Chip MacGregor

November 15, 2013

What does it mean to "make a living" at writing?


I’ve been talking about authors trying to make a living at writing recently, and a couple people have written to ask me, “When can I know I’m actually making a living with my words?”

To me, the answer is personal. One author may feel she is making a living when she’s earning $1500 per month; another may feel she isn’t really making a living until she’s making $3000 per month. I think you have to pick an amount based on your own situation. What are your household income needs? What’s reasonable for you to earn over the course of a year? How much time do you have to devote to writing?

When I started free-lancing, I was working other jobs (I hosted a radio show called “On the Record with Dr Chip MacGregor,” and taught some classes). At first my writing income was slim, but over time I had more writing and editing projects coming in, and I saw my monthly income from writing move from $100 to $300 to $500 to $1000 per month. I had a big jump from $1000 to $1500, then to $1800 per month. When I began making an average of $2000 per month, I realized I could make more money if I gave up my part-time jobs and just focused on the writing and editorial work. Granted, this was a number of years ago, but I had three kids and a mortgage payment, and making more than $2000 each month was enough to live on.

So, as you look at your situation, how much do you need to make? You may choose to set a small goal from your writing at first, then grow it over time as your writing career moves forward. You have to begin to see “words” as “money” — that is, your writing having value. One of the things you’ll discover is that when you look at words that way, there are an enormous number of avenues for you to make money with words. Maybe you can teach writing classes, or start a collaborative writing business. Perhaps you can do freelance editing (every publisher is looking for good copyeditors, in my experience). You might be able to do some work for your local organizations, who will pay a writer and editor to help with newsletters and online information. Or you can write for your local newspaper, or check into local or regional magazines — even mid-sized cities often have monthly or quarterly magazines that feature tourism and business news about the local area, and what every magazine publisher will tell you is that each edition is a monster that has to be fed. They need content to fill up pages, and nobody is going to feel sorry for them if they don’t have enough words with interesting stories to fill those pages. The days of e-zines have pushed many of the print magazines to the background, so while you may find at first that e-zines aren’t paying much, the real money on the web is in business…

Every business and organization in America has a website, and they all need content for those sites. (Quiz: Who writes content for most websites? Marketing companies. Which is to say, “a lot of high school grads.”) When the web first started (or, “when Al Gore first invented the internet”), websites were similar to billboards along the freeway –“Don’s Plumbing: Great Service, Low Rates – Call 555-1234.” But businesses quickly learned there was no reason for readers to ever visit again. So if you go to the website for Don’s Plumbing today, you’ll find the company history, a profile of each plumber who works there, a section where you can make an appointment, another page where you can order parts, a fix-it-yourself guide, and a history of indoor plumbing. Um… SOMEBODY has to write all that text. And then somebody ELSE has to go back and edit it, because the first version of it was probably terrible. So writing and editing online content for businesses and organizations is a huge market right now, as is any sort of marketing writing. (And the concept of marketing writing requires its own blog posts, but probably for somebody else’s site.)

As I noted the other day, there are more people reading than ever before, and more opportunities to read than ever in the history of the world. So… don’t get stuck into the mindset that all your writing income must come from books. Set a financial goal, start to work toward it, and look for opportunities to generate some income from your writing skill.

By the way, Michael Hyatt posted a great interview with author Max Lucado on the subject of writing today — have a look at

As always, would love to hear what writing is working for you, and where you’re finding avenues for making money with your words. Jump into the conversation by posting some thoughts in the “comments” section.

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  • JeanneTakenaka says:

    Somehow, I missed this post on Friday. It’s always good to hear how someone came into doing what they enjoy doing. I have a question for you. If I want to get into some of the markets you’ve mentioned but I don’t have a journalism degree, or formal training in editing, is there a good place to start?

    • chipmacgregor says:

      Good question, Jeanne. Most people making a living at this don’t have a degree in journalism, in my experience. Instead, they’ve worked hard to learn the writing needed (maybe taking classes in marketing writing) and then networking to meet the folks who need to the work done. I can tell you that I simply went to companies with newsletters and journals (this was in the dark days before the internet) and offered them a free edit. If they thought I did a good job, they could pay me, or hire me for the next issue. They got something out of it for free, and that led to all sorts of work for me.

  • Interesting – I was just writing about this myself. Building a writing career IS creating a business on the foundation of your words. You have to have a plan and that plan has to have a budget. Define your direction and your success!

  • For many years, I owned a writing business through which I provided commercial writing to individuals and businesses. I wrote annual reports, fundraising letters, and copy for corporations, non-profits, and a state bank. Another major source of revenue was resume-writing. I wrote resumes for two large staffing companies and for individual clients. Now I have the luxury of writing fiction full-time. I still do some business writing, but I don’t need to earn a living from it. I would echo Chip’s advice to check out the many writing opportunities all around you. You can provide an important service that many people need.

    • chipmacgregor says:

      Thanks, MaryAnn. Those who have an ability to use their words for material gain need to be encouraged that there are opportunities out there. Seems like we’ve heard the bad news for a long time – but there really are chances to build a business selling words. Appreciate your story.

  • Shaun Ryan says:

    There are no doubt people who can’t make a living on Stephen King’s sales, and others who could sell five-thousand copies a year and be comfortable. Got to define living is all. I just took a 27% pay cut, left a place that was OK–when it wasn’t frozen solid–to take a job in a place that puts me back in the country at a milder latitude, with room to roam and some peace of mind. Woods and water. Coyotes singing. Lots of stars. Ancient oaks.

    Easy trade.

    I’d walk away from this job to write full time for 2k a month, in the blink of an eye. My wife will earn her degree in another couple of years and that will take some pressure off me. But that aside, to do what I love, to move people and get them thinking about the things that matter to me, make them laugh and cry and forget about the “real world” for a while, that’s priceless, that’s the definition of fulfillment.

    I could grow more vegetables to boost the budget. I could get some chickens. I could drive around and pick junk, scrap steel, do odd jobs–I’m pretty handy–when I’m not writing or doing the associated work.

    It’s a matter of passion, and no vacation cruise or trip to the lake, fancy cars or McMansion will ever come close to the same kind of meaning.

    A living is what you make to pay the bills, not what makes you.

    • chipmacgregor says:

      I think the world is made up of two types of people, Shaun… Some folks can go to the cubicle (or the car, or the desk, or the field) and work all day, put in their hours, then, when they get off at 5, life starts. THAT’S when they really get to do what they love.

      To the other sort of person, work and life are all wound up together. Most artists are this way — they can’t imagine enjoying a job that’s completely separate from their life calling.

      The world has both kinds, of course. But I’d say most of us who are writers tend toward that latter group… We have a calling, a message we need to share, and we won’t feel fulfilled until we get to experience it. As Karl Wallenda said, “To be on the wire is life. The rest is waiting.”

    • Shaun Ryan says:

      I’ve come late to my calling, but have also come to understand that you can’t live for some future. Wasted a lot of time doing that, and it’s a shame, because that’s how I’ve come to measure wealth as I’ve gathered years and the bits of wisdom that come with them; time you call your own. I recently had a friend compliment the way I “put my life’s events into amazing words”. I told him, “Well, it’s just words. But every moment is an event, and that’s where the amazing comes in”.

      I guess this is a roundabout way of saying I sort of fall between those two types, or am in transition from the first to the second. Or maybe I only told myself I was marking time until I could do what I really wanted to. Because there have always been those sublime moments that made think, wow, that’s what it’s all about, even when some guy was cussing me and casting aspersions on my lineage in the Hunt’s Point Market.

    • Jen Greyson | Author says:

      Amen! It’s taken me a long time to figure it out too. I always knew I was called to be a writer, but only in the last few weeks have I finally figured out the “How” part.

      And…that’s translated into the $$ part that Chip talked about. I’m in the transitional phase too–and it’s incredibly scary—but I have clients (I’m a professional ghost) and a plan, and a goal.

      No more working on someone else’s dream and living for a future “I”ll do it when….”

      Best of luck to us both Shaun

    • Shaun Ryan says:

      The plan and the goal, the discipline and the passion, I believe those take much of the luck out of the equation.

      Guess I have to, they’re all I’ve got.

  • Ron Estrada says:

    I found I could make a very good part time income with my corporate website and newsletter writing. The unexpected benefit was 25k subscribers to that newsletter. Add that to the 10k readers that subscribe to the local women’s magazine that I have a regular column in, and I actually have a following. My goal is to get the novels going at a regular rate and lead into an early retirement. I’m not sure I had the stomach to try full time writing while the kids were young and the mortgage fresh. But I’d love to give it a try now!

    • chipmacgregor says:

      That’s a great story, Ron. Thanks for telling us how you’re moving toward your dream of being a full time novelist.

  • cynthiahickey says:

    I’m happy to say, I am now a full-time writer having made this year what I had set as my first year goal. I’m a hybrid author, writing traditional and indie. It’s a great time to be a writer. Thank you to my agent, Chip, for the encouragement!

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