Many people say you can’t make a living as a writer. Here’s why they’re wrong.
Most young writers I talk to want a writing career. Or to put it another way, they want a career built around their writing. But that goal feels… elusive? Unrealistic? Far-fetched?
The path forward is murky. The outcome is far from guaranteed. And let’s just say there’s not a lot of support or guidance out there — especially for young people.
Tell someone you plan to pursue writing as a career and they immediately try to discourage you.
“There are only a few hundred people in the entire world who make a living through their writing.”
“You’d have a better chance of winning the lottery than making a living as a writer.”
“Dreams are nice, but you can’t pursue your dreams if you can’t eat.”
Today I would like to help set the record straight by providing hard numbers, real examples, and careful reasoning to show why people think you can’t make a living as a writer and why you actually can.
Can you make a living as a writer?
Writing is a viable career if you treat it like a viable career. Writing is NOT a viable career if you treat it like it’s NOT a viable career. Like Henry Ford famously said, “Whether you think you can or you think you can’t, you’re right.”
Our expectations matter. Our beliefs matter. If we think it’s possible to make a living doing what we love most, we will be willing to make the sacrifices and investments and put in the time necessary to achieve that goal.
If we don’t think it’s possible… we’ll never make the sacrifices and investments and our expectations will become a self-fulfilling prophecy.
The reality is that writing professionally is a career that, according to the US Census Bureau and the Bureau of Labor Statistics, over 165,000 people are currently doing in the United States alone. And like any other career, it requires a complex and refined skill set, years of training and practice, and involves navigating a constantly evolving industry.
But we don’t treat it like any other career.
As a culture, we have a horrible double-standard when it comes to writing as a career. We deny that it can be a viable career, while simultaneously starving it of all the time and investment it requires to be viable. We treat writing as a hobby and expect to get paid for it. Then, when we don’t get paid for it, we declare confidently that it’s not a viable career.
If people took the same approach to studying law we’d have cultural stereotypes about the “starving lawyer” instead of the “starving artist.”
But we don’t treat law like a hobby. We spend four years in high school striving after the right grades so we can get into a good college. Then we spend four years in college pushing ourselves so we can get into a good law school. Then we spend three years studying law and doing legal internships. And then we cram like nuts to pass the dreaded bar exam so we can finally start practising law after 11 years of hard work and $188,500 invested (on average).
What if we invested even half the time and 1/10th of the money into writing? How many more successfully published authors might there be?
So, we need to shift our perspective on this. A writing career should be pursued like any other career. But to do that, we’ve got to make peace with the double-standard and expect opposition.
Think about this…
If you are 16-years-old and decide to become a lawyer… you’d have to finish high school, attend four years of college, then three years of law school. That’s a nine-year process before you’d make one penny as a lawyer.
But no one would say to you two years into the process, “Hey Chloe, you’ve been talking about being a lawyer for two years now and you still haven’t passed the bar to become a lawyer. This is just a childish fantasy. You need to grow up and pursue something more realistic.”
No one would say that because… You’d only be a senior in high school! Everyone knows to become a lawyer you still need another seven years of higher education.
But, tell someone you’re going to become a published author and watch out… People will come out of the woodwork to say, “Hey Chloe, you’ve been writing for over a year now and you still don’t have a book published. You really need to grow up and find a backup plan.”
This is because most people have no idea that it takes on average six years from starting to seriously pursue publication to having your first book traditionally published, according to a survey we did of 119 popular published authors. That’s not much different than the seven years it takes to become a lawyer. It’s way faster than the 10-12 years it takes to become a doctor.
And if you think about it, six years is a reasonable amount of time given all the various skill sets you need to learn, the time it takes to really become an excellent writer, as well as the time it takes to really learn to navigate a complex publishing industry and build the kind of relationships you need to break-in.
So, can writing be a viable career? Yes, if you treat it like one.
But can writers really make money?
Of course, the primary concern for people who counsel against writing as a career is the idea that writers don’t make any money. It seems like everyone has a cousin who tried to become a writer and now is living under a bridge and burning unsold copies of his books to stay warm at night. (Okay… that may have been a slight exaggeration, but you get what I’m saying)
Everyone knows that writers don’t make any money, just like everyone knows that Christians are judgmental, teenagers are rebellious, people with chronic illness are just looking for attention, and police officers love donuts. These are cultural stereotypes… and even though you can find examples of them being true, they are not true in most cases. Yet people believe them anyway.
In addition to cultural stereotypes about “starving artists” and anecdotal reports from the one published author someone has actually met — occasionally people will cite one of several poorly designed, widely publicized, and thoroughly criticized surveys that claim the average writer makes $2,345 per year or some other number well below the federal poverty line.
I can’t get into all the reasons why these surveys are misleading and flawed (or else this article will turn into a book), but for now let me simply paraphrase a common critique: “If you conducted the same kind of survey for lawyers, using the same methodology, the resulting number would also fall below the poverty line. The survey design is that bad.”
Fortunately, we don’t have to rely on questionable surveys and random anecdotes to know whether writing can be a viable career, because every single year writers and authors have to report their income to the government and that information is published by the Bureau of Labor Statistics and the U.S. Census Bureau. Imagine that? Actual hard data, not just people’s assumptions, opinions, or personal experience.
Below are a few highlights worth sharing with anyone in your life who thinks writers can’t make a living. These numbers may be hard to believe given how thoroughly ingrained the idea that writers don’t make any money has become in our culture.
But this is not some narrow sampling of writers and authors who volunteered for an informal survey. This is mandatory reporting of annual income for tax purposes from everyone who claims “Writer and Author” as their primary occupation. And as you know, there are very strong incentives to be absolutely truthful when reporting your income to the government for tax purposes.
With that in mind, here are the actual numbers from the federal government (as of 2019):
— There are 167,000 people in the United States who claim “writer and author” as their primary occupation, which means there are more full-time writers and authors than there are dentists, according to the US Census Bureau. (Source)
— Those 167,000 writers and authors earn an average annual income of $62,070, which is $6,546 higher than the average national salary of $55,524.
— The median wage for “Writers and Authors” is $30.39 per hour, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (Source), which is $11.06 per hour more than the national median, according to the Economic Policy Institute. (Source)
— “Writers and Authors” make far more money than other artists, earning nearly $16,000 more per year than “Actors” (Source), $26,000 more per year than “Musicians and Singers” (Source), and $28,000 more per year than “Dancers and Choreographers” (Source).
— 23% of “Writers and Authors” earn less than $20,000 per year (Source), compared to 20% for “College Professors” (Source), 19% for “Real Estate Agents” (Source), and 50% for “Musicians and Singers” (Source).
— 15% of “Writers and Authors” earn more than $100,000 per year (Source), compared to 19% for “College Professors” (Source), 24.5% for “Real Estate Agents” (Source), and 6.5% for “Musicians and Singers” (Source).
In other words, writers and authors earn a decent, middle-class income with the potential to earn a great income. They may not be earning as much as doctors and lawyers, but they certainly don’t belong in the category of “starving artists” who can’t put food on the table.
That said, it’s important to clarify that “Writers and Authors” include people who are employed in writing-related jobs or self-employed offering writing-related services and not just people writing books. These numbers don’t prove that you can make a living just by writing books (though some people do), but they do prove that you can make a living as a writer through a combination of books and getting paid for your writing skills in other ways.
These numbers should give you the confidence to pursue a writing career, knowing that strong writing skills can earn you a job or provide opportunities for self-employment that generate a decent income. If 167,000 people are doing it right now, there’s no reason you can’t do it too, especially if you are starting young.
Five Career Paths For Writers
Now that we’ve established that you can make a living as a writer, it’s time to start unpacking exactly what that can look like.
To keep things simple, I am assuming that you eventually want to publish books and make as much of your living as possible from being an author. There are five main approaches to accomplishing this that each have their own strengths and weaknesses.
Depending on your personality, level of family support, and how quickly you need to generate an income, certain approaches will make more sense. Keep in mind that you are not stuck with the approach you choose first, but can move between approaches over time.
The five main approaches are:
1) Living The Dream
You write books and collect royalty checks. Your books are successful enough that you have no need for other income sources. This is what the average person imagines a writing career to be like and what many people are referring to when they say it’s unrealistic to make a living as a writer.
Pros: This is what every writer dreams about.
Cons: Requires you to publish prolifically and sell a crazy amount of books.
2) The Authorpreneur
This is where you build a business around your books that allows you to maximize your income from everything you publish (even if none of your books are runaway bestsellers). This usually involves offering additional products/services related to your books.
Pros: Everything you do for work relates back to your writing.
Cons: You are your own boss and need to be self-motivated.
3) The Classic Day Job
This is where you get some sort of regular job that pays the bills while also allowing you sufficient time and mental energy to consistently work on your personal writing. Your day job may not be your passion, but it puts food on the table while you work towards your dreams.
Pros: Making money while still having time and mental energy to write.
Cons: May not pay super well or provide a lot of opportunity for advancement.
4) The Professional
This is where you get paid for your writing skills or knowledge by working for another organization (e.g. a publisher, university, or business) while also working towards publishing your own books. This is a writing-specific variation of the Classic Day Job.
Pros: You are getting paid for your writing skills and knowledge.
Cons: The best jobs (e.g. teaching at a university) can be highly competitive.
5) The Comeback Kid
This is where you choose a more intense career (often unrelated to writing) and wait to publish books until later in life. Unlike a Classic Day Job, your chosen career does not allow sufficient time and mental energy to consistently work on your personal writing.
Pros: Great if you have another passion you want to pursue as your first career.
Cons: Potentially putting your writing career on hold for a while.
Hopefully, these five categories have expanded your sense of what’s possible.
Too many writers believe that “Living The Dream” is the only way to succeed as a writer or that “The Classic Day Job” is the only way to earn money and still pursue writing. For those writers, “The Professional” or “The Authorpreneur” strategies mean they can build a profitable career around their love for writing and eliminate the pressure of needing to be a mega-bestselling author just to provide for their family.
Others believe that if they choose a different career path they have shut the door on writing forever. For those writers, “The Comeback Kid” approach means they can actually pursue multiple passions in their lifetime… like Andrew Peterson who pursued music first, got well-established as an artist, and then branched out into writing fiction and non-fiction books.
Also, keep in mind that these are general categories with room for incredible diversity. For example, “The Professional” approach would include someone like C.S. Lewis teaching at Oxford as well as a self-employed copywriter getting paid to write landing pages. “The Authorpreneur” approach would include non-fiction authors like myself, but also New York Times Bestselling fiction authors like Joanna Penn.
Regardless of which approach you choose to take, you’ll need to avoid six common mistakes people make when trying to pursue a writing career.
Five Mistakes You Need To Avoid When Pursuing A Writing Career
Simply believing that a writing career is possible and choosing to pursue it, doesn’t guarantee success. Often writers fail because of one or more of the following six mistakes.
1) Not being willing to work hard.
Those of you who have been writing for a while know the truth. Writing is fun, but it’s not easy. Becoming an excellent writer is hard. Building an audience for your writing is hard. Getting published is hard. Learning how to actually sell books is hard.
The important thing to remember is that this is not unique to writing. Every career that pays decently requires tremendous effort and dedication to gain the relevant skills and then put yourself in a position to get paid.
At the end of the day, as someone who loves writing, your career choices come down to either working hard at writing or working hard at something else. There’s no easy option.
2) Not being willing to be different.
If you choose to pursue writing, you must accept that some people won’t understand and may question your sanity. That just comes with the territory.
You also need to accept that pursuing your writing goals may involve charting your own path in areas like education and employment. Depending on your specific goals, you may choose to delay college or forgo higher education entirely. You may decide to be self-employed rather than getting a conventional job. You may take a hybrid approach.
The point is… if you can’t handle being different, writing may not be a good fit.
3) Ignoring the business side of writing.
Writing is an art, but it is also a business. One of the biggest reasons writers fail is because they refuse to embrace the business side of pursuing a career. As Jane Friedman, former publisher of Writer’s Digest, shares in her book, The Business of Being a Writer:
“Most serious writers take for granted that art and business are antithetical to one another. Before a word is published — before they’ve encountered any aspect of the business of their art — they assume that they are bad at business or that attending to business concerns will pollute their creative efforts. Too few are open to the possibility that the business side calls for as much imagination as the artistic process itself.”
Many writers mistakenly believe that if they can only get published, their publisher will take care of selling their books, and they will be able to make a living as a writer. Those writers are in for a rude awakening and may never get traditionally published again.
4) Taking forever to finish projects.
Too many writers spend years wrestling with their first full-length project, which dramatically slows down their growth as a writer, and renders them completely unprepared to write under deadline for an actual publisher.
This is often where first-time authors fail. They spent 10 years writing their first novel or series and now they have 4-6 months to write something just as good or better. This is called the dreaded “Sophomore Slump” and destroys many writing careers.
Writers who succeed tend to focus on completing as many full-length projects as possible, so they can practice crafting a good story from start to finish. This gives them more projects to pitch as they attempt to land that first book contract but also means they won’t have to go through the typical “Sophomore Slump” that many authors deal with.
5) Rushing past the fundamentals.
Some writers get caught up in building a platform, finding an agent, and getting that first book contract when their stories still have unsympathetic characters, no stakes, serious plot holes, etc. Or where their message is basically just regurgitating what other people have said.
Instead of ignoring the business side of writing, these writers are ignoring the craft side. They are pursuing a career but may have only ever received critique from peers.
Not only will these writers struggle to find a good agent or publisher, but they may eventually decide that the system is “rigged” against them and never realize that it was the quality of their work that held them back.
You Can Make A Living As A Writer
It’s not in your best interest or mine to convince you that a writing career is easy or that the outcome is guaranteed. But I do want you to know that it’s possible and that with hard work and dedication, you can build a career around what you love most.
The incredible thing about writing is that you always have another shot. There’s no artificial deadline like, “If you haven’t made it by 25, you’re done.” Many first-time authors are in their 40s, 50s, or even 60s. Francis Schaeffer published his first book at the age of 55, and went on to publish over 20 books before he died.
As I like to say, “The only way to fail at becoming an author is to give up or die.” This is important to remember when you’re dealing with discouragement from a bad grade on a writing assignment, harsh feedback from a reader, or rejections from editors or agents.
If God has placed a love for writing inside of you, it’s there for a reason. The road ahead may be as daunting as Frodo and Sam’s journey to Mount Doom, but it will be worth it.
What Do I Do Next? Following the Right Strategies
After reading this post so far, though, you may be wondering how to make sure you avoid these five common mistakes that too often prohibit writers from becoming successful authors.
That’s why I want to give you the five strategies I coach our Author Conservatory students to use so you can make sure you avoid those pitfalls.
These five key shifts have given many other young writers the clarity and confidence they need to move forward. Several of them may seem counter-intuitive at first. But for writers who use them, you will gain a major advantage over every other writer (young or old) and overtake people who are years ahead of them.
If you want to learn the strategies you need to use to follow one of these different six career paths, click here to sign up for the free training and learn how to successfully pursue publication and beyond.
I want to give you confidence in your author career plan and the ability to support yourself at the same time.