Chip MacGregor

November 29, 2013

What's your best advice for making a living at writing?


Over the past few weeks we’ve been talking about “making a living at writing.” In addition to the advice I’ve doled out, I’ve heard from several people with wisdom to add to the discussion, and I have a few other tips to share, so I thought for the Thanksgiving weekend, we could share the best advice we all have for those looking to make a living at writing. Some of my thoughts:

Keep your mornings protected for writing. Move the other work to the afternoon, but write every morning.

Group similar activities. If you do all your phone calls back to back, you’ll get through them faster. Ditto emails, snail mail, project planning, looking over proposals, etc.

Organize your day first thing every morning. If you have a plan, you’re much more apt to stay focused. Having a “to do” list helps most writers immensely.

Take a day off one each week. Getting away from writing one day each week allows you to recharge your batteries and get your mind refreshed. Hey – even God rested.

Kill the muse. That is, forget the concept that you have to be in a certain mood to write, or find exactly the right space to create words. Just sit and write. I’ve long appreciated Ernest Hemingway’s writing idea that you end each day in the middle of a sentence. That way, when you sit down the next morning, you don’t have to figure where you are, or get yourself into a certain moody, or work up to it. All you have to do is to finish the incomplete sentence you’d left yourself, and you’re off and writing.

See the value of shitty first drafts. Too many writers tie themselves in knots because they think they need to make their manuscript perfect. But for most novelists, what they really need is to get a first draft done. Then they can go back and fix it. (Because it’s always easier to FIX something than to CREATE something.) So think “progress,” not “perfection.” See the value of creating a shitty first draft. (And my thanks to Anne Lamott for first offering this bit of wisdom in her wonderful book Bird by Bird.) 

—If you’re running a writing and editing business, learn to farm out certain tasks. Let’s face it: if somebody else can do something 80% as well as you, then you need to consider farming it out to them in order to allow you to grow your business.

Protect your hands. One of the biggest mistakes I made as a young writer was using a cramped keyboard, then not taking adequate breaks or stretching my hands. Now I have a lot of hand problems. There’s a ton of research on things you can do to protect one of a writer’s most valuable assets – ergonomic keyboards, stretching exercises, the proper chair, being careful to not over-tax your fingers, etc.

So… what wisdom to you have to share? As you move toward making more of your living at writing, what is the best advice you can give to other writers?

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  • Rene` Diane Aube says:

    Putting this into action this week! Thanks for the hands-on tools to be better focused. 🙂

  • Peter DeHaan says:

    This is a great list. To expand on the idea of organization, I like to end my day organizing my desk and prioritizing my work for the next morning. This allows me to be productive right away when I begin work in the morning.

  • Carey Green says:

    These are all great… wonderful, practical tips we often don’t think about. I’ve found the morning writing tip to be one of the best for my productivity. Thanks for sharing this. I’m curious on the “kill the muse” point – which I agree with, BTW – what are some of the “mind hacks” or ways of thinking about it that have proven helpful to you when you simply have to “grunt out” the writing?

    • chipmacgregor says:

      Good question, Carey. Years ago I came up with a method that helps me get unstuck. I read out loud what I’ve read, then push away from the screen and start talking about the topic. I usually know what I want to say on the topic, but I’m just having a hard time focusing it. By talking out loud about it, I usually figure out what I really want to say, and suddenly I’m back into writing.

    • Carey Green says:

      That’s a great idea Chip… thanks! What about situations when you wake up “down” – just not there for what you need to do (write). How do you get yourself in the zone on days like that?

  • Jaime Wright says:

    I totally agree and clap my hands to “Kill the muse”! If I had the luxury to wait for my muse I’d get a book written every five years. Even learning to write in 15 min increments is important. Or writing in the car (as a passenger! 😉 ) on a work road trip. It’d be nice to wake up, head to the local coffee shop, and write to my heart’s content. Maybe that will happen in forty years when I’m retired and my kids are grown and have their own homes 😉

  • For those of us who have day jobs or kids, it is helpful to lose sleep. Wake up or stay up early. I know that doesn’t sound as romantic as writing all day, but I find I can concentrate better when the rest of the world is asleep. Now, if I could just find a stronger coffee…

    • chipmacgregor says:

      Amen. Thanks, Tina Ann. I fully agree with you — getting started early on your writing will force most of us to get it done.

  • JanalynVoigt says:

    Thank you. I’ve always found ridiculous that a capricious entity could dictate whether I write or not. I’m not sure why so many writers embrace the concept of a writing muse. There’s no substitute for applying the seat of the pants to the seat of the chair.

    Thinking of everything I do as a writer in terms of ROI has helped me gain a more professional attitude. That doesn’t mean I don’t do things with no tangible or measurable return, but only within the greater context of my need to survive and thrive.

    • chipmacgregor says:

      Appreciate that, Janalyn. I like your idea of evaluating activities in terms of their return on investment… A good thought.

  • Hi Chip!

    How about making sure you are following the right social sites of the people you would like to work with? For example, if I wanted to eventually write for someone like The New Yorker, I would make sure I was connected with them through sites like their Facebook page and Twitter as well as following any key players within their organization. I would reach out and intelligently comment on the key issues they discuss. I would familiarize myself with what they stood for and what they were looking for in contributing articles. I would do my research well before I queried them so I would increase my chances of them being interested in taking a chance on me as a writer. This would apply to any company you would want to go after as a future potential client.

    I can’t wait to read the words of wisdom from other, more seasoned writers.

    Nice post!

    Take care,

    Donna L Martin

    • chipmacgregor says:

      Thanks, Donna. This is why I’m constantly at the door of People Magazine, whenever they’re putting their list together for “The Sexiest Men in America.” I figure if I hang around enough…

    • Ahahaha…I’m sure you would get a lot of votes, Chip! ;~)

  • Lois says:

    Throughout my career I’ve been a night writer. Until the wee hours. And I know a few others of my ilk. No distractions, reality fades to the glowing rectangle. Were I to attempt morning mss, I’d have to turn to the zombie genre.

    • chipmacgregor says:

      That’s interesting, Lois. I’ve represented other authors who take this approach, but I find them to be very much in the minority — most people are simply too pooped at night to do any quality writing. Still, if that works best for you, it’s good that you’ve discovered it. Appreciate you coming on and making a comment.

  • EmberCollins says:


    • chipmacgregor says:

      Ha! Yes, Ember. Listen in on what others (say… stately-looking British publishers) are doing!

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