There’s a particularly soul-sucking narrative that creative people hear often. From their parents. From their teachers. From their friends. From society in general.
I once found myself in the odd position of being in a hot tub at my gym when one of my creative writing professors from my undergraduate program in creative writing showed up in her bathing suit (small favors.) She proceeded to spend fifteen minutes dumping this narrative on me.
Here is that narrative: No one earns a living as a writer.
That professor spent her entire hot tub time telling me all the reasons why I’d never earn a living as writer and that I’d also never get a job teaching writing at a university.
She meant well. All the parents, teachers, and friends mean well.
But they’re wrong. The world needs creativity and art and music and, most definitely, stories. Routinely bombarding the people who want to create those things with the message that it’s useless is just wrong on so many levels.
But most important to me right now it that it’s wrong at face value. There are, obviously, writers who earn a living writing. I know because I earn a good living as a writer. In fact, I didn’t start earning a good living at anything until I gave up trying to do something other than be a writer.
I earned $15,000 in the last 30 days.
I’ve earned more than $10,000 every month since May 2019 and more than $8,000 every month this year. My total income for 2019 will be about $100,000.
There are a few things that are important, if you want to earn a living (good or otherwise) from your art. One of the biggest is income streams. It’s extraordinarily rare for someone to have just one source of creative income that’s enough to live off of.
In September 2019 I earned money in these ways:
- Writing blog posts
- Hosting the Ninja Writers Club ( a membership program)
- Selling online courses
- Writing for publications that pay for blog posts
- A subscription newsletter I write with Shannon Ashley
- A Patreon account
- Teaching small group workshops
- Selling writing-related products via Etsy
- Affiliate income (from recommending books on Amazon, for instance)
I earned the bulk of my income in September (about 80 percent) from the first two on that list. The others are important to me, though, because income streams matter.
If you think of your career as a body, income streams are the veins. They carry the income toward the heart. The heart, by the way, is your body of work. If for some reason one of my two main sources of income slips, there are others all ready in place in the background that I could move up to the big show.
There are other income streams that I can think of that I could utilize, and maybe will in the future. I could build up a social media presence and monetize it. I could start and monetize a podcast. I could write and self-publish books.
I have a literary agent and a publisher, so I expect that sometime in the the next year I’ll have a very good month because I’ll sell the rights to a novel.
I could write more books. I could do one-on-one coaching or editing. I could seek out speaking gigs. I could create and sell more courses or do more intensive affiliate sales.
On the flip side, maybe one of these days one of my novels will breakout. If I find myself in possession of a giant advance check or the royalties for selling my story to Hollywood — then some of those other income streams might slow down so that I can funnel more of my time and energy into fiction.
Being a working writer is an ever-changing thing.
Here’s the one thing I want you to know.
You will be much happier and more successful if you can start to think of your writing as a business. You are the COO of You The Writer, Inc.
Everything you do is funneled into and through your business.
And it’s okay if other aspects of your writing business (including, by the way, taking a side gig working in retail or waiting tables or as a teacher, a doctor, a lawyer, whatever) are more lucrative right now.
Once you wrap your head around the idea that You The Writer, Inc is a real thing — then everything you do becomes a part of it. Including, like I said, other work that doesn’t seem very related on the outside. Think about those jobs as contract work.
You The Writer, Inc. has been contracted to provide a service in exchange for a wage — and that wage means that you have food in your stomach and a roof over your head and a way to support your family. It supports your writing.
It’s taken me a long time and a lot of work to get to where my writing business doesn’t rely on me doing work that’s not directly related to writing.
Shaunta Grimes, Inc hasn’t had to take a non-writing side gig (AKA: a day job)in three years.
Here’s the short version of how to get there:
- Start reading when you’re three and never stop.
- Be awe-struck during an author visit in the sixth grade and start carrying a notebook and pen with you everywhere.
- Write for 26,000 hours over twenty-five years. At least.
- Write 5,000,000 words.
- Develop a low tolerance for work you hate and a high tolerance for a certain level of poverty.
- Decide that every job you have, from now until you die, is a side-hustle to writing. No matter what the job is.
- Save your pennies to spend on learning how to become a better writer.
- Go into debt for that, too.
- Go to school, even though you’re twenty years older than the other students. And sometimes? You’re older and more experienced than the teacher, too.
- Realize that there’s something you can learn from everyone.
- Write when everyone else is at Disneyland, at the beach, binge watching Doctor Who, playing Scrabble, taking a nap, or doing just about every other leisure, fun thing you can think of.
- Write for years before you’re paid a penny. Then write for more years when you’re severely underpaid.
- Be rejected 1000 times and risk being rejected one more time. (Etc. Etc. forever.)
Okay. So not so short after all. But you get the point. You absolutely can earn a living as a writer, if you’re willing to. But you’re going to have to put a lot into it.
Here’s what it took for me.
I had to go all in.
My writing career didn’t come anywhere near ‘taking off’ until I stopped trying to do it in the margins of other things.
I’ve been able to write full time at various moments over the last fifteen years or so, but this three-year stretch where my income as been more than $80,000 a year, is by far the longest. And the most financially comfortable.
But I’ve had to have other jobs. And the chances are that I might have to again at some point. That work, though, will be my side hustle. It doesn’t matter what job it is. It will be a side hustle to writing.
The same as every job I’ve had this century. And it doesn’t matter whether I make any money as a writer next month. I’m a writer first and that mindset was a major paradigm shift for me.
It’s important to know that there’s a very, very good chance you’ll have to go all in well before you make much (or any) money. And that you’ll have to do it in the face of that narrative about how writers never make any money.
I had to learn.
Here’s what would not have gotten me to the point of earning $15,000 for 30 days of writing: a ton of horizontal growth.
What I mean is that I had to learn how to write well. I had to learn how to attribute dialogue and use adverbs judiciously (haha) and how to write in a 10-year-old boy’s voice and what ‘strong verbs’ even means. And on. And on.
I had to learn how to run a business. I had to learn how to teach. I had to learn dozens of things that had never crossed my mind before.
Horizontal growth=quantity and consistency. Habit. Showing up and working.
Vertical growth=learning. And that continued learning is at least as important as any habit or the volume of work you produce.
I studied creative writing on a university level — in my 40s — at the undergraduate level, and I have graduate degree in creative writing. But I also spend my time and money learning from other writers, reading craft books (and implementing what I learn), going to conferences, hiring coaches, and taking non-University classes.
I read a lot of novels and I read them like a writer, so that I can learn from them.
Writing a lot without putting so much effort into learning will give you a lot of words on the page, but it will not give you a career by itself. Learning (forever) is the difference between a hobbyist and a professional.
I had to work.
This is where I see things fall apart the most for people who want to earn a living with their art. It’s so easy to convince yourself that all of the learning I just talked about is actually writing.
If you want to earn a living as a writer, you have to work as a writer. That means that you have to actually write things. A lot of things. Learning and working are a one-two punch. They’re so powerful together that it’s almost impossible to avoid being successful if you employ them long enough.
If you have to work doing something that pays better for a while, that’s okay. We all have to eat, rght? But it also means that you’ll have to work as a writer after you’ve already put in hours somewhere else. You’ll have to work when you might rather be watching Netflix or hanging out with your friends (or your family, let’s be brutally honest.)
You have to prioritize the work. And you have to do it, even though you won’t be paid at first. Think of it as an apprenticeship with an end date that you don’t get to actually know. Fun stuff, right?
I’ve heard lots of people say things like I’m going to give this three years and if I don’t make it, I’m going to quit.
Well, I mean, okay. But what if you need four years? What if you need ten years? How about eleven?
Every single person who earns a living as a writer has this one thing in common: they didn’t quit.
I estimate that I’ve worked at least 20 hours a week (and these days, more than 40 a week) as a writer my entire adult life. I’ll be 48 this month. Let’s call that 25 years.
That’s 1300 weeks. If I averaged 20 hours a week, that’s 26,000 hours of work. And I’m being conservative. I work a lot. I’ve easily written 5 million words in that time.
I had to be flexible.
Like just about any novelist, I’d love to get paid advances for my books that translate into a decent living wage.
I’m not there yet. Truth is, maybe I never will be. Most novelists are mid-listers and very, very few break out and command lottery-like advances. If you want to be a writer that earns a good living, you really do need to understand and build income streams.
The good news is that I love teaching. I love blogging. I am flat in love with running Ninja Writers. If I’d been stubborn and decided that I was never going to write anything other than my novels, I never would have learned that I love those things.
Widening my interpretation of what being a writer actually means has allowed me to create a career and a life doing what I love. And it’s led directly to my ability to earn five figures every month — not as a fluke or once thanks to a windfall, but consistently. And growing.
I had to lean into the scary stuff.
A few years ago I adopted a life motto. It’s a Ray Bradbury quote:
Just write every day of your life. Read intensely. Then see what happens.
The first two sentences are my life. They’re what I do. They’re easy. But that last part? That’s my life motto. And it’s not easy at all.
It’s scary to leap. To try things when you have no clue that they’ll work. To reach out into the void and hope that someone reaches back. To put the amount of time and effort and heart and soul that goes into just about any writing project without ever knowing that it’ll sell or be well received.
I had to be brave enough to say I think I can teach you something about writing and trust that people would respond well. I had to write half a dozen books that no one will ever read. I had to send out hundreds — thousands — of queries that were rejected. I had to try.
And keep trying, even when I was rejected. Even when I was humiliated (I’ll tell you the story about going into my local Barnes and Noble in my Sunday best with my family in tow on my second novel’s launch day — only to find out that they didn’t stock it.)
I had to be patient.
I think this is the most important part. I saved it for last because, frankly, the people who don’t read all the way down probably won’t get it anyway.
I made $15,000 in thirty days last month. I’ll make $100,000 this year. I have every expectation that I’ll earn more next year than I did this year. And I’m not that special. I’m just single-minded and patient.
It’s impossible to put 26,000 hours into something and not become proficient at it. (Which is why learning is so important. You don’t want to become proficient at the wrong thing!)
Here’s one more Ray Bradbury quote: “It’s not possible to write 52 bad short stories in a row.” Especially, of course, if you’re learning how to write a better short story with each one.
But the point is that you have to be patient enough to write 52 short stories or 520 blog posts or 12 novels — or all of the above — and put in the effort to learn how to write each one better than the last.
So much of succeeding in this business is just sticking around long enough to get there.
In a Nutshell
If you want to get to where you’re earning $15,000 a month as a writer, you can do it. I know, because I have. Here’re the steps to get there:
- Write a lot.
- Write for as long as it takes. (This might take a while.)
- Learn. Forever.
- No, really. Learn some more.
- Implement what you learn.
- Constantly build income streams.
- Be flexible.
- Be brave.
- Be patient.
Shaunta Grimes is a writer and teacher. She is an out-of-place Nevadan living in Northwestern PA with her husband, three superstar kids, two dementia patients, a good friend, Alfred the cat, and a yellow rescue dog named Maybelline Scout. She’s on Twitter and Instagram and is the author of Viral Nation and Rebel Nation, and The Astonishing Maybe. She is the original Ninja Writer.