How to Be a Working Writer

how to be a working writer

How to Be a Working Writer

Last week’s post on the grim realities and unexpected upsides of a career in writing engendered a lot of conversation among readers.

In my posts I usually like to focus on authors and their careers, but this week I wanted to turn the camera around and talk a bit about how those principles have shaped my own career.

In my early days I was as an actor—another field where the stats for “success” are pretty grim and income is erratic and usually paltry, so I waited tables so that I could afford the luxury of pursuing my art. And honestly, I didn’t mind the work—I was good at it, made good money, and had a good time with my coworkers and customers.

I started working in publishing as a freelance copyeditor initially as a more sustainable and portable source of income to facilitate my acting career, and I genuinely enjoyed that too—there’s a delicious mathematical precision to the skill, and an art to doing it well and respecting the author’s voice.

When I eventually quit acting and wanted to write, my copyediting covered most of the bills so I could work as a freelance movie reviewer, entertainment reviewer, and features reporter—which, while again low-paying, was a ton of fun, and let me do many of my favorite things: attend countless cultural events, interview people about their stories, learn new things, share my opinion…and write. It also allowed me to write fiction and pursue publication.

Finally, after realizing that developmental editing was actually my first love and my main passion, I focused on building that business, and for the last twelve years the career that provides my livelihood has completely merged with what most fulfills me creatively, in the form of my dev editing career.

Choosing Your Path as a Writer

So how does this relate to you and last week’s post?

One reader comment that stuck out to me in particular was that its stark assessment of traditional publishing might discourage authors from pursuing that avenue—which was nowhere near my intention.

I cut my teeth as an editor working with most of the Big Six (back then) as a copyeditor and still work with several trad pub houses as a dev editor; they have formed the foundation and the framework of my knowledge of craft.

Under my pen name, Phoebe Fox, my goal since I first started writing fiction was to be traditionally published. With Berkley/PRH I’ve had an excellent experience: expert, enthusiastic editorial advice and guidance, personal champions of my work within the company, a hardworking, resourceful, and knowledgeable publicity and marketing team who expended great effort on my behalf, and support at every step. For me, with my novels, all that was worth the trade-offs I mentioned last week: signing over the rights, losing some creative control, etc. But it took me 15 years to reach that goal, and the relatively modest income it provides means this wouldn’t be a viable way to support myself as a career.

With my nonfiction I have different goals, and I knew from the moment I started writing Intuitive Editing that I wanted to retain ownership of it and all my follow-up craft books, and to have complete control over every aspect of them.

But what allows me that freedom is that my “day job” pays the bills and allows me to explore and experiment in whatever avenue I choose.

No path available to you as an author is good or bad—trad pub, small press, indie, or anything else. But give yourself the power to choose it consciously and deliberately by not having to gamble your livelihood on it.

That’s what being a “working writer” means to me.

Defining and Redefining Your Goals

Knowing what you want out of your writing—even if that varies from project to project—is key to taking ownership of your career and claiming that freedom.

I don’t have a brass ring for my career, at least not a specific one. I am constantly reexamining and shifting my goals for the immediate and long-term. While the bulk of my time continues to revolve around my actual editing work, I am also working on a series of craft books for authors, online courses, and regular presentation and speaking engagements.

My guiding tenets continue to be to do what I love, to always be learning, and to make a living from doing things I enjoy. I understood from the very beginning of my working career at age thirteen (a horrible cold-calling sales job for a photography studio) that most of us will spend at least a third of our lives making a living. And I’m sybaritic enough that I have always wanted to do that on my own terms—which I tend to define as retaining autonomy and having fun.

I didn’t originally set out to create the career I have, but thirty years into editing, my worst day at work is still a pretty good day. I think I wound up here because I’ve simply always looked for ways to earn a living doing things I can enjoy while pursuing my passions…and step by step, choice by choice, that has led me to where these three goals delightfully collide.

And that’s really the “nut” of last week’s post, for me. I mean, sure, I’d like to be Maxwell Perkins. If editing somehow became a million-dollar job I wouldn’t be sad about that either. But these are “dream” goals—fun to think about, but not the golden carrot that keeps me trotting. The work itself is.

There is so much joy and fulfillment to be had in this business and in pursuing your creative urges, and yet so often it can become a source of angst or self-doubt or pain or despair or frustration. If we can find ways to approach what we do and reassess why we do it—at the core—then as the old saw goes, you’ll never work a day in your life.

If we can find ways to approach what we do and reassess why we do it—at the core—then as the old saw goes, you’ll never work a day in your life.

That may not look exactly like you hoped. You may not become J. K. Rowling. You may not hit the New York Times bestseller list. You may never get a seven-figure advance. You may never even support yourself with your writing. You may always have to work your “day job” for the privilege of pursuing your art. 

But I encourage you to reframe the way you think of that possibility: not as a failure but as a gift. Not as an obstacle to your creative pursuits, but an enabler and partner of them, the way the other skaters in roller derby help propel the jammer forward and give her more power and momentum. In that light, it can be an opportunity to pursue meaningful income-producing work knowing it may likely remain the main source of your livelihood—even as it buys you the astonishing luxury of being able to pursue your artistic goals that fulfill you emotionally and spiritually and to your very soul.

Even if your “day job” isn’t your passion, it doesn’t have to be a drudgery or a penance you pay or a way to miserably bide your time until your ship comes in as a writer. If you can find ways to enjoy it too, it may become just another facet of your identity as a creative person.

And at the very least perhaps it can provide fodder, inspiration, and experience that all goes into your work and nourishes your craft.

Over to you, my friends. How do you regard your “livelihood job,” if you have one—as a necessary evil, or is it work you enjoy in any aspect? If someone told you today that you will never “make it” as a writer (whatever that means), never earn a living from it, never get to quit your day job…would you still want to write?

4 Comments. Leave new

  • What a great post! I knew there was something I liked about you!

    Except for a few (very) bad decisions, I’ve never been able to work primarily for the money. One or two things have captured my feelings about my paying work.

    1. If they didn’t pay me for this, I’d have to find some other reason for doing it.

    2. If I could think of something better to do, I’d do that.

    I’m retired now, and reading and writing are practically my only activities. but nothing else has changed much.

    Thank you so much for this post and for championing: Follow your heart (but don’t disengage your brain on the journey.)

    • Tiffany Yates Martin
      February 17, 2022 6:59 pm

      Yes! I love your approach to paying work–you still have to (or I suppose I should say “get to”) figure out a way to take some enjoyment or satisfaction from it, I think, beyond just a paycheck or it really IS a drudgery. My husband taught me the corporate term “golden handcuffs,” and as delightful as I’m sure huge paychecks and generous perqs may be, to me it never seemed worth the trade-off of the things I value most and wanted in my working life and not just in the rest of my life: doing something I liked at least a reasonable amount, having fun, and–for me–maintaining autonomy. (That’s a big one for me, and always has been–I knew corporate America was never going to be a fit for me from the beginning of my career.) I love that you also let your personal goals/preferences guide your career. I genuinely think that’s the way to be happy all your work life. And congrats on retirement! Thanks for weighing in, Bob.

  • I like the way you balance writing and other aspects of your life. You have a healthy attitude.
    I love seeing the smiles on my students’ faces when they can apply the answer to a challenging lesson question. However, when I put The End on a novel that I’ve worked hard to complete, I get a different kind of satisfaction. I will continue to do both as long as I’m purposeful. I love your posts. They’re encouraging and positive with a realistic attitude that keeps me going!

    • Tiffany Yates Martin
      February 17, 2022 11:25 pm

      That’s lovely, Joan, that you find such satisfaction in both your “day job” and your writing. It IS different, isn’t it? Creativity has a special kind of rush to it…but like you, I get another kind of rush from other pursuits too…and I do like the balance. Honestly I think I’d get bored if I didn’t diversify my interests as I do, and I’ve always realized that about myself. Love that you describe your feeling of being “purposeful” too. That’s the heart of it, isn’t it? Thanks for the note, friend–and your kind words about the blog!


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