Should You Quit Your Day Job to Write?

by James Scott Bell
Today’s post is brought to you by FIGHT CITY, the new Irish Jimmy Gallagher novelette. It’s Los Angeles, 1955, and all Jimmy Gallagher wants to do is meet his girl, Ruby, at the movies. But the City of Angels decides to put up its dukes and give Jimmy the fight of his life…
Back in the day, 25 years ago or so, when I was starting to pursue writing seriously, I wondered if it was possible to actually make a living at this thing. I know that was the dream of just about every scribe I came in contact with. The ideal was you could live anywhere, maybe on an island where they served piña coladas, and you would write during the day, eat your fill at night and, when needed, withdraw money from your ever-increasing bank account in the Caymans.
Or you could put your feet up on your desk or coffee table, stay in your pajamas if you wanted to, go unshaven for days at a time, and have publishers pay you large amounts because readers would want to buy your books the moment they hit the shelves.
Back then, you didn’t pay much attention to the statistics, which told you that the number of writers who managed to make more than $5000 a year was pretty small. You were going to be one of the exceptions!
When I finally did become a professional, I kept practicing law until I had a few years under my belt where the writing income was steady and growing. I phased out the law only when I had a track record and a multi-book contract in hand.
Thus, I have never been one to tell new writers they should hastily quit their day jobs. There is a lot to be said for a day job, as long as you don’t hate it so much that going to work feels like your soul is being sucked into the vacuum cleaner of dread.
But maybe not even then. The day job gives you reliable, steady income. It makes life predictable, financially speaking. It keeps you around people (writing full time is an isolating pursuit that sometimes makes you feel and act–and perhaps even look–like Ben Gunn from Treasure Island).
And if the job includes benefits, so much the better. Leaving all that for the uncertain life of a freelance writer is not a jump to be taken lightly. Ten years ago I would have advised a writer to have positive royalty income plus a multi-book contract before thinking of going it alone.
Of course, we are now in a new, self-publishing age. It is ever more possible to make serious money as a writer. Traditional publishing, undergoing its own uncertainties about the future, is no longer the only game in town–although it is still a game, and it is still in town.
So maybe you’re thinking of “the dream” for yourself.  Here are some things you should ponder before taking the plunge.
1. Do you have the chops?
Let’s be blunt here. Most self-published material is not ready for prime time. In the “old days” (that is, before 2007), the arbiters of what was ready was a coterie of agents and acquisitions editors. To gain their approval, writers would grind their way through a learning process that included lots of words typed, craft studied, manuscripts critiqued (by friends, a group, or a professional freelance editor) and so on. Now, a writer can leapfrog all that and bounce straight into digital publication. But that may not be the right hop.
My advice: Find a way to replicate some of the traditional process before you publish. I’m a craft guy, as you know. In my early years I would try to identify my weak spots and then design self-study programs. Even when it wasn’t that intense, I’d be reading craft books and Writer’s Digest and novels I admired (to enjoy first then take apart). This should be ongoing for you. Since 1988 I don’t think a week has gone by when I did not do some active reading in or study of the techniques of writing fiction. If you’re just starting out to form your own library of craft books, I can suggest a place to begin.
Find a critique group of fellow writers you can exchange manuscripts with. Avoid toxic relationships, however.
Put together an actual proposal for your novel, even if you’re going to self-publish. Try to “sell” it to a friend or family member. This is a grinder, but it makes better writers.
2. Can you live with financial uncertainty?
As promising as self-publishing is, it is still a labor-intensive, up-and-down proposition. To help you live with the risk, I would counsel that you have a savings account with at least six months of living expenses in it. That cushion will soften any blows that come month-by-month. 
Even when your flow becomes positive, you’re going to have to have the discipline to set aside money for estimated tax payments and unanticipated emergencies.
You will need to follow the advice of Mr. Micawber in David Copperfield: “Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure nineteen nineteen six, result happiness. Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure twenty pounds ought and six, result misery.”
To be a full-time writer, learn to live below your means and sock the rest away: some for taxes, some for charity, some for retirement, some for investment, some in a liquid account.
Or marry a rich person.
3. Does your self-publishing income show a year-long, upward trendline?
Unless and until you can produce new material on a regular basis, and show a steady increase in income over the course of a year (which is enough time to allow for fluctuations), I wouldn’t advise quitting your day job.
Further, your average monthly income at the end of the year should be hitting four figures. If you make under that much, but show a strong upward line, and know you can increase your output if you have more time to write, you might consider giving yourself a year of freedom from the day job to see what you can do. Everyone will have a different calculation about this. Commitments and financial needs will vary. If you are single and living in Tulsa or Fargo, your income needs will be less than if you are married and living in San Francisco or New York.
Make sure the people you care about most are okay with what you’re doing, unless it’s just your brother Arnold who thinks you’re crazy to be a writer anyway.
4. Can you operate a business?
This is going to be your job. You have to have a certain amount of business acumen to do it well. Some of my writer friends admit that they don’t have that kind of mind. For them, the day job or a working spouse is essential. They just want to write and hope for the best. That’s fine. There’s nothing wrong with that.
But the strategies for setting up a self-publishing business are not difficult to understand or implement. In fact, it’s little more than what you would have to do as an author for a traditional house. In the trad world you still have to market yourself which requires . . . strategies and discipline. You can put that same energy into setting up a self-publishing stream. You also now have a plethora of options, from doing it all yourself to going through a service (e.g., Smashwords, BookBaby) to choosing a bit of both.
5. What about health insurance?
A final factor is the benefit of health insurance. I have no idea what the Affordable Care Act (“Obamacare”) is going to look like in 2014, when it really kicks in. Does anybody? But if it does one of the things it promises, it may mean that formerly uninsurable freelance writers (even with pre-existing conditions) can get health care coverage. (NOTE: What I’m looking for is practical information on what you think the ACA could mean for individuals. Let’s not get into a vitriolic debate about the act itself or its progenitor.)
So those are the thoughts out of the middle of my head. Let’s open it up for discussion. Do you dream of doing this writing thing full time? What advice would you give someone thinking about it?

34 thoughts on “Should You Quit Your Day Job to Write?

  1. I would LOVE to get rid of my current day job, but that’s not about writing full time. I just hate the cattle herding mentality of modern healthcare.

    However for reason #2 alone, I could never quit my day job to write. I admire the bold risk takers, but am not one myself, and the ups and downs of the financial picture of a writer would preclude me from taking such a step (unless I finally discovered that rich uncle who could provide me with a windfall).

    And while being employed at a company is very difficult, I’m also well aware those who are self-employed work like crazy. And they have a lot of extra stressors. I’m already stressed enough without adding more.

    So no, I’ll just be the person in the background quietly snatching a minute here, a minute there, till it all comes together.

  2. I would advise keeping the day job. Income in this business can be a roller coaster affair, and if self-published, you have to shell out money up front for editing, cover design, formatting, ISBNs, etc. If you’re lucky enough to make six figures and it appears to be an ongoing and sustaining practice, then maybe consider writing full time. But the loss of benefits from a regular job is an important consideration in making this choice.

  3. Quitting my day job to be a professional writer is my dream & I intend to achieve it, however not solely on the shoulders of my fiction writing. I am looking at freelance writing because I think if a writer wants to write for a living, she needs to open her mind to many streams of income. And there are many out there. Maybe I won’t be working on my next short story all the time, but I’ll be writing and that’s better than the day job by a mile.

  4. Jim,

    I’ve really enjoyed your comments on self-publishing over the last couple weeks. I feel like a thirsty sponge soaking up every drop of advice from you and your readers.

    I just finished reading SELF-PUBLISHING ATTACK! It’s the best book I’ve read for someone like me who’s just beginning this writing journey. Thanks for bringing it out in print. It’s on my list for the next batch of books I buy from Amazon.

    I would add one additional benefit to not quitting your day job. You alluded to it in “it keeps you around people.” If you have the opportunity to interact with people during the course of your work, you discover the huge spectrum of “normal” behavior. It becomes a goldmine for creating new and unusual characters. And it might even make your day job more interesting, a field trip – so to speak – for characterization.

    As a physician, I have the opportunity “work on” people while they’re lightly sedated with Valium. Wow, it’s fun. I’m keeping a folder of all the unusual hobbies and interests I’ve discovered.

    And as for the Affordable Care Act, without getting into a vitriolic debate, I would caution anyone to not hold your breath waiting for promises to be kept.

  5. If you want a job with no benefits or withholdings, where you get paid twice a year and have no idea how much the check will be, then the traditional publishing route is for you. With indie-publishing, things can get better, but the one-in-a-million bestsellers like “Shades” are just that.

    A friend of mine–I won’t mention his name or Kris Montee will jump all over me for name-dropping, but his initials are Steve Berry–had a number of national bestsellers and multi-book contracts before he finally gave up his job as a practicing attorney to write full time.

    My advice–don’t quite your day job.

  6. Great post. I am yet-to-be-published. And I am definitely not quitting the day job. I’m going to hang on for six or eight more years until I can retire. My goal is to publish (print as some would have it) or get published before retirement. Here is the question: Once I get the MS polished up and all shiny, do I send it round and wait for replies from agents, or skip all that and send it to a POD shop that does digital versions, too? Or both? Thank you for this.

    • That question is for me to answer. I am not expecting anyone else to make that decision for me. Just to be clear.

  7. I quit the day job and wrote more or less full time for seven years before discovering that I missed the day job. It wasn’t about money, but rather about interaction with people. I’m a Type-A personality, and I found that my imaginary friends weren’t enough to keep me engaged. Eight years ago, I re-upped for a demanding day job that keeps me on the road way more than I would like, but I am paradoxically more prolific as a part-time writer than I was as a full-time writer. The extra income is nice, as are the 401K and the health benefits, but it’s really about re-engaging with people. Plus, I’m pretty good at my job and I enjoy it. That’s the key, I think: enjoying the work. It also helps that the day job does not involve a lot of writing.

    If you’re on the fence about quitting to write full-time, I urge you to look at whether your life is working for you now. If you wake up dreading every day, then some form of change is necessary. If, on the other hand, things are going well and you’re able to work and write but you’re just tired of being tired, I’d be careful about trying to fix what ain’t broken.

    Finally, I think fence-sitters need to consider age, marital status and parenthood. On any given day, providing for one’s family–food, shelter, education, healthcare, etc.–should trump the gamble on a creative life.

    John Gilstrap

    • Solid advice, Brother Gilstrap. If your job is something you actually like, it’s a no brainer to keep it.

      It also occurs to me there is a middle ground. One might find part-time work to supplement the writing income. “Multiple streams of income.”

    • I tried the full time writing gig this past summer, intending to write a novel and start a web novel in that time. My wife would come home from work and I’d talk like I hadn’t seen another living soul all day. I would lose so much time into chatting on Facebook just to get that social nag that my day job (teaching) would get me.

      It takes a special sort to want to go 8+ hours without interaction with other people….

  8. As much as I would love to quit my day job, I know it won’t be financially feasible for a while. The current plan is to work the next 15 years, build up retirement and savings then retire at 55 and use the writing income until I’m able to withdraw from retirement. Will it work? I hope so. Hubby and I are aiming for that.

    Hopefully by that time I’ll have a good library out in the ether for readers to purchase and keep me at least afloat.


  9. Multiple streams of income is definitely the way to go. I haven’t had a day job going on three years now, and its the best decision I’ve ever made. The key, though, is limiting long-term high dollar financial obligations and retaining flexibility. I did the day job thing for 15 years and I learned a thing or two in the process. One is that the notion of stability is a myth that doesn’t really exist. All it takes is one bad day or a new hire above your position and that stability can evaporate in an instant. Two is that the financial rewards are a trap of sorts, unless you’re in a high wage position. My experience is that the majority of benefit in a day job comes during the first few months to a year, then the benefits decline relative to the time you continue to hold the position. Eventually, you can find yourself in a place where you’re spending nearly every dollar in wages just to maintain the infrastructure to allow you to continue going to work on Monday, a dead-end cycle if ever there was one.

    I see a commenter here talk about having a plan to work 15 more years then make a change. It’s great to plan and set goals like that, but I’ve found its impossible to project what my conditions and opportunities will be six months from now, let alone in a decade. Over the years, I’ve heard many folks talk about having a five year or ten year plan and for 95% of them, that projected end date never happens or gets pushed back further and further. There’s never going to be a perfect time, with few exceptions, to make a major change. There will always be degrees of uncertainty and risk involved. I’ve found that putting risk off until you’re in a “better” position is a waste of time in most cases. That’s not to say be reckless, but you’re never going to find that perfect moment.

    I currently earn about half of my income as a writer, combined from fiction sales, freelance nonfiction work and numerous light side gigs. People always need things written and I do a lot of letters, proposals, resumes, etc that are not time intensive and add $300-$500 a month to my bottom line from that work alone. The rest of my income comes from things like dog walking, painting, and such that are fairly simple and pay at a rate far in excess of a standard hourly wage given the time necessary. I have more free time than ever, and financially, I’m in a much, much better place than when I last held a regular day job.

    Personally, I wouldn’t recommend a regular hourly day job as a long term solution to anyone right now. Develop and cultivate multiple skills and earn across a wide spectrum of areas.

  10. Six months ago I stumbled into my ideal “big girl” job. It doesn’t pay tons, but I like it, it has killer benefits, and in 5 years I will vest into the pension plan. It won’t be much, but it will be a lifelong trickle. I have another pension trickle from my first big job and the two would keep me in iced tea and Ramen noodles.

    I own my car outright and within a year should own my house outright. I have a family financial obligation that has a 5-6 year window.

    So, I am headed in a stable direction and freelancing all along the way whether it be writing fluffy puppy articles about the college talent show for a local paper on the weekends or the current crop of net content in my hopper right now.

    So, as long as day job gives me a happy I’ll stay with it. But the goal is to move more and more toward the word mines as I check off items on the financial to-do list.


  11. Definitely advise not quitting the day job. Even if you sign up with a traditional publisher, there is no guarantee they will keep you. Lists are being ruthlessly pruned these days and advances are shrinking. And as John said, there is something to be said for having a job that keeps you in touch with “the real world.” It gets lonely living inside your head 24/7.

  12. Even if I were to get multiple contracts and made a mucho moolah mound at books, I’d need to keep a day job of at least part time for, like John said, the interaction with humans.

    When that day comes that writing and audiobook narration can mostly support me and my wife (planning it for the next few years as my last two kids head off to college) I will likely move into a daily radio show on top writing and narration. Just to stay social.

    That being said, if the opportunity to become a circuit conference speaker arose I’d jump on that like a tick at a nudist colony.

  13. What’s interesting in this is that while the bulk of the advice in the main article is about quitting the day job to self publish, those traditionally published offer the same advice to be cautious. I often advise students who want a career in the arts to always have a plan B.

    It seems too that with so many people able to test the waters through self publishing more and more traditional firms are letting them do so, and then swooping in to offer a jump to “the next level”. I have to wonder how much of the corporate pruning is in response to that.

  14. No. Do not quit your day job. Not even if you achieve a best seller the first time out of the box. Keep your name on the door and that set of skills sharp and well-honed. Fame and fortune are fickle lovers. I know a number of famous musicians who wound up pushing brooms down high school halls.

  15. JSB–Once again, you offer up a solid body of wise commentary and good advice. The images you use to convey the schoolboy fantasy of the writing life are fully at odds with your recent description of what it actually takes for you yourself to be a professional writer: the puritanical work ethic six days a week, the self-imposed deadlines and “production” schedule, etc.
    I would add one other point, one that has mostly to do with being committed to writing. If you work at a full-time job–teaching, selling something, providing some service, etc–and manage as well to stick to a regular, disciplined schedule of writing, that says a lot. It says writing matters enough to make sacrifices for it. It means you’re willing to give up a nice breakfast in order to write every morning before work, or to forget TV in the evening. And all such sacrifices are augmented when you have family demands to meet. In other words, this side of marrying money, or inheriting it, discovering whether you “have the chops” almost requires that the writer both work and write. And if down the road, the stars align themselves just right, so you can give all your energies to writing, you will have “made your bones” and be ready.

  16. Tried to reply to Rob’s post above but it wouldn’t let me. His post is actually a point in favor of attempting the quit your day job thing–the one thing someone is likely to hear me say often is that I never, EVER get time along (except when I go to the bathroom). I would LOVE to have some non-interaction with people time.

    But wouldn’t that be horrible if I did, thinking it was going to be great, and hated it anyway? But I’d sure like to find out.

    BK Jackson

  17. I’ll never quit my day job willingly. I’m blessed to have a job I love and enjoy. But I write hoping that it may supplement my income way down the road when I have to retire. I want to learn every aspect of publishing. I even want to learn how to do all of it on my own just for the sake of knowing how to do it.

    I don’t know what other people make regarding advances. I hear they are dropping but I’d love to hear from any of you what you think a decent advance is these days in the world of traditional publishing. I’ve got my first series out and am looking toward my next writing gig, but as a new author in the last few years I sure don’t see much money rolling in to pay the bills. I would never tell anyone to quit their day job in this economic climate.

    • Jillian, I don’t think the pay scale has changed much for first-published authors over the years. Everything depends on the overall perceived marketability of the book. A craft mystery set in the world of quilting probably won’t sell for as much as a mainstream thriller–unless the author is the president of the International Quilting Guild (if there is such a thing), with an established platform and a 20,000-person mailing list. There are a lot of moving parts in that kind of negotiation. I hear from my agent that advances of $5,000 are readily available for first-timers, and $15,000 is not uncommon. Te trick is to earn out the advance. If the book does that, then the numbers go up contract to contract.

  18. I always bounce back and forth on whether this is a goal of mine or not. I love my day job – newspaper editor – and it’s as much a calling to me as writing. But then I get a week or two of insanity (the second and third weeks of April had three 20-hour days even before the Marathon bombings chaos) and fiction gets pushed aside for sleep and I wish I could write full time. (And let’s be honest – the amount of writing income it takes to replace a journalist’s salary, even counting benefits, is much less than many other careers.)

    For me, if I ever get to the point where it’s a viable choice, I’ll probably have to weigh whether the extra time to write outweighs the difference I feel like I make in a newsroom. I’d certainly love to have that choice someday, though, so I keep working on finding readers for my Exeter stories.

  19. When I quit my day job to stay home to raise my son, I thought I could spend the spare time working on my writing (I can hear you laughing from here). This would do two things. 1) my son wouldn’t be raised by someone else and I wouldn’t be working to pay for day care and 2) I could finally focus on my real passion, writing.

    My son is now 14 months old, and let me tell you, I was in for a reality check. First, new parents do not ever have free time. I heard people say that before, but it does not describe the scope of just how little time you have for necessities in those early months.

    As he got older and started sleeping through the night, things got a little easier. My friends assure me that “free time” gets better when they start school. But we all know that real life has many demands on that free time. Things like laundry and the dishes.

    The other thing I wasn’t prepared for, and this has nothing to do with taking care of a baby, was how weird it felt to have no schedule all day long. I mean, sure. I had a schedule with the baby, but that was flexible. Some days he slept in and some days he didn’t. As much as kids demand a routine, they also demand flexibility, because what works can change at a moment’s notice.

    That said, it was still hard to figure out how writing fit into my new life, especially this life where I was my own boss. I’m pretty well motivated, and I’ve written and edited several books while juggling a life and a day job, so it’s not like I wasn’t used to that aspect. I don’t quite know how to describe the change of not having a boss to report to every day.

    In some ways it’s freeing, but in other ways it makes you crazy.

    My point is I think personality type can play a huge role in quitting your day job. Some people really need to have an existing structure to order their day around. Some people less so.

    My apologies if this makes no sense. I have a bad cold, and all cold medicine makes me loopy.

    • No apology necessary, Elizabeth. One thing you do bring up is the need for a schedule, which is harder for the solo artist at home….I’m reminded that John Cheever used to shower, shave and dress in a tie before 9 a.m., then go to the basement of his apartment building to write, just as if he were going to an office.

      So yes, we take our personality type and we also figure out how to make it dance to the music.

    • JSB–Thanks for reminding me of this great story about Cheever. The other residents in his building never knew where he was going (to the basement), or what he was doing there. He just looked like “one of them,” not a (God forbid) writer. Similarly, I’m sure none of the other passengers knew Wallace Stevens was composing stanzas as he rode the bus to his job as an insurance company VP in Hartford, Connecticut. There’s another work-ethic story for you.

  20. Awesome points! Quitting a stable income requires a LOT of careful consideration, and going about it like a blue-eyed ten-year-old will very likely end in disaster.

    I’ve often wondered what the fascination with earning one’s living entirely with writing fiction really is. I get it, some people hate their day-jobs, but do they really hate them more than uncertainty and the risk of long-term poverty? I get it that most writers would love to do nothing else with their time than write, but the days of the writing hermit are long gone. It may just be me, but the ideal way to go about it is to keep our day job and stable payments and learn to write faster and better (requiring less drafts) and complement the budget with money earned by writing. Afford an awesome vacation from that money, or a tour of writing conferences, not the bread and butter and tissues for night-time depressive sobbing because we have no money left for medication and new underwear.

    Maybe I’m harsh, but I know I’ll never quit my dayjob until I earn enough with writing to buy a new house each year. That may never happen, and in that case, I’ll always have a day job and no existential worries. I see a win either way. 😉

    • Veronica–
      There’s something else worth noting about choosing to write full-time, specifically novels. These days, writers have to pick a niche category, and stick to it. I know one successful writer of hardboiled detective fiction. His success in this area has more or less confined him to it. He dabbles in westerns, but his bread and butter depends on the category on which his reputation was built. He’s very good at what he does, but without his having said so, I have reason to think he’s burned out. It has to take a huge amount of energy and talent to develop multiple tracks as a writer, as James Scott Bell has done. Definitely not for the faint of heart.

  21. I’ve always told myself that I’d write full time when I retire. But, I also tell myself that I’ll retire when I strike it rich. I guess whichever comes first? Either way, I’ll always write. 🙂

  22. At one time my goal was to quit my day job, but one day I looked around in this tough economy and realized I work at a good company with fair pay, great benefits, and the flexibility to work from home two days a week and miss work if my four-year-old needs me. I would be crazy to give that up right now. I also found that constantly thinking about when I was going to be able to quit bred discontent in my life. Now that I’ve accepted that the day job is a blessing for right now, I’ve gotten back to the job of writing.

  23. While my ultimate goal is to replace my wife’s income and then my own, the impulse to write is becoming somewhat akin to a daily drug habit – or, for me, the daily shot of endorphins I get running.

    I have some advantages in that I own and enjoy my little single person business (I had to scale back to get rid of employees but the reduced regulatory costs more than made up for the lost revenues.) The business let’s me fund my habit and, if it never outgrows a hobby, I’ll find a way to deal with it.

    If it does grow, I already have some of the business skills I need – including a solid appraisal of those that I lack and where to acquire them. Enjoying marketing is likely a very large plus.

    With a reasonably secure (at least for this week) income and minimal bills though no benefits, I can work on trying to build some skill at wordsmithing and storytelling. (A very large thank you to Mr. Bell – I have three of his books on my library just over there to the right of the screen and they have been invaluable.)

    So, I build skills, spending at lest two and often four hours a day, then do well by my clients and, before sleep, study other writers or books on writing.

    When I complete my first novel, I’ll have it edited and the cover designed and I’ll publish. Then the other hard part kicks in and I’ll market.

    And, perhaps, with all that, the book makes a large gob of money and life is good. Or it doesn’t and I stick with the day job, learning more. And life is good then, too.

  24. As a stay-at-home mom, quitting my day job isn’t an option. No matter how much money the writing brings in there will always be the parenting demands of five great kiddos. Making sure that our loved ones are taken care of should be our first priority, but since the writing is what preserves mommy’s sanity it is integral to family functionality. And if the writing is something that you want bad enough, you will make time for it regardless of other commitments.

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