Lisa Lenard-Cook

The Lonely Writer’s Companion

“Can You Make a Living as a Writer?”

Welcome to The Lonely Writer’s Companion. The format’s simple: You send in your questions, and each month I’ll select one to answer. Email your questions to me c/o (Be sure to put “Question for The Lonely Writer’s Companion” in the subject line.) You can also contact me through my website,

“I can. But it’s not from what you would think.”

Question: This month’s question comes from Josh in Denver: Can you make a living as a writer?

The Lonely Writer responds: Can I make a living as a writer? As a matter of fact, I can. But it’s not from what you would think. The majority of my income comes not from writing, but from editing, ghosting, coaching, and teaching.

For one thing, we writers don’t charge enough. In fact, often we don’t charge at all. I’ve been writing this column and its predecessor for over ten years but am not paid to do so. (Why do I keep on doing it? I ask myself that every month when I sit down to write a new one. The answer is that I like helping other writers.) The Huffington Post is notorious for not paying its writers, but because appearing there can be a stepping stone to paying gigs, most just hang on to their day jobs and submit there anyway.

To compound this problem, few smaller presses can offer advances anymore. The plus side of this is that we start earning royalties as soon as our books start to sell. The big if is whether they will sell. I’m lucky—all of my early books, which had advances, have earned out, and I’ve gotten royalties for my more recent ones, which weren’t offered advances, as well. At the same time, we’re expected to pay fees to enter writing contests (as a literary magazine editor, I can tell you those fees barely cover expenses), do our own marketing, and, almost always, pay for our own travel to book events.

It’s taken me over twenty years to establish my bona fides as a book editor, conference speaker and teacher, writing coach, and, more recently, literary ghost, and yes, as a writer. All of my work comes to me by referral, so I don’t have to advertise or go looking for it. Would I love to make enough from my writing to leave all those other gigs behind? That’s a two-part question, with a two-part answer. Yes, I would love to make enough from my writing, but no, I wouldn’t want to leave it all behind. I love teaching writing. I lovespeaking and teaching at conferences. I lovecoaching. Ghosting and editing I love a little less, so, if my writing were to suddenly earn me some real money, I’d probably give those up—especially as they take up so much of my own writing time.

“. . . you can make a living as a writer. . .if you’re willing to work in the trenches . . .”

But I think your real question, Josh, is if you can make a living as a writer. My answer to that is, yes, if you’re willing to work in the trenches rather than pose as an auteur. You may spend years waiting tables, typing others’ business correspondence, toting that barge and lifting that bale, or even reading slush pile manuscripts, before others start seeking your editorial assistance. But if you study your craft, if you’re willing to revise and rewrite as well as get those first bursts of inspiration on the page, then ultimately, you will have the creds to cobble together an existence similar to mine. And maybe, if the stars are aligned just so, you’ll be the next breakout author, and will never go hungry again.


Got a question for The Lonely Writer’s Companion? Email it to me c/o, (be sure to put “Question for The Lonely Writer’s Companion” in the subject line), or contact me through my website, Your question could appear in a future column.

Find Your Story Writer Your Memoir
Find Your Story,
Write Your Memoir

by Lisa Lenard-Cook
and Lynn C. Miller
Buy This Book via

PEN-short-listed author Lisa Lenard-Cook’s most recent book is Find Your Story, Write Your Memoir (University of Wisconsin Press), which she co-authored with Lynn C. Miller, with whom she co-founded of ABQ Writers Co-op (, creating community in New Mexico for writers everywhere. She’s an editor of the literary magazine bosque, on the faculty of the Santa Barbara Writer’s Conference, and the Board of Narrative Arts Center in Santa Fe. Website: