How To Make a Living Writing

writerDecide if you really want to make a living writing. If your primary interest in writing is to give expression to your innermost thoughts and feelings, and you don’t really care if anyone reads your stuff or not, that’s a beautiful thing. But if your goal is to have great numbers of people pay money in order to read what you write, that’s a whole other universe. Most people would say they only want to write for themselves, when what they really want is to be famous for the quality of their thoughts and the charm with which they’re expressed. Decide whether or not you want to be someone who writes personal journals, or someone who writes bestsellers. Because they’re not even close to the same thing. One is fun; one can be fun, but definitely involves insane amounts of pain. Be clear on your goal going in. You don’t want to pack for a day trip and then start up Mt. Everest.

Learn punctuation. (Oh: From here on out I’ll assume you want to be a Famous Writer.) It’s weird how many people want to become writers who haven’t yet mastered punctuation. And mastered is the word, too: You have to know that stuff cold. If you aren’t absolutely positive when you can and can’t use a semicolon, for instance, then you need to keep studying punctuation until you are. You can’t fake knowing punctuation. And you definitely can’t write to your full potential without the creative freedom that comes from understanding the most fundamental tool of your trade. (And here’s something huge: Learn the rules of punctuation so thoroughly that you know the difference between a punctuation “rule” and a style choice. That’ll be a fight you’ll fight one day; publishing is filled with people who think the “rules” of punctuation are whatever they happened to learn in the Editing 101 class they took in college twenty years ago. People think there are all kinds of punctuation rules that are really just style choices.)

Work for free. If you’re just starting out, write for free. Lots of beginning writers think it’s beneath them to write for free; don’t be one of them. You need a portfolio, and doing quality work for free is the fastest way to get a good one. Pick your favorite of one of those little free publications in your area — the kind of neighborhood newspapers and entertainment tabloids ubiquitous in coffee shops and markets — and study it. See what kinds of articles it runs; learn the word counts of those articles; become familiar with the general tone and style of the publication. Pick one of the shorter types of things the publication regularly features (usually a review of some sort: albums, restaurants, art show openings, whatever) and then write two or three pieces exactly like those. (I started out writing 250-word album reviews for a local free music tabloid, for instance.) Send those pieces to the editor of the publication you’re about to start writing for, accompanied by a short, friendly letter introducing yourself (keep stuff about yourself to a minimum: editors are too busy to care). Just say you wrote the enclosed or attached pieces in the hope that they’d use it in their publication (which, of course, you think the world of). Be sure to tell them that you’re perfectly okay with them cutting or in any way editing the pieces you’ve submitted. Just the fact that you’re flexible that way puts you in the upper .001% of newbie would-be freelancers, who tend to think their every word is sacrosanct.

Understand publishing. Every publication, from your free local rag to Vanity Fair magazine, exists on its advertising. First publications sell ads, then they flow editorial material around those ads. In a real sense, editorial content is basically filler between ads. The thing about advertisers is that they tend to be unbelievably flaky, which they can do because they know that in the relationship between themselves and the publisher, they have all the power — which is especially true down at the local level where you’ll be starting out. So advertisers come in late with their ads; they suddenly don’t like the proof of their ads; they don’t pay for their ads; they pull their ads. For all those kinds of reasons and more, publications are forever left scrambling at the last minute to fill space with editorial content that they thought was going to be filled with an ad. This can definitely work to your advantage. If I’m an editor (and I have been, a lot), and I suddenly find out that I’ve got to fill space that used to be an ad with editorial, you better believe I’m going to remember that stuff you just sent me. If it’s clean, and useable — and especially, usually, if it has a decent picture with it!! — I’ll use it. And I’ll be grateful to you, too, because you just became an asset to me. Which means I will be contacting you about future work. So if you really want to maximize your chances of getting published in a particular publication, find out that publication’s production schedule. Find out, in other words, what day of every week or month that publication needs to be finalized so that it can be sent to the printer. Advertisers tend to drop out right before a publication’s deadline. Make sure your stuff gets to the editor a day or so before it’s a sure bet that he or she is suddenly going to be scrambling to fill the space just vacated by an advertiser. That way, when they’re panicking to fill that space, your submission, having just come in, will be fresh on their mind, and at the top of their stacked in-box, which’ll make it easy for them to get their hands on. In publishing, as in life, timing is everything. Submit your stuff two days before your publication gets put to bed, and rest assured that you couldn’t have timed it better.

Learn about word count. Everything about a piece — being, mainly, its angle and tone — is determined by how many words it’s supposed to be. This piece you’re reading right now, for instance, has gone on too long: nobody wants to read a blog posting anywhere near this long. So now I have to end it.

If anyone’s interested in my continuing this piece, lemme know and I will. (I can’t imagine too many people wanting that; writing is, after all, just a job. And how interesting, usually, is someone else’s job? Unless you really are a writer. Then, for some happy reason, just about everyone’s job is extremely fascinating. But that’s a whole other … thing.)

Anyway, here’s wishing you a wonderful week!

Part Two of this article is here. Part Three is here. See also More on How to Make a Living Writing,

How To Become a Factory of Story and Article Ideas, and My Last, Best 10 Tips on How To Make It As A Writer





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  • People: Debra (comment #3 above) is being entirely modest. About nine months ago a book she wrote instantly became and remains a bestseller in the "Gardening" category. It's called "Designing with Succulents,"; you can see its Amazon page here:

    Debra's website is here:

    When I used to be editor of this Home and Garden-type magazine, I saw something Debra wrote and was so impressed I tracked down her home phone number and BEGGED her to come write for me. She did, and immediately proved herself the best freelancer I've yet to work with. She had tons of experience by then anyway, from which of course I benefitted. (sp??) Writing-wise, Debra's as real a deal as they get. She's really been down in the freelance trenches, and, because of her talent and work ethic, always comes out smelling like … succulents.

  • Thank you John. I do not think I want to "make a living" writing but I do want to become a better writer. Please continue!

  • John,

    I’m a young writer and I really appreciated this post, even if it was too long. 😛

    And you’re absolutely right: “just about everyone’s job is extremely fascinating.” No one else really gets that…


  • Sabina


  • Debra

    I for one, being a professional writer (who worked with you when you wore your editor crown) would love it if you continued this. I learned from it, and I’ve written literally thousands of articles and columns. We freelance writers — unless we fill in for a publication’s staff when someone is on vacation or maternity leave — never really see how the slick ticks. (“Slick” being slang for a magazine with a glossy cover.) I would like to be able to refer new freelancers to your posting, John, but it’s not nearly long enough!

  • Hjordes

    Where was the plug for “Comma Sense,” John?

    Every budding writer I have bought that book for loves it!

  • Hjordes: Right, right: I WROTE a book on punctuation! Right. Duh. Yes. Everyone, go buy the book on punctuation I co-wrote with Famous Grammar Guy, Richard Lederer. Now.

    Whew. Thanks, Hjordes! As ever, you’ve proven yourself invaluable.

  • Determined Disciple

    John, yes, please write more! Truly, my heart is bursting at the seams with a passion for writing, especially writing that reveals, exonerates, and glorifies the Lord ~ for children and “children at heart.” But I feel like I’m swimming in a black sea (not The Black Sea, mind you), enabled by God to do the task (write, and with passion), but unable to navigate the murky waters of the publishing world without a guide who’s “gone before me.” More than that, my inexperience with the publishing world ~ and my over-indulgence in reading truly insprired literature ~ makes me feel more than a mite intimidated to even try to seek out an audience. I’m plankton in the Pacific. So, yes, write more, more, more!

  • Determined Disciple

    p.s. Yes, I did mean “exonerate.” Too many people I know think the Lord fits the description in Depeche Mode’s song, “Blasphemous Rumors”:

    “…I think that God’s got a sick sense of humor, and when I die, I expect to find him laughing.”

    They think God is out to get them, or He doesn’t care about them. Or that there’s no rhyme or reason to what He does or what He allows to happen (if they believe in Him at all). My nephew once retorted, “Why should I pray? If God loves me, how come He lets all the kids I want to play with be mean to me?” That’s the kind of thinking I want to overturn in people… among many other evangelical aspirations I have to glorify the Lord and share His Truth with the world. :o)

  • Please don’t stop here! You whetted my appetite then took the plate away! They call that ‘tantalizing’, don’t they? smile….

    I have self-published 3 books, having sold 5000 copies of each. Now I am out of print and still getting requests for the first book. This time, however, I want it to be ‘publisher friendly’. I am hungry for help on how to write to get the eye of a good publisher!

    Thanks for sharing your expertise with the rest of us, John.

    You are the best writer I have read in a long while.


  • Great advice. I will be back to this blog.

  • Thanks for sharing the tip.

  • Anu

    Please do write more…. I loved your article so far and am waiting to read the next instalment…… I myself am an amateur writer who began writing not so long ago, and would like to improve myself….I haven read any of your books till date, but will certainly try to, now that I have seen your blog…..

  • ingriddanielle

    Thank You for this intro into free-lance 101. It was truly excellent advice for the newbie or would be writer.

  • tam

    great advice to any writer.

  • I'd like to hear more, even though you're gearing it more toward a freelancer, and I am a novelist (who wouldn't mind freelancing if she knew how 🙂 ).

    Have a great day!

  • Gene Thomas

    How right you are about the length of blog posts. This one is at my outer limit. I keep track of about 50, or so, blogs. I select which ones to actually read each day by title–so, title your blogs carefully. Even when one is selected, if I get to it and it is l-o-n-g I skip it.

  • This was very interesting and I would love to learn more. I'm not interested in making a living this way, but I do want to become a better writer/blogger. Thank you. PS Generally I would skip a post this long, or only read a portion of it, but this one held my interest.

  • Yes, John. Please. And thanks.

  • samwrites2


    This is the second time I've responded. I got on a long call at the call center I work in helping a large company's employees with their benefits. That ties in to my point – I make more here than I did at newspapers like the Waco Tribune Herald and Port Arthur News.

    That in mind, if someone remains masochistic enough to want to work as a print journalist I advise them to approach it as the priesthood or as an addiction. Profit can't be the motive or profit better be the overriding motive that pushes you to work long and hard hours. There's only a few at the top that derive enough satisfaction and pay to provide peace and contentment.

    I can also provide plenty of lists of websites with useful tools to you, if asked for, such as and the Purdue University English Dept. site with tips.

    I want part II if you don't mind. – Sam

  • Good stuff John. I have no delusions of ever making it as a best-selling writer, but I do want to be able to publish scholarly works within my field after I finish my master's, and your suggestions are quite helpful.

  • This was a fantastic piece! I appreciate the honest and insightful perspective. I look forward to reading more.

    – Brian

  • Bernie

    Despite word count, I appreciated the article and would have liked to have read more. Please continue to write more about writing…..

  • samwrites2

    Odgie, One of the most useful links I have for that sort of writing is… . That is part of the larger website that features several different styles and also self-editing advice. I'm currently trying to find all the various writing advice and job links I'd compiled into a list over the years ranging from journalism to science fiction writing. Please folks, no jokes about the two being related.

    Said list, to be posted at my website once re-compiled, got left on a computer due to an unexpected departure (with no possibility of return) from a newsroom in Arkansas. -Sam

  • Good info on the right approach, thanks.

  • Thanks so much for that post. If there is to be a part II, and I hope so, can you elaborate on terms like "clean" and "usable". They sound like they have industry specific meanings. Thanks.

  • OH man, I've got to read "Comma Sense" and see where I'm right and wrong on punctuation. Punctuation errors (eg it's and its) drive me nuts, but my last grammar lessons were about 15 years ago, so I know some things have changed by now ("style preferences," perhaps?).

    But yes please, keep writing about the writing. I liked your pointers.

  • Elizabeth

    Bring it on, JS!!! We're eatin' it up!!!!

    Good, useful stuff. (Yep, that's one of those style choices.)


  • Okay, cool. Well, thanks, everyone. I’ll write more tomorrow. I’d today, but I’ve got about ten days left to finish work on this 60,000 word book before it’s due to go to its publisher. So cramped just now. But tomorrow a.m. for sure. Thanks again for all the positve responses.

  • Please go on.

  • Can you the sake of an example produce a para using puctuation marks of every kind and explanin why one has been used in place other etc.,kindly make your advice which will let the reader understand without an iota of doubt. Thanks , any way , for enlightening the novice.

  • Sorry, krshna. Punctuation's just too complicated for that. BOOKS are written about proper punctuation.

    Here's one now:

  • fbcfoundationbuilder

    I'm glad I saw the link to this post on the wordpress login screen today. I've been trying to transition from teacher to professional writer for about a year, and I'm never sure what to do next. Your tips gave me confidence that I'm on the right track and motivation to keep at it. Thanks!

  • sheryl

    Mr. Shore I found your article quite interesting. I’ve only read part one so far, as my time is limited at the moment. But I felt compelled to respond to what I’ve read. Writing is one of my greatest passions. I couldn’t imagine life without being able to write. I think I would go insane. Honestly. I am the type you described who writes for my own pleasure and fulfillment. But I’m also the type who harbors a secret dream of being published. I say that very hesitantly because I fear that people would laugh at me for even harboring such a dream. I have not masted the art of punctuating. In fact my punctuating errors are probably laughable at times. I know my weaknesses. Still I secretly harbor a dream. When I had the option of returning to school I considered making writing my major but I didn’t have the confidence for it. I didn’t believe in myself. So I pursued another passion. Which I’m content with. I don’t know why I’ve told you this. But I suppose I better end this blog before it gets too long. Is that what it’s called? I don’t know I’ve never written one before. Thank s for what you’ve shared. I’m looking forward to reading part two, when I get the time.


  • Nice of you to share your experienced perspective. I'm working on becoming writer who is paid for the pain and the good content. Thanks for the tips.

  • sheryl

    OK, I think I’m confused. I don’t think I wrote a blog, I think I responded to one. I am so computer illiterate. Now you know why I’m not a writer. Thank God I’m able to laugh at myself and hide behind this computer.


  • Katie

    Interesting advice.

    I mainly only write for fun (sometimes with a co-author like I'm doing now).

    But this post has some great advice no matter what level you're at.


  • isabellagladd

    WOW! Lots of great advice. I have something to add when it comes to writing for free. Absolutely, when starting out be willing to offer writing services for free or at a lower rate to establish a portfolio. Target charitable organizations or groups that do good deeds rather than entities that can afford to pay a writer. Offer pro bono work for your favorite charity as a kindness throughout your writing career.

    I am against taking on writing gigs that pay with a byline. Writers, novice and established, deserve fair pay. This laughable offer is becoming commonplace when writing for the web. By accepting a payment of, "you'll get your name in print" or "others will notice and hire you" writers are saying, "I do not value my work enough to be paid." That kind of attitude undercuts all writers.

    Thanks for sharing your knowledge.

  • I'm confused. Didn't you just say, "Do write for free," and "Don't write for free"?

  • Thanks, John! This is clear, inside advice and the best part is, it’s free! I’m aspire to be writer; but I feel that God has put a pasion for screenwriting movies inside of myself!

    I also have an odd sense of humor, so I’m wondering if after reading that last sentence, you thought, “Do NOT quit your day job.”

  • I DID think that! So, very funny. Thanks.

  • Mission accomplished. 🙂

  • I feel that God has put a passion in me for dabbling with writing snarkily on my blog. Interestingly enough, he also seems to have made my skillz and my effort level inversely proportional, as the best response usually comes from what I feel are my most mundane posts. The ones where I spend hours banging my head against the wall to the wall to get the perfect effect–generally nada. Funny how that works. 😉

  • Great tips! Thanks John!

  • Jon

    Thanks John. These are inspiring words and encourage me to believe that even I can be a successful writer. I refuse to accept that I won't be the most famous household name since "Tab Clear". I just need my 2 year old to stop using my wireless keyboard as a step stool long enough for me to tap out 1000 words or so. Cogito ergo scriptum, and all that.

  • "Tab Clear!" That is SO great!

    Consider it stolen.

  • Michael

    "If anyone's interested in my continuing this piece, lemme know and I will"…… Continue!!

  • Great advice! Just at the time I need it, too. I didn’t just come out of the closet as a Christian (yes, sorry, pun intended re your conversion experience–couldn’t resist!), and yet I’m still amazed at how Abba gives us exactly what we need when we need it. I mean, you wrote this some time back without giving me a thought, seeing as how you don’t know me. But Abba (our Heavenly Father for anyone reading this who may not be familiar w/the term) knows us both. I’m trying to let go of a steady-paying freelance technical writing gig in order to write more interesting material to finance my fiction addiction, which likely won’t reach the point of putting bread on the table until Jesus comes and then eating won’t be absolutely necessary. Why would I want to do that? Writer, insane–synonyms, right? No need to go into the “why” here because the point is that I NEEDED this advice NOW. So I give praise where it’s due–first to the Lord and then to you. THANKS!!

  • tsuro

    Thank you.

  • I am learning a lot with your posts.

    I have a question. Is there a Spanish translation to your “punctuation book”? or may be, it doesn´t matter, punctuation is the same in every language, at least in every western language.

  • I started writing on Helium about 10 months ago, and though I've shared in reveue there, I want to break into freelancing soon.

    I still have so much to learn, but do I have to know it all before I get started?? Yes, it sounds like a dumb question, but it's a serious question.

  • Sin: No, "Comma Sense" has not been translated in Spanish. Sorry!

    Mona: No, you don't have to know ANYTHING before you get started. That's the great thing about writing; you can start anytime, anywhere, with however much knowledge you then possess. Good luck!

  • These are great tips! I just wanted to point out that not all publications rely on advertising though… there are a small number of independents who maintain editorial integrity by saying no to ads!


  • Dana

    Hi John! I love your above blog and yes it is a bit long so it ended at the right time.

    I’m interested in following in your footsteps, but right now I’m in the personal journal entry phase of my writing and I would like to be at a national best seller phase. Do you have anymore suggestions on how I can get started? Should take a writing course?



  • rj bugayong

    I'd definitely be interested to learn more.

  • Michele D. Toussaint

    Please continue to write! I am an aspiring author, presently and I need all the nuggets that I can receive from people/person that are already where I am tring to go.

    God Bless!

  • Selena

    Thanks for the article. I write a weekly newspaper column and have often thought I might like to freelance. However, taking the first step is always something to put off for another day. Can you tell us how to take the first step?

  • Selena: I've written quite a bit on that. The problem is that I didn't write my HT's on writing in daily succession. To find what you're looking for, either pay $2.99 for what you find here:,
    or go to the category, in the right hand column, of "Writing: How To/Business Of," and start poking around.

  • sohel

    I Love You

    by ridwan

    I never really knew you

    You were just another friend

    But when I got to know you,

    I let my heart unbend.

    I couldn't help past memories

    that would only make me cry

    I had to forget my first love

    and give love another try

    So I've fallen in love with you

    and I'll never let you go

    I love you more than anyone

    I just had to let you know

    And if you ever wonder why

    I don't know what I'll say

    But I'll never stop loving you

    each and every day

    My feelings for you will never change