Can writers really make money? Yes, but it requires you to learn how to make a living as a writer.
For most of my life, I was firmly in the ‘you can’t make real money writing’ camp. It was a story I grew up believing, which was why it took me years to even believe I could make a full-time profession out of writing.
Maybe, like me, you were told a similar story about what it means to be a writer. Don’t quit your day job, you were told. Always have something to fall back on. Creativity is a nice outlet, they said, but never something you should go all in on.
Because real artists starve, right?
Over the past six years, I’ve been making a full-time living off my writing, and I’ve helped thousands of other people do the same. Yes, thousands. You don’t have to starve for your writing. You can thrive.
Sadly, this idea still surprises people today. So during the past year or so, I’ve been interviewing countless writers who are making a full-time living off their writing. I compiled many of their stories in a book for creatives in general called Real Artists Don’t Starve.
When I was writing this book, I noticed that successful creative people do a number of things unsuccessful people don’t do. I want to share three of them with you here — along with four practical ways to thrive as a writer.
1. Practice in Public
The first step to making a living writing is sharing your work with the world. The best writers do this by practicing in public, especially today.
With the Internet and social media, never before has there existed an opportunity to publish your work without having to go through gatekeepers. The best way to do this is to, in the words of Seth Godin, pick yourself.
Don’t wait for your big break. Make it happen.
For most writers, this means starting a blog and an email list and sharing your writing on it at least once a week. Every week, write a new story, share a new idea, offer a new insight. When you do this, two things are happening:
First, you’re practicing. So you’re getting better, faster. We all do our best work when someone else is watching.
Second, you’re marketing. You’re broadcasting your work to the world. When you do this, you end up building an audience of people who want to see you grow and success.
So when it’s time to sell something — a book, a course, a coaching program — you have someone who’s already listening.
2. Charge What You’re Worth
The first step to making a living off your writing is you have to charge something. In my research, I found that most Starving Artists despise the need for money, whereas Thriving Artists typically don’t work for free.
The trick here is to always work for something, and that something needs to be more than opportunity. Writing is one of those skills that anyone thinks they can do but very few can do well.
At the same time, when you’re just starting out, you don’t want to charge too much and price yourself out of your first few paying jobs.
So here’s how to do this right.
Set two prices. One is your ideal price. So if you’re a freelance writer, maybe that’s a rate of $100/hour. But you’re just getting started and don’t want to price yourself out of the market right away.
So you set a low price of what you absolutely need just to make it worth your time. Maybe that’s $20/hour.
Now, when someone asks you what you charge, first ask what their budget is. Then, if they don’t have one, quote them your high price. If they can’t do that, then you can negotiate down to your bottom, but don’t take anything less than that.
This may require you to walk away from a few “opportunities” but you will have set the precedent that you don’t work for free, which is much better than the alternative. Of course, if you want to volunteer your services to help someone or barter with another professional, that’s another matter. But in general, it’s a bad idea to not charge what you’re worth.
If you don’t value your work, nobody else will.
3. Diversify Your Income Streams
One thing professional writers know that the amateurs don’t is that sometimes you don’t make your money just off the writing. Most of the time, your income as a writer will come through multiple streams. The smartest and most successful writers embrace this.
That means, as a writer, you may make some of your income off book sales, but you might also include speaking or other digital products in your suite of offerings. The point here is to not get too attached to a single income stream. Be open to new opportunities. As Jeff Bezos says, “Be stubborn on vision, but flexible on details.”
The average millionaire has an average of at least seven different income streams. So your assignment here is simple:
If writing is one of your income streams, what are six other ways you can monetize this skill? Could it be through coaching other writers, speaking at events, selling online courses, offering audio programs that supplement the books you write? Think of all the different ways you can use your skills as a writer to generate income.
Then pick the top three that excite you the most and start there.
Warning: Don’t Do It for the Money
After studying the lives of thousands of successful writers and artists for my book Real Artists Don’t Starve, I realized something:
The opposite of a Starving Artist is not a wealthy artist. It’s a Thriving Artist.
How do we thrive? Not by starving and suffering for our work. At the same time, writing is not about the money, not for most of us. As Walt Disney once said, “We don’t make films to make money. We make money to make more films.”
I like to say that money makes a better means than a master. It’s a tool that helps you do more of this work you love.
So if you want to make a living writing, why not do what successful writers do? Build an audience through practicing in public, always work for something, and build a portfolio of diversified income streams.
I’d like to say good luck, but if you do these things, you don’t need it.