Taking the Leap: Three Ways to Go Pro as a Writer
If you’re reading this site, there’s a good chance you have hopes of writing as your sole (or at least main) source of income. That’s great, and more doable than most people think. Our clients make the switch every year, and more of them do it with each passing quarter.
That said, it’s a scary proposition. You move from reliable income to income that fluctuates as readers come and go. You trade in security and guidance for taking 100% of the responsibility for your own success. If that makes your tummy hurt a little just to think about, you are by no means alone.
Luckily, others have done this before you did. That means you can benefit from their example and success. Although every successful writer made it in their own way, on their own path, most got their in one of three broad ways.
Today I’d like to talk about those three ways, so you can look at them and judge which works best for you.
Three Ways to Make the Switch to Full-Time Professional Writer
Two-Timing Your Boss
The difference between being a part-time writer and two-timing your boss is only visible in your vision for the future. Part-time writers write as a second job to bring in a little extra money in real time. Two-timers write as a second job for the express purpose of ultimately going full time.
When you’re two-timing, you don’t spend the extra money that comes in. Instead, you bank it toward income, emergencies, and revenue shortfalls for when you go full-time.
Two-timing your boss works like this:
- Step One: Land at least one paid writing gig
- Step Two: Approach further writing in an organized, goal-oriented fashion to periodically increase your writing income
- Step Three: Save money from your writing into a fund for when you cut the cord
- Step Four: If your job allows it, go part-time with your regular job and full-time at your writing
- Step Five: When your income and emergency fund allow it, fire your boss and write full time.
This approach works best for people with financial responsibilities like a family or lots of debt. You can write during the hours you’re not at work while maintaining a stable income, eventually easing yourself into a full-time gig.
The biggest problem with this method is the risk of getting suck with making the change sometime in the future. This works two ways.
If you’re tired from work, you might put off the tasks that grow your writing business. Two months later, you’ll discover you put it off almost every day and you’re no closer to going full-time than when you started.
The other way is waiting until conditions are perfect to pull the plug and go. There’s a false sense of security in regular employment, in the perception that you have a “real job”. It can be easy to just coast in that space and wait until a “better time” that never actually comes.
The Banzai Charge
The is the opposite of two timing. You just jump in and start writing as your sole source of income. Tell your boss to pound the exact right amount of sand, move into your parents’ basement or your brother-in-law’s couch, eat a ramen-based diet, and go big until you make it.
Whether or not you like his style, internet and publishing phenomenon Tucker Max used this method. He ate every other day until his writing got some traction, but now he has millions of dollars, a half-dozen books, a movie deal, and a book publicity company.
The Banzai Charge Works like this:
- Step One: Minimize all the expenses in your life. Be drastic where it’s necessary. Freelance writers don’t necessarily need cars, and never need cable television.
- Step Two: Organize your goals and systems for professional writing, turning it into a working business.
- Step Three: Work your system aggressively, it at least eight to ten hours a day. Take one or two days off each week to recharge, but treat it like a regular, high-pressure job in a career you take seriously.
- Step Four: Monitor your progress carefully, making adjustments as necessary.
- Step Five: Realize one day that you’ve become a successful professional writer.
Recent graduates and other people with few responsibilities can do very well with this approach since they can give all their time to writing. Your skills will improve faster than those with other things to do, and you can turn out more writing. It lets you play the numbers game of pages written and queries sent so you can win by simple force of volume.
The Banzai charge also has the intangible advantage of putting your back to the wall. If you have another source of income, you have the luxury of giving your writing a lower priority than tempting distractions. When your writing is the only way you eat and continue to have a roof over your head, you have to write.
This method comes with a higher level of risk for people with families or other responsibilities. If you panic under pressure, you might give up and find a job you don’t want out of fear. Not everybody is okay with the uncertainty, and you should not be embarrassed if you’re not wired for this.
Another risk of this method, especially for new graduates, is the necessity of soft skills. Not many jobs give you the business knowledge and acumen needed to successfully be your own boss. No four-year degree comes close to teaching these skills. This method means the mistakes you make while learning soft skills hurt you the most, and it gives you the smallest amount of time to master them.
Taking a Sabbatical
The method offers the best of both worlds, but also has the highest barrier to entry of the three options. It means finding a way to get paid for an extended leave of absence from work. This could be accumulated leave, a paid sabbatical as offered by some employers, or simply through saving enough money to go for a time without your job. More than one professional writer was born from a layoff with a severance package they were able to extend. It’s also one reason so many retirees make some money writing as a sideline: they have their basic financial needs taken care of.
Taking a sabbatical works like this:
- Step One: Arrange for at least six to twelve months off from work, with enough money you don’t have to worry about basic living expenses.
- Step Two: Organize your goals and systems for professional writing, turning it into a working business. Include metrics that tell you when you’re earning enough that you don’t have to return to work.
- Step Three: Work your goals and monitor your reports. Double your efforts if you start to fall behind schedule.
- Step Four: Two to three months before the end of your leave, reassess your finances and your progress. The money you’ve made from writing so far could let you extend your sabbatical by a few months.
- Step Five: Check your finances every month. With luck and hard work, you may find you never have to return to your previous job.
The advantages of this plan are obvious. You get the focused time and effort of the Banzai along with the financial stability of two-timing your boss.
One disadvantage of this method is that it lacks the urgency of the Banzai approach. It can be easy to spend the whole time in vacation mode, and never take the forced steps you need to transition into full-time writing.
Another disadvantage of this approach is the difficulty of amassing six to twelve months worth of leave or savings. That’s a major barrier to most working people in today’s economy. One way to do it is to start as a two-timer, saving the extra money you earn as your writing business expands. Once you have a year’s expenses saved up, jump into the sabbatical method.
A third option for this approach, appropriately only for people with serious mobility, is to take your sabbatical in another country. The cost of living in Thailand, Greece, or Brazil (for example) can extend your savings to twice or three times as long as they would last in the US, UK, or Canada. This isn’t for everybody, but for people who can do it you get to combine this method with an unforgettable life experience.
If you have a job you like, and/or heavy financial responsibilities, the two-timing method is your best choice. It lets you keep money coming in while you transition.
If you have few responsibilities, and/or don’t mind living very cheaply for a while, try the Banzai method. Done right, it will get you where you want to go the fastest of these methods.
If you can find a way to make it without income for at least half a year, the sabbatical might be for you. It lets you manage your responsibilities while also focusing completely on your writing career.
Okay. It’s Go Time
At this point, I’m going to make two assumptions. The first is that you want to go full-time as a professional writer. The second is that one of those three methods called out to you. It might have most resembled the way you make decisions, or maybe it was just the one that scared you less.
Whichever it was, take some time this month to make a plan for making it happen. Sketch out a timeline, and what you need, for that hypothetical method to become your reality.
Image by Mohamed Hassan.