs are not high earning ones.

    But I've been a full-time writer for 10 years here (writing for regional--not local, national, and international publications, print and online) and I've seen dramatic ups and downs. Though our state has been protected from much of the economic hardship of the rest of the nation, I have seen it reflected in fewer new clients. Currently, though, I have a relatively stable base that has allowed me to explore the fiction side of my life. So, I'm learning how to hawk my debut novella and develop a repuation in that realm as I have for the non-fiction publications who keep calling.

    So, I do thank you for hosting this discussion. I will be doing a workshop on freelance writing at the Muse Online Writers Conference in October and I'll keep Katherine's points in mind as I prepare for that workshop.

  22. Goes to show what goes into such a highly acclaimed conference if you're already preparing for it, and it's not until October. That's impressive, Janie. I'm continually in awe of writers like yourself who readily share your knowledge with others. That is extremely generous.

    Thanks for your comments. I hope you stop by again.

  23. It's good to see the pros and cons being discussed... great post, Katherine and Joylene.

    I'm freelancing and enjoying the freedom to focus on my novels-in-progress and send out occasional paying articles, setting my own (relaxed) pace because I have the luxury of another income-earner in the family. Could I cope with full time writing? Yes, I'm sure I could but it's not a goal I'm pursuing yet. First things first. :)

  24. I'm with you, Carole. Though my DH is retired, he has supported my writing for many years. It would be so nice to one day support him.

  25. Since this article was originally written for a fiction writers' database, its central focus (not stated explicitly in the text) is on fiction writing--and that definitely is _the_ hardest sort of writing to make a living at these days. I know of only a few full-time novelists (mostly series writers); and for those who prefer writing short stories, about the only chance is to find several major periodicals that use monthly stories with ongoing characters.

    However, a surprising number of people are making very good incomes from freelance business writing, or even from nonfiction books and articles. If anyone is interested in exploring that possibility further, a couple of good resources are and

    My three favorite hints for the serious-about-making-real-money writer:

    1. When it comes to queries, quality trumps quantity. If your introductory letter is dull or sounds mass-produced, your target will expect no better from your offered-for-pay writing.

    2. Whatever your preferred writing venue, the more people you know, the more work you get.

    3. Don't waste your time on so-called blog-writing job sites; they're ruled by people wanting a lot of work for ten cents a word or less. If you want to make money from business writing, go straight to the businesses--and focus on the large ones, which pay contractors what they're worth.

  26. Katherine, I couldn't agree with you more. I heartily second your point in #3. Blog sites and article brokers who only pay $10 or less for 1,000 word articles (and some that require several posts a day!) are grabbing the hungry or overeager writer who is desperate to be published. This is really writing slavery. Katherine is right, go to businesses or trade publications where you can get steady work for a decent rate.

    And Katherine, thanks for stimulating this conversation!

  27. Katherine, it's always a blessing having you air your blogs. Thanks.

    Janie, thanks for the discussion. I learned a lot.

  28. Excellent post, Katherine. And I agree so much with you and Janie about blogging sites. I'm not about to give my work away.

    I'm a stay-at-home mom who works from home. Most of my income comes from online book promotion, but I also edit on the side, when I'm not writing. I love my job, and that's what matters most to me.


  29. Cheryl, thanks for your comments. It's so great to hear from other mothers. My kids are grown now, but I still remember how tough it was trying to juggle all my jobs.

  30. Hey Joylene,
    I find this post very interesting. Many authors are passionate about writing and produce great works. But you conveyed something here which is most useful to all beginners who want to be writers. You cant get this kind of information anywhere else. Thanks a lot.

  31. Thank you, Mighty. Your kind words made my day.


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