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Making a Living as a Writer

By Marty Nemko

The James Frey fiasco is just the latest tarnish on writers’ credibility. Recall, for example, Doris Kearns Goodwin’s plagiarism and New York Times reporter Jayson Blair’s faked interviews.

Yet the call to make a living as a writer remains loud for many of us. The question is, “Should you try to make a go of it?”

This self-assessment may help. The more yeses, the more optimistic you should be.

Should you be a professional writer?

1. Are you willing and able to write at least 200 words of professional-quality prose per hour, at least 15 hours a week, year in and year out?

2. Is it easy for you to come up with story ideas?

3. The most valid evidence of your professional potential is not praise from friends or even teachers, but to ask yourself “To date, has it been relatively easy to get people to pay you for your writing?”

4. Will you be willing to spend at least ten hours a week marketing your work? Remember, for the most part, you’ll probably get ignored, rejected, or receive offers to write for near minimum wage, if not for free.

5. Are you willing to do business writing: newsletters, business reports, press releases, brochures, catalogs, annual reports, copy for e-commerce sites, and so on? Business writing is the most likely to be remunerative.

Top Ten Ways to Get Paid to Write

Still want to take a shot at being a professional writer? Here are ways to maximize your chances of success: Most are derived from The Freelance Writer’s Bible by David Trottier:

-- Build a collection of work samples that would impress your target customer. Even if you have to do some writing for free to get published, do it. Employers are much more impressed by published work than by Microsoft Word documents.

-- Pitch your work to art directors. They have connections with ad agencies and other employers of writers.

-- Use Writers Market and/or your public library to find the best print prospects for your writing. Before writing an article, send a punchy query letter to a high-level editor in which you explain why the topic is right for that publication, how you’d approach it, and why you’re qualified to write it. If possible, sell only the first right to publish it. That way, you can later resell it and thus get paid twice for one article.

-- As in all job searches, pitch everyone you know: “Do you know anyone who could use a good writer?”

-- Cold call small businesses in a niche you’d like to write for. Ask if they need a brochure, a copywriter for their Web site, etc.

-- Try nonprofits. They endlessly need marketing collateral, fundraising letters, and telemarketing scripts.

-- Pitch online training developers. They are writer-dependent because, except for the graphics, all lessons must be presented entirely in writing.

-- More money is spent producing business and education videos that on the entire U.S. film industry. Check out your Yellow Pages and Business-to-Business Yellow Pages. Look under “audio-visual,” “video producers,” “video production”, and “film producers.”

-- Technical writing. For your first jobs, try fledging firms in manufacturing or software. They often need employee manuals and user’s manuals.

-- Ghostwriting. Know a celebrity, politician, or famous expert? Propose ghostwriting a book. Make an agreement and then approach publishers to assess the concept’s viability. Also, professors, scientists, and technical people need help getting into professional journals and magazines. To find them, advertise in publications read by the types of people for whom you’d like to ghostwrite. Similarly, many professional and business executives would like someone to write their one-page autobiography or 300-page version. Some people want their life stories or family histories written with no intent to make money. They just want to give books to friends, families and business associates.

A word about book writing. The odds are probably at least 1,000:1 against a first-time, non-celebrity novelist earning as much per hour from their novels as they could from flipping burgers at McDonald’s. The odds are even worse for children’s book authors and, of course, for poets. The Poet Laureate of the United States, Ted Kooser, in an NPR interview, asserted that it is impossible to make a living from poetry. I’ve even soured on how-to books, which is the most likely route to making money in book writing. Although I have had five how-to books published, which have sold over 200,000 copies, I don’t plan to write any more books nor do I recommend you do unless you’re a celebrity and/or have a major national platform: for example, you’re a columnist in the U.S. News and World Report magazine. Today, ever more people get their information free, just-in-time, in bite-sized pieces on the Internet. And if they want a book and are willing to forego the public library, sells used copies at a deep discount. On used book sales, the author doesn’t make a dime.

Of course, writers know that their income potential is minimal, but many of them, perhaps wisely, prefer the writer’s life poor than the straight life rich.

For more on how to make a living as a writer, see and

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