The Starving Writer Mindset Has to End


I’m a writer, therefore I live on ramen noodles. I’m a writer, therefore I can’t afford health insurance. I’m a writer, therefore I’m poor.

I hate this line of reasoning more than you could ever guess. This line of thought is the biggest reason that there are poor writers out there, in a time when J.K. Rowling has made more than $1 billion on a series of children’s books. There are copy writers worth millions, columnists who do pretty damn well for themselves and plenty of writers who are making a respectable income for themselves. And yet, the mindset that writers are a bunch of starving artists hidden away in their garrets persists.

Here and Now, Let’s End It

Let’s be honest with ourselves. There’s a reason that writers perpetuate this mindset. It’s convenient. When everyone you know thinks that writing won’t bring in a single cent, making ten grand a year from it suddenly sounds almost respectable. Low expectations make anything look better.

But here’s the thing: despite my hatred of bid sites and content farms, if you sat down and worked an eight hour day at most of them, you’d at least beat minimum wage. That’s over $15,000 right there. And that’s one of the least lucrative ways to go about writing. It’s not hard to get to a higher level of income, by marketing yourself and reaching out to prospective clients. If you’re charging what you’re worth and making sure that you consistently have work, hitting forty or fifty grand a year is more than possible. If you charge $50 an hour for your time and line up 20 hours of client work a week (not even a full forty!), you can break $50,000.

If you’re willing to build a real business, reacher than just search out client work, the sky is truly the limit. So let’s stop thinking of ourselves as starving writers. Let’s think of ourselves as working in an incredibly lucrative industry and start reaching for those upper reaches.

Let’s Change Our Image, While We’re at It

I’ve had plenty of discussions at parties when someone first finds out what I do for a living. ‘A writer — you must work very hard to get enough work’ is not an uncommon comment. Something about how hard it is to find work right now is often a close second. As a matter of fact, I find writing to be relatively easy: in high school and college, I worked jobs like tutoring for standardized tests (quite difficult), renting apartments (also not too easy) and dressing up as a tomato to hand out flyers (not only a bit embarrassing, but I also got heat stroke). Writing is easy. I just have to plant my rear end in my chair. There’s no heavy lifting, annoying children to work with or extremely hot costumes.

On top of that, I am getting more work than I can handle right now — and so can you. There are new websites every day and they all need written content. Some of them are even looking for fiction. Now is a fantastic time to be a writer.

So let’s tell people that. Every time someone asks if you live on ramen noodles because you’re a writer, tell him that you’re doing pretty well. Make it true, as well: the best way to really rub it in is to make more money than whoever you’re talking to.

Image by Flickr user Raul Arrieta

29 Comments

  1. I completely agree. Many times I’ve been told how lucky I am that I can do whatever I want. The implication is that my husband picks up the financial slack, allowing me to “play” at writing. Ultimately, it’s our responsibility, as writers, to acknowledge our worth without settling. Great article.

    • Miss Britt   •  

      Heck yes! I’m going to be supporting my family with nothing but my writing income for the next year while we travel and my husband takes the year off. People are baffled.

    • thursday   •     Author

      I’ve definitely had that discussion more than once. I’ve even been told that my husband’s lucky to have me as a tax deduction. If you let people keep going in that vein, they’ll never think otherwise.

  2. Laura Cowperthwaite   •  

    This is fantastic news! I am in full agreement with you – the Starving Artist Archetype is dead. It no longer serves us and in fact in today’s climate it holds us back, unnecessarily. The Creative Class is on the rise and as long as we hold to the old story we will miss the opportunities that present themselves every day. I would even take your comments further and say not only is there opportunity to make lots of money but as artists we create economic wealth for the whole of society. Thanks for putting this out there!

    • thursday   •     Author

      There is something just right about this time in history, isn’t there? There are a lot of business opportunities available to anyone with creative skills, but we do have to put ourselves in the path of those opportunities.

  3. Michael Kwan   •  

    Well said, Thursday. I have more than a few casual acquaintances who see me working from home, assuming that it’s little more than a hobby that is bringing in peanuts. In truth, I’m making more money as a freelancer than I have with any other full-time job. That’s saying something.

    No one said that being a writer is easy. It can, given the right person and the right circumstances though, be very lucrative. Content farmers, outsourced writers, part-time supplementers, and others of that ilk very much affect the image of full-time professionals like you and me. There’s nothing wrong with what they do, but a distinction needs to be made between that group of writers and our group of writers. The guy who goes to the local community center once a week to play hockey is not the same as Sidney Crosby (not that I’m equating myself with Sidney Crosby).

    • thursday   •     Author

      I think there’s definitely a mindset difference that sets the content farm folks apart — but it’s one that I think a lot of writers in that position are only temporarily at. I think it’s a question of how entrepreneurial a person is (and how entrepreneurial a person feels they safely can be). I’d like to think that people involved in content farms are beginning to move in the direction of building their own true business, but they just haven’t gotten there yet.

      You and I, though, we’re far enough along that path that we tend to look for opportunities wherever we can.

  4. P.S. Jones   •  

    But Thursday, what if I *like* Ramen Noodles? Maybe I’ll just say “Yes, I do live off Ramen Noodles but I buy them by the case.”

    • thursday   •     Author

      Or, how about, “not just ramen noodles”?

      I do buy the occasional case myself…mostly because I can’t be trusted to remember to eat when I get in the zone and they are incredibly easy to make.

  5. Ty Unglebower   •  

    I really think this is a bit oversimplified.

    There is little doubt that you work hard on marketing, and on finding work, even if you don’t feel that writing itself is especially hard. So my perspective is not in regards to how much effort, time, and thought you put into your business. Those things are clearly demonstrated and are admirable.

    But like many, your post perpetuates the assumption that simply working hard and looking all over the place, pounding the pavement and knocking on doors until your knuckles fall off WILL result in the numbers you mention. And that simply isn’t so for everyone, and it has nothing to do with their determination being low, or their desire to pawn off their situation with the “starving artist” label.

    Content farms are not as easy to get work in as one would like. And you do have to undersell yourself for the work you do. Not to mention that depending on what your goal are, if you are “caught” making any regular use of such places, your reputation among certain more lucrative and respectable market will be in the toilet. I am not saying I think that it is fair, I am merely pointing out that it is so.

    But even if the reputation factor was not an issue, people still get turned down I would guess about 8 times more often than they get accepted in those places.

    And actually writers get turned down more often than they get accepted, until/if they become famous. And while according to your viewpoint here the key is to simply pitch, query and and apply all the more often to pick up the slack, many people do not have the luxury to abandon day jobs as they start out on their writing journey. Hence, dedicating the scads amounts of time required to pursue it the way you are suggesting would be impractical. (Not to mention no real guarantee of any success.)

    And then there is luck. And location. And timing. And many other factors.

    Persistence does tend to win out one way or the other for the writer. (Or any freelancer for that matter, I dare say.) And wallowing will get you little. But to suggest that the reason someone finds himself to be a “starving writer” is some kind of lack of focus or motivation doesn’t strike me as particularly fair.

    I am a motivated writer who is trying to make it, and have not. 15,000 a year based on ONLY my writing not only sounds not bad, it would be, this year a dream almost not worth dreaming for the time being, given that it takes some people a lot more time to work up to such lofty numbers. Thankfully I have money from other sources for now.

    I don’t plan to remain like this forever, but until I do get there, I like to think that the path I am taking, though slow and not yielding financial dividends like the ones you have, is still a worthwhile path to be treading.

    I AM a so called “starving writer”, and I am neither ashamed, nor excited about it. It is just the way it is for today, until I build a better tomorrow. But it is not at all easy so to do.

    • thursday   •     Author

      I wouldn’t say that my suggestion would be to just to query more — there are lots of other options, like creating a written product of one’s own, build a blog, and so on. You don’t have to be famous to earn a living writing, unless the only way you’re willing to make that living is by traditionally publishing fiction.

      What bothers me, over and over again, is that I hear so many people saying that they can’t get a fair break, but they never even take the manuscript out of their desk drawer and send it in. I talk to writers pretty regularly who ask for tips to make more money but aren’t even willing to put an extra hour of work into marketing.

      I don’t think that you fall into that category. But I’ve never found someone who put in the hours and didn’t pull together an income. It might take a little while (twelve months seems to be the magic number), but it is absolutely possible.

  6. Beth L. Gainer   •  

    I loved this inspirational piece. I teach writing and know that I will do well, as I’m writing a book that I think will sell. It’s all in the confidence.

    Thank you for being so positive and for your candor.

    • thursday   •     Author

      Just by getting out there you’re already ahead of the game.

  7. Miss Britt   •  

    It wasn’t until I did my taxes this year and realized I made more when I was still part time from writing than I made from my salaried job that I really appreciated how lucrative writing could be – even without landing The Book Deal.

    • thursday   •     Author

      Congratulations! I had a similar experience: within 18 months of freelancing full-time, I was making more than if I had taken one of the entry-level reporter jobs I had hoped to grab after graduating.

  8. Linda Formichelli   •  

    Bravo! I’ve been making a fine full-time living as a freelancer for 14 years now, working part-time hours. I have 11 assignments on my plate through mid-April. And I am not an exception…lots of writers are out there writing instead of whining. You go!

    • thursday   •     Author

      Sounds like a busy April! You’re someone that I consider very successful — and you do it on part-time hours. I think that really puts paid to the idea that you can only be a successful writer if you work every hour in the day.

  9. Lowrha   •  

    Shhh…. couldn’t let this be our little secret, huh? 😉

  10. Tamar Cloyd   •  

    I absolutely love this!! Stepping out on faith as a freelance writer is definitely a brave venture and I wouldn’t want to live any other way. I recently had a friend tell me that my hourly rate was too low. As we were discussing our new contract, they decided to double my rate and increase the hours that we would work together! Needless to say, that moment is something I will always remember and never again will I be too shy to ask for what I want…

    • thursday   •     Author

      Excellent! It’s half mindset to be able to double your rates in one go (and half working your rear end off).

  11. Natalia Sylvester   •  

    OMG, yes, please! If I ever do fit into the “starving writer” stereotype, it’s because I’ve forgotten to eat lunch because of how swamped I am with work!

  12. Jennifer Escalona   •  

    I’m not sure why, but over the past few weeks, two different people have taken pity on my and decided to point me toward writing markets that I’m not at all interested in. Both had some offhand comment like “I’m just trying to help you out because I think you’re a really good writer.” I think it comes from a nice (though misguided place) so I just thank them and refrain from pointing out that my agency is projecting a quarter million his year. Maybe I’ll speak up next time. Thanks for the prompting, Thursday. :)

  13. Charleen Larson   •  

    I write and I consider myself a writer, but there’s so much more. When people ask me what I do, I tell them I’m an Internet entrepreneur. That both covers all my bases and usually shuts them up.

    I used to tell people I was an eBay seller but my mother was horrified. She wanted to know my yearly income (for bragging purposes, of course) and I refused to tell her. I can only imagine her reaction if I told her I’m a writer.

    • thursday   •     Author

      My family still isn’t clear on what I do for a living, but I’ve been lucky enough that I haven’t had to tell them I do something other than what I actually do.

  14. Catherine Dold   •  

    Yes! The whole “you are a freelancer so you must be poor” thing has always made me crazy. I’ve been a full-time freelance writer for 20 years, come August. I’ve supported myself very nicely; I own a house and a nice car, and I have a healthy savings account. It’s NOT all that hard. In fact, I think freelancing is much more “secure” than a “real job.” No one can fire me. If I lose one client, another comes along. I’m not “surviving” as a freelancer; I’m “thriving.” And loving it.

  15. Mark Terry   •  

    Amen! I recently wrote a book, Freelance Writing For A Living, and one of the first messages is that writing has value and you HAVE to insist on that value for your writing.

    But can you make a living at it? Yes. Even a good or very good living. And yes, I hate bid sites and content farms and they’re cheapening the market (or are preying on the naive). I recently ridiculed a gig wanting someone to turn an unedited short story into a novel, in 2-4 weeks for $400, and it needed to be fully copyedited and publisher-ready when it was done. No royalties, a 25% advance… what are these morons thinking?

    I had a PhD contact me recently (I’m her editor for a technical journal, actually) who made a sort of snarky comment to me about “do you make more money in writing than in science?” (I formerly worked as a cytogenetics technologist). My answer: “I do.”

    • Mark Terry   •  

      Correction. That job posting was actually for $200.

      “The job for hire is a ghost writer, to adapt a short story (unedited) into a Novel (300 to 350p). Also included a preface. The time table for completion is 2 to 4 weeks. The compensation is $200.00 USD. You will receive 25% up front with the rest due upon completion. A 50% draft preview will be due at the halfway point. The short story and a outline will be provided. Your work must be copy edited and ready for print. The payment is a flat fee for service render.”

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