Chip MacGregor

June 30, 2014

What if I'm a part-time writer, part-time something else?


A friend wrote to say, “I have a degree in teaching, and I’ve taken classes in a professional writing program… but I feel stuck between two careers. What do I do?”

If you’re trying to make it as a writer, you’ve got an uphill climb. But so does everybody who wants to make a living with art. Making a living in the arts (ANY art) is hard. Here’s an example I’ve used several times: I’m a pretty good ballroom dancer. (Really. Publishers love it when I come to their publishing balls, since there will be 300 authors and 6 guys who know how to dance.) I took lessons, was in dance classes, and hoofed it in musical theater. If you saw me on the dance floor at the Harlequin ball, you might think I was head and shoulders above most beginners. But I realize there’s a huge gap between being pretty good at the local dance club and asking people to pay $80 to come watch me dance in a show on Broadway. There’s a gap between being “pretty good” and being “a professional.”

My son is a good guitar player, but there’s quite a leap from playing in a garage band and asking people to plunk down $18 for your latest album on iTunes. My daughter Molly could act and was in the plays in school — but there’s a big gap between “being pretty good in the high school comedy” and “asking people to come see me at an equity theater.” All of us who grew up in churches have heard really good singers over the years… but there’s a big gap between the woman who is pretty good with a solo in the Christmas concert and the professional singer who has been granted a record contract.

So just because someone is a pretty fair writer doesn’t mean she can expect a reader to pay $25 for her latest novel. There’s a gap between amateurs and professionals. And that’s true with music, with dance, with acting, with painting, with anything. It’s tough to make it in any art. Writing included.

Therefore, what do you do? You work at it. You get better. You study the craft. You take classes. You join a critique group. You locate a writing mentor. You pay a professional editor to review your work. More than anything, you sit your butt in a chair and write a lot. Because nobody gets good by “thinking about” writing — you get good by actually writing a lot. (The same holds true with all those other arts I mentioned earlier.) Most novelists don’t get their first book published — they write several novels before hitting on a story that’s salable, and having the writing chops to be able to tell it well. I once had a chance to teach writing courses in Taylor University’s excellent Professional Writing Program, and I was surprised to find so few older or non-traditional students in the classes. Most everyone in my classes was in the 18-to-22 year range — which is fine, since I loved the students, and enjoyed teaching them (Taylor is where I met Amanda and Erin, who now work with me). But I would have loved to see more returning students who were trying to move forward in their careers, and who had enough life experience to bring depth to their writing.

I’m sure you’re familiar with Malcolm Gladwell’s “10,000 Hour Rule,” in which he argues that certain people (Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, the Beatles, Robert Oppenheimer, etc) became great at what they did because they invested 10,000 hours in their roles. Basing his theory on a study by Anders Ericsson, Gladwell offers a theory as to why some people become “great” in their roles. It’s fascinating stuff, and I think he makes a very compelling argument for writers (if you’re interested, download a copy of the book, Outliers, published by Little-Brown). But his basic argument is that a person needs TIME AT THE CRAFT to become really good.

So back to your question, my friend… what to do? I think it depends on your passion, your motivation, your calling, and your innate ability. Some people need to work full time at a job and write when they can. Others need to write part time and work some other job part time. Still others write full time and maybe do some fill-in work as needed. I don’t know your situation, so I’m not going to offer any career advice, other than to say, “What do YOU think you should be doing with your life?”

(Regular readers of this blog will feel they’ve read these words before. They did — I took this blog post from a c couple years ago and updated it. Just didn’t want you to think I was cheating.)

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  • Ron Estrada says:

    He’s not alone. I’m another one of those with the day job. An engineer, so at least I’m not scraping by. But that doesn’t mean I’m satisfied with my current career. So I have two choices: suck it up and count the days until retirement or change careers. Now, it took me at least 2000 hours of classroom time to be an engineer. And I figure it’s taken me about 2000 hours writing time to hack out the 5 novels under my belt. I didn’t get paid to be an engineering student. I don’t get paid to be a writing student. And that’s what we are: writing students. Just think of those 5 unpublished novels as really long term papers. And even when we graduate and get that first novel published, we’re still beginners. We start at the low end of the pay scale. So we continue to improve and learn. My advice to guys like me is this: Set yourself a schedule and get started. You’ll never graduate and move into that next career if you never make it to the first day of class.

    • chipmacgregor says:

      Good advice, Ron. Set yourself a time to write, a place to write, and a project you’re writing on regularly. Then get it done. And, once it’s done, go back and fix it. Then move on to the next project and write that. Simply going through the motions of writing regularly will get you into the groove.

  • Joe says:

    Hello Chip, good practical post and like you seem to be, I’m a big believer in the 10k hour rule. If its helpful, for those of us who would love to return to class to sharpen our skills but can’t, there are options. I use two courses from The Teaching Company, Building Great Sentences, taught by U. of Iowa’s Brooks Landon and The Art of Reading (really the art of story telling) by Timothy Spurgin of Lawrence University. You get 24 half hour lectures on DVD (or cd) and a fine course outline book. I am reminded I’m due to take those classes again as a refresher. Happy 4th of July.


    • chipmacgregor says:

      Both excellent resources, Joe. I’ve had several people rave about “Building Great Sentences.” Really appreciate your wisdom here. Thanks for coming onto the blog.

  • Jaime Wright says:

    I think you need to be “full-time” in your head/heart at a minimum. I work 45-50 hrs a week at my day job and maybe squeeze in 10-15 hours a week in my writing between diapers, laundry and other moronic things that need to be done to assuage my type-A need to declutter my house. But in my brain, I’m writing ALL THE TIME. To the point that scenes are already composed by the time I sit down. And then I write and write and write. I write on my iPhone between meetings, on my tablet during Sunday School (don’t judge) and at 3 AM when the boy wakes me up for a diaper change and the quiet tempts me to sit at my laptop. Writing is a state of mind. It’s that insatiable need to put words on paper, whether you’re prolific or suck. It’s just that passion that makes it full time, even when your normal reality is required to keep the electricity on. 🙂

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