Why do you want to be a writer?

Author – officially the 156th best job in the world!

This was the verdict of a recent survey comparing 200 occupations – their physical demands, work environment, income, stress and outlook. The 155 jobs considered more relaxing, profitable and pleasant than writing books include:

  • funeral director (116)
  • pest control worker (95)
  • sewage plant operator (87)
  • tax collector (85)
  • nuclear decontamination technician (65).

According to the survey, actuary is the World’s Best Job. Yet Amazon lists just 115 ‘become an actuary’ titles, versus 24,166 that tell you how to ‘become a writer’.

Rough artwork from my Dealing with Feelings series (Raintree, 2013), by the very talented Clare Elsom

On Twitter (and I always am), #AmWriting trends more often than #AmDecontaminating. The web is not (yet) flooded with tips for breaking into the sewage industry. And Frank Lampard was keener to branch out into children’s books than pest control.

Why do so many of us want to write books for a living?

Even careers website Prospects says the prospects are bleak. A 25-34 year old writer can expect to earn, on average, £5000 for a year’s work. Experienced authors earn less than a third of the national wage, and 60% of professional writers need a second job.

I knew this as an undergraduate, but I ignored the Milkround and applied for publishing jobs. I knew it in my early 20s, but went weak at the knees when given the chance to write my first children’s book. (Extra work? For free? Yes please!) In my early 30s, after ten years of freelance authoring, I’m well aware of the downsides (no security/sick pay/colleagues/morning cappuccino).

But apart from one WILD evening when I thought ‘Yes! I should totally retrain as an actuary!’ I still really really really want to write for a living.

And so do hundreds of thousands of others. Self-publishing statistics are a good indicator – last year, some 235,000 books were self-published in the US alone.

Despite anecdotal evidence from literary agents, not everyone who writes a book can be anticipating JK Rowling- or Julia Donaldson-sized success. It’s true that big deals and big sales are headline news. But most writers know that publishing is a ‘winner takes all’ market, where 10% of authors earn 50% of the income. (The figures are even worse for self-publishing, where “75% of the royalty pie is going to 10% of authors”). 

Contains the very best 50 words to describe a backhoe loader.

What of the theory that writers are born that way, inspired only by the need to “sit down at a typewriter and bleed”. This sounds plausible if you’re a novelist, sitting in your garrett, writing about the human condition. Less so if you’re a non-fiction writer, like me, working out the best 50 words to describe a backhoe loader.

And yet. Perhaps non-fiction writers are born, not made, too. As future novelists drafted their first stories, geeky 8-year-old me was recording holidays in book form, in a process longer than the trips themselves. At 10, I was writing a thrice-weekly family magazine, ‘148 Mag’, circulation: three. At 14, I produced a French Exchange write-up that suggested I’d spent a year in Provence, rather than two weeks watching classmates slip snails into bowls of nuts.

Was I born to write information books? Were my efforts to plot more lucrative careers – lawyer, engineer, economist – always doomed to fail?

I think I found my answer last week. In a flurry of procrastination I took a quiz to determine my ‘mothering style’, based on that thinking-woman’s horoscope, the Myers-Briggs score.

My ‘INTP mother profile’ proved that a multiple-choice test really can peer deep into your soul. “You can be relaxed about clutter, but struggle to do chores regularly and keep the house in order.” Oh yes. A required skill for a work-at-home writer.

“You relish those times with a child when you are learning something interesting together. You spark to answering his or her “whys” with in-depth responses or new knowledge.”

This is exactly what I love about writing – researching weird and wonderful things; digging out the most mind-boggling facts; explaining the world to children in a fresh way.

So, my boys. Your house may be messier than those of actuarial parents. I may be more stressed (though less likely to glow in the dark) than mums who work in nuclear decontamination. And I’ll probably never earn as much as JK Rowling. But hit me with your why why whys, and I’ll always have the best (50-word) answer.

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17 comments
  1. Leoarna said:

    Oh, I absolutely love this post. I have just pressed ‘save and close’ on the synopsis of one of two books I want to pitch to a literary agent in the dragon’s den style session at Britmums this weekend. I then come to twitter and read this. I always wanted to be a writer, but had no interest in fiction, but I let working-class modesty get in my way and didn’t pursue it. But perhaps that was OK, because it is only by becoming a mum that I have found my subject. And I too find my best parenting comes out in answer to the (never-ending) questions. I must go and do that test…… Sublime as always, Isabel!

    • Thank you lady, and lots of luck with your pitches! I’m starting to write completely different things since I became a mum too, or rather thinking about writing completely different things and then wishing I had the time to do anything about it! I look forward to hearing how you go with the literary agents. Although I haven’t used one yet for non-fiction, I think they could be really great for career development and focusing ideas, so it’s another thing on my mammoth to-do list!

  2. Really enjoyed reading this. Wish I had half your talent, lucky lady!

  3. Paul Mason said:

    Ha! Nice try, but we all know you’re officially domiciled offshore for tax reasons.

  4. Paul Mason said:

    Yes, I think a Lear jet and a house in the Bahamas might come in handy later this week, judging from the weather forecast.

  5. Jessica said:

    I was invited to a school career fair once to talk about being a writer. My advice to the kids boiled down to, “Find another one of these stands that interests you and get a career that will pay the bills – then spend your weekends writing.” I think if you’re going to be a writer, you’re going to write no matter what.

    My best-paying book is actually a non-fiction technical manual that I only got the contract for because of my day job. I only got the knowledge to put into the pages because of my day job. So I don’t regret my choice.

    My first royalties check for my first novel paid for a bed when I moved house. The day job paid for the house.

    Despite all that, I will be a writer until the day I die.

    • That is brilliant advice, and exactly how I built up experience – working weekends, evenings, baby nap times!

  6. Utterly brilliant. I’m also INTP, so *that’s* why I live in mess ;-)

  7. What a fantastic, thought provoking post! I write because I have no choice and by chance it became my career. My poor Mum has two writers for kids! lol

    • Thank you! And how lovely to find your fantastic blog. I wish I could take advantage of being freelance and move somewhere properly exotic!

  8. Just read this after returning from the Winchester Writers’ Festival, buoyed with enthusiasm about the possibility actually getting my first non fiction book published. Like everyone else, I shall ignore reality until repossession stares me in the face!

    • The great thing about non-fiction is that you don’t have to write the entire book before pitching it!

  9. Loved this post and nice to find you – popped across from Britmums. I’ve been writing and raising children – the home educating way. (You can read about it here; http://rossmountney.wordpress.com)). So I know all about working round kids at home and mess! I looked at it this way – a messy house is one that’s far more stimulating to little brains that a tidy one! :) All the best. x

    • I hope so! Although I can’t help but notice how impressed my eldest two are on the rare occasions they get back from preschool to a spotless house – the pressure!

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