How to Become a Writer and Build a Financially Viable Career
The Nike ethos “just do it” is often referenced in posts about how to become a writer. In other words, all you need to do to become a writer is to write. Though it’s meant to be encouraging, this statement can feel a little glib. Surely Hunter S. Thompson and Margaret Atwood did more than just write to establish themselves as literary successes?
This post will demystify what it means — in a practical sense — to be a writer, with actionable advice on finding the time to write while balancing another job and making writing your full-time career. Let’s dive in!
Becoming a writer while balancing work and a family
“How much do authors make?” is one of the most commonly asked questions among those considering a career in writing — and understandably so. Authorhood doesn’t come with a set salary range, and putting your all into an artistic and professional pursuit with an uncertain financial outcome can feel scary.
Most aspiring writers understand that the amount of money any one author makes varies wildly. But did you know that the vast majority of authors aren’t able to live on royalties and advances alone? Lots of writers lacking the privilege of a financial safety net (and to be honest, that’s most of us) have to juggle writing with other part-time or full-time work. If you're trying to become a writer while balancing work and family, these three steps, which we're going to cover in detail, should prove invaluable to you:
- Lay the groundwork for a solid writing routine;
- Look for opportunities; and
- Consider self-publishing.
Eventually, with patience and an actionable plan, it can become possible to make writing your day job — but more on that later!
Lay the groundwork for a solid writing routine
Finding the time to write in a jam-packed schedule is the first hurdle on almost every aspiring author’s journey. A huge number of talented writers never make it past this obstacle, but those who do, really are halfway there — and all you have to do is make writing a regular habit. Here are a few tips for establishing a routine:
Set non-negotiable writing time (as outlined by Kevin T. Johns in this webinar). Adjust this to your own capabilities and any prior commitments you might have. If you’re reasonable with yourself, the more likely you are to hit your targets, and that’ll only encourage you to keep going!
Create concrete writing goals. Whether it’s a certain number of words, or completing a task in a set number of days, goals allow you to break a larger project into manageable chunks — so you’ll be less overwhelmed and more likely to sit down and get on with it.
Get a sense of your ‘best’ writing time. Do you tend to get the most done right after waking up in the morning, or during the quieter hours of the evening? Figure out your own windows of productivity and capitalize on them.
Create a writing space and invest in writing tools. If you want to become a full-time writer, you need to equip yourself with the right environment and tools to do your job well. This doesn't have to mean forking out on the latest gadgets — it might simply mean moving your desk to the closest sunny window!
Look for opportunities
In time, you’ll start producing work that you’re proud of and can’t wait to share. That’s when you should start actively seeking opportunities to publish. Countless print and online publications eagerly accept work from budding writers. Submitting to these places will give you the opportunity to build your portfolio, and provide you with valuable experience tailoring your writing to specific outlets.
If you’re an aspiring fiction writer, follow the likes of Ursula K. Le Guin and Ernest Hemingway, and get your foot in the door by submitting to literary magazines and contests. Here are a few places where you can do just that:
- Literary magazines accepting submissions
- Vetted writing contests and their deadlines
- Reedsy’s own weekly short story contest
- Publications accepting short story submissions
To ensure the t’s and i’s of your submissions are crossed and dotted, here is a submissions checklist to keep you straight!
There are also ample opportunities for nonfiction writers to get their byline out in the world. If there’s a particular niche you’re interested in, start by putting together a list of relevant publications. Most websites will have a submissions section with guidelines for submitting a piece.
Follow specific editors on Twitter to keep up with when magazines are accepting pitches.They will usually tweet when their inbox is open (and what they’re looking for in a pitch) — plus many of them are open to questions. If you don't know where to find them, look for names via magazine websites, or simply use the Twitter search function. Editors of magazines usually tell you who they are in their twitter bio!
Put your pitches and deadlines in a calendar
Next, get your ‘pitching calendar’ organized by listing the outlets you want to write for, your premise for each pitch, and any deadlines to keep in mind. You might also want to make note of any feedback you receive. For instance, an outlet might let you know that your piece wasn’t right for them “at this time,” or they might clarify what they’re looking for in more specific terms.
Here are a few resources that connect writers with publications looking for submissions:
If you have a book idea you can’t stop thinking about and your main goal is to see it materialised, then you might want to consider self-publishing. Getting your book out into the world is easier than it’s ever been, and we’ve detailed the whole process in this post: How to Self-Publish a Book. Plus, you can do it all in your own time.
Though some traditionally-published household names nab hundreds of thousands in advances, those are the outliers. Many more self-published authors make a living than traditionally published authors. This was proven by several years of Author Earnings reports — most notably, a study which found that the number of indie authors earning 5-6 figures/year from book sales was much higher than the number of Big 5 authors earning the same. (You can read more about it here.)
Study or no study, it’s safe to assume that when it comes to profitability, the odds would be in your favor as a self-published author. While traditional publishing royalties max out at 25%, self-published authors can earn up to 70% royalties on each book. And you can publish (and profit from) multiple books in a year — which is why writing a series is a great money-spinner. Not to mention, an incredibly effective marketing strategy.
Is self-publishing or traditional publishing right for you?
If you’re still on the fence about which publishing route to take, why not take this one-minute quiz to find out for sure which option is the most viable for you?
Making a living as a full-time writer
While ‘author’ might be what most people think of when they imagine a writing career, that's not the only way to earn your living as a professional writer. Here are few alternative options to consider:
- Journalist — writes for newspapers and magazines. Requires dedicated research skills, the ability to be objective, and to comply with strict deadlines.
- Columnist — writes for newspapers and magazines. Unlike journalists, columnists offer their subjective opinion and insight on current events.
- Copywriter — writes marketing copy for brands, companies, or organizations.
- Technical writer — turns complex jargon into concise information that users of a product or clients of a company can clearly understand.
- Web content writer — writes blog posts and articles for brands, companies, or organizations.
- Ghostwriter — writes content on behalf of other people or organizations. Learn more about becoming a ghostwriter here!
- Grant writer — writes documents to help organizations seeking grants.
Whichever profession you decide to pursue, there are a few things you can try to help you make a living as a full time writer:
- Get the appropriate credentials;
- Create an online portfolio; and
- Apply for writing grants.
Let's take a look at each of these steps in closer detail.
Get the appropriate credentials (where applicable)
Professions like teaching or dentistry tend to come with reassuringly straightforward directives: go to school and get the necessary credentials. But for writers, the relevance or necessity of academia is a contentious subject that largely depends on the kind of writing you want to pursue.
A PhD in creative writing is perhaps only necessary for people who want to teach literature or writing at college or university levels.
After getting a Masters of Fine Arts in Creative Writing at the acclaimed Iowa Writers’ Workshop, Flannery O'Connor went on to become a pivotal figure in the Southern Gothic genre. Bestselling author Rachel Kushner got her MFA at Columbia. You needn't look too hard to find examples of authors who emerged from MFA programs to establish glittering literary careers.
Then again, you can find just as many authors who didn’t study anything related to writing and worked decidedly unliterary jobs before making it big — like Charles Bukowski (postman), Haruki Murakami (jazz club manager), and Harper Lee (airline ticket clerk). After all, life experience is a key ingredient of any good fiction.
Becoming an author of fiction doesn’t require any specific credentials beyond the ability to write (and market) a great story. Pursuing an MFA can certainly help you develop your craft and put you in contact with other established and aspiring writers, or lead you to some creative writing gigs — but it’s not a shortcut to a successful career. In addition, the majority of MFA programs focus on literary fiction, creative nonfiction, and poetry. So if you want to become a writer of genre fiction, an MFA is likely not a necessary stepping stone for you.
Again, you can find examples of many great fiction authors who completed degrees in English or Literature, such as Sally Rooney, John Green, Toni Morrison, Aravind Adiga, and Stephen King. But as stated above, higher education is not a required credential of becoming a novelist.
If you’re hoping to become a nonfiction writer, however, academic qualifications can become more important.
Outside of creative nonfiction, success as a nonfiction author relies upon your authority of a specific subject matter and therefore necessitates some sort of resumé proving your credentials. That might be a degree or ample experience in the relevant field. Imagine yourself picking up a nonfiction book and turning it over to read the author bio. What kind of credentials would assure you this is someone who knows what they’re talking about?
In terms of journalism, most news outlets will require applicants to have completed a Bachelor’s degree education before adding them to payroll. While majoring in journalism is certainly a sound option, it's typical to double-major or major-minor in a combination of journalism and the field you’re interested in writing about.
An associate degree typically lasts two years and can be more industry-focused than a Bachelor’s. If you’re hoping to become a copywriter or web content writer, pursuing an Associate degree in media, marketing, or writing might be a good way to lay the foundation of your career.
Certificates are short-term programs that provide foundational education and skills-based training. They typically last a few weeks to a few months, and, as with the Associate degree, it’s a good option for aspiring freelance writers.
Again, while not all kinds of writing careers require specific degrees, seeking relevant, formal education certainly won’t harm it. That said, with the written word nestled comfortably in the digital landscape, it's more important than ever for writers to seek out opportunities and to start building their resume. At the end of the day, applying to be a columnist for a magazine with a list of previous publications on legitimate sites will likely hold more weight than an English degree and no prior writing experience.
Create an online portfolio
No matter which writing career you pursue, LinkedIn is a great place to list your experience and previous publications. Maintaining an active social media presence and sharing your latest pieces on platforms like Twitter is also a good way to expand your network. That said, a writer website is like your calling card, and it will ensure that when editors, agents, or publishers look you up (and they will), they can immediately find your writing portfolio — and see that you’re dedicated to your career.
Create a website
To create your own website, you can either buy a domain using a domain registrar (like GoDaddy) so that when you create your website, your URL is something like authorname.com — which tends to look more professional. Or you can sign up with a service like WordPress, Wix, or SquareSpace to create a free site, in which case your URL will be something like authorname.wordpress.com. (Most of these services will also hook you up with your own domain name for an added cost, too.)
You should also consider hiring a professional to design a bespoke website, which will give you an added boost of professionalism and allow you to really solidify your brand.
Perfect your 'About Me' page
If you’re building on a career as a freelance writer or journalist, a website that divides your work into different niches is a good way to present it in an organized fashion. Jennifer Fernandez and Rebecca Hobson both do this well. A concise bio that packs a punch in terms of giving more insight into your professional background, like Alice Driver, is a smart move too.
For author websites, you’ll want to give visitors a clear way to buy your books. Check out our dedicated post for more tips on creating an effective and eye-catching author website.
Use a portfolio site
If you don’t want to spend too much time designing a website, you can always turn to a trusted portfolio site. All you need to do is create an account with them, then input your personal information. Here are a few popular options:
- MuckRack: a popular platform for journalists and PR professionals.
- Contently: a useful site for content writers.
- Clippings.me: provides a clean cut design for every kind of writer.
Apply for writing grants
As with all creative jobs, your career as a writer will have its peaks and lulls. If you’ve managed to make the move to full-time (congratulations!) and you find yourself with a big, time-consuming project on your hands, it’s only natural for your income to start to dwindle a little. That’s when grant money can save the day. Essentially, it acts as a buffer when actual income is patchy — invaluable for freelancers who might not know where their next paycheck is coming from.
Here’s a reliable list of grants for you to peruse — some will have no stipulations regarding what the money is spent on, and others will be for specific reasons, like travelling to a conference. There are also many grants specifically intended to help women, people of color, people with disabilities and LGBTQ+ people get a leg up in the industry. Make sure you check out the video below for some helpful advice on making a successful application.
Hopefully this post has shown you how to ‘get writing’ in a purposeful, goal-oriented way — so that in time you can make writing a financially viable career. To wrap things up, there’s nothing quite as inspiring for budding writers than words of wisdom from those who have achieved writerly acclaim. So tuck into these brilliant books on writing, then pick up your pen and get going. We’re looking forward to seeing your name in print!