Are You Writing To Live, Or Are You Living To Write?

Editor’s note: this is a guest post by Kelly Gurnett of Cordelia Calls It Quits.

So. Which is it gonna be?

Do you want to use your words to earn a living, or do you want to write the kind of content that will make you wildly, madly in love with the idea of getting up every morning?

I’ll help you out.

It’s a trick question:  you can do both.

And I don’t mean by working your little fingers off for pay by daylight, and then “burning the midnight oil” for your passion projects at night. I mean you can write things that fulfill both these goals and get paid for them.

This may seem fairly obvious to you (I know it does to me in hindsight), but if you’re a struggling writer just starting out, and are desperate to start bringing in an income, this obvious truth may elude you at first.

Living To Write

I’ve been “side hustling” as a freelance writer and editor for almost a year now, working in the evenings and weekends around my 9-5 job. And in that almost-year, my idea of what it means to be a “successful” freelancer has drastically evolved. 

I’ve learned that when it comes to making a living as a writer, just as in living your life, you’re only as happy as you choose to be. And for me, choosing to be “pickier” about my freelance projects is infinitely worth any tradeoff in potential income.

We’re Happy Just To Be Writing ANYTHING

When you’ve been stuck in cube world for 10 years, lamenting your wasted English degree and all those promising novellas you used to write as a child, just the simple thought of getting paid for your words can seem like a dream come true. It doesn’t matter if you’re writing about things that bore you silly, or dealing with clients who are less than easy to work with—you’re getting paid to write! 

At first, just being able to tell people “I am a paid writer” had me on cloud nine.

We’re Afraid To Turn Down Opportunities

When you’re just starting out, turning down a job can feel like career suicide. Who knows when the next offer will come? You’re such a newbie, you think, you’re lucky to get any job!

In my first few months of freelancing, I helped someone write a grievance letter to her boss. I wrote and designed a brochure for a concrete company. I helped a scatterbrained professor turn his illegible notes into a legible presentation. These were all paying jobs, but nothing I was really excited to sit down and work on. You see, I was terrified of being overly choosy and that I might run out of work.

We Think Being A “Jack Of All Trades” Will Get Us Further

When I landed my first steady client, a big-time PR hotshot with several clients of her own, I thought I’d hit freelance gold. She and her clients kept me in work regularly, and it was an exciting variety of work, too: website copy, e-mail newsletters, press releases, even ghostwriting the occasional ebook. I felt like I was building up a great portfolio.

By all measures, my freelance biz was taking off, and I was thrilled for the growth. But, secretly, I was beginning to suspect I didn’t really like the work itself all that much.

Writing To Live

It wasn’t an easy decision to make, but I finally came to the realization that for my own happiness and personal fulfillment, I needed to be more selective about the projects I take on. 

If I loved blogging, for instance, why couldn’t I take the time I was spending on projects I didn’t care about and, instead, use that SAME time to try to build a blog-related freelance business? 

Just the thought of this new approach excited me.  So, I “re-branded” my Hire Me page, started promoting it, and crossed my fingers.

It was the best decision I’ve made so far in my freelance journey.

Why It’s O.k. (And Even Sensible) To Specialize In Writing That You Love

It think it’s okay (and even sensible) to specialize in the writing you love.

Here’s why:

  • You’re at your best when you’re in love. This isn’t to say that you can’t do different types of writing well. But there’s a certain something that gets into your writing when you’re really on fire about it. And people take notice of that.
  • There’s no sense in having TWO jobs you don’t like. I didn’t hate my freelance work like I did my 9-5 day job, but I had certainly started to dislike it an awful lot. I found myself resenting the time spent on certain projects. My whole reason for going into freelancing wasn’t to replace my day job with just another job I didn’t like; it was to ultimately quit my day job for a job that I loved. A job I could look forward to going to every day. A job that utilizes my talents and makes me feel like I’m producing something truly worthwhile.
  • A jack of all trades doesn’t stand out very much.  In other words, being fairly good at a ton of different things doesn’t make you exceptional at any one thing. And freelance writers are, almost literally, a dime a dozen. Being exceptional at a specific type of writing can be your ticket to standing out in an incredibly crowded market—and can help you ask for the pay you truly deserve.
  • Specializing means your work can dovetail with your “passion projects.”  The things I truly love doing with no thought of getting payment for them (although getting paid for them would be nice!) are working on my blog, contributing regularly to other blogs, and connecting with other bloggers. And when all my time was spent chasing any freelance job that went by, these loves started falling by the wayside. But now that I’ve narrowed my focus to blog-specific services (paid blogging, ghost blogging, blog consulting), even the things I do for “free” ultimately contribute to my freelance biz. By working on my own blog, for instance, I’m demonstrating my ability to build a brand and to connect with an audience. It’s a win-win.
  • Having a side hustle you love makes the day job a little easier to stomach.  I’d rather get paid for writing I love (even if that pay is less frequent) than run a steady business doing projects solely for the money. Sure, I’ll probably have to stick it out in my current day job a little longer before my own business is steady enough to justify quitting, but having a side hustle I’m truly passionate about makes it easier for me to see my 9-5 as a means of supporting my dream. For me,  the tradeoff is definitely worth it.

So… Which Is It Gonna Be?

So. Which is it gonna be? Are you going to continue to live to write, or you gonna start writing to live?

The choice is up to you.

Kelly Gurnett, a.k.a. “Cordelia,” runs the blog Cordelia Calls It Quits, where she documents her attempts to rid her life of the things that don’t matter and encourages others to do the same. You can follow her on Twitter and Facebook or send her an e-mail at kelly@cordeliacallsitquits.com.

Are you writing to live, or living to write? Do you agree with my approach to the writing life, or do you disagree? What approach are you taking? Please share your thoughts with us in the comments below!

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15 comments on “Are You Writing To Live, Or Are You Living To Write?

  1. Dana Bennett says:

    Cordelia – Anne,
    I wrote a comment and then WP fooled around with me and I can’t write another one after losing the first one. I like what you said. I’m an energy fool, too, but not anymore – not with a chronic and progressive and ultimately terminal liver disease. Fooled me! Now I don’t have as many choices to squander my energy and I don’t take care of paperwork, pay my bills late, do little if any housecleaning and read and write as much as I can. Even the writing gets to be too much sometimes. I liked reading about the Anne life. A lot. Thank you.

    • Dana:

      My heart goes out to you. It’s so easy to get wrapped up in the stupid minutia of life, without realizing how much of our energy we’re ”squandering,” as you so perfectly put it. I hope for you that you are able to enjoy life for what it is now and that you can find as much beauty, meaning, and inspiration in the little things (and the big things) every single day.

      Keep me updated on how you are doing! I will be thinking of you.🙂

  2. Ollin says:

    Hey Kelly, I often feel we’re on the same wavelength you and I. I’ve had the same sort of epiphany lately with freelancing. We are often conditioned to thinking that we cannot possibly do what we love, we cannot possibly succeed at it, make a living at it, or even just make money at it. But is that conditioning correct? I suspect no, as you do. Here’s hoping we both prove conventional wisdom wrong.

    I’m always excited to follow your journey. Thanks for sharing your thoughts with us. Lot of food for thought!

    • Thank YOU, Ollin, for giving me the chance to guest post again–and one of your last guest posts, too! I can’t wait to see what your upcoming announcement is. I have a feeling that we both of us will prove conventional wisdom INCREDIBLY wrong–and hopefully inspire some others to do the same in the process!

  3. Catherine Johnson says:

    Great points there, Ollin. I am pondering my future now that my youngest will soon start school and it is a big decision to freelance rather than look for part-time work. I still haven’t really made my mind up, but I think I’ll enjoy trying to write full-time for a bit to start with anyway. Glad you made some wise decisions, I can see why you have done what you’ve done, but enough is enough on projects that you’re not passionate about.

  4. I’ve been paying my bills with writing for a long time now…and I enjoy every minute of it. Hint: Love the challenge.

    I have written about surety bonds, and did the annual report for a transit company. And I was having fun every minute of it, because I’m a challenge addict. I like difficult stuff.

    If I want to write a novel, I’ll do that too, in my spare time. In the meanwhile, it’s a real point of pride to be able to help companies tell their story — and it pays well.

    I’ve also been able to combine topics I really like with paying assignments — I actually consider that the sweet spot. I’m always on the lookout for opportunities to get paid to write an article about something I’d like to learn about anyway. For instance, my daughter spent her first three weeks of life in a specialized pediatric ICU program, and I’d always wanted to learn more about what they did and what that time in her life was like…so I did a profile of the organization for Seattle magazine, for just one example. Got to hang out there all day and see what goes on. Win!

    Loving the writing and getting paid should definitely not be mutually exclusive!

    Great post —

    • Thanks, Carol! Coming from you, that compliment means a lot.

      I’m still taking on a modicum of “just for the money” jobs because I really want to make the push to get myself out of my day job–but, I am being much pickier about how much time those jobs will take, whether the client I will be working with is a good one, and whether the job will conflict with my “passion project” writing.

      It’s a balancing act, but I find that the more I focus on what I love, the more opportunities in that field just “happen” to open up to me. Funny how that happens. 😀

  5. Lauren says:

    I loved this article. I’ve been writing as my sole source of income for almost two years now…

    However, since I’m also my little family’s sole source of income in general, sometimes the desperation/panic sets in. I could definitely relate to this: “We’re Afraid To Turn Down Opportunities.”

    I’ve been trying to keep tabs on this instinct lately and be “pickier” about my assignments. It’s incredibly tough, but I’ve been doing pretty well for the past few months.

    And I love Carol Tice’s comment above (below?) me. It’s such a great idea to look for projects that you want to learn about anyway! I just finished an assignment like that the other day (comparing Hypoglycemia with Bi-Polar Disorder).

    Keep up the great work!

    • Thanks, Lauren! I’m in the process of making the transition from day job/side hustle to making writing my full-time income, so I have the “luxury” of being able to be a little pickier because I still have the day job income to fall back on. If I made the leap right now, I would definitely have to loosen up my ideals a little, at least until I started to get more traction.

      I do like the suggestion to take on projects you’re curious about. It’s a good way to expand your income (and your horizons!) without having to resort to those projects you absolutely could not care less about.

  6. As struggling authors it’s difficult to keep our heads above the water, but our passion and belief in ourselves fuels us. And, though it’s been a rough few years, we know that if we keep working diligently we’ll get where we want to be. So, thank you for the wonderful article and a new sense of hope.

    • You are quite welcome. Don’t lose hope–the more you open yourself up to opportunities and insist on your dreams, the more the universe responds by presenting you with opportunities you never would have imagined. I know that sounds kind of “hippy dippy trippy,” but I fully believe that it’s true. 🙂

  7. spinx says:

    Always been the kind who writes to live…..but mostly – I want to live, above anything else.

    After all – if writing were the center of my life, I would write about writing all day long. most of all I enjoy life, and writing is simply a way for me to reproduce some of those emotions.

    Earning 2000 or even 3000 Euro doesn´t interest me much – and I´m 26 now. Deffinitely not interested. Why? Because having a TV screen the size of a truck, and a couch worth more than a couch would not make me happy – at all.

    So….thanks – I pass. iwill wait for my millions to come soon instead ;T

    (And that too will happen.)

  8. l0ve0utl0ud says:

    Cordelia – you are absolutely right in everything you say. I worked as a business editor for the past year and a half, as it was the first step to getting into the publishing world. However, very soon I started getting bored and frustrated and realised that, even though I was editing, I was working in the wrong field. Now I am going into more creative projects, such as song writing and writing for children, as this inspires me more!

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