Chip MacGregor

July 6, 2016

Ask the Agent: What else does a writer need to make a living?


We’ve been talking about “making a living at writing,” and I had several people ask what essential tools are needed if someone is going to do more than just type up a manuscript at home. A fair question…

I suggest there are nine essential things every writer needs:

A time to write. That is, a set time when you’re going to sit down and write every day. When I decided I was going to make my living at writing, I had a regular job, so I got up early and sat down at my computer every day from 6 to 8 in the morning. I’m not a morning person at all, so this was a sacrifice… but I had three small children, and it was the only time when I thought I could get uninterrupted writing time.

A place to write. You may need peace and quiet, or you may do best with the buzz of a lot of people around. You may like music playing, or you may insist on silence. Some writers use a spare room in their house, others want to take in the atmosphere at Starbucks. But whatever the exterior trappings, most writers do best if they have one place and one time, when they KNOW they are going to write.

A project to write. When you sit down to write, you’re not journaling or searching for your muse — you’re working on a project. It might be a blog post, or an article for a website, or the next chapter in your book. But when you start, you know exactly what project you’re going to work on.

A writing goal. Many writers set a goal of creating 1000 words per day. Others set it much higher. When I was writing full time, I had a goal of a chapter per day. The trick is to set some sort of goal, so that you can gauge your success. Novelist P.G. Wodehouse set a goal of writing 1100 salable words per day — something he kept up for more than 60 years, and the reason he published 90 novels and hundreds of short stories.

A bank account. If you’re going to start looking at your writing as a business, you’ll have money coming in and going out, so you’ll need a way to track income and expenses. This will help at tax time, since none of the money you earn writing will have taxes withheld. Start the business account in your company name, even if it is something simple such as “Janet Smith Writing and Editing.” In time, you’ll find you want to tie a credit card (to track purchases) and a savings account (to retain a portion for quarterly taxes) to this account.

A website. If you’re going to get the word out on your writing business, you’re going to need to invest in a decent website — something that tells potential customers who you are, what you do, who you’ve worked with, and how to get in touch with you. You’re probably also going to want some other elements: business cards, a social media presence, etc. But you probably don’t need to spend a huge chunk of money on them any more. You can get it all relatively cheaply by doing a bit of looking online.

A filing system. Whatever system you use, you need to have a way to keep track of people, projects, and information without digging aimlessly through old emails or file folders. So learn to track your work and file it in some sort of system that makes sense to you. My grandfather used to say, “Some people have twenty years of experience; others have one year of experience twenty times.” The people who track their work are the ones who don’t have to keep re-inventing things.

A network. With time, you’ll want to know other writers, connect with editors, meet with publishers, bounce ideas off of others in the industry. So go to conferences, make friends, and get to know other people who are doing this. Much of your work will come from your growing network.

And, course, an up-to-date computer and software. I hate talking about this, since I’m not a tech guy, and used my first Macbook for six years before I decided to replace it. But if you’re going to work in the world of publishing, you’re going to have to know and use Microsoft Word, and you’re going to have to own a relatively recent version of it. Sure, you can create documents in other programs, but eventually you’re going to have to use Word to work effectively with everybody else. So, yes, Bill Gates owns your soul.

I suppose there are other things you could put on this list (an understanding partner, good internet access, a decent coffee maker), but these are things I’ve found essential to making a living with words. Would love to have you leave a comment with what other tools are essential. What would you say are the essential things you need to get your writing career going? 

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  • Claire ! says:

    I like the ‘therapist’ idea. Writing full time has been a tempting idea, yet I don’t want to kill my passion for writing by treating it like a job. Though … that being said, I’d rather be writing …

  • Lauren Stinton says:

    Good stuff. Thanks for putting things in bite-sized pieces!

  • I like the idea of setting a “salable words” goal. Brainstorm writing, or writing off the cuff, is rarely salable. 1000 of those words means you still have to rework that. But setting the goal by salable words–going through to find better expressions, better verbs, imagery, tension, etc–will end up making the second (and third…) edits easier because then you’re looking for grammar and punctuation issues. The “hard work” was done and is connected with your daily goal. A bit like putting milk in a bucket vs taking that milk and turning it into butter. Initial writing is the milk, churning makes the salable butter. From experience I can say that waiting for “another edit” before ratcheting-up the writing to include salable work takes more time than doing that kind of edit initially, or as step two for daily writing. Alternately, you can write brainstorm-work daily, and then churn-up yesterday’s brainstorm work when you can look at it with fresh eyes. But the salable would be the second set. Thanks for the great advice.

    • chipmacgregor says:

      I read an interview with the fabulous British novelist PG Wodehouse one time, and he said that when he was 21 years old, he set a goal of writing 1100 salable words each day. Some days he was done by 1 in the afternoon, and he’d go golf. Other days he was done at 1 the next morning. But he stuck with that goal for more than 50 years — which is why he authored more than 90 novels, hundreds of short stories, and countless articles, Darlene.

  • Jackie Layton says:

    Thanks for the great advice. Last night I went to bed wondering what it’d take to ditch my day job and try writing full time. My practical side was saying no way, but you’ve given me some ideas on how to start working toward this goal. Until the time is right, I’ll continue to write and tackle one of your points at a time. Thanks again!

    • chipmacgregor says:

      Glad you found it helpful, Jackie. By all means look at the next post on the blog.

  • Edwina Cowgill says:

    Excellent suggestions! I schedule my writing time on my calendar so it’s right in front of me and I don’t get distracted. To supplement my income, I’m doing proofreading and editing, as well as accepting writing assignments through an online agency. (I “retired” and am taking early SS payments, which right now is my main income.)

  • April says:

    I’ve heard that writers should get Web sites with their name. Mine, however, appears to be a common one. The dot com is taken (and has been for years, without the chance to swoop in and pick it up for myself). When I used to have the dot net, visitors would often get confused. Googling my name brings up a variety of people. New friends have trouble finding me on Facebook because there are so many people with my name.

    What do I do? Right now I have a short phrase as my URL, but is that a bad idea? Please don’t judge the site, which seriously needs a revamp as it looks and sounds like a teenager is using it (ugh) and I haven’t touched it in a year, but it’s, based off the quote that goes “Oh, the lovely fickleness of an April day!”

    I’m about to get back on the horse and take my writing seriously, so I want to get these other things you mentioned in this post in place, including the Web site.

    • chipmacgregor says:

      There’s no one right answer, April, but some authors will include the word “writer” or “author” in the name, or they’ll focus on their book’s title, or, as you suggest, they’ll use a theme or quote tied to their work. Those are all valid alternatives, in my view.

  • JeanneTakenaka says:

    Your nine essentials make a lot of sense. And I’ll chime in on the coffee too. A must have in my book.

    I’m still unagented and unpublished. When is the right time to begin thinking about investing in a website?

    • chipmacgregor says:

      Different answers for different authors, Jeanne. For some, it’s “when you have a story or message to get out.” For others, “when you are ready to start building a readership.” For still others, “when you are speaking and communicating with enough people that you need a vehicle for having contact with people.”

    • JeanneTakenaka says:

      Thanks, Chip. That helps!

  • Rajdeep Paulus says:

    Yes, Chip. I finally caved and downloaded MSWord onto my Mac. Now, I’m staring at the screen and mountain of editing options and asking, “Where have you been all my life!” Like my laptop bought a new dress and heels and we’re going dancing! 🙂 -raj

  • Jane Gaugler Daly says:

    As usual, good advice, Chip. I just talked to my CPA today about what I needed to start a writing ‘business’. He said some of the same things. I think you also have to ask yourself, “Am I ready to take my writing to the next level?”

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