Don’t give up your day job, it’s good for you!


Photo courtesy SXC.

I’ve wanted to be a full-time freelance writer since I was 13—so long ago, in fact, that the books about it that I borrowed from the public library talked about “over the transom” submissions (hint: it means sending the entire manuscript instead of a query) and gave tips on what sorts of typewriters and typing paper worked best for long manuscripts.

I got published professionally for the first time the next year (I’ll give you a hint as to the era: Reagan was president) and have stayed published for the last 25 years. However, there have been very few periods when I have worked full-time as a freelancer. And maybe that’s OK.

Sarah Hodon, guest posting over at the Urban Muse blog, recently wrote a great post about “5 Ways That Your Day Job Can Help Your Writing.” She has some good points about what working for someone else, regardless of whether or not it is writing-related, can boost your productivity and creativity as a freelancer.

I especially like two points she makes, about focus and self-discipline.

Sarah asserts that focusing on your day job can help you think of story ideas. She notes:

“Your subconscious is still buzzing away, even if you’re intently working on a project or sitting through a meeting. Most writers … admit that their best ideas come to them at the strangest times. … Carry a notebook with you so you can jot down those brilliant ideas.”

It’s true, having something else to focus on, other than the looming deadline for your next article/chapter/etc., can help open the floodgates to fresh ideas when sitting around worrying about it isn’t.

I think, though, that I agree even more with her assertion that having limited writing time helps one develop self-discipline. I did much of my early work as a freelancer during the summers when I was in high school. I had a “job”—stringing for a national magazine aimed at the 14-21 year old crowd—and that helped me manage the rest of my freelancing time very well. I had to do the “paying gig” first (I was given a small monthly stipend for clipping story ideas and sending them to the editorial mothership, suggesting interviewees for upcoming articles and conducting interviews and research for staff writers), then I could work on story pitches and the humorous essays I imagined editors would find gut-bustingly funny (and some actually did).

After college, living at home and without a full-time day job, I had much more time to freelance—but fewer steady writing gigs. I floundered for a bit, not as certain as in high school how to divvy up my time. It was not until I got a full-time job–doing PR for a library system–that I truly got back on track with my freelance writing.

Hodon addresses why having a regular schedule (whether from a day job or a recurring writing assignment) helps you get more done:

“If your writing projects are reserved solely for evenings and weekends, you have no choice but to get yourself on a schedule. Most writers that I know need a deadline—even a self-imposed one. Come up with a to-do list and start tackling the less time-consuming tasks—get those emails sent, look up the name of the book you’re hoping to use for research, or send the photo to the editor for your bio. It may seem overwhelming at first, but it’s a great feeling of accomplishment to get some of those items out of the way.”

In addition to Hodon’s fine list of day-job advantages for writers, I’d like to add a couple of my own.

A day job will get you out among real, live people. People who aren’t your sources, your editors, or your family. In other words, people whom you can observe and relate to in a non-commoditized way (at least where writing is concerned). I’ve heard of more than one writer who’s taken up a day job—anything from teaching to flipping burgers—just to be able to have human contact on a daily basis.

A day job gives you other identities beyond that of “writer.” Unless, of course, you are writing for someone else! In any case, a day job, writing related or not, can give you perspective on your freelance identity—since you are living another professional identity during the day and can reflect on your freelance identity from the outside when you are in the day-job role.

The questions to you…
What advantages have you found to holding a day job while working as a freelance writer? Is steady income a primary motivation or are there other, more compelling benefits in your case?

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