Attitude Basics Money & Rights

Everything about Writing for a Living

Alex J Coyne
Written by Alex J Coyne

I earn a full-time living as a writer, journalist, translator, and language practitioner. It’s where a lot of authors hope to end up, and it might even seem like the perfect job. And you know what? Sometimes that’s exactly what it feels like. But it also wasn’t – and isn’t – an easy career choice. Here’s what you need to know when it comes to writing for a living.

It’s a Bad Sudden Leap

Don’t just decide, “I’m going to write!” and quit your job the same day. Writing full-time is a terrible leap to make in a hurry. First, you’ll need to know the state of your current finances at the time you want to start. Can your emergency savings account keep you alive this month if half of your stories are moved to next month for publication – and payment? If the answer is no, you’ve got to wait. Take your time to build contacts in the publishing business and excellent writing clips.

Discipline, Discipline, Discipline

Write and pitch daily. If you don’t, you’re setting yourself back.  If it’s easier, choose certain days of the week for writing and other days of the week for pitching. Writing itself takes discipline: You’ll have to write on days where you don’t feel like it, on days where everything feels like it’s going awry, on days you have other things to do and on days you are sick as a dog and have a pressing deadline. Can you deal with that? Okay, good. Let’s move on.

People’s Perception

People have different perceptions of career writers. Some of them sting, others can just irritate a little. The three most common questions are (1) Who do you write for? (2) What do you write? and the scathing (3) What’s do you really do for a living?  People will assume they can bother you at any time of the day or night because you “don’t really look busy” or “are at home anyway”. Set boundaries early: Switch your phone off, lock your doors, twirl clockwise in the moonlight and do what you need to do.

Private and Business

Ever received an eviction notice because someone didn’t like something you wrote? I have. Separate your personal life and your business at all times. Have separate social media and e-mail accounts for both, never give out personal information like your address, and if you don’t like uncomfortable questions, stop telling everyone at the checkout line you’re really a writer.

Words Are Your Living

Simply, you make a living from words. Why settle for terrible rates? It’s easy for writers to get trapped in a dead-end writing gig that pays $5 for 1, 000 words – and it’s hard to get out once you’re in. How do you avoid it? Don’t jump into these jobs in the first place. Never be that desperate, and even when you are, never seem that desperate.

Keeping the Rhythm Going

Always have a story on the way to be paid, a story on the way to be published, a story waiting to be edited, a story on the way to be written and a story on the way to be re-sold. That’s the rhythm. Keep it constant and make it your mantra. Eventually, more stories are added to the “to be paid” queue, and it means you get to buy real food this weak instead of spaghetti from a can. The better the rhythm, the better you’ll do.

Turning Rejection Into Pay

Rejection hurts, right? It shouldn’t. Rejection is an opportunity. It means the story can be sold to another market – either as-is or with some careful editing. Every well-written piece of writing has a place for it to settle: You just have to find that place, and sometimes polish it a little. Rejection also gives you the chance to get to know your editors and say, “Well, what about this instead?” Realize that soon, and rejection bounces right off.


Your budget will be based around publication and payment dates from now on. When does that get published, when on earth does that pay? Keep track of your publication schedule at all times. When it comes to the actual budget, know which bills need to be paid and when – and learn to make provision for these things way, way ahead of time.

Branching Out

It’s extremely rare for a career writer, me included, to be “just” a writer. In addition to writing, I’ve also transcribed, translated, proofread and edited. Work on your strengths and branch out into what you happen to be good at.

Other Fiction Opportunities

There are other opportunities in fiction that are often forgotten by writers. Consider short stories, novels, calls for submissions to anthologies and writing contests, usually launched by writing websites and publishing houses, that can be a useful and unexpected form of income when it comes in. Take advantage of these when you can.

Taxes and Other Things

Hire a good bookkeeper. Yes, that’s a must. Since you’re working for yourself, you will need to pay taxes as a freelancer, and the responsibility to do this falls on you instead of your employer. If you don’t want to get in trouble years down the line, make sure you have a good bookkeeper to take care of your taxes when it’s time to do so. You’re more than a writer, you’re a business owner now.

A Writer’s Will

Writing for a living means you’ve got to think about your last will and testament, too. All wills need what’s called an executor: Someone who takes care of the administration after you’re gone. But writers need what’s called a “literary executor” too. They take care of things like rights, royalties and unpublished work in the event of your death. Make sure you appoint someone you trust.


Savings are your savior. During quiet months and emergencies – from a geyser that falls out of the roof to a child that falls out of a tree – you’ll need your savings to fall back on. Put a little bit away every time you get paid. Even if it’s as little as 5% in the beginning, you’ll find it makes a difference when you need it.

Getting Loans and Credit

Always tread carefully when dealing with loans. Applying for a loan works a little differently as a freelancer – and you might find that the process to get a loan approved is ten times as hard. Here, your bookkeeper comes in handy and should be able to provide you with proof of income documentation stating the average of how much you make in lieu of a traditional week-to-week or month-to-month payslip from a single employer.

Health Insurance

Do you have health insurance? If not, you should strongly consider it. It’s an investment in your health and your writing. Getting the most basic form of health insurance can be the difference between life and death if an emergency strikes and you are, for some reason, out of action for a certain period of time. Yes, it happens, and it’s one of those things you just can’t foresee – so prepare instead.

Your Web Presence

Your official website is your official web presence, so make sure that it represents you well, professionally and accurately. Showcase writing clips, work for sale, more about the author and a contact page at the very least. Any other bells and whistles you add on-to that is up to you. Remember that your web presence also extends to social media and forums you are active on, and each need to represent you professionally as an author.

Your Liquidity Ratio

Your liquidity ratio, in simple terms, is the amount of months your combined assets will cover your outgoing cashflow. It’s important to know this, especially if you work for yourself, just in case you hit what’s generally called a serious emergency and you need to get back on your feet. It’s not fun, but sometimes life throws you a curveball. You can calculate your liquidity ratio with the following formula:

LIQUIDITY RATIO = Your combined assets (in cash value) divided by your liabilities.

Are you considering making the switch to writing for a living?

About the author

Alex J Coyne

Alex J Coyne

Alex J Coyne is an author, freelance journalist and language practitioner. He has written for international publications and blogs, been featured on radio and appeared in NB Publishers’ Skrik op die Lyf, an Afrikaans horror collection. Visit his website and get in touch at

Leave a Comment