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.
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.
You can make a living writing.
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.
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:
- Becoming a full-time writer won't happen quickly (and if it does, you're lucky).
- 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.
- 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.
Most things work if you do them.
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.
Your job is to show up, do the work, and become a reliable source.
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.
Writing is not a short-term career.
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.
Don't put all your creative eggs in one basket. Invest your creative energy in multiple projects.
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.
Now is the best time to be a writer.
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.
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:
- The Breakthrough That Took Bestselling Author Jeff Goins From Amateur to Pro
- How I Became a Full-time Writer
- How to Make a Living as a Writer
- I quit my job, wrote 4 books, and started making 6 figures — all without a plan
- How to get 10,000 Fans, Publish a Book, and Make $100,000 in 18 Months
- How to Write a Book
Where are you at on your writing journey? What is the next step you need to take? Share in the comments.