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How Can I Make a Living as a Writer?

by Tom Ashford

“Don’t take Creative Writing at University. You can’t make a career out of it.”

I paraphrase, but that’s what an old colleague’s mother once told her when she was considering her options in higher education. She loved writing, and the English language in general, but her mother asked, “Where is the money?” Needless to say, my colleague ended up taking a different path.

I can sort of understand where her mother was coming from, particularly if I look back to twenty-five, thirty years ago. Self-publishing didn’t exist, at least not for the majority of people, and vanity publishing was (and still is) nothing but a way to burn money, not make it. Imagine telling someone you were a Content Creator in the 1980s. If they didn’t laugh, they might have asked, “So what are you? Ad man, journalist or author?”

The sad thing about all this, was that my ex-colleague was telling me this because I was a writer. Not a novelist (though with nearly nine books out, I am that too), but someone making a nine-to-five living with my words. Her mother was wrong. Novelist or not, it really is easier than ever to make a living as a writer!

You Don’t Have to be a Bestseller

I know, I know. At the end of the day it’s what most of us want, and in the self-publishing scene of today it’s not out of the question. Good books, marketed well with snappy copy and eye-catching covers, have allowed plenty of writers to quit their day jobs and become full-time novelists. But that’s not everyone’s goal, and even if it is – bestseller success usually doesn’t happen overnight. There are plenty of other ways to earn a part-time or full-time income with writing in the meantime.


Are you good at writing compelling Facebook ads? Do you enjoy putting together a well-crafted email? Then you might have a future in copywriting.

Copy is the written content in advertising that raises brand awareness and convinces people to purchase a company’s products or services. According to wikipedia, “copywriters help create: billboards, brochures, catalogues, jingle lyrics, magazine and newspaper advertisements, sales letters and other direct mail, scripts for television or radio commercials, taglines, white papers, social media posts, and other marketing communications.”

Next time you’re on the subway, or you walk past a bus-stop billboard, stop and take a look at all the advertising around you. Every word you read was written with a specific purpose by a copywriter. Ever seen Mad Men? The work environment has (thankfully) improved since then but that’s the gist – coming up with writing that will convince people that your client’s brand is worth trying above its competitors (often alongside graphic designers, of course).

The “It’s Toasted” tagline for Lucky Strike shown in Mad Men was actually real, by the way – all cigarettes went through a toasting process, but the copywriters made Lucky Strike cigarettes sound warm, homely, family-friendly.

It was a different time, but the same tricks and techniques are still used today.

Content Writing

There’s always some debate over what the difference between a Copywriter and a Content Writer actually is. Often there’s a great deal of overlap, and one job might involve a lot of the other, but the gist seems to be this: whereas a copywriter often deals with shorter copy that specifically sells a brand, product or service, content writing takes a more long form, informative approach. Writing articles for blogs is a good example, as are reviews for films and games. This might also take the form of video scripts, depending on the style and purpose of the video.

Like copywriting, content writing (or concept writing – different companies use different terms) is a fairly common job within the media industry. Any media agency, ad agency, design agency or video production house requires them, be they in-house or freelance. It can be lucrative too – if you’re looking for a way to supplement your existing income whilst you wait to reach the top of the USA Today list, this should probably be your first port of call.


No, I don’t mean waiting until you’re dead to start making money – it didn’t do the starving artists of history any good and it won’t work for you either. I’m talking about ghostwriting – writing somebody else’s book for them, and receiving a guaranteed paycheck in return.

It may not be the most glamorous side of book-writing, and for some aspiring authors the idea of writing a novel for somebody else seems like a lot of work for no glory. And that is true – you’re unlikely to become a household name writing a book that has someone else’s name plastered across its front. That being said, you are guaranteed a set sum of money for writing it. The same can’t be said for the person who has to market that book afterwards.

And don’t think you’d only be writing books for those who can’t do it themselves. Sometimes an author’s writing empire simply grows too large for them to do everything that they’d like to themselves. Take James Patterson, for example. Whether you like his writing or not, he can evidently tell a story that people enjoy, and has written dozens of books under his own name. But he has just as many books under his name and brand that other authors have actually penned – he just comes up with the ideas, provides editing notes and ensures the final product is up to his brand’s standards.

As forms of income go, there’s certainly worse.

…or become an Indie Author

Because unlike a lot of traditionally published authors, you don’t have to become a bestseller to make a living from your books. Whether it’s your sole form of revenue or a supplement to your day job (which can be writing-related or not), it’s far from impossible to turn your hobby into a functioning business. Sure, most of us can’t suddenly quit our nine-to-five jobs and turn to a life of typewriters and whiskey – but it can happen, eventually.

If you spend $10 a day and make $11 back, you’re making money. There are more indie authors making money from the industry than ever. Learn the ropes and keep at it – sooner or later, it could just happen to you.

Tom Ashford

Tom Ashford

Tom Ashford is a professional copywriter, author of numerous dark fantasy and sci-fi novels, and the Head of Content at the Self Publishing Formula Blog. His books include the Blackwater trilogy and the Checking Out series.

He lives in London with his wife, in an apartment that doesn’t allow pets. Find out more about Tom here.