Choosing day jobs for writers is easy with help from a writer who’s done it all.
Even Dickens had a day job.
The most popular fantasy story in literature may be the myth of the author who makes a living simply by writing books. The truth is, authors’ average income from writing is substantially below the poverty level, so unless you want to be a starving artist literally (not just aesthetically), you will need a day job to support your writing dream.
In just the last five years, as I’ve earned my MFA and pursued my goal of writing and publishing my first novel, I’ve held an incredibly diverse array of day jobs. These ranged from legal aid attorney to English composition adjunct, from nonprofit director to landscaping crew, freelance writer to factory worker, and farmer to portrait photographer. From that experience, I can’t tell you precisely what the best job is for you personally, but I can tell you how to decide.
Do Most Authors Have a Day Job?
Yes. Making a living with your creative writing is a financial life plan in the same way winning the lottery is a financial life plan. Good luck, but don’t quit your day job.
The largest-ever survey of American authors conducted by The Authors Guild in 2018 found that the median income for writers had fallen to a gut-wrenching $6,080. Annually. Even worse, only half of that was book income. The rest came from speaking engagements, reviewing books, or teaching. Even those who identified as full-time authors only earned a median income of $20,300 per year.
The decline in pay for authors was not true for self-published authors, whose income has risen substantially over the last decade. However, they still make less than half of what traditionally published authors make, so unless you are a self-publishing wizard, you will still need a day job.
Factors to Consider When Choosing a Day Job
One of the most important aspects of choosing a job is realistically assessing how much of your life it will consume. You need to look beyond what the job posting lists under Hours Per Week and consider how much time the job will really take because every hour you spend working is an hour you can’t spend writing.
The actual time required by a job includes the following factors:
- How many hours a day do they claim you will be working? Do you have a paid lunch break when you could write?
- Is there mandatory overtime? Is there an unwritten expectation that you will pick up voluntary overtime?
- Is it paid hourly, or is it a salaried position? If salaried, do people typically work eight hours and go home, or do they take work home with them?
- Will you be on call when not at work? Are you expected to read any emails that arrive during off-hours?
- Is there pressure to attend social gatherings with your coworkers outside of work hours? Are there other ways work intrusions could interrupt your writing routine?
- Does the job require a commute? How many hours does it add to your workweek?
- Does the job keep you busy all the time, or does it involve periods of lag time during which you could do a writing-related activity?
- Are you open to a night shift job, or would you be too drained to write?
For all writers, certain activities drain our creative energy while others inspire creative energy. This varies substantially from person to person (primarily but not entirely based on introversion/extroversion). It is important to figure out what drains you most so you can avoid it at work.
Extroverts become more energized through engaging with other people. They also get their best ideas from interactions and people watching. For these kinds of writers, a day job at a coffee shop or night job as a bartender might be ideal, giving them a good income, an endless supply of inspiration, and days free for writing.
Bartending would be my nightmare. By the end of a 10-12 hour workday as an attorney, I was blurry-eyed and tongue-tied. I knew I had to quit if I wanted to take my writing ambitions seriously. Personally, I’ve found factory work, landscaping, and farming jobs ideal. Yes, they require hard physical work, but leave my mind free for brainstorming, outlining, and daydreaming–were ideal for stoking my creative energy.
Some jobs will help you build relationships that can help you in your writing career. For example, jobs in publishing will ensure that you meet people in the industry. A job that involves public-facing writing (journalism, marketing copy for a website, etc.) can also help attract the attention of people who may help your career.
Networking is also a major benefit of jobs you take for research purposes. For example, if you want to write a legal thriller, consider applying for jobs as a legal assistant or law office receptionist. You will build relationships with people who can answer questions to solve even the trickiest plot snag.
Even the least promising-sounding job can be a networking bonanza if you keep an open mind. For example, I worked in a factory for three months. In addition to learning how my protagonist would experience that environment, I met one guy who made his own moonshine, a woman who committed DUI homicide, and an ex-member of the Chicago mafia. I consider all of these people (and the people they could introduce me to) inspiration and research references for future characters, and therefore networking gains.
For most writers, one of the most critical factors usually isn’t mentioned in the job description: how much of the time does the job require your full attention?
When your job involves teaching high school or operating a saw, getting distracted will get you fired or worse. Other jobs include downtime or time when you can wear headphones while working. With or without permission, writers can use this downtime in countless ways (reading, listening to audiobooks, daydreaming, brainstorming, outlining, making notes, and even writing or revising).
Keep in mind that the attention required varies individually, not just based on the job title. As a temp receptionist for a big city radio station, I rarely had fewer than two people on hold. As the temp receptionist for a three-attorney law firm, I had plenty of time to make notes on my novel.
Your job doesn’t need to have special meaning if it pays the bills. Songwriter Noel Gallagher famously said, “I don’t live to work…. I work to live.” If you must have a day job (and unless you were born or married rich, you must), it should be one that pays enough to allow you to live (i.e., to write) in your free time. That could mean a full-time job, one or more part-time jobs, or a collection of gig work.
Regardless, start by creating a budget to determine what you need to get by. Then add 10% or more as a buffer (emergencies will arise). That is the starting salary you should be looking for. Until you are an established writer, you should plan to live entirely off of this income. If you make any money off your writing, for example, by selling a short story, consider it a bonus.
Don’t forget to factor in fringe benefits. These could include paid time off, insurance, free food, and other benefits. You might like to read about 8 famous authors who self-published.
It should come as no surprise that writing full-time is the best day job for many writers.
Both historically and today, many famous writers got their start in journalism: Joan Didion, Langston Hughes, Stieg Larsson, Laura Lippman, George Orwell, Annie Proulx, Susan Sontag, and Bram Stoker, for example.
2. Freelance Writing/Ghostwriting
Freelance writing is a job with a lot of potential for people who want a low-pressure day job that allows them to hone their craft. In addition, the amount of creative content required to fuel the internet–from bloggers to social media writers to website copy–means there is a lot of writing for hire in the gig economy.
Some of this writing may be credited to you, while other opportunities involve ghostwriting for someone else. Some jobs will be contracts for a single piece of writing, while other times, you may establish a relationship with a business that offers you work consistently over time.
3. Technical Writing
If you’re a particularly precise writer, you might consider technical writing. This generally means working for a company drafting documents like manuals or instructional materials. You might wear more hats in a smaller company and write a range of copy such as the company website or an updated employee handbook.
Publishing is almost as common a career choice for writers as journalism, from Toni Morrison to T.S. Eliot.
If you want to be a writer, what better place to work than at the heart of the industry? You will have ample networking opportunities which will allow you to hone your craft on all fronts.
Consider becoming a copyeditor if you find at least one typo in half the published books you read. Of course, there are other types of editing jobs (such as a developmental editor or working as an editor for a publishing house). Still, proofreading is more accessible as a day job than other editing jobs, especially if you don’t have a degree in writing, publications, or relevant background. Editing could be a great day job if you have solid focus and enjoy paying attention to the details.
Writing Adjacent Jobs
You don’t have to write for a living to have a job that enhances your writing.
Many of the most prominent contemporary writers are also professors at the university level. Pulitzer Prize winner Viet Thanh Nguyen, MacArthur Fellow Karen Russell, and Booker Prize winner George Saunders come to mind. However, a wide variety of other teaching jobs (teaching middle school math, for example) can be great day jobs for an aspiring writer.
2. Office Jobs
Can you answer phones, manage a calendar, sort mail, and type memos? Can you look friendly and professional while doing so? If so, you can work in an office.
3. Library/Bookstore Jobs
Being surrounded by books is every writer’s dream job, right? If you want a job that offers minimal interaction with people and gives you plenty of time to work to your own means, then working in a bookstore or a library is a great option.
Sometimes the best thing you can do for your writing is the opposite of writing. Whether it is something mundane or something opposite for the sake of being different, having a job that takes your focus away from writing for a time can be a powerfully motivating tool.
1. Food Service/Retail
This may not be ideal for an aspiring writer, but it is almost certainly the most common job category for aspiring writers. So whether you’re a writer and a barista, a server, a bartender, or a cashier, you’re in good company.
2. Blue-Collar Labor
A sedentary, computer-focused day job saps my creativity and motivation. I’ve done some of my most fruitful pre-writing while I worked as a laborer, in a factory, or pulling weeds. I’m not alone.
Raymond Carver worked at a sawmill and as a gas station attendant. Caitriona Lally, who won the Rooney Prize for Literature in 2018, worked as a custodian mopping floors at Trinity College Dublin. Ernest Hemingway drove an ambulance in World War I.
If you have a great mind, why waste it on a day job? Save your mental labor for your writing, and sell your physical labor instead.
3. Research-Related Jobs
In 1887 journalist Nellie Bly took commitment to her art to the extreme when she got herself committed to an insane asylum and then reported on the abuse of patients there. In 1906 Upton Sinclair worked undercover for seven weeks in the meatpacking industry, then wrote The Jungle, a classic of American literature.
The first-hand experience gave Bly’s and Sinclair’s writing such intense credibility that not only was their work immensely popular, their writing stirred up enough public sentiment to get laws passed protecting the people and animals whose suffering the authors depicted.
Other people (such as John Grisham) have made fortunes by writing about areas in which they have professional expertise.
The Final Word on Day Jobs for Writers
The right day job for you depends on what job will inspire, or at least sustain, your writing. Writing well is a skill that will serve you well in many jobs, but don’t be afraid to work in a totally unrelated field. I’ve tried it all, and it’s clear to me that the best job for any writer is the one that leaves you with enough time and energy to write the story that you need to write and the world needs to read.
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