Career Chat: Day Job

“Don’t Fruit pickersquit your day job until you have contracts to support you for the next 2 years…” or “Don’t quit your day job period.” I’ve heard variations of this advice – applicable to musicians, dancers, and visual artists as well as writers – many times over the years. But what is a day job and which one should you choose?

Assuming you are serious about a writing career, a day job is a source of reliable income that does not impair your ability to write. Some of us come to writing with an established occupation; others, especially young writers, are beginning both their writing careers and their other occupations at the same time. Some begin writing once they have retired, for one reason or another, from their previous occupations. All face the uncomfortable reality that very few writers, even seasoned professionals, can support themselves, let alone their families, on their writing income alone.

Of course, some writers can and do. Some get up in the morning and churn out words for 8 to 10 hours a day. They write three or four (or more!) novels a year. Others have attracted such enthusiastic readers that even one or two novels a year generate enough sales (or sufficient advances, if sold on contract) to pay the bills. Although once upon a time, it was possible to earn a meager living with short fiction (a story a week, with lots of markets), I know of no writer today who can do that.

So the reality is that, one way or another, you are going to need a second source of income, whether you are starting out or you’ve been doing this for decades. What sort of work should you look for, assuming you have a choice? There is no one answer that is right for everyone.

The most import characteristics of a writer’s day job are that it generate sufficient minimal income, which will vary from person to person and the cost of living in various areas, plus whatever other resources the writer has; and that it leave sufficient time and creative energy so that the writer can actually write.

The obvious choice of day job may not be the best one. Writing other sorts of material may seem like a good solution, but should be approached with caution. For example, I know a number of writers who decided to move into technical, sales, or marketing writing because the money was good and they already had many of the requisite prose skills. At the end of the day, they were so tired of writing, most of them had great difficulty sitting down for yet more hours at the computer; they felt drained of words.

Instead of a one-size-fits-all solution or the notion that there is only one day job suitable for every writer, I think it’s wise to look at individual differences.

  • Cost of living and other ways of managing expenses: can you relocate to a less expensive area, share housing or other costs?
  • Training and educational opportunities: what programs does your local community college offer?
  • Need for physical movement: does a physically demanding job, or one on your feet, help or hinder your ability to sit still and write?
  • Need for day job flexibility: do you write consistently at the same time of day? Can you squeeze your writing into weekend marathons, so a regular work week is feasible? Or do you need larger blocks of time, not necessarily on schedule?
  • Job location: is it better for you to work from home or does that risk mixing writing and day job too much?
  • Benefits: do you need a day job that gives you (and your family) health insurance, paid vacation, etc.? Or are these available in some other way (through a spouse)?

Think outside the box. Do an internet search for “high paying part time jobs.” Obviously, these vary in educational requirements and for some you will have to build up a clientele, and not every writer is temperamentally suited for every job.

  • Speech pathologist
  • School bus driver
  • Hair stylist
  • Dental hygienist
  • Makeup artist
  • Personal fitness trainer
  • Phlebotomist/medical assistant/nurse
  • Radiology technician
  • Physical therapist
  • Barista/bartender
  • Life coach
  • Accountant/bookkeeper
  • Massage therapist
  • Flight attendant
  • Yoga/Pilates/martial arts instructor
  • Field inspector (for real estate firms)
  • Dumpster painter (for waste management firms)
  • Pharmacy technician

What’s been your experience with your day job? Has it helped or hindered your writing career? If you had to do it over again, would you choose the same type of work? Would you recommend your day job to a beginning writer?


The painting is by Wladyslaw Skoczylas, 1925.



Career Chat: Day Job — 14 Comments

  1. When I started taking my writing seriously, I was assistant curator at a small museum. Tons of ideas and research right at hand. But mentally I was on stage the entire time I was at work, and often had to put in extra hours for special events and research at home. I wrote fiction but very slowly. Son left for high school at 7AM. I didn’t have to leave for work until 9:15. I had the computer to myself! In 4 years I wrote 2.5 novels and revised them.

    That job dried up and I switched to retail in a fabric store. My mind cleared and all the ideas I’d been storing for 4 years came spilling forth. I honed my writing skills. I wrote 4 books in the next for years.

    Then that job dried up (new owners, don’t ask) and I sat at home while my son took my car to college. My word output tripled and 2 years later I made my first sale.

    Mental energy is important.

  2. My wife and I work at the same large company on reduced schedules (35 hours/week). She provides our healthcare, and we stagger our schedules to pick up/drop off our two children. It also allows me a few extra hours a week where I get home with enough energy to write coherently. While my day job requires some writing-mostly e-mails-it’s not too demanding.
    On the way to this arrangement, I have worked in technical support, which was a problem with longer hours, faster pace, and a lot of furious writing. At the end of the day, my patience and focus was completely exhausted. During that period, I had to wake earlier and write in the morning while I was still fresh.
    During college, I worked as a groundskeeper mowing lawns, and it was a great entry level job for a writer. Hours were flexible, the exercise was phenomenal, and I had long interrupted periods to think about characters, plots, etc, and could pause every now and then to scribble notes.

  3. My son has what I consider to be the ideal job for a writer. He is a security guard for a data farm, on the night shift, and pulls nearly $20 an hour. Essentially he sits at the front desk, every now and then signing in a night-owl engineer or two. He has his laptop or tablet, and wifi. He could write for hours, although I believe his actual time is spent keeping up with cable TV. Only once has a crisis arisen (smoke from a bum backup battery) that called for a human being’s intervention, but that’s what they pay him to be there for.

  4. As Phyl said above, it’s the mental energy that’s important. I found I couldn’t write at all during the school year, so summer vacation became prime time for trying to get a draft done. Many teachers have to work a paying job during the summer just to make ends meet these days, though.

      • Exactly right, Brenda. And the older I’ve gotten, the more slowly I write, so there came a time when I just couldn’t make enough headway on a draft during those 6-8 weeks to even feel like starting. It’s a wimpy excuse, but there it is.

  5. I’ve written while employed and written while unemployed (or at least employed at things other than writing). I’m one of those people who cannot do a writing day job and hope to get any fiction done at all–it’s as if, by the end of the day, my writing well is dry and I need to wait for it to be replenished.

    If I have a day job (at the moment I don’t because: laid off) I’d rather it use my other skills: organization and people wrangling. Aside from anything else, if I get Things Done at the day job, I don’t have to put pressure on myself to get Things Done in my writing–a thing I don’t respond well to when doing first draft. (Second draft, when the polishing and “aha, I knew that didn’t make any sense!” stuff happens, is a different matter.)

    Everyone does it differently. I also find that putting the responsibility for food and roof on my writing makes me clench up creatively. I get so frightened that I won’t be able to write that–surprise!–I don’t. So a day job of some sort is absolutely necessary.

  6. I think the best job that gave me everything I needed was owning a mom & pop tourist motel. The motel was crazy busy during the summer, but the fall, winter, and early spring were mine to write as much as I wished. Additionally, our children were still small, so both parents were on-site 24/7. We didn’t know it back then, but that might have been the best blessing our little family could have. I got a lot of writing done, but also winter hikes, and time with the kids that would have been unlikely in most employment situations. The kids saw both parents working before their very eyes, day in and day out. Even so, in the years after we sold the motel, I greatly enjoyed very challenging jobs working for large corporations. Doing important work with groups of smart people is very rewarding, too. It does, however, slow down the fiction output!

  7. One thing about other writing jobs: they teach you a lot about writing, especially about sentence construction and clarity. But yes, spending all day writing makes it hard to want to write in your time off.

    I worked as a legal editor and reporter for a number of years. During the years when I was primarily editing, I found I had plenty of energy for my own writing, partly because my publication came out every other week, giving me one hard week and one easy one, and partly because tinkering with other people’s words is not as taxing as making up your own (even when the other person’s work is such a mess that it would be easier to rewrite the thing sfrom scratch). During the last few years, when I worked as a reporter, I found it much harder to write fiction because I had spent the day trying to figure out how to tell others about a subject.

    Both were a lot easier than writing around a lawyer job, though. Legal work goes home with you and wakes you up at 3 am. The editing/reporting work stopped at the end of the work day. I rarely worried about it and rarely had to put in extra hours.

    If I had it to do over — and thought I could make a decent living at it — I’d balance writing fiction (and some nonfiction) with teaching martial arts. I think the balance between doing something physical and something mental is best for me.

  8. Being a massage therapist was what I decided upon when I realized that staying in tech writing was going to drive me nuts. The re-invention of the wheel and totally changing the work tools every year or so really is a drain on energies and learning time.

    But that would be a better choice when you have a life partner you stay with. I didn’t know I’d been bitten by a sick tick, and since it was missed, I just got more and more sick without any answers. I burned up my savings staying alive–could not get new insurance after I let mine go when it cost more than housing–and finally had to try and get back into the writing market, only to find that my prediction was correct. The tools are different, and the fact that you’ve already learned twenty means nothing, they want an expert in one that came out last week.

    So I’m living in a coop and investigating things totally outside writing. I got formal project management training, to go with my history or people and work re-arranging, but there’s a gotcha to taking the PMP test I haven’t been able to get around. And of course it is true that there is ferocious age discrimination.

    If I were starting out today, I don’t know that I would get a college degree–not with libraries available. I might try to get into Toyota University. You come out with skills to work their sophisticated lines worldwide, and will start at 80-90,000 thousand per year.

  9. I spent 10 years working in the news media, mostly television, and I can attest to the fact that it drains your ability to write outside of work. I dabbled, but it was inconsistent. Then I had children, and that effectively ended the dabbling for several years.

    Now I work as a freelance medical writer, under a long-term contract that requires what for me is low output (considering I used to write up to about 35 pieces of copy per day.) It doesn’t take up all my time or mental energy, and medical writing is so different from fiction that it doesn’t feel at all like the same thing. I have a couple of short stories published, my first novel coming out in a matter of weeks, and my second novel about to go to beta readers.

    I have to say, however, that being a professional writer for all those grueling, full-time years helped me in a lot of ways — not the least of which is confidence. I know my voice and style; I write quickly and research efficiently; I can write on-demand and under just about any circumstances; I already approached writing as a job when I delved into fiction; and I don’t romanticize the process.

    So what do I recommend for young writers? I suppose the ideal situation would be a job that regularly included writing but wasn’t constant, intensive writing that leaves you with nothing for your creative projects. You’ve got to write, though, in some capacity, in order to get better. Look for opportunities to use and improve your skill with words, your command of mechanics, and your confidence as a writer.

    • Yes, I found journalism very useful. You learn not to screw around, but just write it. And it was enormously helpful to be surrounded, in an entire office building, full of writers. Once there was a fire in the basement, and they called the fire department. This was in the 1980s. We all had to file down the fire stairs, twelve storeys worth of us, down to the street. Everyone clutched their handbags or coats. And every single person, without exception, was clutching a fat sheaf of ms to his or her chest. Not the news copy of the day — that could fry. They were the manuscripts of our novels!

  10. What I recommend for young writers is college. Not only to help you get that day job, but to help you learn how to learn. Ideally the major should be in a field far removed from writing: engineering, heddle weaving, astrophysics, South Asian dance. This is so that you have material, later on.

  11. I went to a talk by Ann Patchett last year (or year before?). Her first day job was being a professor. That left her mentally too burned out for writing. She got a job as a waitress, figuring her mind could wander while her body worked. She was too physically tired to write. She turned to writing nonfiction — she churned out pieces such as how to pick a wedding dress, under a variety of names. Over time, her nonfiction gigs got a lot better, writing for much more prestigious magazines. I’m guessing that nonfiction articles aren’t paying nearly as much today as they did when they were keeping her afloat.