November 28, 2012

Writing For A Living

I’ve been writing for a living at times. As I’m writing this, I’m splitting my time between various types of writing, and running the Odd Alice web agency. While I doubt I will split my time like this in the future, it suits me right now.

A few years back my salary was paid by various writing gigs. I’ve been the freelance writer so many times I have long since stopped collecting clippings, and to my publishers’ dismay I often wouldn’t even tweet my work. It’s not that I don’t care, I do, but rather it had become normal. When you deliver 20 shorter pieces, whether it is blog posts or niche news, a few columns, and a couple of longer articles each month you tend to forget how awesome it is. At least I did, and sometimes still do.

Writing for a living isn’t too hard, actually. It all depends on what you want to do, and how expensive you are for the publishers. I started out being pretty cheap actually, but I had the luxury of being enthusiastic and the US$ was fairly strong against the Swedish currency. I was also a very productive person, working at a high pace, still do. As I built my personal brand I also charged more for my work.

I started to write a book, and got an advance. Then I wrote more books and managed to get better advances, and a higher royalty. This of course strengthened my personal brand even further, and publishers paid even more for my articles.

Things were going great. I stopped doing web design for a while, sold off side-projects. I wrote all those articles, saw my books get published, and I had long since turned down ongoing writing gigs that didn’t interest me anymore.

Then I got bored.

It wasn’t the work really, nor was it the money. I just needed to do something else, because I didn’t want to get too comfortable with my writing. I also didn’t want to keep writing for that paycheck, at least not all the time. When I was done for the day my words were spent, there was no way I could work on any of my pet projects, like that novel that’d been brewing for four years for example.

This was the second time I stepped away from writing full time.

Writing for a living might sound like a huge, almost impossible goal to have. I tell you it is not. If you’re a decent writer you can earn your living writing. Being a decent writer is obviously more than being able to spell and construct a sentence, there’s more to it than that. You need to be able to see the story before others do, understand how to research whatever topic you might be working on today, and you need to be able to hand in quality content, on time. If you can do that, then there’s work for you.

Writing what you like for a living, that might be a bit harder. Most people who do write for a living won’t have that luxury. They will have to write about things they aren’t particular interested in, although the good writer will probably find something there too.

I’ve been the editor of numerous sites and several magazines. For a long time I ran a videogames site, which is a lot of people’s dream job. I played games for a living, and then I wrote about them. This sounds like the perfect gig for someone who’s interested in the games industry, and loved to play videogames, right?

Wrong, for two reasons. First of all, who enjoys playing a crappy game? Hour after hour of playing inferior games, that’s what you have to do if you intend to be an honest game reviewer. You need to spend the time, do the research really, with something that normal people would just turn off and throw away. You get to spend anything between 5 to 15 excruciating hours before you feel confident that you can write an honest review. And although you might’ve looked forward to rip the game to pieces in your review, it doesn’t feel so sweet after such an ordeal, you just want to get it over with.

The dream job is suddenly not a dream job any more.

The second reason is that working with that sort of publication involves a lot of reporting. I enjoy news reporting still, but back then I loved it! Breaking stories, analyzing it, standing out from the rest by being the publication, the reporter, who actually could connect the dots. Top it off with follow-up stories, interviews, and possibly the review when the game actually came out. That’s great fun, right? Right!

Well, wrong again. Because although I loved doing it, it got boring at times. Slow news days doesn’t mean you can take the day off if you run a fast paced publication. Just like newspapers you need something to publish. And if that doesn’t make you cringe, consider this: A million PR people are bombarding you with story ideas, and you can see right through their feeble attempts to trick you into publishing their not so carefully veiled press releases, but you’re so tired that you’re considering publishing the stories anyway.

Fatigue. There’s not a word that describes my time as a games journalist as well as fatigue.

Writing for a living isn’t what most of people want to be doing. They might claim to, but what they’re really looking for is a dream. A lot of people wants to write for a living, but they only want to write what they want.

And you know what? Some writers will experience this. Authors mostly, but I could see journalists in general and columnists in particular reach that level as well. To only write what you want, that’s a dream come true!

Stifle your jealousy. Even though some of us will no doubt reach the point where we write more or less what we want, and live off it, it’s not something that just happens. As usual you need to work to reach your goals. Writing is hard work, that’s one of the things that makes it so gratifying.

Do you want to write for a living? Great! But before you declare this to the world, think the whole thing through. What do you want to write? What will you not write about? How much will you sacrifice and how hard are you willing to work to reach the level of Writer For A Living?

Figure this out, and then get started.

Me? I will no doubt write full time, for a living, yet again. I love writing too much not to. However I do think that it is a good idea to do other things as well, it keeps me sharp. That’s why I run a web agency right now, and that’s why I’ll be doing something else in a few years time.

While writing, for a living. At least partly so.

Thoughts? Let @tdh know on Twitter, or find me elsewhere. There is also a newsletter.