Writing, like fishing, serves a multitude of purposes. Take the professional fisherman: early every morning, he gets together a crew on his ship and takes them out to sea, where he corrals them into gaining a haul of catch. Once they’ve been out there for eight hours or so, they return to land and sell their catch, and the fisherman uses the money from his cut to buy groceries, commodities, etc.
Take the brave (but foolish) camper: he gets up a bit after sunrise and grabs his fishing pole, intent on hopping over to the pond to secure the day’s breakfast. Of course, he’s already got a stash of food in the cooler, but that doesn’t stop him. Maybe he wants a change in diet. Perhaps he’s pretending to be a fisherman. Regardless, his catch goes into the frying pan and is then at the mercy of his cooking skills.
Take the layman: This guy probably couldn’t tell a quality sinker from a Pokémon ball. He lets the store clerks in Bass Pro Shop dupe him into buying the most expensive tackle and poles that they’ve got (and he buys it, hook line and sinker) so that he can “try out” fishing. He probably doesn’t catch anything the first day. Or the next. Or even for the first few weeks. But perhaps he catches something if he keeps at it…
Writing works much the same way. Based on how invested you are in your work (but not directly proportional), your profits and gains vary greatly. The fisherman is able to make a living, whereas the layman doesn’t know fishing from pig tracks, and certainly not enough to live off of.
How much you benefit from writing is dependent on two things: how interested you are in your work, and how good you are at what you do. This is the case for far more things that writing (even fishing, I bet). There are also two ways to benefit: personally and monetarily (I’m not saying the two can’t overlap, but a monetary win is so in any scenario, whereas personal wins could easily be construe to be losses in the eyes of others.
Usually, personal benefit is derived from how interested you are in your work. This includes any happiness you may get from writing or any therapeutic message-like ease that you get when your fingers flow across the keyboard. The more interested you are in your work, the more personal benefit you bag for yourself.
Monetary value is based on your capacity to entertain (or, in other words, how well you can write). Before you say “I could be an amazing writer disguised by poor advertising, crummy publishing, and a lack of general popularity”, I’m going to counter by saying that truly great work isn’t hidden for long if you stick at your task. If you have a great manuscript that you let die in a Word Doc somewhere, then I get your problem. This goes back to being interested in your work.
I’ll put it simply: Interest in Work —> Personal Benefit. Skill at Work —> Monetary Gain. What’s interesting is that the first two variables motivate each other: being interested in your work will motivate you to get better, and getting better will cause you to write more interesting books, which will in turn captivate you further. This can only be reinforced if you start to see personal benefit and cash flowing (which will, if you keep at it. I can’t stress this enough: if you put this much time and hard work into writing, you’ll get something. I promise.)
So let’s talk about one more vital question: Who are you writing for?
It’s no secret that there are many writers out there. More than there are published books, I’ll wager. There’s the rub: there are are so many “secret” writers out there who write for themselves. They don’t tell anyone that they’re a writer, because they don’t consider themselves to be.
If you were expecting that I would propose an inquisition to root out the traitors that would dare call themselves writers, you’ve got another thing coming. (Like an assassination job) Nah, I’m just kidding: those who don’t choose to call themselves writers but write anyway are perfectly fine to do what they do.
So, why did I mention all that about “benefits from writing come from how invested you are in it”? Well, those who write for themselves just end up missing out on the benefits of being a full writer. But they can devote time and money to other things: maybe they want to be a painter. Perhaps a race car driver. An athlete, maybe. That’s fine: professional writing isn’t for everyone.
But what you get out of a career in writing depends on what you put into it. If you’re only interested in writing for yourself, then so be it. But you’re not going to get any monetary wealth that way, and don’t expect to, even if the greatest writers in the history of mankind started off by writing for themselves.
Usually those who write for themselves are on the fence about writing. They don’t know whether or not to go through with writing, and they’re flirting with the idea of writing for a living (although they probably don’t want to go through with what it takes to get there). If you want it, go for it. It is a viable job option, as Brandon Sanderson will tell you (check out our Resources tab for more).
So should you write for yourself or for other people? Well, that depends on what you want. Set your expectations, and then propel yourself along the path to get there. Use the rewards as motivation. Learn from your mistakes and don’t repeat them. Play Dungeons and Dragons (okay, random).
Good luck, and happy fishing! (Uh, writing, I mean)
Be sure to check out my latest novel, Book 1 in the Praetors of Lost Magic Series, and our Publications page. Plus, I mean, it wouldn’t hurt to check out the Resources tab. It’s full of super helpful material and I promise it will help you out. Until then, writers!