Chip MacGregor

June 29, 2016

Ask the Agent: What’s the one piece of advice you’d give a career writer?


We’ve been exploring the idea of “how to make a living at writing,” and I’ve saved up a handful of questions from people who have written to ask about becoming a career writer. Someone wrote several months ago to ask, “What would you say is the ONE PIECE of advice you’d give a career writer to help them succeed?” I love the question, and I’ve been mulling it over for a while now. We could talk about writing goals, or butt-in-chair time, or all sorts of tips and techniques, but if there was just one piece of advice I would give, I think it would be, “Develop a writing calendar.” 

That may not sound terribly deep or sexy, but if you’re going to make a living at writing, you need to seriously consider creating a writing calendar. This is, you need to have a document that details what you’re going to write each day. Think about buying a big paper calendar, and jotting down a writing goal for each day of the month. For example, perhaps on Monday you’re working on chapter five of your book; Tuesday you’re completing the chapter; Wednesday you are creating that article you’ve wanted to do for the writing magazine; Thursday and Friday you are doing a paid edit. In each day on your calendar you’ve got something that focuses you on the task at hand, to give clarity and direction to your writing. Maybe it’s as simple as, “I’m going to write 3000 words on my novel” or “I’m going to finish chapter ten.” But you have a calendar, and you treat writing as a job by having your goal for what you plan to accomplish each day.

To figure out what you put into each day, you look at your “to do” list and do some prioritizing. What needs to get written today? What will pay off? What will push your career forward?

If you’re one of those writers who has been stuck at “I’m hoping to write 1000 words each day,” but not ever feeling like you’re actually moving forward in your career, you should try creating a calendar. There’s nothing wrong with having a word count goal, of course, but sometimes it’s better to know which project you’re working on, and how long it’s going to take you. You’re going to have plenty of other things to do, of course — there will be phone calls related to your work, seemingly endless emails, a friend’s piece to critique, some social media to participate in… but at some point you just want your writing life to have a focus — getting these pieces written so I can make some money.

And that’s why you don’t just write down the goal for each day and stop. You then go back and add in a dollar figure, so each project is seen as contributing to your budget. For example, that article you’re writing for the writing magazine? How much is that paying you? Let’s say it’s $150 — you write down “writing magazine article – $150” into the square on your calendar for that day. The editing project you’re doing? It pays $300, so write that over the Thursday and Friday squares. Oh, and that chapter you’re creating? You’re expecting to sell that book for about $5000, so each chapter has a monetary value of roughly $250. I know that might seem a bit dreamy at first, but trust me, in time you’ll appreciate knowing what sort of value to put onto your writing efforts.

Figuring out your writing value isn’t hard — if your goal is to make $36,000 per year at writing, you’re trying to make $3000 per month, or $750 per week, or an average of $150 pr day. You won’t find writing jobs that are quite that precise, of course, so you’ll need to think more broadly as you create your calendar. But knowing the overall amount of money you’re trying to generate, and breaking it down into smaller goals, makes the entire process much more doable.

Nothing makes you look at reality more clearly than a number, so figure out the projects you’re going to work on this month, break them into workable units, get them onto a calendar, and attach a dollar figure to each one, so that you have some sense of what you should be making. That’s how you get started at the business of making a living writing.

Okay, so that’s the one bit of advice I would share. What about you? What’s the ONE THING you’d tell a writer who wants to start making a living at this business? 

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  • Gwen says:

    I just read this. It’s a great idea. Thanks for the practical help with something very difficult for me.

  • Laurel Decher says:

    Thanks very much for doing this excellent series of posts. I really like your tips for the writing calendar, the quarterly concept, and caring for writerly health issues. It’s an endurance game and the habits have it.

  • Jodie Bailey says:

    Get an accountability partner. Have that person who you HAVE to report to about those goals. So many times, I hit a day where I just want to read somebody else’s work or run errands or clean the house, but then I look at my goal list for the week and think, “Oh man, I have to tell Christina if I fail.” And I do it. You’d be amazed at how much of a motivator it is to make yourself accountable to someone else.

    • chipmacgregor says:

      A good bit of advice, Jodie. Thanks! (And for those who don’t know, Jodie Bailey is the successful author of several suspense novels!)

  • EmberCollins says:

    If you are a writer already, and know your craft well, but you are still seeking advice on how to succeed, the one piece of advice I would offer is: “Live a life you care about.”
    If your dreams and visions are money-focused, and you are writing-by-numbers (counting daily word output or commitment in terms of hours) the tendency will be to produce quantity but not quality. You may earn money this way, but the result will still feel curiously empty, leaving you unsatisfied.
    If your life is shaped and ordered by whatever it is you really care about, then if you are a writer the words will flow from the passion – you will have something to communicate. You may or may not succeed in monetary terms, but you are more likely to produce work that inspires and transforms the lives of your readers.
    Money may follow good writing, but writing for no purpose than to earn money is less likely to be of depth and value. Input and output have to balance: if your focus is entirely on output and the only input is money, the result is spiritually sterile.
    If you so reduce your needs and wants that a tiny income will suffice, then plunge into life without reservation, the resulting richness of experience will inform your writing to great effect.
    Pen Wilcock

    • chipmacgregor says:

      What wise advice. Thanks so much, Pen. (And for those who don’t know, this bit of wisdom comes from a fabulous author — Penelope Wilcock, who wrote the “Hawk and the Dove” series, which has been in print for more than twenty years, and continues to draw fans around the world.) Thanks for demonstrating that vision of “live a life you care about” to us, Pen.

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