Writer Goals: Quitting the “Evil” Day Job

by Jami Gold on September 20, 2016

in Writing Stuff

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 below - Time to Add your own.

Mary Kate September 20, 2016 at 10:00 am

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.

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Jami Gold September 20, 2016 at 12:19 pm

Hi Mary Kate,

Thanks for sharing your experience! A good friend of mine just cut back her day job hours so she’d have more flexibility for writing–so there are definitely options in how we can approach this question. 🙂

My day job is flexible with most things, except the early morning hours (which kill me–LOL!), so I’m in no rush to ditch my day job either. Especially because I know that I’m one of those who tends to need time pressure to get things done.

As you said, not all situations last forever, so maybe one point we can take away is to make the best of our situations as we encounter them? 🙂 Thanks for the comment!

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Alison September 20, 2016 at 1:07 pm

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.

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Jami Gold September 20, 2016 at 3:53 pm

Hi Alison,

Oh! Love that point about how day jobs can give us a break. No matter how much we love writing, some aspects of it can be crazy-making–from needing “thinking time” to needing to get away from the self-doubt. Thanks so much for sharing! 🙂

(And I fixed the typo you mentioned too. 😉 )

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Robin September 20, 2016 at 1:14 pm

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.

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Jami Gold September 20, 2016 at 3:54 pm

Hi Robin,

Yes! Day jobs can be a source of satisfaction, and as I mentioned to Alison above, if it’s a job we feel competent in, that can be a great break from the self-doubt we often feel with writing. 🙂 Thanks for sharing!

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Deborah Makarios September 20, 2016 at 3:58 pm

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….

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Jami Gold September 20, 2016 at 4:07 pm

Hi Deborah,

Thanks for sharing your experience from the other side of the fence! And it sounds like you have a great perspective on your situation. I hope you’re able to make it work for you for a long time. 🙂 Thanks for the comment!

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Ann Stanley September 20, 2016 at 5:45 pm

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.

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Jami Gold September 20, 2016 at 6:10 pm

Hi Ann,

Very true! Some jobs provide lots of “grist.” I hear the best stories from the woman who cuts my hair. LOL!

Like you, I sometimes imagine having no other responsibilities than writing, but I’m afraid I’d waste even more time that way. 😉 Thanks for the comment!

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Tahlia Newland September 20, 2016 at 7:03 pm

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.

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Jami Gold September 20, 2016 at 7:14 pm

Hi Tahlia,

“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.”

SO well stated!!! Yes, professionalism is about attitude, not money. Thank you for expressing that truth so well. 😀

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Taurean J Watkins September 21, 2016 at 3:13 pm

I have to disagree partly to this.

Sometimes money does get in the way. I had to put publishing my first novel on hold because I lacked the finances to publish it in a professional

So while it doesn’t cost money to behave and think as a professional, getting certain things done does, esp when you’re doing it all alone.
Yes, it takes a team to publish a book, but when YOU are acting as the publisher, you have to orchestrate everything.

I went with a small press both for the creative control and because I couldn’t afford the editing help my book got on my own. I now have to buy back the contract. Not because the book isn’t good. It’s because I couldn’t afford the other things my book needed to be “Professional” as you point out, Tahlia, such as cover design and in my case illustrations my book needed.

It also bears repeating that everyone’s comfort level with that is different.

I treat writing like a career, I put my heart, blood, and skin in this game, yet I’m a moot point right now. I’m not disagreeing with what you’re saying, but only pointing out that lack of money to achieve pro-level writing is a factor.

I’m sorry if I come off harsh, but I’m simply speaking from my experience, and I’m far from alone.

It’s easy to say you need a team of editors. Not as easy to afford them. At this point, I may have to settle and pray I’ll find readers who’ll forgive that, something Jami has tried to assure me of. I just know I won’t quit. But I had to step back because I was losing my sanity and ability to think positive about anything in my life.

That was back ing January 2016. Things are better now. But I still have hard days. Everyone does in one way or another. All I can tell you is what I know.

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Jami Gold September 21, 2016 at 5:58 pm

Hi Taurean,

The context of the talk about money here is about the receipt of money for selling our writing, not in using money to publish (as we both agree there are many issues there). That is, it’s not by making money from our writing (so much that we can quit our day job) that makes us a professional writer.

We can have a professional attitude toward writing even if we have a day job. We can have a professional attitude toward writing even if we give away all our writing for free. (None of that touches the very real issue of trying to pay for everything, but that’s a different post. Literally. 😉 ) Thanks for bringing up that point, so I could clarify what I meant! (And I’m glad to hear that you’re doing better some days. *hugs*) 🙂

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Taurean J Watkins September 21, 2016 at 10:57 pm

Thanks for replying, Jami. I knew the context of what Tahlia’s saying, I just felt it was important to make that point since there can be overlap between these things.

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Jami Gold September 22, 2016 at 7:36 am

Exactly! Thanks again. 🙂

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Connor September 21, 2016 at 7:23 am

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)

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Jami Gold September 21, 2016 at 7:37 am

Hi Connor,

Fantastic point! Yes, one of my temp jobs was as the front desk person for a small lawyers office. One of the lawyers was on vacation and the other was in court–not many calls, had the office to myself, and virtually no visitors. 🙂 I read Zelazny’s whole Amber series during that 2 week assignment. LOL! If I had been writing at the time, I’d have been able to get a lot done. 😀 Thanks for the reminder!

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Taurean J Watkins September 21, 2016 at 2:59 pm

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 make me want to cry but it does sometimes.

I pray actually doing this job won’t be as scary and demanding as it feels right now. I’ve always wanted to know what it was like to earn my own money versus family support and aid from the government. I just never saw being a cleaner as the way to do it.

Especially since I’m not most competent at cleaning to start with. Just because I’m being paid to clean doesn’t mean I’ll automatically clean with brisk efficiency, and that’s me trying my hardest, NOT being lazy about it.

You can be not good at something even when you’re putting your everything in it. That doesn’t mean I’m saying never to try, but again, being realistic sometimes means knowing what you can’t do as much as seeing what you can do. Does that make any sense?

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Jami Gold September 21, 2016 at 6:12 pm

Hi Taurean,

I’ve often heard that the best time to search for a job is when you already have one. I don’t know if that’s still true in this economy, but aspects of it certainly do. Companies can think someone who is employed is employable. They can be seen as less of a risk stability-wise, because they’ve proven their ability to keep a job–showing up and doing the work, etc. Also, having a job already can make someone less desperate during interviews, which makes them more appealing as well.

If that psychology holds, then just because Job A doesn’t allow us to work on writing doesn’t mean we should remain unemployed if that’s causing issues for us. Once solid at Job A, we might have a better chance (and more experience) to land Job B, which might be better for our writing dreams.

In other words, sometimes our goals might take a multi-step approach, or we might not even see how Point A could get us to Point Z until we’re already there. For example, my last temp assignment turned into a real job that lasted two years and brought me into the non-fiction side of writing (technical and project writing). I couldn’t have planned that. LOL!

I’m not trying to put a too-happy face on your situation, as I know how much you struggle. But I just wanted to point out a way that a cut-and-dried perspective might affect our ability to see a bigger picture. *hugs* And good luck!

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H. S. Contino September 21, 2016 at 3:27 pm

Awesome post! 🤓

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Jami Gold September 21, 2016 at 6:13 pm

Thank you, H.S.! 🙂

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Serena Yung September 23, 2016 at 9:02 am

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 for not reading books. What is also funny is that the friend who thought we can’t read or write with a full-time job, plans to study for a master’s (I think in communication or literature). Wow, so you have no time or energy to spare to read books, yet you DO have the time and energy to pursue a master’s??? (I’m assuming that she’ll still be working while she’s studying.)

Lol sorry for the rant, but I found that quite exasperating.

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Clare O'Beara September 24, 2016 at 4:43 am

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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