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September 20, 2016

Writer Goals: Quitting the “Evil” Day Job

Close-up on cash register with text: Should We Quit Our Day Job?

Several years ago, I shared advice for new writers about what they should focus on. One of my points was about the expectation of having a day job. Many new writers define “being a writer” as writing full-time, as though having day job equals an admission of failure or demonstrates a lack of professionalism.

However, most writers do have day jobs. And as my post back then pointed out, day jobs can help us as writers, so they’re not just time sucks.

I was reminded of that old post by a question making the rounds on Twitter a few weeks ago, when Marian Call asked people to share their first seven jobs, specifically the jobs they’d held as teens or young adults. The lists people shared reminded me of how we don’t have to be defined or limited by our non-career jobs.

Those “lowly” jobs didn’t stop Buzz Aldrin or Lin-Manuel Miranda from being successful. In fact, I’d bet that if we asked most people about their early jobs, they could point to at least one way those positions helped them later on.

Non-Career-Related Jobs Can Help Us Too

Maybe our non-career-related job helped us learn how to get along with others very different from ourselves. Maybe we learned something about our likes or dislikes. Or maybe we just had our eyes opened to the world.

For example, most of my early jobs are self-explanatory (from babysitting to restaurant hostess). Those taught me patience (with a side of biting my tongue), how to be detail-oriented, and how to compromise with coworkers.

But for a period of ten years after graduation, because I was moving so frequently, I worked for temporary agencies, mostly in office positions like receptionist, secretary, and data entry. That might seem like a long time to not have a career job (pre-Millennial time anyway), but I enjoyed the experience.

I got an inside look at tons of industries: major TV station, large-circulation magazine, automotive manufacturer, stock broker, etc. So I learned a little bit about a lot of companies and industries, from technologies to office politics, all of which is great experience for a writer.

Also, because temporary jobs pay according to the skills used, I learned to advocate for my worth, negotiating raises on a regular basis as my assignments changed. Being able to stand up for our worth in the face of confrontation is a skill more worthwhile than most things we could pick up from any job.

In other words, we might be able to turn almost any job into a learning experience that helps us as a writer—and throughout our life. Day jobs don’t have to be avoided.

Is Our Goal to Quit Our Day Job?

Unfortunately, even non-newbie writers fall into that “quit the day job” definition of success. I’ve seen too many writers quit their day job too early—when they don’t yet have a solid plan to stay ahead of bills—because they assume that’s the next logical step in their career.

That old post of mine also came to mind when an article on Marie Claire made the rounds on social media. The author of the article bemoaned not being financially secure after writing one acclaimed literary novel. *sigh*

No author will be financially secure after a single book. It takes time and additional releases to build up to success.

If an author is in a position where they can quit their day job and write full-time, great. But unless we’re downright wealthy, that means taking on a lot of pressure to produce words that add up to a product that readers want to buy. Many authors find that pressure makes it harder to write than when they had the time-suck day job.

As the author in question, Merritt Tierce, said (parentheses are my summary):

“I haven’t been able to write since the moment I started thinking I could or should be making money as a writer. I haven’t produced a Second Book. …

I could (lists several jobs that would bring in enough money to erase her worry…) but I don’t … Because I don’t want to write on the side, on sabbatical, in my spare time, for one month each summer, or never.”

In other words, she quit her job before her debut was published and then she didn’t write during her time off while living on her advance because of the pressure to produce. She doesn’t write now because she’s so stressed about money. And she doesn’t want to take a job and reduce her stress because she’s told herself that part-time writing doesn’t count. *double sigh*

Don’t Let the “Quit the Day Job” Goal Hold Us Back

I hope we can all see the false belief she’s telling herself here: I must write full-time to be a real writer. Yes, that’s just like the false beliefs that our characters are guilty of. *smile*

And just as our characters’ false beliefs lead them to self-sabotaging behaviors and hold them back from what they really want, the same holds true in our life as well. In this case, it’s better to write part-time than not at all.

Kameron Hurley wrote a great post in response to this author’s disappointment:

“I have seen this sudden, shocking realization – that writing is a job, a hustle – destroy a lot of debut writers. … If you are looking for your self-esteem in your sales numbers or the size of your royalty checks (if you get them) you are on a fast road to disappointment. … Writing is not a get-rich quick scheme. Fans, media, and aspiring writers need to stop positioning it as one.”

Bob Mayer added his insights as well:

“Every author I’ve ever met who thought they had it made? That was the moment their career as a writer was over.”

None of that is meant to imply that we should give up on our dream of quitting our day job if that’s our goal. In fact, with self-publishing, more mid-list-type authors are finding success than ever before. However, we do want to be smart about it. *smile*

How Can We Tell When We’re Ready to Quit?

If we think we’re ready to quit our day job, we might want to question our plans and our personality:

  • Are we the type of person who gets more work done when there’s a time crunch? If so, we might want to think of the many authors who quit their day job only to discover they got less writing done when they had more time.
  • Are we the type of person who struggles to write when stressed? If so, we might want to hold off until quitting won’t cause income stress or look for ways to reduce the stress factors.
  • Are we able to stick to self-imposed schedules? If not, how can we work around that weakness?
  • Do we already know our most productive writing times and how to make the most of them? Is our day job interfering with those times now?
  • Do we have a plan for including downtime? Or will we feel guilty for taking any time off?
  • Do we have several story ideas ready to draft so we can be productive right away? Do we have plans to improve our chances at good income (writing a series, etc.)?
  • Have we tested our ability to fast draft or other productivity-enhancing techniques?
  • Do we have savings or other income to pay the bills? Or are we hoping we’ll be able to “force” success before the money runs out?
  • Do we have a plan (and willingness) to return to a day job if our productivity, scheduling, or income doesn’t work out as expected within a certain time frame?

It’s worth remembering that just as Lin-Manuel’s path to Hamilton musical success wasn’t straight or fast or glamorous (Slushee machine to intern…to McDonald’s), we’re not going to be rolling in the money after our debut. Successful authors build up their income over many releases.

Our path to success might take zigs and zags. Plenty of authors on Twitter talk about their day jobs. Just as many share how they couldn’t get a book contract after they thought they were set. One successful book might be followed by five that tank.

None of those things are the end of the world unless we give up. And we might be more likely to give up if we’re in the hole and unable to scrounge up money to pay the bills because we don’t have a day job providing consistent income.

On the other hand, success can find us if we’re releasing books, even if we’re working a day job or writing part-time. When the stars align, a day job won’t keep the writing-success fairy from visiting us. Trust me. *smile*

What were some of your first jobs? Did you take away any lessons or insights from them? Do you have a goal to quit your day job? What would make you decide you’re ready for that step? Do you know writers who let false beliefs about day jobs and being a full-time writer hold them back? Or do you know writers who quit their day job too soon?

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26 Comments on "Writer Goals: Quitting the “Evil” Day Job"

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Mary Kate

Thank you so much for this. When I was in my early twenties I also believed that all I needed in life was to publish a book, quit my terrible job, and live happily ever after. I have recently left my twenties and (less recently) left my delusions behind me.

I like the stability of a day job, I like writing with no pressure, and I like routine. Do I wish I had more time to write and more flexibility with my time? Absolutely. In my ideal scenario, I’d day job about half the number of hours I do right now (I’m currently at 45/week) and spend the rest of that time on writing and exercising and doing more of the things I want to do. Unfortunately that’s not how my current situation works. I make a great salary and like my job and still write on the side and am relatively happy, so I try and just remember the good things and know that not all situations last forever.

Alison

A great post with a helpful (and sensible) check list at the end. I have no intention of giving up my day job as it gives me a break from writing and provides financial security, relieving pressure on my writing. First jobs were army reserve, Air Force, full time mum, parish secretary, community program admin support.

Robin
Robin

Great article! 😀 My day job as an environmental engineer provides a lot of personal satisfaction, and without it, I would tend to become a hermit and fail to force myself to get out and interact with other human beings. So quitting is not on the agenda at present… but cutting back hours at some point? that sounds lovely.

Deborah Makarios

That list of questions to ask yourself before quitting is a great one, Jami – everyone considering leaving their day job should read it!
I used to have a day job (40hrs/wk) but it sucked out all my energy and left me an exhausted emotional husk at the end of the day – not to mention it sat right on top of my best writing hours. Happily, a change of circumstances meant I could go down to 4 days a week, and after about a year, I was able to leave altogether.
This is not to say that I am earning my living as a writer (yet) or that I will never need to have a day job again. But right now, I can write! I’ve just got to learn to write faster….

Ann Stanley

I am a massage therapist. I’ve worked as a baby sitter, lifeguard, computer programmer, research scientist and teacher. While there are days when I wish I didn’t have to go to work, and could write on my own time frame, it does all provide grist for the mill (to use a cliche 😉 ). People talk while on the table, and I love learning about their lives. I would imagine hairdressers gather amazing material.
I loved this post, and your list of questions at the end seems very useful. I do fantasize about writing all day every day, so it’s good to be reminded that that might not be the best goal.

Tahlia Newland

For me being a professional means acting like a professional no matter how much or how little you’re earning from your writing. Being a professional means treating your writing like a career, even if it will never be more than a hobby in terms of finances. For the self-publisher that means producing a professional product, properly edited and so on.
If we set our aim at being able to cut our day job (mine is editing, so it is at least in the same business) we can get too hung up on sales, and what should be a creative joy can become a struggle of frustration. So few authors live entirely by their book sales that aiming for that may just be setting ourselves up for failure. I suggest aiming for the production of quality books, and if your end up earning enough to give up your day job, great. If not, you can still enjoy whatever ‘success’ you do have.
As you say, all our experiences give us material for our writing; nothing we do is wasted, least of all that which pays the bills.

Connor
Connor

Another thing to mention is that certain day jobs can be better for writers than others. For example, it is possible to read on the job in some situations. Let’s say you’re at the front desk in a bed and breakfast. You hustle and get all your work done and there are no checkouts or checkins. Maybe you’ve got an hour to kill so you read. There are even jobs that are so slow and quiet you can write while getting paid (like being night security – shh)

Taurean J Watkins
I usually have a lot to say on subjects like this, but for once I’ll be brief, what do you do when your day job isn’t conducive to your writing goals? I’m in awe of people who work in fast food or hospitality which are very demanding jobs that demand brisk efficiency and fast service, and that can leave little room to do much else. I’ve never had several previous jobs myself. But I know what my limits are. At this point I’m more seriously considering being a janitor, hardly my ideal job prospect, but I don’t see how that’s going to help my writing unless I wrote about being a janitor or some domestic servant from a historical perspective. I talked with my therapist about this, and he told me janitors can make a living, albeit a modest one, and when I think modest I think soulless apartments versus my own home. I’ve always known I needed another job to have a home and keep writing, I just never thought being a janitor was the way to do it. I know a writer once commented on another post of yours who is a janitor and found it a relaxing way to think up ideas. All I picture is long hours cleaning, dealing with filth, and praying I won’t gag from the horrid smells of whatever I’m cleaning. Anyway, that looks like my only viable options for reasons you’re quite aware of, Jami. I wish just thinking about it didn’t… Read more »
H. S. Contino
H. S. Contino

Awesome post! ?

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[…] we discussed last time, many writers have day jobs, and that’s just normal—not a sign of failure. We might also have family obligations that […]

Serena Yung
Serena Yung
As I mentioned on Facebook, I LOVE my potential day job that I’m studying for in my master’s program right now. (Counselling). It definitely would inform my writing because counselling and learning about counselling teaches you so much about personality, interpersonal relationships, social psychology, and much more stuff that’s clearly relevant to fiction writing. I adore psychology and counselling even independent from my writing, though. And as I said, I want to have a day job where I interact mostly with people rather than with written words, because facing words all day is too physically exhausting for me, no matter how much I love it. Writing is my favorite thing in the world, but I don’t want to do it 24/7, haha. I need a lot of breaks. Btw I have a non-writer who believed that most authors write full-time! And she believed that it’s impossible to have any time or energy to read and write if you have a full-time job already. Omg I told her that most authors are part-time, and that we all figure out ways to manage to read and write despite having day jobs. My friend was very surprised by this, but well, now she knows. Interestingly, a cousin of mine said that because her day job is so time and energy-consuming (as most jobs are), she has no time to read books. But then she adds, “Or maybe that’s just my excuse for not reading!” LOLL yes, I agree that that is an excuse… Read more »
Clare O'Beara
Clare O'Beara

Great post and good advice in the comment section too. Thanks.
I am now self employed; when I was employed the boss was very demanding of my time and energy so I had little chance to read or write. I still did both.
I suggest having a portfolio career is good for a writer. That means you have several sources of income, like a part time job and an occasional job, as well as writing and selling books.
Getting out and meeting people and hearing their stories provides a huge fund of story ideas.
Maybe you worked in a variety of less successful jobs; but it’s all copy.

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[…] Gold wrote a great post on the subject last week. She pointed out that a lot of writers have day jobs. And they’re wise to keep […]

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