At some point we all have about the same picture in our heads of what being a successful, full-time writer will be like.
For me, this picture for some reason involved sitting at a desk in the middle of a room with floor-to-ceiling glass windows on all three sides, sitting with my laptop and writing for 12 hours straight every day while looking out at the ocean or a forest or whatever I wanted my future outdoor scenery to look like.
This setup is, unfortunately, not realistic for most writers. It turns out most writers still have to (sigh) go to work. In a real or virtual office. With office hours. And meetings.
Though it might seem like most writers — especially the “successful” ones — spend all day every day writing and are lucky enough to call it a job, the reality is that many writers, even published authors, still have day jobs. Some of them involve writing. But not always.
It’s so tempting to think that all you have to do is tolerate the tiresome job(s) that pay(s) the bills until you make enough money as a writer to be able to afford to quit. But it doesn’t always work that way.
Because of the way writers are generally paid — not usually on a consistent basis, and not usually as much as you would think — most writers decide to keep their day jobs even after they’ve started to gain recognition for their work. At the very least, many take up freelancing to make ends meet between paychecks.
In fact, many writing experts actually recommend that aspiring creators keep their day jobs even when their careers start taking off.
Why? Because you never know what’s going to happen. You could suddenly lose half your client base in the span of one week (this happened to me in 2017) and therefore a large chunk of your monthly income. Also, health insurance (if you’re in the United States). Factor in, too, inconsistent pay (it’s not always on a regular cycle depending on the job) and there not always being available work (depending on your level of experience, your niche, and how productive you typically are — among other things).
This is all very frustrating. Because as a writer, obviously all you want to do is write. All day every day, if you can. It’s what you’re good at! People are paying you to do it now! So shouldn’t you be able to get paid for what you want to do and stop doing what you don’t want to do just because you need the cash?
The biggest frustration of all — even if your day job does involve some kind of writing — is that working an eight hour day (or more) means you have less time and mental/physical energy to work on your own writing projects. You know, the ones you actually care about that are starting to (or will hopefully soon) bring in the bucks.
What do you do when your day job starts interfering with that time, and your ability to work on those projects? How do you make time? Do you have to give something up? What’s the “right” thing to do?
First — having a day job as a writer doesn’t mean you have to be miserable. I didn’t mean to totally crush your soul when I told you a beachside glass writing nook wasn’t realistic.
Some writers have day jobs they can’t stand — that’s just the reality of adult life in general. But it’s also pretty normal. The job you want isn’t always the job you can get, and you can’t just wait around for a dream job to land in your lap. Sometimes you have to spend eight hours a day editing articles about the Kardashians and that’s how you’re able to afford to eat and keep Netflix and pay for a yearly blog domain. You know, priorities.
When you have a day job that’s boring or miserable and/or you really just don’t want to do it anymore, writing on your own time can become extremely difficult. It can even start to seem impossible. But your first step, even before you figure out your writing-specific struggles, is to make sure you have something outside of work that brings you joy every day — or, let’s be more realistic, once or a few times per week.
This could involve writing. It could also involve watching a particular show when it airs or joining some kind of group or club. Spending time with your family. Taking up a fun hobby that has nothing to do with anything. Something that serves as a consistent reminder that life is good and your day job is just a day job.
Once you have that — even if that might make it seem as though you have less time for writing — chances are you will be happier. And feeling good mentally (and for the record, physically) does make setting aside time for writing much more manageable.
Always have two ongoing writing projects: one that’s “work” and the other that’s just for you. I have a lot more writing gigs going on simply because I’m me and I’m at my best when busy. But for a long time, I had my blog (my “side hustle”) and whatever novel I happened to be working on (my “just for me” project). And that was as close to perfectly balanced my writing life has ever been.
You should always have a writing goal — in particular, a goal to finish something that has the potential to reach audiences someday. Maybe it’s your blog. Maybe you’re trying to write a book or a play (options vary). Have something that makes you feel accomplished and satisfied. So whenever you work on it, you’re reminded, “Oh, right. I like to write. This is my thing. I need to keep doing this.”
And don’t forget to have a project that’s purely for your own enjoyment. Something that keeps you writing and exercising your creative muscles but doesn’t add any further stress to your already hectic life. I’m currently writing a story. It’s not great. I’ll probably never end up doing anything with it. But guess what? I’m having a blast working on it. It’s something to look forward to. And I’m never stressed about it. It, too, brings me joy.
(Reminder: No writing time is wasted time. Sometimes it’s okay to have fun and use writing to unwind.)
If writing at night doesn’t work for you, stop trying to write at night. But when you have a day job that takes up a lot of time out of your day and makes it harder for you to find the motivation to write when you aren’t at your day job, you do have to find space in your life that does work for you.
This might require some experimentation and patience, but you can do it.
Basically, you need to figure out a day or time throughout your week where writing is most likely to happen when you are not doing the day job things. This could mean you only write on Saturday mornings before everyone else wakes up. It could mean you get up an hour earlier every morning and spend 30 minutes writing before the rest of your day starts. It might even mean you write during your lunch break or skip your favorite shows during the week, writing when you’d normally be in front of the TV, saving the watching for Friday night.
Find that ideal space in your world — everyone has one, if you’re willing to search long and hard enough for it — and do everything you can to Make Words Happen. And try to do it consistently. For some people, skipping just one Saturday morning writing session (“I’ll make it up next week”) throws them completely off for the next two months.
Plan for interruptions and altered plans. But try to make it work. Really, really try.
But what about family and friends and, you know, having a life? Well, writing is a big part of your life, isn’t it? Or you want it to be, anyway. This means sometimes you are going to have to use the “I’m going to have to miss out, I have to write” line — except you’re actually going to have to use that time to write.
I’m not saying you have to stop hanging out with your friends or calling your loved ones. Don’t do that — you need real human interaction on a regular basis or you’re going to fall apart. What I’m saying is that sometimes you have to say no when you’d rather say yes, and yes when you would much rather say no. Sometimes you have to choose writing over fun. Sometimes it’s the other way around.
The most important thing: Take care of yourself and your family first and foremost. Finishing a book is not worth losing your health or damaging your relationship with someone you love. This is a delicate balance between sacrifice and compromise.
You know that saying that goes something like, “You have to choose between sleep, writing, and a social life — you can only have two at once?” That doesn’t have to be true. Sure, as a writer, your life isn’t always going to be completely balanced all the time. Things are going to shift. You’ll have to get less sleep one night so you can sleep in the next morning. It happens.
But you CAN manage it all. You just have to figure out how to fit writing into your busy life. A day job is going to make you tired. You’re not always going to want to write during your free time.
You have to train yourself to do it anyway.
It doesn’t have to be a lot. It just has to be something.
“Something,” as always, is better than nothing.
Hey — if there’s anything I didn’t touch on in this post surrounding this topic, or something I did mention that you’d like a more in-depth post about, let me know!
Meg is the creator of Novelty Revisions, dedicated to helping writers put their ideas into words. She is a staff writer with The Cheat Sheet, a freelance editor and writer, and a 10-time NaNoWriMo winner. Follow Meg on Twitter for tweets about writing, food and nerdy things.