August 20, 2021
It’s hard to make a living as an author. If you write books, you have to sell a LOT of books to make enough money to live on, which usually requires writing, selling, and marketing multiple books. Then, if you do manage to make a decent amount of money selling your books, you’ll need to figure out how to pay for often exorbitant health insurance (a decent policy in my area on the ACA exchange costs $3000/month). If you aren’t set on writing books as a career, there are several ways you can earn a good living (with benefits) while also gaining skills that will serve you well on writing projects.
Here’s a little background on my business writing journey. I studied history in college, mostly because I loved researching and writing about history. I loved reading old letters, reports, and books about topics that interested me. In the past, people used flowery, elaborate language to get their points across. Here’s an example of a letter from the second U.S. President, John Adams, to the third U.S. president, Thomas Jefferson:
The Material of the Samples of American Manufacture which I Sent you, was not Wool nor Cotton, nor Silk nor Flax nor Hemp nor Iron nor Wood. They were Spun from the Brain of John Quincy Adams and consist in two Volumes of his Lectures on Rhetorick and oratory, delivered1 when he was Professor of that Science in our University of Cambridge. A Relation of mine, a first Cousin of my ever honoured, beloved and revered Mother Nicholas Boylston, a rich Merchant of Boston bequeathed by his Will a Donation for establishing a Professorship, and John Quincy Adams having in his Veins So much of the Blood of the Founder, was most earnestly Solicited to become the first Professor.
I love it. But it’s super wordy. If you write without planning your work or just sit down and write whatever comes to mind, it probably takes you a long time to finish a book project. These professional writing fields will force you to learn ways to be a more productive and efficient writer. In addition, you’ll make a good living, find a job that you can do from your home, and likely have decent benefits like health insurance and paid vacations.
When I got my first professional writing job, one thing I quickly learned is that I had to cut out wordiness and get to the point. My job was writing instructions for complex engineering software, and think of it this way–if you’re at work trying to figure out a complex process to get your job done, you don’t want to read a beautifully written description. You want to read the shortest, most efficient description of what you need to do to finish your work so you can go home on time. Technical writing taught me how to write succinctly–and it also taught me how to write fast. Business writing isn’t like writing for fun because you have deadlines, and sometimes they’re really tight. For that first job, I wrote a 500+ page reference guide for civil engineering software in nine months. I then moved on to writing a 200+ page reference guide for an architectural design project. Did I know anything about civil engineering or architecture before starting that project? Nope. I also taught myself how to use a complicated program called AutoCAD to be able to use all of the company’s software and write instructions about it. I also taught myself how to use the UNIX operating system. It was actually pretty fun. That first technical writing job honed my writing skills more than anything I could have done on my own.
As I progressed in my career, I tried out some other writing jobs that gave me different and very useful skills. Marketing writing is a vast field where writers support many different types of work. Many people think of advertising when you think of marketing, and that’s included. As a marketing writer, I did indeed write ad copy for print ads and scripts for radio ads, and of course brochures that are used to sell products and services. However, there are many different types of marketing writing that need writers. Think of your favorite home improvement store. I bet if you go to their website, you’ll find all kinds of posts about home improvement projects, like how to install bathroom tile, how to install your own windows, or how to replace your kitchen floor. If the information is useful, readers will likely come back to the blog for more tips. Then, when that person is ready to tackle a big home improvement project, they may decide to shop at the store that provided such great information and helpfully included a list of all supplies and where to find them in the store. This is a type of marketing writing called “content marketing.” It’s not a hard sell, it’s creating information that makes the company appear to be the go-to leader in the business. Other things marketing writers create include press releases, white papers, website text, social media posts, and even help design trade show booths. The great thing about marketing writing that’s different from technical writing is that you DO need to be creative–but still concise. It can also be a challenge to write a brochure or a website about a product that’s not at all glamorous, like an air conditioning unit. How do you write catchy materials that tempt potential buyers to buy your company’s equipment instead of the competition? And of course, lingering in the background are often tight deadlines, so you not only have to be creative, but fast. It’s a great field for writers who want to be creative. Also a bonus is that every imaginable field needs marketing writers!
This is a field that many people don’t know exists. There are over 1.5 million registered nonprofits in the U.S., which includes public charities (like the Red Cross or the Humane Society), private foundations (like the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation), and other groups like chambers of commerce and civil organizations. Many of the nonprofits are tiny, just one or two people doing work they find rewarding. However, other nonprofits are giant businesses with hundreds of employees. And even though you may think that nonprofits can’t make money, that’s not true. They CAN make money, but are just required to funnel profits back into their mission instead of funneling profits to owners and shareholders like for-profit companies. Many large nonprofits need writers for all sorts of things. They need marketing writers to create outreach and fundraising materials, write the website content and blog posts, write press releases, and write grant proposals to help the nonprofit bring in money. Some more technical nonprofits, like research institutes, also need writers with a deep understanding of the sciences. It’s a very worthwhile area to investigate, especially if you want to make a difference with your work. One major drawback with working for a nonprofit is that your salary will likely be lower than in the for-profit world.
A niche field for anyone with a science background is science writing. This is a great fit for anyone with a highly technical background in any science, including biology, physics, engineering, chemistry, geology, and so much more. Many scientific organizations, universities, and research institutes need writers with a scientific background to help write all sorts of materials. Some organizations need help writing articles for the general public about highly technical topics described in peer-reviewed journals. Other organizations like medical research companies need writers with experience in biology and research labs to write all sorts of things, like the information that comes in all of your prescription medicine, reports for medical studies, and laboratory procedures. Many of these types of jobs actually require a masters or even a doctorate degree in a specialized field. It’s worth investigating if you want to combine your love of science and writing.
Research writing jobs in your area, or work from home jobs
I hope this information has been helpful for anyone considering a move to a business writing career. To see examples of writing jobs you can find, just search big job boards like Indeed.com or Glassdoor.com for “writer” and your city. If you want to work from home (I’m writing this in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic and I sure as hell want to work from home) search for “Writer” with the location set to “remote.” You can also try using keywords for “technical writing, technical editing, and marketing writing” to see what shows up. You might be surprised with what you find.