The Two Ways to Make a Living as a Writer

How to make a living as a writer

But first, the publishing news worth reading this week:

Sorry, You Can’t Speed Read (Jeffrey Zacks and Rebecca Treiman for The New York Times): “Our favorite Woody Allen joke is the one about taking a speed-reading course. ‘I read ‘War and Peace’ in 20 minutes,’ he says. ‘It’s about Russia.’” So in case you don’t have time to read this article, it’s about why we don’t have time to read.

Creating Easy Branded Images for Your Blog and Social Media (Kirsten Oliphant on Including a gorgeous image with your online content is such an important part of branding! Here’s the ever-savvy Kirsten Oliphant on Jane Friedman’s blog with some quick and easy tips for designing graphics, even if you’re not a graphic designer.

Integrating a Personal Brand with a Book Brand (Chadwick Cannon): I get asked questions about book and brand integration all the time–things like “Should my book have its own website?” “Should my book look just like my blog?” This is a great explainer on the 7 most common brand integration questions.

How and When to Catch the Elusive Publicity Department–Part 2 of 2 (Lizzy Mason on Pub Crawl): Here’s the second half of Lizzy Mason’s piece on working with your in-house publicist. Lizzy is the Director of Publicity at Bloomsbury Children’s Books, and you can find Part 1 here.

The Two Ways to Make a Living as a Writer

I’ve written about my journey with minimalism before (and the wonderful book that got me there), but I think there are so many more practical lessons that creatives can take from this growing trend.

The way I see it, there are two ways to make a living as a writer.

One is by making more money. Taking on more freelance writing, hustling for side projects, and working a day job to maintain the lifestyle you’ve always had.

The other is by needing less money. Downsizing and simplifying your life to make room—right now—for the writing you actually want to be doing.

As bestselling author Hugh Howey puts it:

“Writing is much more than putting your butt in a seat. It’s making sure you have the time and financial freedom to write, and it’s ensuring that you have something to write about when you do plant that butt. There’s some truth to the starving artist cliché. You need to make sacrifices. Control your spending. Avoid debt. Live a small or shared lifestyle. The less you spend, the less you need to earn, the more time you can spend on your craft.”

I love that Hugh really gets it—that every minute spent working a day job to finance a big lifestyle is a minute spent away from your craft. And he knows the reality of the writing life: for the first large chunk of your career, you will be paid diddly-squat for your work. You’ll be sitting at home in your pajamas, making up stories and writing them down, while everyone else goes on lavish vacations or buys that new luxury car.

So if you want to live a life rich in writing and books and time for walks and space for daydreaming—the true writer’s life—then you’ll quickly have to make peace with not having so much stuff. Decluttering has become a massive trend over the last few years, and I think writers, especially, can benefit from paring down their possessions.

But it’s not just about decluttering our stuff. It’s also about decluttering our days.

And that’s where minimalism comes in. Minimalism helps us see that we don’t need to buy more and do more to be happy—we just need to make time for the things we actually want to be doing, and then trim away the excess. It’s about getting clear on our values and goals and then making intentional decisions that reflect those goals.

That’s the key—we don’t need to live spare and Spartan lives as minimalists. We don’t need to say no to beautiful objects and meaningful vacations and a relaxing night out on the town. I think too many people think minimalism means deprivation or militant anti-materialism. And that image always makes me laugh—there’s nothing I love more than my comfy armchair and a stack of books and beautiful art on the walls and a very nice blanket. If minimalism meant never buying the things you love, I’d be an abject failure at it.

But instead, it’s helped me (and so many others) trim away the things we don’t love so we can make more space for the things that make our hearts jump. I love feeling healthy and cooking, so I’m glad to spend a larger chunk of my time and income on buying and cooking fresh, organic food. But I don’t really have a knack for fashion. So instead of forcing myself to keep up with all the trends and buy all the right brands, I’m now much more comfortable with finding a few classic pieces and sticking to them. No more guilting myself into trying to do and own everything, when I’d really rather do a few things well and own only extra special things. That, to me, is minimalism.

I also think minimalism can be a wonderful gateway to help writers start doing the work they love right now, not at some far off point in time. That’s why I was so excited to stumble across Mandy Wallace’s article on the tiny house movement, minimalism, and how they can help writers quit their jobs and write full-time.

I always think it’s great to hear from in-the-trenches writers about the lifestyle changes that most helped them reach their writing goals. Mandy was also generous enough to chat with me about how minimalism has helped her as a writer and blogger, and I think her answers put it so well:

1. What does it mean to you to be a minimalist? How does this look in your daily life?

“Minimalism is about cutting the meaningless “stuff” out of your life to make room for family, friends, and creative passions. Life is short, and I don’t want to spend my life cleaning and maintaining the random accumulations that don’t contribute to my life or goals in some positive way. So I prune regularly, dumping anything that doesn’t make me happy or serve some functional purpose.”

2. What was your ah-ha moment with minimalism?

“I’m not sure I had an ah-ha moment with minimalism. Clutter and messes makes me cringe. And if my space isn’t organized, it distracts me from writing and other work. I’ve always been that way. My mom’s the same, so who knows if that’s a nature or nurture thing :). Minimalism just gave it a name for me (and an easy way to google search organization hacks). But minimalism as a movement has definitely sharpened my skills with all those great tips and books on minimalism out there now. And it’s helped me to simplify even more.”

3. How has paring down and simplifying helped you in your creative life?

“Paring down and simplifying gives me SO MANY more hours a month to put into things that are important to me, like writing and blogging. I spend less time cleaning and taking things in for repairs and feeling bad because things are dusty, etc. Why waste your life taking care of accumulated things? You can’t take them with you.”

4. What’s the one most common misconception you think most people have about minimalism?

“This is a tough question because most people I know embrace minimalism. But the few clutter bugs and hoarders in my life tend to view minimalism as cold and uncaring because it encourages people to let go of sentimental items they no longer love so that others can make new memories with those items. And I know many are afraid of having to give up things they love. But minimalism doesn’t mean giving up what you love. If you love it, keep it and if you don’t, let it go. Simple, right? Just like Minimalism :). I mean, life is complicated enough. Minimalism is the antidote to the complications of modern life. Because I just want to live and make beautiful things!”

I love that final point—minimalism is most definitely not about prying the objects you most love from your hands just because you feel like you should. (That would be awful!) But it is about letting what you care about have enough space so it can shine, instead of being buried beneath the excess.

That goes for objects, and it goes for time and money—after all, how we spend our time and how we spend our money says a lot about the people we are.

So if you’re not quite sure how your time and your money keeps wiggling away from you, try this 2-step method:


Ever feel like you don’t have enough time for your writing? It may be that you’ve let too many other activities clutter your schedule. We all know how incredibly easy it is to lose track of time—“Where did today go?” “What did I even do?”—and there’s only one way to snap your days back into focus: track them.

Challenge yourself to track an entire week (or at least a few days) in half hour increments. You can do this right in your phone or computer calendar by blocking off each activity and how much time you spent on it.

For the first few days, simply track what you’re really spending time on. If you spend an hour scrolling through the #amwriting feed on Twitter instead of actually writing, jot that down. Don’t judge or be hard on yourself about it. At this stage, we’re just collecting data.

Keep in mind that this tracking doesn’t mean you need to be productive every hour of the day—definitely not! You should be tracking the time you spend with family or relaxing with a favorite show or going to the gym. We just want an accurate look at where all that time is flying off to.

At the end of the week, schedule in an hour to review your calendar. Did you get writing time in? If not, why? Overall, what went wrong this week and what went right? What can you learn from the hiccups, and what are your triggers for time-wasting tasks? What conversations might you need to have with your family about your blocked off writing time?

Write it all down, absorb it, then rinse and repeat next week. Week by week, you’ll start to get a handle on your time and see that you really do, in fact, have time to get your writing done.


For money, we’re going to use the exact same method. Sign up for a budget tracking site like Mint and track all of your expenses for a week. Along with your standard categories (housing, groceries, etc.) include a checkmark box for essential and nonessential expenses. As you go through the week, tag every expense as either essential or nonessential.

An essential expense is something tied directly to our basic needs as humans for shelter, water, and food. But an essential expense might also be the train ticket you buy to get to work each day, or it might be keeping the lights on in your house. Every expense that you truly cannot avoid should be tagged as essential. But be honest with yourself—no one’s coming along to verify your work. This is for you, so tell yourself the truth about those expenses.

All other expenses should be tagged as a nonessential expense—this includes buying lunch at work, or going out for drinks with friends, or treating the kids to a movie.

And yes, you absolutely should have nonessential expenses. No one’s advocating that you stay home every night, eating canned beans and staring at the wall! That’s no way to live, no matter how much you want to quit your day job and write full-time.

This is, again, just about seeing what’s happening in your finances right now, looking at it in a nonjudgmental way, and getting curious about the impulses behind certain purchases.

At the end of the week, sit down and look at both your essential purchases and your nonessential purchases. Were certain items on the nonessential list stress-induced (like treating yourself to take out because you had an awful day)? Could certain expenses have been avoided if you had planned around them (you had to order the takeout because there weren’t any groceries in the fridge)? Did you splurge on anything that didn’t align with your goals (like buying yet another pair of work shoes, even though what you really want is to quit your office job)?

Also make note of the nonessential expenses that do align directly with your goals—for instance, buying a ticket to a writer’s conference so you can network with other writers. (But of course, don’t buy ten tickets to ten conferences as a way to procrastinate on your work-in-progress!)

Again, this is about being honest with yourself and what you really want, as well as showing yourself what things are getting in the way of that.


After a few weeks of tracking your time and money, observing what’s happening, and making necessary changes, you can start to loosen your hold on the daily tracking (although budget tracking is always smart, no matter what!). But you may find it helpful to set up a monthly review so you can check in with yourself and see how you’re doing. I’ll leave you with Leo Babuata’s method for monthly reviews, since he puts it much better than I ever could!

If you’re interested in learning more about minimalism, I highly, highly, recommend The Joy of Less, which is releasing in bookstores worldwide this week. Honestly, it’s a must-buy for anyone interested in living simpler. And I’m not saying that just because I represented it–I’m saying that because it changed my life even before I became Francine’s agent!

the joy of less by francine jay book cover

A big thank you to Mandy Wallace for her writerly insights!

mandy wallace minimalism blog

Mandy Wallace is a writing coach and blogger with a BA in English lit and a few writing awards. She shares weekly writing tips on her website for new writers, which clocked over a half million page views last year and is listed as one of The Write Life’s 100 best websites for writers. Grab a copy of her character design guide here.

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