Review: How to Make a Living with Your Writing

Joanna Penn’s book was one of the first I read when I began to investigate writing professionally seriously. It was refreshing to review my notes from last year for this review, and realize how much of its practical advice I’ve been able to carry with me as I made my career decision. How to Make a Living with Your Writing didn’t convince me to go down this path, but it did help me realize my ambition, while difficult, could be realized.

There are a number of ways I could summarize this book, but I’ll go with a list of its most salient advice for novice writers like myself:

  • Develop multiple streams of income — Penn earns her writing income from multiple sources — blogging, article writing, nonfiction and fiction book sales, and public speaking, among others. At any one time, one or more of her revenue streams will run dry, yet other streams will help alleviate the drought. Of particular interest is her discussion of scalable and non-scalable income; work for hire (such as magazine and technical writing) pays only once and is non-scalable, while a nonfiction book or novel will generate revenue over the course of many months, even years. Penn states her writing income was 0% scalable at the start of her career, and a decade later had increased that portion of her income to 80%. That’s a career progression that’s ambitious yet attainable.
  • Nurture good work habits — as in any endeavor, its important to act like a writer before one can have success in the industry. Penn describes a number of habits that can lead to success — scheduling time to write, having a dedicated writing space, obtaining the right equipment, honing researching skills, joining writers’ communities, developing resilience to and appreciation of criticism. And my personal favorite, getting enough sleep. Over the past year, I’ve been dismayed at the number of times I’ve been advised (often by people with no involvement in the writing profession) that I need to get up at the crack of dawn every day and start writing if I wanted to make this profession work for me. That’s not how I operate; I can push on to way past midnight, but if I have to get up early to make a living, I might as well return to my somnambulant career in corporate IT. It is refreshing to read a successful author such as Penn argue that individual writers need to identify their own best working hours.
  • Come up with your own definition of success — Penn identifies many types of criteria for success — literary or commercial fame, genre fiction or literature, traditional book and magazine publishing or their online equivalents, working with agents and publishing houses or self-publishing. Penn has a clear preference for digital media and independent publishing, and argues the profession of writing is headed towards these trends, yet she also presents a convincing case for traditional publishing. Penn also describes a hybrid approach to book publishing: beginning as an independent, building your resume and readership, and then looking to get an agent and pursue traditional publishing. Penn lists the opportunities and challenges available to the writer, then lets the reader decide which to chose — or as she puts it, “your publishing choice is more a question of the outcome that you want to achieve and your definition of success.”

I’ve read several books about writing both before and after my first read of this, and I can’t say I’ve been more inspired by any other. In fact, I think it’s time for a second reading.

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