Updated: Nov 21, 2021
The majority of the authors I know are starving artists. That’s not unusual. It also isn’t right. But while there is plenty of room for talent in the world, there is only so much room for the type of success we dream of when we pursue those talents. After all, you need more people to be watching the parade than those who are in the parade.
That doesn’t mean the people on the floats are more deserving than those watching from the side-lines. It just means that they got lucky, they worked hard at developing their talent over time, or they had an in. The avenues to creative success are numerous and distinct. One writer’s success story is completely different from another’s. There’s no formula for what works. But one thing that does not work is allowing money to drive your writing career.
So many writers get short-changed in their writing talents. Even those who do find moderate success later in life take a loss due to how long they’ve spent perfecting their craft, drafting everything from short pieces to entire books, and submitting only to be rejected numerous times or published with little to no pay. But a writer who truly loves to write doesn’t let their earnings measure their success.
Below are 4 reasons why money shouldn’t drive your writing career.
1. You Have to Work Your Way Up
Most writers have to start small and build a portfolio of work, which often means submitting stories, essays, and poems to small publications or websites. Many of these publications do not pay, or if they do, it’s merely in hard copies or an online byline.
I spent my first few years out of college submitting to publications, sometimes even paying postage to send my terrible college writing to publications that were likely glanced at before being thrown in the “no” pile.
Eventually, I earned a handful of acceptances, but I can remember receiving payment for only one, a $10 check I cashed and spent on a victory Subway sandwich. For the moment, I was not starving. However, this was no way to earn a living.
That’s not to discount non-paying gigs. They’re essential to building a portfolio, but you have to take them as seriously as a paid gig. The practice you get writing, submitting, and finding out what gets accepted and what doesn’t is crucial.
Find that balance between your preferred writing style and formats and the work that gets accepted.
Sharpen your skills.
Submit clean, well-organized, and thoroughly edited work of which you can be proud.
Add those publications to your cover and query letters.
Save PDF copies and links to your online publications so that they can easily be shared.
Create a website or blog so you can easily display your body of work.
Then, start working your way towards the paid gigs. Even those will likely pay little in relation to the work you will put in, but this is how writers work their way into a lucrative side gig and eventual career.
2. You Will Divert Your Attention from Your Passions
I wasn’t a poet, yet I felt the need to spend three years writing poetry and submitting them to literary journals to get my name out there. Poetry seemed to be what literary journals liked best. So, I scrambled to come up with prosy stanzas that did little to fulfil that passion for writing I had before pursuing it as a career.
What I really wanted to be was a novelist, but novels can take years to write and years more to get published, if at all. Self-publishing was a relatively new concept. However, after my first manuscript was rejected multiple times, I decided to take that avenue, not realizing how many hats an author must wear when self-publishing. Designing, marketing, and distributing my books ate up so much writing time. Of course, even traditionally published authors have to pull their weight with submitting, editing, and marketing their books.
I look back now and wonder if I had been in such a hurry to publish because I wanted to see my name in print or because I wanted to make money from my book. I was hesitant to spend money on an editor, a cover designer, or ads for my book, all of which could have potentially contributed to a more successful run for the book.
Related Post: How Much Does it Cost to Hire a Book Editor?
Instead, I rushed through the process rather than really investing the time and money into self-publishing. After all, you spend money to start a business you believe in, so if you truly believe in your novel, you will invest in it as well.
However, leaving college with a writing degree or starting a writing career with a confident belief in your talents is not enough. Don’t divert your attention away from your passions in order to make a quick buck. Nobody is keeping track of your earnings but you. And those who do ask you how much money you’ve made from your writing to measure your success obviously don’t know enough about the industry to know how it works.
So, work at your own pace, stay on your own track, and keep on that track. Only divert as you grow as a writer and as a person, not chasing a literary prize, a potential bestselling novel, or any other long shot scheme that is less likely than a growing body of work that gradually gets you to where you want to be.
3. You Will Give up More Easily
I’ve heard success stories where a creative person, whether it’s an actor, an author, or a musician, give themselves a deadline, whether it be a year or five years, and vows, “I will become successful by (insert a specific year or date), or I will give up, go home, and get a stable job.” And at the 11th hour, they land a part, publish a book, or make a hit record.
It’s an inspiring scenario that speaks to their determination and luck. But for every one of those stories, I’m sure there are hundreds of others where the artist missed their deadline and went home with their tail tucked between their legs.
I can’t tell you how many people have started a blog, a book, or a social media account with the intention of “hitting it big” within a few months and have given up after they realised how much work it takes before seeing the results they wanted.
People outside of the writing world, especially, think that if you write a book, you will be set for life. Others think that moment comes when your book gets accepted by an agent or publisher. Still others feel that you’re rich if your book is on a shelf at a bookstore. The truth is, that’s not true at all. And when the dabblers learn that writing is not a get rich quick scheme, they quit.
Related Post: Why You Shouldn't Worry that People Will Hate Your Book - Dealing with Self-Doubt as a Writer
There are a lot of us fighting for the finite number of readers out there, and that number is even lower for particular genres and first-time authors who aren't recommended by Oprah or Reese Witherspoon. It all comes back to that need to write rather than that need to be a successful writer. It also requires maintaining that burning desire to write over a long period of time.
4. Focusing on the Money Will Burn You Out
Writing is like exercise. It will make you feel good, and it’s good for you, but it isn’t easy. It’s something you have to want to do.
So, if you take a writing job or enter a contest with a big cash prize, that money is going to be sitting in the way of your creative process, your desire to write, and the energy that you can spare to write. My writing is sloppier when the writing feels like work, whether it’s because I’m not writing a piece that I find particularly interesting or if it’s in a highly competitive situation where my eye is on the literal prize. Then, it’s not fun anymore.
When I wrote poetry for literary journals, it felt like work... because it was. It wasn’t the kind of writing I wanted to do, only the kind I thought I should be doing. And it burned me out.
It wasn’t until I started writing what I wanted to write that the creative process became fun again.
Coming up with posts for my blog is fun because I can set my own schedule and write on the topics I feel like writing about at that time. I’ve been able to schedule far enough ahead that I can take a breather when I need to and come up with topics organically rather than on a time crunch.
And I no longer write book reviews for books I don’t like. It’s a lot harder to draft a post when you don’t even like the topic of the post. When I do have to review bad books and movies for other sites, I make sure the word count is low and the guidelines are more formulaic so I don’t have to burn myself out on a fully-developed piece of writing.
When I write books, it’s because I’ve come up with an idea I can stick with for months, or even years, at a time. I’m able to develop an idea without knowing the full story, trust that it will come to me as I continue and know that I can scrap and rewrite at my own leisure as time goes on. There is no dollar sign in my way, and that has helped me to improve my writing and also prevent writer’s block.
Since then, I’ve earned money from my writing, whether it’s a sponsored blog post, an article or review for another website, or the sale of one of my books.
Ultimately, the money comes when you deserve it. It doesn’t happen when you are trying to play, or even cater to, the system, or when you haven’t earned your stripes with hours of practice and development of your style and talents.
Of course, writers will always be short-changed for their skillset. We will often earn zilch for our efforts or less than our fair share for the time and effort we put into a piece.
Luckily, true writers would write for free, and many of us do. And those who stick with it hit our lucky break at the right time and eventually see the money attached to the tail end of our efforts.
About the Author of this Guest Post
Laura Smith is an author, blogger, and reviewer from Pittsburgh, PA. She has written for HubPages, Ok Whatever, LitPick, and Horrorscreams Videovault. She has self-published three middle-grade novels and runs her own book blog, Laura’s Books and Blogs. You can find her on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and Pinterest.