Ask the Book Doctor: Making Money Writing

Saturday, September 16, 2023

By Bobbie Christmas

Q: How do we support ourselves while we’re writing our books?

A: If you’re writing nonfiction, you can write a proposal and several sample chapters instead of the whole book. If the information is current, compelling, and well written, and if the proposal follows the guidelines about how to write a book proposal, you may succeed in selling the book and get an advance against future royalties. Still, the advance may not be enough to live on while you write the full book. My advance from Union Square Publishing for the first edition of Write In Style paid only about a month’s expenses, so I continued to edit books and write articles to maintain my income while I wrote my book in my free time. 

If you write fiction, you can try your hand at freelancing for magazines and websites while you also write your novel.

Writing and selling articles is a great way to make some money while you’re also writing your book, but you need to know how to write an article and how to find work, and writing articles can be a full-time job in itself.

Long ago at a local meeting of The Writers Network I asked attendees how they supported themselves while they wrote their books. The consensus was that most kept their day jobs and wrote their books at night and on weekends.

In reality most of us writers don’t make enough money off our books even after they are published anyway, so we’d better have another solid source of income, no matter what.

Q: Tell me about breaking into magazine writing.

A: Oh dear, entire books have been written on the subject. I can’t possibly give the answer the full attention it deserves. Instead I recommend reading a few books on the subject. Although I haven’t read the book, I looked at a few, and I liked Complete Idiot’s Guide to Publishing Magazine Articles by Sheree Bykofsky best of all, because it covers a great deal of territory, including how to handle your taxes when you get paid. I’m a little prejudiced because Sheree has been a help to me from time to time. She’s a literary agent in New York.

In brief, editors need to see that you can write a good article and are familiar with the jargon and craft of journalism. For example, the lead paragraph of an article can be referred to as a lede or a lead. When editors read your clips (examples of articles you’re written), they want to see you know how to write a strong lede, follow the tenets of creative writing, and use good grammar.

At the time I began freelancing full-time—when dinosaurs roamed the earth—I used the Yellow Pages to find local magazine publishers. I made appointments to show off my portfolio and get to know the editors. In this way I was able to get articles assigned to me regularly. Today you’re not limited to local publications. The internet is filled with information on periodical publishers and how to query them.

Q: How can I go from free to fee writing?

A: Good for you for writing for free! You’re building your portfolio.

Many accomplished writers began by writing free articles. Some do it to get experience and build a portfolio. Others began writing as volunteers for nonprofit organizations. I began by writing and editing for my school newspapers and then for charitable and educational organizations. After I gathered enough bylined articles to build a solid portfolio, I used it to land a full-time job as a reporter and editor with a newspaper. Over the years as my skills and portfolio grew stronger, I moved into corporate communications, without ever revealing that my original portfolio had all been written for free.

I’ve progressed into editing books and magazines, so I no longer seek freelance writing assignments. When I did, though, I had much more success when I met with publishers, showed them my copious and varied portfolio, and asked for assignments. Nowadays I recommend that freelancers have a website that displays some of their published articles. Websites have become essential for anyone in business, and trust me, freelance writing is a business.

As a business owner you must constantly market yourself. No client lasts forever. Editors change, companies fold, work dries up, and if you aren’t always looking for more and new clients, you will find yourself out of work.

Even though printed periodicals have slowly dwindled, other opportunities have arisen. Companies need copy for their websites. Businesses and organizations need newsletters and blog entries. Query all the websites, periodicals, and other paying markets that appeal to you. Never stop looking. If you hone your writing skills and approach publishers in a professional manner, you will soon go from free to fee.

Never make the mistake of undercharging, though. Rather than settle for low rates, you may need to use a few negotiating skills. Going from free to fee is one thing, but getting paid a fee that’s worthy of your time is more important than merely getting paid.

Even when you are accustomed to getting paid for your work, you may find times when you want to charge less or nothing, such as when writing for a nonprofit that speaks to your heart. Don’t hesitate to follow your passion and use your skills to help people and organizations that make the world a better place.


Send your questions to Bobbie Christmas, book editor, author of Write In Style: Use Your Computer to Improve Your Writing, and owner of Zebra Communications. or Read Bobbie’s Zebra Communications blog at


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