What Real Writers Do for a Living

By on March 5, 2015
What Real Writers Do for a Living - Writer's Life.org

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When I started writing for a living, I quickly realized that at least a third of my working life would be doing things associated with writing. Older and wiser writers told me about the residencies, the teaching, the PR, the report writing and a thousand and one other writing-related work- and some of it has shaped my work in astonishing ways, given me new discipline or structure, new ideas, and of course, new characters…

Here’s how most of us survive:


Oh joy, these are usually fabulous. You get a cool title- writer-in-residence- although not so good when you’re in a prison, because you only hear that joke about a million times. You get a reasonable fee- and you’re hardly ever there. Some of my best residencies have been the ones I dreaded- a drama school with 32 terrifying acting students who didn’t see the point of writing, and were furious that they had to miss an acting class in order to sit in a room with me once a week. But it all worked out beautifully in the end- I wrote a play for all 32 of them, a chance I’d never have had in a theatre, where you usually get asked to write for a maximum of 4 actors.

I’ve done residencies in prisons, community centres, universities, a single mums’ group, and more. And all of them have taught me something and enriched my writing a little bit. Plus, of course, they provide a basic salary, meaning you can write something you really want to in the meantime.

The point of residencies is give and take- the writer teaches for usually a day or two per week, either one-to-one or groups, then also devotes a percentage of their time to writing something new- often you’re asked to write something you wouldn’t be able to if constrained by a commercial commission. These crop up in Jobs and Opps from time to time- the wildest one I’ve seen has been based in Antarctica- and the Arts Council are a good place to check for advice.


Most writers I know teach writing. It’s as good a way as any to test yourself out- when you hear yourself telling a student, passionately, why they should do it this way- then go home and do the opposite; a sobering reminder why sometimes, there are rules. And if you’re lucky, your students bring you presents. Edible ones. Local authority teaching is about £20 an hour, which sounds fun, but don’t forget to add in all that preparation time, and marking if it’s an accredited course.

You don’t have to be David Lodge or JK Rowling to do this- most creative writing teachers do a bit of this, a bit of that, and it’s a brilliant way to refresh your own writing skills as well as, hopefully, help other writers do the same. Local council, libraries, your local arts development officer (they’ll have a budget for projects, so be proactive, approach them), arts centre, your local theatre… or be inventive. Our local Indian restaurant is offering artists and writers a space to teach in, providing they buy coffees and teas there!

Report writing. 

This doesn’t have to be as deadly dull as it sounds. The key is, pick your reports wisely. I’ve written evaluation documents for charities whose work I admire- so there’s something to keep me awake and I’m also pleasantly aware that I’m contributing in a tiny way to their work. And again, having to deal with a very fixed structure- a bit like essay writing- really helps remind me how often my own writing lacks structure, and maybe it has a tiny, knock-on effect. Plus the money’s damn good. Again, these are advertised in Jobs and Oppsoccasionally- the last one I saw there was to evaluate an arts project, and it was worth £2500 for example.


It helps if you’ve any kind of journalistic background, but the PR work I’ve done- again, for charities, or theatre companies - has come through someone desperately needing help to publicise a play or campaign that’s happening next week (they are always happening next week) and being willing to stuff loads of envelopes, write about a hundred drafts of a press release, and be infinitely charming on the phone to uninterested people on newspapers, magazines and radio stations.

All qualities that stand you in good stead when having to stuff envelopes with your precious poetry, short stories, etc, and then deal with the Very Important People in agencies and publishing. The big plus here- cos it ain’t the money usually- is that writing press releases is such a great discipline for writing introductory letters to publishers/agents/theatre and TV companies, and it’s also fabulous for teaching you how to find the main point- the hook- and sell it til you’re blue in the face. And it can be fun, and rewarding if you believe in what you’re selling.

Community theatre

Also know dismissively as TIE, Theatre In Education. This really can range from writing a pantomime for your local am-dram society to writing a multi-media play for 100 performers in a disused cruise ship. When I started out in theatre, people talked darkly about TIE, seeing it as the graveyard for playwrights, but in recent years, happily, that’s all changed. Thanks to good theatre companies and top writers taking on the challenge, it’s now the thing to do.

Money- not great, not usually as good as a straightforward play commission, but often your job is to research the brief or the community, work in groups with local amateur performers, devise the play with them and other professionals, and the find a way to put it all together.

The downside? It doesn’t entirely feel like your own original work- mostly, it’s not, but your take on it is what’s special, and these are some of the most exciting and unpredictable jobs I’ve ever had. The sheer buzz of seeing people who’ve never acted before get through their part- sometimes gobsmackingly well- and flushed with confidence and self belief is fantastic.


Originally published as "The Other Things That Writers Do for a Living" on writewords.org.uk.  Photo by catherineryanhoward.com.

URL: http://www.writewords.org.uk/articles/tips9.asp

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