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How can one "treat writing as a job" even though it doesn't pay?
I hear this advice a lot: "Treat your writing as a job." But it seems to me that this is easier said/done when it is actually paying off and, thus, one is encouraged to do it. But what if one is being discouraged by painful (even bewildering) rejections? How then does one 'treat it as a job' when it isn't even paying in any sense?
Stephen King, in a live interview, was asked "What advice do you have for people that want to write?"
His answer (I am repeating from memory) was: "They should write. But I have to tell you, most of the people that say they want to write for a living, do not really want that. They want to HAVE WRITTEN, they want to have a best selling novel that is always generating income, they want to come on talk shows like this, they want some fame."
He has elsewhere talked about his own path, many years of writing stories without selling any, or making a few hundred dollars on them and that's it. But the bottom line is, he loves to write, and writes on his current story every day of the week, regardless of holidays or weekends or whatever.
Now you could say that is approaching writing "like a job"; because like a job you have to put in the hours every day, and like a job there will be some stuff you dislike but have to do, or that you struggle with. There may be disappointments, you submit a year's worth of work and it gets rejected everywhere, without any explanation. (just "Not right for us at this time.")
But that is the only relationship it really has to a job.
I agree with King, if you don't love to write, for the sake of writing, then you will probably not become a professional author. There really is an ART to writing, and like all art it takes some natural talent, and for most people that aren't like musical prodigies, natural talent must be turned into professional talent by many years of practice and discovery and often explicit training in the form of tutorials, books or classes.
Do not treat writing like a job.
Treat it like a hobby you love doing, and do not HAVE to be paid to justify doing it, but like any hobby you want to become better at it, and you HOPE one day you will be good enough to turn pro, and lots of people will be happy to pay for your work.
You should devote some regular hours to this hobby, but if the only reason you write is for the money, and you believe that if you never get paid then all of your writing was a tragic waste of time, then you should quit now. You almost certainly do not have the interest and drive in crafting stories to become good enough to sell them.
But if you DO love writing stories, and enjoy pushing your imagination and coming up with new stuff, then you aren't wasting your time. People can enjoy painting without any intention to sell. My nephew plays pool every Saturday, he's really good; he's run two tables in a row. He doesn't intend to go pro, he's got a job he likes, a wife and four kids, and pool is just fun with friends. A friend of mine plays the piano a few times a week, learning songs and practicing songs, but she doesn't plan to become a song writer, or a professional pianist, she just likes to play.
Are people wasting their time and money pursuing their hobbies? Is it a waste of time and money to be entertained, by TV or going to a play or by, say, reading fiction?
I would find that a disconcerting attitude for an author, to believe that reading something just for entertainment is a total waste of time and money. It's like they think of their potential audience as suckers.
If you want to be a writer, start writing. Write for the fun of it. Study technique and crafting, see how the pros deal with issues, so you can have more fun by writing better. Dream of going pro, but if that's the only reason you write, find another hobby, like investing, or playing poker, or gambling on sports, where your chances of success are (seriously) far better.
To me, treat it like a job means two things, principally:
First, set a regular work schedule and/or production target. Write from 9am to noon, or from 8pm to 11. Or else set yourself a word count target for the day. 1000 words, 1200 words, 2000 words: what ever is a reasonable goal for a work day.
Do this and you will inevitably get more done. A professional working writer does not hang around waiting for the muse. The professional working writer makes the muse get her butt out of bed and go to work every morning. Writing is a craft and, like any craft, it improves with practice. And, like any craft, it can be performed on demand. And, if you are serious about it, you will have to perform on demand regularly or you will never get anything done.
Second, write for an audience. Work produces stuff of value to other people. Hobbies produce stuff of value only to yourself. This does not mean that you have to slavishly write for the lowest common denominator of the market. Not every chef has to works for McDonalds.
But, to continue the analogy, when I make a meal for my wife, I put a lot of time and effort into making something good. When I cook for myself, I generally heat soup. You will do better work when you are working to create something for someone else to enjoy.
If you treat writing like a job, you will do more work, and it will be better work. And if you produce more work and better work, you might even end up making money from it. And if not, unpaid work is still work, as long as you are keeping a schedule, hitting a target, and working to create value for someone other than yourself.
Some people are volunteers, and they never get paid (except with a verbal or written thank you).
Some people get paid as soon as they do something (e.g. a waiter paid almost entirely in tips).
Some people get paid at the end of the day.
Some people get paid at the end of the week.
Some people get paid at the end of the month.
You are working a job where you'll get paid next year, or maybe the one after, or maybe not at all.
It's not the length of time, it's the uncertainty of "maybe not at all" that makes your situation so much different from the others.
The advice to "treat it like a job" means that you have to ignore that "maybe". As long as you're thinking that you might not get paid, you might be wasting your time, etc. you are going to find yourself not working as diligently as you should, working shorter hours, being careless, and even giving up too soon.
If you don't have the mindset that you are working at a permanent job, and that you are a responsible and hardworking employee, you simply won't be productive and what you do produce won't be as good as it could be.
If it helps, think of yourself as working at a volunteer job. You will work hard, be productive, care enough to do it right, and enjoy yourself in the meantime.
Do not come to any art for the profit. When the profit fails to come, you'll be discouraged. Do it for the love of it first then other things, money too shall follow.
Ernest Hemingway advised: "Work every day no matter what has happened the day or night before, get up and bite the nail".
That's the spirit of the advice.
Speculative Work and Self Employment
You are in effect working for yourself, without pay or profit in the short term, in hopes of selling your product for pay [and ideally profit] in the future. As such it can be strongly advised to consider your ventures in the same line as you would any other small business.
Focus on your product, what you are selling, and who you are selling it to. Review your processes to develop your product, and carefully consider what your product actually is long term, and who your customers are. But be wary of how you draw boundaries here.
Consider the fact that in the long term your best product might not really be your writing, and your customers may not really be your readers. You yourself might be your best product, and your real customers may be those in the publishing industry.
Refocusing towards marketing yourself, and improving your personal marketability, may be highly important goals over the long term. As would continued expanded networking to help better establish connections that may lead you to more potential customers.
Setting your goals, milestones, and deadlines accordingly, and carefully considering problems that may be limiting your 'sales' will go a very long way toward eventually reaching sustainable sales.
With all that said...
Two of the biggest hurdles to get over when doing Spec work is to be able to stay focused and build strong progress towards goals, and at the same time being able to establish accurate and sensible goals.
Keep asking yourself "What can I do to add value", and "How can I best achieve value".
- Is your writing polished and presentable?
- What style of writing do you 'click with', and is your current writing method producing results?
- What are the flaws and issues holding you back?
If you are hitting roadblocks in sales, then it may be time to step back and look at what the problem actually is.
- Are you marketing effectively?
- Is your product sensible and polished?
- Are you selling the right thing to the right customer?
Many of these questions aren't ones that are easily answered by yourself in isolation. Having feedback from others who can offer fair and honest views will help cut through doubt and confusion. But be wary of who you're getting feedback from... Writing feedback is honestly one of the hardest things to do due to how subjective everything is, and being at risk of getting false data back from friends or family trying to be 'too supportive'.
Always keep in mind that there is far more to being a profitable artist than just the art itself.
[Some of the most profitable artists got to where they are not because they produced great art, but because they were damned good at selling the art they did produce...]
A "Job" is something where you work diligently to be paid a guaranteed sum of money at the end of the day / week/ month. Since you are getting paid, therefore you will give your best effort and dedication to do a decent 'Job' of it.
In the same way, people say treat writing as a "Job" to bring in the necessary discipline and dedication to churn out good works. Writing is not as easy as it seems and it requires a good amount of dedication and discipline to sit and type out a story everyday. It may seem easy, but it's not. You may have a great imagination to come up with brilliant plot ideas. But unless you have the discipline to sit down, type out those plots to make meaningful stories, things won't work.
So when people say treat writing like a 'job', I guess they mean treat it with the seriousness it deserves. Of course, don't expect money to come gushing in at first. But keep at it and you will certainly become good at your field. Money, Awards and plaudits will follow.
As a writer with a day job (programmer) I wondered why was I so much more successful as a programmer than a writer? Here are some of the answers I discerned:
- I go to work every day as a programmer, whether I feel like it or not.
- I don't get emotionally tied up in people's responses to my programming work.
- I'm process-focused, not goal-focused, in my day job.
- If I encounter obstacles in my day job, I work through them until I reach eventual success.
- I don't expect special treatment, lucky breaks, or magical interventions in my day job. I go through all the standard processes and meet all the best practices as anyone else. I believe my outcomes will be based on my effort, not my talent.
- It doesn't bother me if a work project takes a very long time to complete, or if I don't see immediate progress. I just keep moving forward, in the belief that the project will eventually come to fruition (and if it doesn't, I just chalk it up to learning).
- I'm part of a larger team as a programmer, that can give me valuable and immediate feedback, or that I can learn from.
The more I emulate these aspects of my day job in my writing, the better --in my own estimation --I become as a writer. Clearly, I can't do everything the same --I can't afford to spend 40 hours a week writing, for example --but I can adapt it to what is achievable. In other words, I make sure I write every single day, even if it's only 15 minutes (whether I feel like it or not).
"Treat writing as a job" - doesn't mean you have to get paid for it.
It means you have to do it like you would do any job:
- Every day, rain or shine
- Good mood or grumpy
- Whether you want to (today) or not (today)
To be an author, you have to write.
If you want to be an author, then writing is your job - whether you are paid for it or not.
As a publisher, I can tell you a short story.
One day I was contacted by someone who already published different books and was interviewed multiple times, as we can see in his personal writer website. All of this seemed definitively interesting to me. I digged deeper to have an idea of his style and so on. What I found is that in interviews he is constantly saying that he is lazy and has difficulties to write regularly.
In addition, in one of his stories, he make something especially dirty and ugly happenning, that is not fitting at all in my audience.
If he was constantly writing and behaving like a professional when he has to show off as a writer, I would have probably offered a contract to him. But since I saw all of that... I dropped.
I would also add that if you aren't profesionnal from the start, if you are a success one day, you might regret what you did or say earlier. Better to think your career long-term.
So now you saw from the point of view of the writers and from a publishing house. I hope that will help !