Back in the day, the Ivory Soap Company made a fortune off a simple manufacturing and marketing concept: keep things pure. The company’s scientists eventually managed to create a cleansing product that was 99.44-percent free from impurities. And it sold like hotcakes.
It’s true: humans are suckers for purity. We equate it with simplicity, decency, straightforwardness. It’s uncomplicated, and it’s easy to understand. Writers, too, tend to worship at the altars of The Unadulterated. Many of us select a genre or a style – fiction or non-fiction, narrative or minimalist – based on early inclinations, and then we camp out there for the rest of our long and overly verbose days. As time goes by, we whittle down and whittle down until we’ve painted ourselves into a teeny-tiny-eensy-weensy corner: “I only write how-to-manifestoes/op-ed pieces/poetry/counterfactual history/paranormal romance.”
Sound familiar? It’s easy to understand appeal of sheltering beneath the sturdy umbrella of a pet genre. Focusing in this way allows us to go deep, to become experts on our subjects, to develop relationships with colleagues of a similar bent, to establish credibility and develop a voice that is uniquely our own. And if we find success in a genre, why not keep doing what works?
Indeed, it is good and normal and right for successful writers to define and camp out in a niche market. But newbie writers in search of compensation ought tread more carefully, and think more expansively. Yes, you likely have a particular fondness and a predilection for working in a certain sphere. But what if you wake up tomorrow or 10 years from now and nobody is reading urban fantasy anymore and the gigs dry up and your deep knowledge becomes worthless? What if the market for your favorite genre becomes (or already is) hopelessly oversaturated? What if you get bored? What if tech writing booms and busts (again)? What the heck will you do then?
It’s a question worth asking yourself, at regular interval, even after you’ve found success and defined a niche, if you are serious about making money from your writing. Because – and you knew this was coming – You are not a bar of soap! There’s nothing all that noble or interesting about cloaking yourself in sudsy white. You are a writer, which means you need to get comfortable lathering yourself up, instead, in shades of gray.
And what does it mean to be a shade of gray? First off, if you hope to earn money as a writer in the short-term, you’ve gotta get comfortable wearing many hats. Gray hats. Black hats. Pink and purple hats. Ad infinitum. And this means expanding your idea of the kinds of writing you are willing and able to do.
First and foremost, this involves being willing to strike a balance between the writing projects you are most passionate about and the writing projects that help you pay the bills. Often, too, it means fashioning yourself into what I call a Writer PLUS: you write. For money. But probably not more than half-time, and probably as much for fun as for mercenary ends.
My personal Writer PLUS formulation: marketing writer/blogger/manuscript editor/journalist/capital appeals paralegal. It’s a lot of irons in the fire and it sometimes gets sort of nuts. But this whole writing gig got a lot more fun, for me at least, when I abandoned notions of literary purity and instead created a career for myself that capitalized on my talents, integrated my favorite elements of writing and editing, and also took into account my deep desire to not work 60 freaking hours a week for $30,000 a year.
Your ability to monetize your creativity isn’t a direct indicator of much of anything. If you find it easy to accomplish, great! If you are among the copywriting folks I know and admire who earn $150,000-plus per year churning out clever ad copy, more power to you! But, but, but: a nugget of truth for the rest of us to gnaw on: The more open you are to doing different kinds of writing that aren't your very favorite or your “specialty,” the better your shot at snagging financial compensation for your work. The more open you are to considering writing-adjacent gigs such as teaching, designwork, editing/proofreading, or even paralegal work, the more possibilities that will open up to you.
And when you start thinking of your identity as a writer in more general terms, you start to see every single thing you write as an opportunity to improve your skills. And when this shift happens, a new world will open up to you.
All this goes quadruple if you are a fiction writer. If you are determined to succeed at fiction, you will have to log nights and weekends at your desk, possibly for many years. There is very little money in fiction writing, freelance or otherwise, and you’ll have to either work your bootie off to score a contract, or work your bootie off self-publishing and self-promoting. I love and respect and salute fiction writers, but if you are hoping to quit or at least scale back your day job, it’s important to understand the trade-offs that may be involved.
Long story long: if you’re seriously serious about writing for pay, you must abandon those silly, limiting purity mandates, take the long view, and focus on becoming a great generalist for now. Focus on using every writing opportunity that comes your way to improve your grammar, your voice, your grasp of narrative arc, for now. Focus on developing good writing habits, no matter what you’re working on, for now. The hope is, of course, that you will eventually write your way into the more specific niches that you find most interesting and that pay out the wazoo.
In the meantime, if you are passionate about words, there are a million ways to work with them that will put some money in your pocket and earn you a bit of credibility, which you can leverage to wrangle better (and better-paying) gigs later on.
You’ll have to learn to negotiate a constant push-and-pull between pet projects and big dreams and more practical, money-in-your-pocket-right-now projects. You’ll also have to master the art of simultaneous short-term and long-term thinking. You’ll have to be as tough and pliable as a bamboo switch.
Sometimes, raising your standards means lowering them in the short term, and consenting instead to broadening your writerly horizons. Not sure you’ve got a clear patch on how? Well, that’s kinda actually what this whole blog is about. I’m glad you found it, and I think you will be, too.