Good and Bad Advice on The Writing Life

After graduation from college, I got an entry level job at a radio station, programmed with call-in talk shows. I carried out the trash, conducted regular “Frosty-runs” to Wendy’s for the news director, painted the sales office, screened callers for the shows during off-hours, took transmitter readings, got coffee for the hosts, and anything else the boss wanted. Once in a while, they let me push a button on the control panel.

While there is a fascinating mix of opinions expressed by callers, my favorite talk show caller-type will always be,

“Yes, thank you for taking my call. I have a question for the guest today. I think you are wrong.”

Was there a question in there somewhere?

A couple themed call-in shows featured experts answering questions about personal finance and another on medical issues.

After about an hour, I was certain I could fill in for the financial or medical experts, even as a 21-year-old recent college grad with no background in finance or medicine.

Almost all of the answers to questions were, “Ask your financial advisor,” or “Ask your doctor.” Once in a while they tossed in, “It depends on your situation.”

I discovered early on, the least valuable advice is the same advice given to everyone.

For instance, the best advice and worst advice for an aspiring author is:

“Quit your day job and write full time.”

More than likely, if you start out on a writing career, you will need to do a little bit of everything, accounting for all 24 hours in a day and 168 hours in a week with some sort of productive activity.

You need to write a few hours, work 7-8 hours, sleep 6-7 hours, connect with others for an hour here and there, clean up, take care of yourself, commute to work, handle relationship or family responsibilities, etc.

If you could convert all the hours devoted to employment to writing and reading, think how much fun life would be?

It rarely works the way you’d like. Professional writing is never convenient, even for successful writers.

You spend years writing for no money, then if you become reasonably successful, earning $20,000 a year from writing, you cannot support your life or a family on this amount alone, especially in the U.S. in the 21st Century. At best, you might be able to pay for a mortgage or rent on a living space.

Actually, the writing life fits into one of these models:

–You work at a job providing a paycheck and benefits, then write when you can, and the two roles combined allow you to live reasonably.

–You write full-time, earning some money, but you have another source of income (not from your personal employment) supplementing it.

–You write full-time, earning some money, live an extremely meager life, living day- to-day.

–You write full-time and are successful, but you find yourself working more than full-time managing your marketing platform, doing speaking engagements, product sales and public ministry management. The pressure is on to perform. Hardly the quiet, solitary, literary life you imagined.

Other models would be exceptions to the majority of situations. They might include:

–Author writes a book, sells a million copies and stops writing. (The “One-hit-wonder author.”)

–Famous person “writes” a book with help of a ghost-writer and book sells well. (The “Fifteen minutes of fame author.”)

Mostly, the world of the professional author is one of long-hours, hard work and relentless demands for their time from little* things like family, community, church and life in general.

If you want to pursue professional writing, put on your full armor and take a deep breath, it’s neither simple or convenient.

Some aspiring authors have an idea the writing life is like some unreal world, but is just the opposite, it is very real and demanding.

After all, Mayberry, North Carolina doesn’t exist, the mosquitoes on Walden Pond are terrible and a dead racoon is stuck in the fireplace flue of your lovely getaway writing cabin.

So, should you quit your day job and write?

It depends.



15 Responses to Good and Bad Advice on The Writing Life

  1. Avatar
    Brennan S. McPherson June 19, 2018 at 3:50 am #

    Very true. We habitually romanticize the life we can’t quite have. But when we have it, glamor fades. I wanted to be a full-time professional musician more than anything. Then I did it and realized it was way harder than working a normal day job. And a horrible way to have a family. So I got out of it before I got married. We need to seek peace and fulfillment in Christ wherever we are.

  2. Avatar
    Carol Ashby June 19, 2018 at 3:51 am #

    Another great tell-it-like-it-truly-is post, Dan. If you’re lucky, that cabin only has one dead mouse in the wall so the smell will pass in a couple of days, and by then, you’re so used to it you don’t notice it too much. That odor is partly due to putrescine (1,4-diaminobutane) and cadaverine (1,5-diaminopentane), both formed during the bacterial decomposition of proteins in animal tissue.

    How’s that for a factoid to share next time you need something to fill a lull in the conversation? Or to cause that lull in one you’d like to escape. Surely those words could be worked into the dialogue of a techie character in a thriller or mystery. (Should we be concerned that both putrescine and cadaverine are in the standard Word spell-check dictionary?)

  3. Avatar
    Shirlee Abbott June 19, 2018 at 4:03 am #

    If writing is ministry (and for me it is), Paul sets an example. He worked as a tent maker. Tent making isn’t my skill set, but my healthcare paycheck accomplished its purpose.

  4. Avatar
    Sharon K. Connell June 19, 2018 at 5:24 am #

    Thanks for that realistic (although somewhat bleak LOL) look at the career of writing. It takes the idea of being an author out of the clouds and plants it firmly back on earth. There are a lot of people who probably need to hear it, I’m sure.

    My career as an author started more than ten years ago while still working in the 9-5 world. Now I have the luxury of being retired and pursuing my craft.

    Bottom line is this. You have to love what you’re doing if you want to be happy with a career in writing. With so many authors out there today, chances of making it big are pretty slim. For me, I just want my readers to enjoy the talent God gave me.

    Thanks again for your article.

  5. Avatar
    Rebekah Love Dorris June 19, 2018 at 5:48 am #

    “Life is hard, and it might not get easier,” as my husband croons when someone whines overmuch.

    Writing is hard, and as Jerry Jenkins says, it doesn’t get easier if you’re relentless about improving. But like Steve Laube’s post yesterday, it’s still medicine to write. It’s a gift, even though it requires work to enjoy it.

    Good advice like you’ve given in this post may be hard to swallow, but it’s also a gift. Hopefully it will talk someone back off the cliff of jumping to their writing death via “quitting their day job.” Hopefully.

  6. Avatar
    Judith Robl June 19, 2018 at 5:53 am #

    And for those of us who worked 40 plus hours a week before retirement and now work 25-30 hours a week “after retirement”, it’s still a rat race. Unfortunately, or fortunately, the race is addictive. So we just keep writing. Probably because we can’t NOT write, anti-un-dis-irregardless of the financial outcomes.

  7. Avatar
    Andrew Budek-Schmeisser June 19, 2018 at 6:25 am #

    Making time for what you love is a lot easier than loving what you have to do full-time.

  8. Avatar
    Kayleen June 19, 2018 at 6:34 am #

    I’ve heard a couple of college grads talk about a career in writing b/c they are writing a book. As much as I believe in dreaming big, I know w/in 6 months they will be working in retail/ factory/office jobs w/ benefits, steady paychecks, paid vacations. I’m writing full-time now after 25 years of balancing family/ jobs/ writing. It’s precious to me now to not have to feel the strain of finding time/energy to do everything. But those years developed a big discipline to meet deadlines and keep going, thus refining the God-given interest I discovered at a young age. Thanks for being real. I’m referring this to other writing friends.

  9. Avatar
    Julie Sunne June 19, 2018 at 7:14 am #

    Such an important message to get out there, Dan!

    I love the idea of writing full-time and supporting my family with that income alone. But first, the money has to start coming in, not only going out. 😉 And second, the chance of writing, and writing alone, to cover all my living expenses is quite unlikely.

    Still, I write. Because I’m supposed to.

    If God is asking us to write, by all means we need to write! We just need to be realistic about our expectations. He never promised we’d be wealthy writers. 🙂

  10. Avatar
    Linda Riggs Mayfield June 19, 2018 at 8:13 am #

    Reality checks aren’t usually affirming, but this one is, Dan. I don’t think any of us who meet here is in the “living-comfortably-solely-on-writing-income” category, and the truthful picture you painted of that life makes it less attractive than the life I have now. I realized that years ago when a VERY famous author had a book-signing at a local bookstore, virtually no one showed up except me, and we talked. She was painfully shy, had to leave her husband and kids back home in another state to do the tour–and that day no one came. She was having a “counting the cost” day. Tentmaking, Paul’s practice which Shirlee also referenced, does not indicate failure or the necessity of falling back on Plan B. I happily choose tentmaking.

  11. Avatar
    Patti Jo Moore June 19, 2018 at 8:48 am #

    Excellent post, Dan.
    Although I’m still saddened by your statement that Mayberry, North Carolina isn’t a real place – – and that’s where my husband and I were going to retire. 😉

    Back to my writing (where I can at least create my own version of Mayberry – – and it’s real to my fictional characters, and hopefully my readers, LOL). 🙂

  12. Avatar
    Jay Payleitner June 19, 2018 at 8:50 am #

    So you’re saying I shouldn’t have quit my day job.

    Well actually, I didn’t. My day job quit me.

    Back to work.

  13. Avatar
    Sheri Dean Parmelee, Ph.D June 19, 2018 at 9:50 am #

    Well, I’m excited, Dan. Actually, thanks for the reality check, in spite of the challenges you have mentioned. You mean we all aren’t John Grisham or Nickolas Sparks? Such is life.

  14. Avatar
    Jennifer Haynie June 20, 2018 at 2:30 pm #


    Loved it! I’m mostly the first one, work a day job that is 40+ hours a week, write when I can, and answer all of the other commitments I have.

    Oh, and Mayberry sort of exists in the form of Mount Airy, North Carolina. A very charming town.

    And ick, a dead raccoon in the flue of my writing getaway would be gross. 🙂

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