by Pamela Rice Hahn
A writing career as a professional writer requires more than just the ability and desire to string words together in an interesting and compelling way.
Even if you’ve had publishing success already, there are still questions that you must (or should) answer before you can realistically make the decision as to whether or not you have what it takes to be a professional writer.
1. Do you possess enough time management discipline to meet your goals and obligations?
In this case, goals do not refer to that wish list of resolutions you set for yourself on New Year’s Day. (Most people have trouble sticking to a diet and not every successful dieter can carry that discipline over to other areas of his or her life.)
When it comes to a writing career, your goals will need to include aspects of your work that you may find tedious or boring. Pick your least favorite part of writing – such as editing, proofreading, or promotion – and then truthfully determine whether or not you can picture being able to force yourself to perform that chore or those chores on a regular basis.
Your primary writing obligation will involve meeting or exceeding deadlines. In addition to the deadlines for which you are obligated by contract to meet, you’ll also need to allow time to do the work that it’ll take to get the work you’ll need once you meet your current work project deadline. Unless you start off with a million dollar book deal right out of the gate, the reality of a writing career is that it can often require more work (in the form of query letters and book proposals, self-promotion online and in person, and so forth) to get the work than it takes to do the work.
2. Do you have a reasonable expectation of what it will take to meet your financial obligations?
Allow me to get personal for a moment:
Prior to my diagnosis with a disabling physical condition that has now exacerbated to the point to where I can no longer work outside my home, I maintained a full-time job along with a full-time writing career. The job paid the bills; the writing paid for the extras and fun stuff. I now often joke that after spending several years getting disability [lack of] income I was able to write my way into [the lousy cash flow of] a full-time freelance writing career.
Regardless of what type of freelance writing career you pursue, you’ll face the same realities that I do, which require that you possess:
- The trust that editors who receive their paychecks according to a predetermined schedule will remember that they have to put in the formal request that you receive your check
- The patience to wait the time that it takes for your check request to work its way through the often weeks-long maze it takes to arrive at the desk of the person who will actually issue the check
- More patience while you wait for your check to arrive in the mail or get deposited into your account
- A reasonable expectation about the amount of time that will lapse once you have this fat check in your hand before the next one arrives
(In an ideal world, you’ll have enough money on hand to act as a cushion you can use to fund your writing career. This cushion will allow you to draw regular paychecks from the amount on hand so that you’re depositing new checks into that fund rather than spending the money as it arrives. This allows you to have a margin of error that allows for late checks, nonpaying clients, or canceled contracts and still maintain your financial stability. Unfortunately, I wasn’t blessed with an ideal world. I work without that margin, yet I still make or am the victim of errors.)
A professional writing career is stressful enough. Having that cushion of the amount of money it will take you to maintain your lifestyle for a minimum of six months can help you avoid adding financial stress to your life.
As you budget for that needed six months-worth of money in reserve, keep in mind that once you become your own boss, your financial obligations will include additional things like purchasing and maintaining your own office equipment. It’s true that you may receive checks larger than any that you ever received at your previous full-time job, but chances are there will be longer periods of time between when you receive one check and then the next. Feast or famine.
Once you get a large advance check or one arrives for a completed writing project, you’ll naturally want to reward yourself. Even if you have the luxury of a working spouse or partner, you’ll need to possess the financial discipline necessary to recognize what you can budget for a reward and what monetary amount constitutes an unnecessary indulgence.
3. Is everything all about you?
You need to make a realistic assessment about whether or not you need direct supervision to be productive.
If you were a guest on a talk show, are you the type who could maintain your composure once you’ve moved down the sofa?
Or are you more like the guest who, once he or she’s moved off of the seat for the featured guest, feels compelled to continue to crack jokes and interrupt the host or the new guest in order to focus attention back to him- or herself?
Some people simply need immediate and somewhat constant supervision or feedback. There’s nothing wrong with admitting that about yourself if you fall into that category. There are plenty of careers available that allow you to work full time, write [whatever] according to assignment, and then hand your work over to a supervisor whose feedback will help make you feel like you’re always in the spotlight as the featured guest.
Granted, there are ways that a freelance writer can introduce immediate feedback into his or her writing life. Bloggers who’ve managed to reach the point where they receive numerous comments on each of their posts are somewhat in this position, although the comments they receive aren’t always as indulgent as those that can come from a boss who’s working toward the same goals you are. A more productive alternative to having the immediate feedback from a boss is to develop a reciprocal online or writer’s group relationship with another trusted writer.
The immediate support and feedback from a boss can also help you if you’re the type who is prone to procrastinate or digress. Although those gifted at avoiding work can always find ways to do it, it’s more difficult to spend time playing computer games or any of those other things you’d rather be doing if there’s the risk of a boss catching you in the act.
4. Do you know the difference between reasons and excuses?
Few things in life ever go exactly according to schedule. Accept that and plan accordingly.
Of course you can’t plan for every contingency. An extended electrical outage due to a storm is a reason. A death in the family is a reason. But, multiple reasons strung together can (and do) constitute moving beyond having reasons for not getting the work done and making excuses to try to justify your lack of discipline.
Recognize the difference and work accordingly.
5. Do you have more reasons why you can and should be a professional writer than you have excuses for why it’d never work?
If you do, then do it!
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