Writers’ Day Jobs 01: Balancing the Time, Money & Credit Trifecta

Summer hours spent revising Wake. c. Elissa Field

In the years I’ve been participating in social media with other writers — beginning on early boards at Poets & Writers Speakeasy — one of the most common discussions to arise among writers was over “day jobs.” Like superheroes not yet fully embraced by Gotham, so many writers work on their fiction but pay bills with another job.

Today’s post is part 1 of a series sharing my experience with day jobs.

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Day Job Balance: Money vs. Time

The repeated refrain in evaluating the perfect day job is the need to earn a living against a writer’s hunger to preserve time and creative energy for writing.

Camp counselors, bartenders, odd jobs, temps. Writers are mercenary in their willingness to fill a resume with a string of odd jobs that load the refrigerator while buying time. Writers’ parents may roll eyes over what seems a stubborn inability to assemble a genuine career — while the writer squirrels away hidden hours that mean not thousands in income but, if well-played, thousands of words toward a polished manuscript.

Of course some day jobs include professional titles or even high paying roles, but often writers are willing to take less income in order to avoid overtime hours or retain more braincells undrained at the end of the day.

The Trifecta: Time, Money & Street Cred

In a perfect world, a writer’s day job produces the trifecta: money to pay the bills, time and energy to write, and street cred.

Street cred, in this case, would be jobs that earn a writer credit for experience in the writing or publishing world. It could be a legitimizing title, it could be professional interaction within the publishing world. Booksellers, business writers, journalists, freelance PR or social media consultants, agents, teachers.

In our less perfect world, writers often trade time or money to gain recognition: write for free or trade lower pay to chock up a byline or tear sheet. I say this while spending hours blogging income-free, and having published my short stories without payment.

What is less obvious are those who went into becoming editors or agents out of their own writing aspirations, only to achieve the money and professional accomplishment but surrender all free time and creative energy so their own writing never occurs.

The Goal: Balance

It might seem that all writers would seek the trifecta. Yet, really, the key is for each writer to balance money, time and credit as fit the writer’s current goals. For example, there are times when a writer couldn’t care less about street credit, because all that matters is time to get that novel draft written. At the same time, having all the time to write can be meaningless to a writer who is unemployed and preoccupied with how to feed their kids. And street credit can be shiny but meaningless if the industry continues pushing writers to be unpaid for their work, or if the attention becomes a distraction that keeps an accomplished writer from writing new work.

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Evaluating Your Day Job

Today’s post is motivated, in part, by what all writers need to do from time to time: I’m evaluating my current day job.  There are times — no matter where we are in our career — when things are out of balance, and I’ve been feeling a significant imbalance over here for the past couple months. At the moment, my job is earning me street cred, but not sufficient income to minimize distractions, and with what feels like suffocating demands on my time.

In evaluating what change is needed, I’ll ask myself these questions:

  • Is it temporary? As a part-time teacher, overwhelming demands on my time from grading should be temporary — limited to the school seasons. The key is for me to evaluate if it is balanced by coming free time, and if that time can be used adequately to accomplish my writing goals. So far, each time I reach a vacation break I find myself writing like crazy, addressing those goals that have been on hold.  If not, I need to adjust — and adjustment, in most cases, comes through discipline.
  • Am I using my free time well? This is where discipline comes in. My litmus test on how well I am using my free time is reminder that Toni Morrison wrote The Bluest Eye while working full time as a single mother to two young boys. She wrote before they woke in the morning and after they went to bed at night. Um-hmph. My arms cross in accusation over some unused hours I’ve let slip. The key is to know your goals, seek out your writing hours and get your butt in the seat, writing.
  • Are there alternatives? Last Sunday, I spent 8-9 hours cleaning house. It would take me 4 hours to earn the money to pay someone to do that. Is that an alternative that would remove a distraction? I could leave my current job and get a different job, possibly doubling my income, but would work longer hours and not have summers free. Which option would be more liberating? Are there alternatives to bring in income with less demand on time? In some cases, there are no alternatives. If that is true, go back to the two points above to find your writing time.
  • Are my priorities aligned with my current writing goals? Right now, I have two novels drafted that need substantial hours for editing — but either one would then be ready to query an agent. For this reason, it works that I kept a part-time writing position this year, as it buys me holidays off and the potential for writing mornings. In another year, if I were working on short stories or just blogging, it might make more sense for me to give up time to increase income. It’s also been a year where I wanted more writing connections, so it has made sense for me to take more time with social media and workshops than in other years where I just wanted time on my own to write. It’s important to respect your own current projects and goals when applying any writing advice. What is great for one writer may not be for you — at least, not at this moment.

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Coming Next: 

How About You?

What experience can you share about day jobs that worked well for your writing, or those that didn’t? Can anyone share experience working at a publishing house or agent, to say if this helped advance your writing or took over your time? Or have you held a profession completely outside of writing that made it easier to write? It would be great to hear readers’ insights.

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Filed under Novel Writing, Seeking Publication, Writer's Day Jobs, Writing Life, Writing Mother

9 responses to “Writers’ Day Jobs 01: Balancing the Time, Money & Credit Trifecta

  1. Jennifer Kirkpatrick Brown

    Working at AWP I have time to write and relatively good street cred, but no money. It works for now. Gosh, I sure would love to have all three, though!


  2. Good for you Elissa. You are good at putting down (and putting yourself out there) the things you are working out in your life. It benefits both yourself and others reading it.


  3. elissa field

    Jennifer, I’m sure there are lots who would applaud a job with AWP — that’s definite street cred! Absolutely, all 3 would be great. Parsleyandpumpkins, thanks for your comment — I have the same thought when I read your posts: that, as you share your insights, you create a-ha moments for your readers, as well. Glad to see both of you here! e


  4. I started writing full-time (actually waaay more than full-time) less than 2 years ago. At the time I was teaching part-time in Peru. Then I moved to a full-time job that wasn’t supposed to be the full-time soul-sucking job it’s turned out to be. I have no qualms taking a full-time job upon repatriating to the US in 31 days– actually I want one, for the $/health insurance, the social element, and the mental balance. The last 2 years had taught me not that I have a hard time sitting down to write but that I need to balance it with the rest of my life, too. I do like your point about spending the hours on cleaning or $ to get it done. That’s a good one.


    • elissa field

      Nichole, wow, so you guys are moving back to the States? Are you glad to be heading back?

      It’s funny the way you describe getting into your full time writing job. Most of the freelance jobs I had were like that, in the way they sucked me in even if they were only supposed to be part time. It was always clients grabbing onto me and wanting to pull me into full time. What I was less good at, in gaps between that kind of client, was knowing how to cold-call or advertise for clients out of nowhere. Ulitmately, that made me less tempted to stay with freelancing once teaching came along.

      And, yes, benefits, insurance, etc, are good reasons to keep a part or full time day job!

      Thanks for posting and sharing your experience!


      • Actually, I’m solo, so it’s just my own income I can rely on. And considering the fact I left “31 days” on my post, hells to the yeah I’m excited to be coming back. Living abroad makes every day harder than living in your own country where the simplest thing like hailing a cab and ordering a meal at a restaurant or even reliable water or cable connections can be taken for granted. Yes, most of us writers/creatives suck as the business side. That’s one reason I don’t freelance anymore. Fortunately I was good at keeping clients, though :) And freelancing + teaching + writing is just too darned much. You were right to cut out freelance. I’ve finally done the same thing. Isn’t it liberating?


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  6. Pingback: The Patchwork Quilt of a Creative Career | Chaos and Words

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