Goins, Writer

On Writing, Ideas, and Making a Difference

Everything I’ve Learned from 6 Years of Writing for a Living

Occasionally at parties or coffee shops, someone will ask what I do, and I’ll tell them I’m a writer. Sometimes, they will offer a look of surprise and ask, somewhat stunned, “You can make a living doing that?” Indeed you can.

Everything I've Learned from 6 Years of Writing for a Living

My whole life I was told that being a writer (or an artist for that matter) was an unwise career choice. It was always the same advice: “You can’t make a living writing. You’ll starve.” It turns out, this isn’t really true.

Yes, it’s possible to support yourself by writing full-time. And you don’t have to be famous or lucky to do it. I’ve done it for the past six years and have coached thousands of others through the same process, seeing many of them succeed.

I also know hundreds of successful writers whose lives do not look like the typical “starving artist” you might expect of a full-time writer.

In this article, you’ll discover everything I’ve learned about what it takes to make a living writing. This is based on my own experience, but also on observations of what other successful writers are doing today.

As with most things, I can’t guarantee you 100% success, but rest assured these lessons work for most, including fiction writers, business writers, memoir writers, and more.

Yes, you can make a living writing.

Here’s how.

Warning: this is not for everyone

Making a living writing is possible. But in order to do this, we first have to dispel the most common myths about this profession:

  1. Becoming a full-time writer won’t happen quickly (and if it does, you’re lucky).
  2. Becoming a full-time writer won’t happen because you produce a one-hit wonder. These kinds of successes are impossible to orchestrate and in themselves rarely lead to long-term success.
  3. Becoming a full-time writer, for most, requires more than just writing.

Are you still with me?

This is not just rainbows and butterflies, but I promise you this works. I’ve seen it in my life and in the lives of others.

One more disclaimer: These are not steps; they are habits. For some, the process may take longer than for others, but as Derek Sivers says, “most things work if you do them.”

That’s my promise. Do the work, see the results.

If you want more details on this process, you can download my free book, The Writer’s Roadmap: 12 Steps to Making a Living Writing.

In this article, I will simply cover three habits that have helped me and three steps you can take to make these things stick.

Okay, let’s get started.

Habit #1: Produce a lot of content over a long period of time

When I started blogging, I heard a well-known speaker and blogger tell an audience that on Day 6 of his blog, he had over 6000 visitors.

“That’s when I knew it,” he said. “that’s when I knew that this was my calling.”

“Okay, great,” I thought. Unfortunately for me, on Day 6 of my blog, I did not have 6000 visitors. I had more like 2.5 readers (my mom, my wife, and our dog). So that was discouraging.

What was I to do… just quit?

I was so frustrated from trying to make it as a writer and quitting every time it got hard that I was determined to see it through this time. I wasn’t certain of success, but the biggest variable in the past seemed to be my commitment.

So I made a life-changing decision. I would write every day and publish it on my blog for two years straight. That was my promise to myself. Practice every day for two years before giving up.

And it worked.

After my first year of blogging, I had written over 400 articles (one each day for my blog and another 50-60 guest posts for other websites). For the first six months of doing this, my blog had only 70 readers. After a year, however, I had over 10,000.

Sometimes, growth isn’t a linear path. That’s why you have to create a lot of content, share it in a lot of places, and not worry too much about the metrics at the beginning.

Your job is to show up, do the work, and become a reliable source. Commit to being relentlessly helpful and people will notice… eventually. Create something small every day that you can share. First, people notice you. Then, they trust you. And ultimately, they buy from you.

That’s what illustrator and artist Lisa Congdon learned when she started sharing one piece of artwork every day on Flickr for a year. After doing this for four years as part of her daily practice, someone contacted her, asking if they could purchase a piece of her art. Today, she is a full-time artist.

That’s how it works. One day at a time, sometimes for years. It’s a grind, one small step after another. But then one day, for some reason, something amazing happens.

I don’t know why some writers succeed faster than others. I don’t know why it takes one person longer than another. All I know is if you do the work, you will see the results. But you have to do a lot of work. And it may take a lot of time. But patience and perseverance eventually pay off.

Action: Blogging is ideal for this first habit. If you don’t have a blog yet, you need one, if for no other reason than to archive all your best ideas. Publish something new on it at least once a week, and do one small thing every day to promote your writing. If you don’t have a blog and need help setting it up, follow my tutorial on how to launch a blog.

Habit #2: Build a body of work

Lysa TerKeurst was a struggling inspirational writer for decades. She had published over a dozen books but was never able to sell more than a few thousand copies per book. She believed her message was meant for millions, but just couldn’t break out of this pattern of publishing a book, selling a decent number of copies, then repeating the process all over again.

Eventually, she figured out how to write the kind of content that connected with her readers. First, though, she had to create a lot of content over a long period of time (see Habit #1). Lysa now sells hundreds of thousands of copies of her books, and has put multiple titles on the New York Times Best Sellers list (even landing on the #1 spot with her most recent book).

How did she do this? She focused on the long game instead of the short-term flash in the pan. Lysa isn’t just trying to create work that is merely newsworthy. She wants to create a body of work that keeps selling long after the launch of a single project.

This is an important part of being an author. Books have no urgency. They move slowly and have a long shelf life (or at least, they should). A book may come out and still be considered “new” a few years after publication. When we write, we ought to be thinking along these lines, aspiring to create perennial sellers that will endure for years, if not decades.

The other week, I was speaking at an event at a country club, and one of the waiters came up to me just before I started speaking and asked, “Are you Jeff Goins?” I said I was, and he replied, “I just read your book, The In-Between. It was in my college library and really helped me. Thanks!”

That made my day. Little did he know this was a book I had deliberated over and obsessed about. At the time, I thought it was my magnum opus, but was disappointed to see it not sell that well. In fact, to be honest, it’s my worst-selling book to date.

After that book was published, however, I wrote The Art of Work, which debuted on the USA Today, Publisher’s Weekly, and Washington Post bestsellers lists. Two years later, I still get royalty checks for that book every quarter.

I’m glad I published The In-Between. Without it, I don’t believe I ever would have written The Art of Work, which became a national bestseller. But if I’d hoped to make a living just off that one book, I’d still be struggling today. In a way, one book paid for the other to exist. And the less successful book, as the waiter’s story illustrates, is still selling and reaching readers.

Here’s my point: Writing is not a short-term career. When I quit my job in 2013, I had spent two years building a platform that didn’t require me to take a leap of faith. The goal was to never look back. Hopefully, I never will.

When you set out to do this work, understand it will take time. Your goal isn’t to produce a single masterpiece but to keep adding pieces to your portfolio. Each work adds to the greater whole. Your job is to keep going.

Action: If you haven’t written a book, I highly recommend it. It’s the hardest work you’ll ever do but also the most gratifying. It probably won’t make you a millionaire, but it’ll force you get clear on an idea that you have. That’s why I write books — to figure out what I think about something. If you need help, I have a very popular blog post on the subject: 10 Ridiculously Simply Tips for Writing a Book.

Habit #3: Create multiple income streams

What we’re talking about here is how to make a living writing. Not how to make a quick buck or even a million bucks. Instead, we’re talking about how to do this for the rest of your life. That’s my goal, and so far, so good.

A benefit of this approach to our work, treating it as a marathon instead of a sprint — is that it tends to produce a diverse portfolio with many different pieces of your work distributed out in the world. This can easily turn into multiple income streams, which is the most likely how you’re going to make a full-time living as a writer.

Certainly, there are exceptions to this rule: the Stephen Kings and J.K. Rowlings of the writing world. But these are the outliers whose success happened literally decades ago. Today, the world has changed. And those who are making a full-time living today off their writing are doing it through diverse incomes streams.

What do these writers do?

They make money off their books. They make money off their courses. They make money off their speaking gigs. They make money off their consulting. They make money coaching, editing, teaching, and so on. Just as a wise investor would not put her entire net worth into a single stock, you should be investing your creative energy into multiple projects that earn an income.

When you do this, you remove the financial strain on a single source (say, book writing, for example) and give yourself the freedom to occasionally fail at a project without having to go bankrupt.

For me, this means writing books, speaking, and teaching online courses. Those three income sources make up the majority how I make a living. Each year, the revenue from each source varies. One year, book royalties may be higher while speaking income is lower. As one decreases, another often increases. Sometimes, they all increase. But the point is that I am not putting all my eggs in one basket, ensuring I can live to fight another day.

The goal of multiple income streams is to reach a place of financial stability so you can focus more on creative projects and less on worrying about how you’re going to pay the bills. An ancillary benefit to this is that you may enjoy more than just writing, as I do. I could live off my book royalties but enjoy teaching courses like Tribe Writers and Intentional Blog.

At the same time, I’m glad I don’t have to travel every weekend to speak at another event just so my family can eat. I’ve created a portfolio that works well for our family, because I don’t try to make all my money from one activity. You can do the same, as long as you choose the streams that work for you, taking into consideration what you’re good at and what people need.

Action: Make a list of things people tell you you’re good at. If you don’t know, email five friends and ask them “what’s something that’s obvious to me but amazing to others?” For further help, check out my free eBook on how to make a living writing. In it, I’ll show you how to create your first product and start making money off your writing (and what needs to come before you can do that).

This really is possible

You can do this. You can make a living writing. I see it happen every year to “ordinary” people who are willing to do the work. It’s not easy, and it’s certainly not what everyone wants, but it’s possible.

Of course, you don’t have to do this. And if you choose not to, there’s no shame in that. God knows there are easier ways to make a living.

But if this is something you can’t not do, if a writer is something you must be, then I urge you to give it a go.

I can’t promise you an exact timeline, but I do know this from growing up in the farmlands of Illinois: if you plant enough seeds, something grows. If you sow, you will reap. If you do the work, you will see the results.

Good luck!

Check out my free eBook on the 12 steps to make a living writing and the free video series that goes with it. Click here to sign up (it doesn’t cost a thing).

Here are some additional resources on making a living writing:

Where are you at on your writing journey? What is the next step you need to take? Share in the comments.

About Jeff Goins

I write books and help writers get their work out into the world. I am the best-selling author of four books, including The Art of Work. Each week, I send out a newsletter with free tips on writing and creativity.

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  • Brandi

    I want to be a full time writer. I’ve always wanted to be a full time writer. When I was 6, I was introduced to the school librarian who introduced me to books. I found myself. I’ve had a love affair with words for as long as I can remember. But fear is choking with its death grip and while I wake to words dancing through my head, I struggle to being dreams to reality. Life happens. School. English major. Love. Marriage. Babes. It’s a glorious honest life that I’ve been richly blessed with and one that forced my own personal dreams to the back burner. Only recently have they started to slowly bubble to the surface and I fear, should I not act soon, they’ll overflow until they evaporate again. This time, I think I’ll implement a wooden spoon to slow the process and relish it a bit. Who knows: perhaps trying something might be the start of something – phenomenal. Thank you for inspiring us to simply start. Sometimes turning on the heat is the hardest part.

  • Thank you Jeff for sharing your process and for creating Tribe Writers. I call myself a writer because of your course.
    xo
    Pamela

  • Your whole body of work has meant an incredible deal to me over the years, Jeff. I’m now a full-time writer after eight years of investing in honing my craft and building multiple streams of income. I still have a long way to go, but what you’ve written here is true. Show up, do the work.

    This is the post I’ll point people to when they ask me how I got to where I am. There were no “steps,” no plan. Just hard work, tears, and a lot of prayers and support.

    Keep writing (seriously!),
    Sarah

    P.S. The In-Between is still one of the top books I recommend to people.

  • Hi Jeff,

    I love your advice.

    I have seen the same thing; if you create a high volume of quality content over the long haul, both through your blog and guest posts, you can make a living through writing. Definitely need to add MSI though to keep that cash flow coming in because relying on say, freelance writing income alone is tough. As a newbie, or even as a veteran. Because when shifts happen – and they do, over time – one income stream tends to dry up or at least, slow down, and you need other streams to keep the cash flowing in.

    I write through my blog but place guest posts on a high number of other blogs in my niche. Doing so has helped me appear to be all over the place, so I can become a familiar face to readers and customers and clients, but at the end of the day it is just me persistently writing, and shipping, so the content appears in a bunch of spots. All an illusion, being everywhere, because it is simply persistence at work and a devotion to your craft, over years.

    So many aspiring writers quit because they either believe it is not possible to be a pro, or they trust the advice of scared skeptics, or even worse, they trust their own limiting beliefs. Gotta face, feel and let go those BS, totally untrue ideas to persistently hone your writing skills so you can drink from the full time cup. But think years, not months. This takes time. As is evidenced by your 70 readers at first, then over time the increase.

    Thanks for the inspiration Jeff.

    Ryan

  • 2deuces

    Why blog?

    More writing leads to better writing.

    Regular writing leads to better writing.

    Becoming accountable for the quality of your work, through a blog, leads to faster improvements in writing.

    Good writing, regularly published, leads to a loyal and growing reader base.

    Having an audience, even a small one, leads to personal and possibly financial satisfaction.

    I drafted a longer version but here are my thoughts.

  • What Toe Knows

    Glad I found you. I think your wisdom will be helpful for my future blog and writing. Thanks!

  • Max

    I have a question for you. In this wonderful post you mention that
    you wrote something every day for your blog. But my blog/e-news readers
    would almost certainly quit the list if I sent emails to them that
    often. I have started posting regularly once a week–and lost a handful
    of readers doing just that, but I figure that’s a good winnowing to get
    to a more devoted base–and then sending stuff to guest blog venues as
    well. Any thoughts on this issue–once a day doesn’t feel like it would
    work for my list?

    • Agreed on this. I posted a ton on my blog at first and actually saw my numbers go *down* over time. It went from 2 or 3 people commenting or “liking” or following per blog post to no one acknowledging my articles at all, not even my FB friends.

      I say this not to be a downer but becuase I geniunely seek insight.

      My blog, “Focusing on Film,” usually provides commentary on news in the entertainment industry. If anyone wants to look to share their own insights, it’s here:

      https://tomholste.wordpress.com

      Incidentally, Jeff, thanks for posting a great article with a lot of good ideas!

  • Trish Greene Christoffersen

    I’m a writer/editor for an on-line retailer and in my spare time I’m writing my first novel. Writing is in my blood. I’ve been doing something with pen/pencil and paper since I could walk. Having been a very shy child, it was the perfect place to hide – I could create characters to live my life for me. Thanks for the free e-book Jeff. I’m sure I’ll find it very useful!

  • Kimberly Martin

    I’m honoured to have this information at my fingertips … Thank You So Much!!!

  • All My Tech Trick

    allmytechtrick.blogspot.com

  • henrywm

    I would like to make the move into writing. My previous career plan did not work out after school, but people encouraged me to write. I enjoy thinking about ideas and deep questions, and I enjoy sharing my thoughts on those ideas. I did write off and on but would quit from lack of inspiration, frustration, struggles with work, etc. Nonetheless, some of my happiest moments have been when I was writing, and even old ideas that I abandoned keep nagging me.

    Now I am working to get back into the discipline. For the past week I have written briefly each morning after eating breakfast and before work. That is usually the only time I have to write because I am working two jobs. Most of my content this week has been journal entries as I think through why I want to write, why I have struggled, etc. I have one entry on a different topic that can be adapted to my blog (hereiponder.wordpress.com).

    Any advice on making the transition is appreciated.

  • ATinchini

    Your posts are always illuminating, Jeff. And God knows I am doing the work.

    I am passionate about writing, I am taking your Intentional Blog course, carefully going through each Unit and Module and I am understanding and learning lots of things I did ignore in the past.

    I am studying to be a copywriter through other courses and planning on rebooting my blog, making it more intentional and copywriting-focused.

    I’m writing a 10-part series about the writing process of my upcoming novel, which I will be crafting during the National Novel Writing Month and still, I am putting together some content for Medium and publishing episodes of my Brazil memoir on my personal WordPress blog.

    I tell you, I am struggling to improve my writing each day, studying methods to create an email list just as you explained in the Intentional Blog webinar back in July. That is when I bought the course and it was the best move I could make this year.

    Thank you for always being the guide.

  • Colleen Golafshan

    Thanks, Jeff, for such a comprehensive long term view of where to aim with our writing.
    I just tried “Don’t hit publish” on my last blog post. The tips I received at the end are very timely as I prepare for my next blog post. 🙂

  • Jeff, it is just an awesome post for me. I write for my blog but not daily. I believe reading regularly is very helpful to write more stuff and this post will definitely help me for next level of content writing in my blog.

  • Steve Bennett

    Thanks Jeff. I really enjoyed this post. I want to be a full time writer someday. Reading this post gives me hope that I can achieve this as well.

  • shivani singh

    Its really good post, its really encouraging.

  • Ayodeji Abodunde

    Thanks for this! Really inspiring.

  • This was a very informative piece of content, full of great advice. I also like your writing stye.

    Thank you!