I Need Coffee: Writing Isn't Sexy, But It Can Pay the Bills

11/12/2015 06:48 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

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This month I'm introducing a new regular column here on Huffington Post Books, "I Need Coffee." INC covers all sorts of writing topics, with an eye toward how to make a living writing. INC's audience includes both authors and aspiring authors, and authors who are both mainstream and independent.

Note: A version of this column first appeared in Underground Book Reviews, an online magazine run by indie authors who are passionate about writing. They publish articles about the world of independent literature, reviews of independent literature and more.

If someone asks what you do and you don't feel like getting into it, insert the word freelance before the word writer, and they will inquire about nothing more. -Curtis Sittenfeld, author of Prep, Sisterland and more.

Last year, when I quit my full-time job to write for a living, the first thing I did was I take an online course through The Thinking Writer called "How To Pitch and Submit." I needed to learn how to write freelance pieces that pay actual money. I did learn how to pitch articles and interact with editors, and I strongly recommend the course.

But the course taught me so much more than the genre of the freelance story pitch.

As I worked to make a career as a freelance writer, I was coming to learn that you can't actually feed your family on the bagels that online venues pay for your freelance pieces. Slate pays $100. Chronicle of Higher Ed. pays $300. The Atlantic pays $100. This info is crowd-sourced and public. Check it out: whopays.scratchmag.net.

Like I said. Bagels.

But one component of the course I took consisted of interviews with freelance writers talking about how they actually made a living. The interviewees (often anonymous) simply listed where their money came from each month. Their lists weren't sexy, but they were real, and they made me feel so much better about my chances of actually making it. The interviewees also provided really practical tips about how to make your money work as a freelance writer when pay might be downright unpredictable.

So I'm here to tell you that you can make a living as a writer, but you (might) have to let go of some notions of what "making a living as a writer" means.

Now, if I know my audience, I know many of us are independent and small-press writers who know how to hustle. That means we already have a serious competitive advantage. Making the money work as a full-time freelance writer is 90 percent hustle and 10 percent luck. And that 10 percent luck? You can hustle to get your hands on that, too.

Let's start with that quote from Curtis Sittenfeld that I started this column with. What's she saying? How do we think about writers in our society? How do we think about freelance writers?

The point she's trying to make is that a freelance writer is a certain thing in people's minds, something that isn't worth the awe that, say, a novelist garners, certainly not the awe that a novelist who went to Iowa for her MFA and wrote Prep garners. Sittenfeld is saying that freelance writers are a known commodity, a commodity that isn't as fancy as a novelist.

Baloney.

Here's the thing: we're all freelance writers, even Curtis Sittenfeld. I'm a novelist. The chances of my novels becoming a bestsellers are super low. But I'm a novelist. Right? So that changes everything, right? I'm not a freelance writer any more, right?

Wrong. False. Incorrect.

I'm always going to be a freelance writer, with multiple income streams from writing, whether I publish one novel or ten. And to think otherwise is to shoot my money in the foot.

First, I will continue to publish articles in magazines. Second, I will continue to work on my textbooks -- prior to selling my first novel, I'd self-published one textbook and conventionally published four others. Textbooks are hit-or-miss as far as income streams go, but I've had one hit so far, and textbooks are one of the ways I make my freelance income. Third, I will continue to do editing work -- because, as every writer knows, rewriting is writing. Thus, I do developmental editing and writing coaching projects for pay. This work is satisfying and keeps my brain sharp.

And here's the kicker -- all of this work that I do is writing.

I am a novelist. I am a freelance writer. I'm an editor and writing coach. These identities are not mutually exclusive. In fact, the opposite is true. They are symbiotic.

So what about you?

We all have different talents that we can share with the world. The first step is figuring out what yours are -- and what yours are not. For example, I am a terrible, horrible, no good and very bad copyeditor. My copyediting skills are literally the worst. When I do developmental editing, in my proposals, I specifically state that the services I will be providing do not include copyediting. But copyediting might be your jam. (If that is the case, you should email me because I have a textbook I need to introduce you to.) Start networking. Get copyediting gigs.

Say you are excellent at assessing websites. Like, you go to a website and in five seconds you can tell not only why it is terrible but how it could be better. The fonts make your eyes bleed. The words are a mess. You have some sort of mastery of web design and content that is a gift. Guess what? You are a freelance writer who specializes in web content. Go take some of that hustle I described earlier in this column and figure out how freelance web content writers get work.

Go make a living as a writer.

And here's where the unexpected enters this crazy plan I'm suggesting: That writing you do for websites? That editing you do, sharpening their language to better meet the needs of their audiences? That writing on a deadline, even when you don't want to, because if you don't write you won't get paid? All that freelance writing that you will be doing?

If you can make web content that you are paid to write glisten, imagine what you can do with your fiction or memoir. Freelance writing isn't sexy, but it can pay the bills. And it's going to make you a better author, too.

This column first appeared in Underground Book Reviews. To sign up for Katie's monthly newsletter, Writing Isn't Sexy, and get free books and writing tips, click here: bit.ly/pryalnews.