How Good a Writer Do You Have to Be to Earn Six Figures?

Editor’s note: This post was written by David Wilkening, who was a newspaper writer in Chicago, Detroit, Washington and Orlando before becoming a freelance writer more than three decades ago. He was a newspaper feature writer and Washington Bureau Chief. He was an editor at Orlando Magazine and Travel Weekly for years and contributed to various sites including newspapers and magazines. He is the author of several books, both bylined and as a ghost. These include “How to Hide” and “How to get into the Top Graduate Schools” among others.


Good question. You must know the kind of offer that means? Get high quality customized pitches. Join renowned pitching coach. But despite that tempting and costly offer from yet another site that offered easy and surefire writer success, my mind was more on a note that came on a Friday, the 13th.

Appropriate. It offered me a chance to join the “Book Writer’s Linkedin” group via Twitter. The note was positive.

Good news, no? No. Not the kind of news I needed that day or any other.

A better title for this article (and without any cost or obligation to you) should be: Times were better in the old days. Really.

As a full-time writer pushing 70, I have been doing this for three decades. I survived but knew trouble was on its way 20 years ago when I went to a party. The first three people I met there called themselves writers.

One man in his 40s owned a pawn shop. What did he write? Comic books. Publishing credits: none.

The second “writer,” ten years younger, wrote movie scripts. Had I seen any? Not likely. He had never sold one.

The third “writer” was a man about 25 years old who worked as a sales clerk at Barnes and Noble. He wrote novels. You can guess what he replied when I asked for any of his books on the shelf.

I was dumbfounded enough to not even be able to tell these “writers” that I had published dozens of magazine stories and a couple books. No, they were not best sellers, nor were my magazines any more than popular trade publications, but I had made a living as a writer for more than 30 years.

A working writer is a good self-description. That is, someone who made his/her living as a writer paid for their work. Underpaid, of course, and no threat to Steven King, either, for that matter.

I remember at age 46, I made $43,000. Remember that old standard of making $1,000 a year for each year of your age? Yes, somewhat old fashioned, but I was thrilled at the time.

All in freelance work, though some of that income, I have to admit, came from an unsuccessful PR job I did for a group of professional firemen. They hired me to promote Dr. Henry Heimlich when he visited Florida and shepherd him around to media outlets. I was successful in doing that but the firefighters were seldom mentioned, so they rightly were dissatisfied with my own efforts. So it goes. They paid me anyway, I think it was $150 a day for three days (you could get us cheaper back them).

So back to writing – for me, anyway.

Working writer…willing to do related things to make a living.

That also fit the description of three other writer friends whom I met regularly for several years, with the person who called the meeting paying for lunch. Three of these individuals were like me: working writers who hacked out a living.

The fourth was far more successful, as evidenced by his and hers new Mercedes autos. He wrote infomercials. High successful ones. We once spent an hour trying to figure out how much he should charge a popular restaurant for coining a one word description for the chain’s menu. One word. It was not easy to decide just what that was worth. But then, his far less successful writer friends could hardly imagine that type of success.

Gradually, the lunch partners went their own ways. One writer got a full time marketing job. Another one died. My successful friend went on billing thousands of dollars for his work.

And I went to parties to meet writers.

All of this leads me to a simple conclusion: there are too many writers today.

The Twitter note was the final straw, as the cliché has it, or the last nail in the coffin. The writer response was not exactly minimal, either.

“We’ve gotten ten million views per week to our tweets,” my note read. No wonder, since it promised to “build your author platform and get more followers.”

What has happened here is that writers have become fashionable.

It’s “in” to be a writer.

Only a few years back, when I was a happy bachelor, single male friends told me that despite my lack of movie star looks I automatically gained points with women by telling them I was a writer. A paid writer, that is.

Two things happened to blur his distinction. The Internet, where everyone is a writer or a blogger. Which led to the second thing: describing yourself as a writer was positive, fashionable and in that old fashioned word, was simply “in.”

The real downfall of writers began about seven years ago, it’s estimated. That was when blogs or posts began to appear. They were usually done by a single individual with a single subject.

Blogs have gotten to this point: I met a woman at a party the other day who said she heard I wrote travel stories. Did I write a blog? No, I told her, but she thought that was what writers did: they blogged.

So blogging grew along with the self-publishing sites. No more did writers such as myself have to rely on traditional publishing or print publishers to actually put out their written thoughts in books. So rose the self-published ebooks.

There are various estimates of how many bloggers there are in the world. But it’s almost impossible to find an accurate count, except that the number is in the hundreds of millions. And these blogs are across all country lines. And of course, anyone can publish a book. Everyone does.

My publisher really wanted me to break my 526 page book into two books, because they thought it was too long, but I like long books! How long is too long? This is the type of question I get from other writers these days on the many sites for writers.

I almost hate to say this but in the old days, when my writer’s group met for lunch, one simple topic of conversation dominated the event (no matter who paid): That was a report on how much money we had made the previous month. I had a good month, made $400.

This group never inquired about why we became writers. We did it for an unquestioned reason: we loved doing it. We could not really imagine doing anything else. Writing itself, though not immortal or long-lasting and destined not to survive long after our own passing, was why we did it.

You don’t have to be deluded to think that all the writers out there, and all the writing, has cheapened the profession to the point where today I seriously consider working for a site that pays 60 cents for 500 word reports on strawberry flavored soda pop. That particular site, as well as many others, remains so highly competitive for writers that jobs invariably seem to be filled when I get around to inquiring about them.

So the market has changed. For the worse.

One thing that has not changed is that today, there are still a lot of reasons to be pessimistic about the future of working writers. Everyone knows how desirable it is to have an ongoing job with regular payments.

The other day I lost a job of that type for what is now the princely sum of $15 an hour because I did not have a Mac computer. Technology again bites not the dust but this writer. So while it’s easy to despair, to think of all the writers out there not just as potential readers as well but as competitors in an every tightening market, there is always hope.

And the past: In the wisdom of Dr. Seuss: “Don’t cry because it’s over, smile because it happened.”



Or consider what Edward Albee said: “The act of writing is an act of optimism. You would not take the trouble to do it if you felt it didn’t matter.”

And the future? Real books are still being published and read. Sure, there are more writers around, but there are more readers as well. That can’t be denied. We also live in a more technological world which reminds me a college professor friend who pointed out that when radio came along, predictions were that print was dead. Then television came. That meant radio was dead. You can guess what computers and the Internet did. Then, if you can stand the thought of a sunnier future, there are the sites such as this one where some markets pay writers $1 a word or more. No, it’s not six figures, but it’s a start.

Don’t call writers novelists, essayists, short story writers or magazine or providers, label us working writers. And call us all optimists.

When Can You Call Yourself a Writer?





6 responses
  1. Rahsaan Knight Avatar
    Rahsaan Knight

    I believe that you can call yourself a writer, when you know that it is in your heart. I haven gotten paid for small work, but I do it because I love it. I can’t live without writing. It is a passionate love affair that I cheat on my life with. I don’t let people know I am a writer, because as you said “its a fad.”

  2. Oliver Avatar

    Really interesting to read a piece from a man so experienced. I think I just about sneak into what he would approvingly call a writer, but I’m still a fair way off the six figure mark.

  3. Suzannah Avatar

    This is a typo-riddled rambling piece about the good old days. Five minutes of my life I will never get back.

    1. Tracy Avatar

      I agree. I suppose if one were to hold a gun to my head and demand I reveal what I had taken away from this post, it would be the same as I have learned from many others just like it.

      If you were fortunate enough to have jumped upon the “writing for a living” wagon in its infancy and had established credits to your name, you could pretty much scribble anything – so long as it was about “writing for a living” and earn a decent wage for it……then I would probably be shot!

  4. Steve Avatar

    Um…will…will the article be answering the question the headline asked at some point? Or did I miss it?

  5. Marlene Avatar

    Well, this was depressing. A rambling piece that doesn’t even really answer the headline question. I’m a “working writer” and things are just fine. Stop whining, adapt and get over “how things were” in the good old days. There are plenty of clients who know the difference between a professional blogger vs. hobbyist or a professional writer vs. someone who works for .02/word.

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