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You can make a living as a writer

February 22, 2013

by Kristen Stieffel

Chris shared with us the great news about his being a writer — officially — in the workplace. This is great news, and not only because it means he’ll be doing what he loves and does best for a living, which in my book are the great prerequisites for meaningful work. It’s also great because it demonstrates that we can indeed make a living at this crazy business.

When I compare stories with other writers at conferences, I often learn that others were told, as I was, “writing is a nice hobby, but you’ll never be able to make a living at it.” Unfortunately, I believed that lie for a long time, until I found myself in a newsroom, surrounded by people making a living writing.

Because I had fallen for the lie, my route to the newsroom was circuitous, running through administration and graphic design before coming to copyediting. But I had sought newspaper work because I somehow felt that working in a publishing business would be the next-best thing to making a living as a writer.

Not. Even. Close.

Doing what you love and do best is a joy that doesn’t compare to doing something you kind of like and are pretty good at.

So now I am determined to ensure not only that kids don’t fall for that lie, but that adults stop telling it. There are many paths young writers can take to earn a living as writers. Here are a few.

  • Journalism. Newspapers may be dying, but journalism lives on through broadcast and online media. One of my editors once called this a great way to turn nosiness into a career. Neil Gaiman made a living this way before he gave up the day job. If you haven’t already, watch his commencement speech, given to at Philadelphia’s University of the Arts in 2012. Learn more about journalism at
  • Magazine writing. This differs from journalism in that it tends to focus on feature stories rather than breaking news. Writer’s Digest covers this area a lot.
  • Copywriting. Commercials, magazine ads, and websites need to be written with brevity and humor. The best place I know of to learn this skill: Copyblogger.
  • Technical writing. Not glamorous, by any stretch, but whether it’s boring depends on the writer. The world needs fewer boring technical writers and more clever ones, like the writers who produce the Missing Manuals series for O’Reilly Media Inc.
  • Grant writing. To earn donations from charitable foundations, nonprofit organizations must tell their story in a convincing way. They have to show that their mission aligns with those of the foundation and that their programs produce results. Writing grant applications may sound technical, but ultimately, it is storytelling. For more information, see the American Grant Writers Association.
  • Ghostwriting. Lots of people have a wealth of knowledge that could be put into books, but they are not writers, so they need someone to help them translate their notes — or sometimes their rambling conversations — into cohesive narratives. Learn more from the Association of Ghostwriters.
  • Scriptwriting. The odds of making a living as a Hollywood screenwriter are even longer, if you can believe it, than the odds of making a living as a novelist. Nevertheless, TV shows, commercials, corporate training videos and even video games also need scripts. Try the Scriptwriters Network for more information.

As adults, our responsibility is, as Seth Godin would say, to Stop Stealing Dreams and instead work to help young people understand their options. And, as a side benefit, maybe we’ll consider some new options for ourselves.

Kristen Stieffel is a freelance writing coach, helping writers polish and nonwriters write. Most of her clients are businesspeople, but Kristen is a novelist at heart and is trained as a fiction editor. Kristen has belonged to the Florida Writers Association since 2006 and is part of its Editors Helping Writers program. You can find more information about the program on FWA’s home page.

One Comment
  1. February 23, 2013 2:04 pm

    You’re right, Kristen. After writing on the side for the company newsletter and intranet for six years, the company that now employs me finally created a new position for me as the first official company writer and editor. It’s almost too good to be true. I’m waiting for the other shoe to drop. Each day when I go in and sit down and start writing, I am half expecting my VP to walk up, tap me on the shoulder, and say, “What do you think you’re doing? Get to work.”

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