The Part-Time Writer: Little and Often

I am, for those who don’t know, self-employed. With my partner, I run a B&B and smallholding, taking care of the house, the guests and the animals in equal measure. It’s an enjoyable job, but like all self-employment, it comes with a few negatives. Today, for example, I realised that I really haven’t had a day off in at least a week, and won’t get one for several more days. I imagine that the idea of a fortnight without a day off from their job would horrify an awful lot of people, but it’s something that I’ve not only got used to, but actually don’t mind. Quite a few of those days, after all, aren’t a straight eight hours of work; I might work until lunchtime, or 3pm, or simply do a few chores on a day that would otherwise be free time, simply so I don’t have to do them later. It turns out, you see, that I actually quite like having a job that allows me to take this ‘little and often’ approach, and it’s the very same thing I do with my writing.

There are two main schools of thought when it comes to getting your writing done, and I’ve seen both part-time and full-time writers who fall on either side. Some are what you might call ‘binge writers’, who save up all their writing time and then hammer out 10,000 words in a day, only to not write again for two weeks. Depending on your work/life schedule, this might work well, allowing you to properly focus on your story for a defined period of time, and thus get far more work completed than you might otherwise have managed in those two weeks. Some people simply enjoy writing this way, whether it makes them more productive or not. For many writers, though, and particularly part-timers with a reasonably regular schedule, I don’t think this is the way to go – and thus we come to back ‘little and often’.

The most successful writers, it seems to me, make their writing a habit. There’s no waiting for inspiration to strike, no writing ‘when they’ve got time’ (because most make time, one way or another – more on that in a later post). Instead, these are the people who sit down each and every day, and get the work done.

This is a method I’ve gradually settled into over my years of writing, and it’s one I suggest most writers try to adopt, to a greater or lesser extent. Creating that habit, that discipline, tends to get work finished far better than the occasional, irregular binge. It’s no exaggeration to say that slow and steady wins the race – just 500 words written every day will produce 182,500 over the course of a year, which is somewhere in the region of two average-length novels, or an awful lot of short stories.

That ‘little and often’ method can also work on a daily basis. Instead of wondering when you’re going to find time to sit down and write 1000 words, aim for just 100, or 10 minutes, or whatever you can fit in. Maybe you’ll only manage 100 words/10 minutes that day – or maybe inspiration will strike, and you’ll suddenly produce a lot more. Maybe you’ll find you can actually fit an extra 10 minutes in here, and another 10 there, and suddenly you’re not so far off that 1000 words after all.

This, in my experience, is how stories get written – and, more importantly, finished. Little snippets of time, a few words here and there, and one day you look up to find you’ve produced a book. Not only that, but if you’re a part-timer, you’ve hopefully also found time to have a job, or raise a family, or pursue other hobbies and interests along the way. You find that you don’t have to let writing consume your life if you don’t want to, but that you can still produce stories more quickly and systematically than you’d ever believed possible.

I know, for some people, this is all going to feel a bit dry and boring. What about inspiration? What about the Muse? Well, I was a bit scathing about the Muse in my last post, so I won’t repeat that here; maybe you really do need that lightning strike to help you write, and that’s fine. On the other hand, maybe you’re looking at the chaos of your life and wondering how you’re ever going to find time to produce the story that’s burning inside your head. If that’s the case, there really is nothing for it but the ‘little and often’ approach: a few stolen minutes here and there, a few sentences written whilst you’re on the bus, or on your lunchbreak – or even on the toilet, if you really feel so inclined – just to see what you’re able to create. Try it, and see what happens.

The Part-Time Writer: Priorities

In my last few posts, I talked about why you might want to be a part-time writer, but today it’s time to get into the meat of really doing it: of committing to being a writer, whilst knowing you have a job to go to, kids to look after, voluntary work or hobbies or social events that need your attention. Because all those things are also important, right?

Of course they are. The trouble with a lot of writing guides I’ve read is that they espouse a rather simplistic message. If you want to be a writer, they say, you will WRITE. The harshest of these guides suggest that if you don’t write, then you never wanted to be a writer at all.

To a certain extent, this is something I agree with. Going for weeks, months or even years without writing anything, whilst continually talking about writing? That really doesn’t make you a writer. Sorry, but it’s true. However, suggesting you need to write every spare minute of every day if you’re going to make it as a writer isn’t true, either. Being a part-time writer is all about finding balance in your life, and the first thing you need to set are your priorities.

This, I admit, can sound a little woolly. When we start talking about priorities and motivation and inspiration, all things which make up a lot of any creative lifestyle, we risk descending into a fuzzy world where the work would get done, if only the Muse would co-operate (or maybe if only I didn’t need to rewatch an entire season of Farscape this weekend for the fifteenth time. I tend to find most descriptions of ‘the Muse’ a load of crap, because frankly, your words come out of your own head, and you don’t need to offer libations to some mysterious inner creature/external force of the universe in order to unlock them. But I digress.)

Fuzzy or not, though, every part-timer needs to work out their priorities. For me, this is a fairly simple process. There are things, after all, that just must be done. I have to work and thus earn a living. I have to eat and exercise. If you’ve got kids, you’ve got to feed and clothe them, too, or maybe you’ve got relatives to care for, or pets. Either way, these things will take up a certain amount of your time, and whilst you can try to delegate or maximise your efficiency all you want, that’s never going to completely go away.

Where priorities really become important, though, is in regard to the remainder of your time. You’re home from work. You’ve eaten. You’ve walked the dog. Now what?

It can be all too tempting at this juncture to turn on the TV, or reach for a book, or watch three hours of cat videos on YouTube before you fall into bed. Quite frankly, there are days when I can’t find the energy to do anything else. The rest of the time, though, when these temptations sneak in, I start asking myself questions. Which is more important to me: finishing this book or watching another episode of Location, Location, Location? (My love for home buying/renovation shows knows no bounds.) Am I going to kick myself if I don’t get this chapter finished this week? Are people really going to remember my extreme prowess at Minesweeper after I’m dead?

Okay, maybe that sounds a bit drastic, especially that last one (I’m terrible at Minesweeper), but there are times when you really have to remember what your priorities are. Maybe the most important thing to you right now is volunteering at a soup kitchen, or redecorating your living room, or raising alpacas, in which case you need to go out and do those things. Maybe, though, it’s writing that’s more important to you than anything else — which means, when the lure of the TV, book or video game is calling, you have to be strong. You have to write instead.

I realise this isn’t always as easy as it sounds. How do you choose between an obligation to a family member or your community, and your personal goals, for example? Explaining your priorities to those around you can also be hard, particularly if your loved ones just don’t see value in your writing. However, having some idea of your own priorities is absolutely valuable for part-timers in all fields, so that when distraction and weariness set in, you can think about what you most want out of life, and immediately know how to spend your time. And if one of those priorities is writing, and you put aside everything else to do it? That’s when you can call yourself a writer.

The Part-Time Writer: The All-Round Part-Timer

In my last post, I focused on a whole host of reasons why you might want to remain a part-time writer, and why immediately dropping the day-job the minute you start a novel probably isn’t the best of ideas. I realise, though, that might be something of an unpalatable thing to hear for a lot of budding writers. Everyone wants to believe that becoming a writer will solve all their problems, turn them into a superstar, or at the very least pay off their mortgage — anything approaching a reality check goes ignored. However, even if you’re chomping at the bit to ditch the day-job, I’ve got one last option for you: becoming an all-round part-timer.

Let me start with a story. When I left university, close to a decade ago now, I hadn’t a clue what I wanted to do. I had, quite frankly, a completely useless degree, and short of going into a life of academia, I couldn’t really see what I was going to do with my BA. Still, I had a degree — any kind of degree would help me get a job, right? Wrong. Not only was the world on the verge of a major recession and the jobs market in turmoil, at least in the UK, but I quickly realised a 9-5 office job wasn’t going to suit me. Instead, after a depressing few months of unemployment, I ended up with a Christmas job in a bookshop, before going on to work in a library.

This, then, is where the writing comes back in. The library I worked in was staffed almost entirely by part-timers — my first shifts were all late in the evening, and although I later switched to more mornings and afternoons, I was never working more than 30 hours a week. Whilst that wasn’t ideal in some respects, it did come with one major advantage: it gave me time to write.

And not just any time, either, but set hours every week, which I could easily schedule around my day-job. I don’t think I’ve ever been as productive as I was for those few years. Not only did I write a 120k word novel in 3 months, but I continued to blog, to write short stories, and to find time for reading, gaming and all my other hobbies. It was, put simply, rather brilliant.

It’s easy to see why I advocate this lifestyle to those who can manage it. There are obvious drawbacks, of course, chief amongst them being the reduced wage of a part-time worker, which can seem particularly onerous if you’ve come from a full-time job. In theory, you can top-up that wage by making money from your writing, but given the vagaries of the publishing industry, that isn’t always as easy as it sounds. It can be difficult, too, to explain to family and friends both why you want to work part-time, and what you’re doing the rest of the time. Not only will they question how much money you’re making, but writing time simply isn’t held sacred by non-writers — of course you can pick up the kids/run an errand for me/attend this social gathering, because you’re not at work, are you?

Still, going part-time is one option I think all writers should consider. The stability of a salary, plus the social interactions with clients and co-workers, is a perfect accompaniment to having more writing hours and the ability to create whatever you want, without the threat of starvation hanging over your head.

Whether you’re a part-time writer through choice or necessity, though, many of the techniques and skills you need are much the same. In the next few posts, I’ll be diving into tricky areas that all part-timers need to master, from setting goals and priorities, to managing your time — master these, and suddenly the part-time life becomes a lot easier!

The Part-Time Writer: Keep the Day-Job

In my opening post, I talked about being a part-time writer, and about all the other writers like me, who have a day-job, or a family, or are self-employed. For many, that life is one they eventually want to leave behind (well, maybe not the family!), but today I want to talk about the alternative. About why you might actually want to be a part-time writer, and why keeping the day-job, no matter how tedious that sounds, might actually be the best thing you’ll ever do.

Let’s get one obvious point out of the way first: you might want to be a part-timer because writing is just a hobby. Well, I say ‘just’, but a hobby or several can be a huge — and hugely rewarding — part of your life. If you aspire to write only for yourself or for friends, to only ever write fan-fic, or to just keep a blog tracking your progress in knitting or pedigree goat breeding, then who cares if the wider world thinks you’re limiting yourself to being an amateur? If you’re happy, enjoy your writing, and don’t have any interest in a wider audience, then I say stick to your guns. Be an amateur, a hobbyist, the part-timer of part-timers, and be proud.

But maybe you’re angling for more? Maybe you want to get paid for your writing, to have thousands of readers, to have your book up there on shelves — or on the Amazon store front, these days. You want to be a professional writer — and yet, sometimes, there are very good reasons to remain a part-timer anyway.

First of all, another obvious point: you might really like your day-job. Maybe you’re a teacher, or a scientist, or a doctor, and nothing in life can ever come close to the fulfilment that brings you. Maybe you mow lawns or stack shelves or unblock drains for a living, and you love that just as much as writing. In all these cases, keeping the day-job is a given, because why give up something you enjoy so much? Even if you hate your job, though, having a world outside your writing can be more beneficial than you might imagine.

There’s the money, for a start, something that needs to be considered even by those who write solely for their ‘art’ and find the idea of financial remuneration somehow sordid. Whether you’re comfortably off or just scraping by, there are very few writers who can dive straight into the deep end of publishing and make a living straight away. Having the safety net of a monthly income, or even just a pot of savings, takes the worry out of writing, particularly if you’re only just starting out. Not needing to make money from your writing means you can write entirely what you want, without worrying about the market, or potential readers, or which publisher to submit to — and trust me, those early days of freedom are an absolute gift. Treasure them.

Even if money isn’t an issue for you, a day-job can be vital. Writing can be a very lonely business, after all, and no number of weekly writing groups or days spent in coffee shops will ever entirely make up for all the hours spent interacting with customers, clients and colleagues. Even if you’re an introvert, as many writers are, entirely locking yourself up in your own head isn’t always healthy — you need to know you’ll actually be happy working alone for an extended period of time before you give up an outside work environment. Stimuli, too, can be harder to come by when you’re writing full-time. Any kind of work, no matter how mundane, exposes you to situations, people and ideas you can use in your writing (moreso if you have a really fascinating job, of course); once you’ve given up your day-job, those are all things you have to make a lot more effort to go out and find.

And what about your health? If you’re healthy now, that might be one issue you’ve never even considered. Swapping one desk job for another won’t make a colossal amount of difference, of course, but if you have an active job now, you need to remember you could well be letting yourself in for a world of back pains, hand complaints, and just the general lack of fitness that results from being able to sit around and eat snacks all day (depending on your personal level of willpower, of course!).

Maybe this post seems overly negative — if it does, I’m not going to apologise. Receiving the reality check of ‘don’t quit the day-job’ is far more valuable before you’ve actually done it, rather than waiting to find out you’ve just dropped yourself into a life you’re not prepared for. On the other hand, though, maybe you’ve considered all these potential hazards and are still shaking your head. Maybe you’re sick and tired of having a day-job and can’t wait to quit it for good — but before you do that, there’s one last option to consider, a perfect answer to all these conundrums: being a part-timer all round. That’s what I’ll be covering in my next post.

The Part-Time Writer: An Introduction

When somebody says, “I’m a writer”, what do you picture? Maybe it’s a millionaire knocking out bestsellers every three months, getting them all optioned by Hollywood; maybe it’s a starving twenty-something living in a Paris garret, writing a single line every day of their Great American Novel. Or maybe, just maybe, it’s an office worker hammering out chapters in their lunch break, a mum working at the kitchen table whilst her kids are asleep, a librarian or a doctor or a teacher, getting up an hour early every morning to type a few bleary paragraphs before work.

The truth of the matter is that very few writers, professional or amateur, write fiction full-time. Many have day-jobs they dream of leaving. Others have a job they love, and writing is just a hobby. Still others write both for work — ad copy or magazine articles or blog posts — and as a passion in the evenings. For every job you can think of, there’s probably a writer out there doing it, whilst spending their free time (and maybe some of their work time) thinking up plots and characters, scribbling notes, and wishing they were at their keyboard. The one and only thing they all have in common, whether they keep their day-job voluntarily or out of necessity? They write.

I’m just one of these writers. My ‘day-job’ (or maybe that should be ‘first job’, as it’s not one with regular hours) is running a B&B with my partner. Some days, particularly during the summer, writing seems like a distant dream; others, I have nothing to do but write. I’ve asked myself time and again whether, should my writing career ever take off, I’d give up my day-job entirely, but it turns out that’s not an easy question to answer — until it actually happens, anyway.

So, for now, I’ll continue to write in my spare time, be that full days or snatched half hours. I will, like the majority of other scribblers out there, be a part-time writer — and that’s what this new series of blog posts will be about. There’ll be tips and tricks, things I’ve discovered for myself or picked up elsewhere. There’ll be techniques for writing more, writing faster, and making better use of your time. There will also be a few posts about why we do what we do: about motivation and passion, about the pleasure (or not) of writing, and about what makes this a life so many of us just can’t give up.

Because, for now at least, I’ll continue to be a part-time writer — and if you are, too, I hope you’ll join me for the ride.