Every now and again I think to myself how nice it would be to give up my staid life as a Software Developer and start an exciting new career as a Novelist.

But then I think to myself that there are surely drawbacks to that path and that I shouldn't leap too boldly into that unknown territory.

So, to assist me in making an important decision like this, I ask you: what are the occupational hazards to being a full-time writer?

  • 13
    Starving to death? Receiving constant death threats from shippers? Being the new Stephenie Meyers? Pick one. Jun 30, 2018 at 11:23
  • 9
    Do not exchange your job as a Software Developer for a "job" as a Novelist. If you have the skills to be a Software Developer, then continue being a Software Developer. You may not like it, but it surely pays the bills. Being a Writer doesn't pay the bills.
    – Double U
    Jun 30, 2018 at 11:53
  • 5
    My dad is a software developer who used to work with the now-author of The Martian at AOL. Jun 30, 2018 at 18:24
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    As a software engineer you have the luxury that in a lot of countries you can earn enough to survive with two days of work a week (provided you're single). Move to one of those countries and you get the best of two worlds. The only thing you should never do is work as an author living in an expensive city in the first world. Move to Africa, South America or central/eastern Europe and it becomes a whole lot more realistic to be an author. Jun 30, 2018 at 19:13
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    What's the difference between a software engineer, a lawyer, a large pizza, and a writer? The writer can't feed a family of 4. That's your hazard.
    – Tony Ennis
    Jun 30, 2018 at 22:45

8 Answers 8


If I were a rich man, all day long I'd sit and write.

To elaborate:

  • What do you eat while you're writing your first novel?
  • Did you manage to get your first novel published?
  • What do you eat until the novel gets published?
  • Once the novel has been published and you're seeing some money from it, how long does it feed you? Does it feed you for enough time to write your next novel?

To eat, you need a steady inflow of cash. To have a steady inflow of cash, you would need at least one book, more likely - several books, already out there. Or you need to have enough cash already, that you don't need to care about having an inflow.

There are in-between possibilities: you might find employment as a journalist or a translator - jobs that would improve your writing skills, and thus get you closer to eventually striking out on your own (once you have something published). But those jobs wouldn't pay half as well as being a software developer. So you've got to be prepared for that.

You've got to remember that stories like J.K. Rowling's are extremely rare. Most starting novelists would be fitting the Starving Artist trope if they didn't have some other means of supporting themselves, and many never get their "breakthrough" at all.

  • 1
    I generally agree with this assessment but for one thing: The emphasis is constantly on eating and the ability to eat. What about food? Shelter? Healthcare? And things like that? Jun 30, 2018 at 16:42
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    @JakeGould I think that's implied.
    – Mast
    Jul 1, 2018 at 4:54
  • 20
    @JakeGould - wait, what do you eat if not food?
    – Davor
    Jul 1, 2018 at 13:49
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    For a long time, Phillip K. Dick, who posthumously has had more of his world turned into movies and TV shows than almost any other author (Stephen King, Ray Bradbury and a few others being notable contenders), lived on horse meat that was not fit for human consumption for a while. His butcher eventually guessed that he didn’t really have a dog, but sold him the horse meat illegally because Dick was visibly starving. Jul 1, 2018 at 18:08
  • @ToddWilcox He was also a mentally unstable drug user. I'm not sure everything can be attributed to his career choice.
    – pipe
    Jul 2, 2018 at 12:26

I will presume you mean that you can write and get paid for it, and could actually choose a life as a professional writer, without starving.

If that is the case (and this answer is tailored to your situation) your problems are quite similar to the problems of a free-lance "gig" programmer; a technical contractor. I have done that job. Or a self-employed programmer, I am aware of a few that write cheap phone apps (99 cents or $1.99) and were actually making a living doing that.

The problem with self-employment are getting gigs, money and time management. All are conquerable.

Time Management.

Trivial work expands to fill the time available. It's a law of nature. With a job and a boss, you don't have a choice but to show up nearly every day, and spend the day doing your damn job. You are compelled to be productive. Even if you love writing, it is extremely easy, when stuck, to turn on the TV and see what's happening in the world, or catch up on the laundry, or go ahead and put away the dishes. Or surf the net. A regular job has external drivers, people checking on your progress, people that need things, mandatory meetings and presentations.

All of that vanishing in a white mist is exactly what you want, but we quickly become accustomed to new and better things, and soon your enthusiasm fades. Part of your enthusiasm for writing all day was precisely the lifting of these imposed pains and strenuous work to meet unreasonable or irrational productivity demands, but six months in --- That is no longer motivating you. You have become used to that, and don't want to go back --- but you are also getting used to starting late and quitting early and taking two hours for lunch, and calling the rest your "thinking" time. If you want to be self-employed, take your job ethic and apply it from the start and do not waver. Get used to the lack of pain and external demands, do not get used to the freedom; treat it like a job.

That is, more or less, the advice of Orson Scott Card: Set your writing hours like a job, and during that time, sit and stare at the empty page or type. Your choice, but no other choice. Do nothing at all, or write. You can do research but don't surf or read for entertainment. Train by reading a book or blog on writing, fine. But make no "writing" excuse to read about the top ten celebrity cheaters, stick to the real job of writing.

Money Management.

For any self-employed start up, being stingy with money and expenses and as frugal as possible with credit is a survival skill. Stephen King counts 1500 of hours of writing to finish a novel; that is 9 months of full time work. (Less for him, he writes literally every day, weekends, birthdays and holidays included). He also has decades of practice writing publishable work; your hour count may be twice his.

In any case, income is uncertain in a gig economy, so until you have enough to survive on interest alone earned by your capital, conserve money like your future life depends on it. Because it does. For a beginning author, advances on books accepted for publication are in the $3000 to $5000 range. The majority of first books never pay another dime after the advance. $3000 for nine-months work? You can't live on $333 a month.

Maybe you can write a best seller. Don't count on it, if you are going to try it, have the resources to survive for three years on homemade sandwiches. And before you begin, make sure your resume is up to date and could get you a job if you fail.

I've been involved, as investor and/or worker, in over a dozen startups. 3/4 failed. The others have paid for those failures and more, but the number one cause of failure, IMO, is relentless optimism that leads to wasted resources (early overspending) and a failure to make any realistic plan for setbacks; because the relentless optimism just doesn't believe they will happen so they treat such planning as a formality in their business plan.

The number one cause of success is realistic pessimism leading to realistic contingency planning. What can go wrong? How will you know it went wrong? How fast can you know it? Is there any way to accelerate that failure into a time realm where you still have resources to address it?

The hardest part of this is trying to come up with definitive bright lines you will use to know when something bad has happened. Your advertising is not working well enough to cover expenses. Your online campaign is costing you $1 in clicks for every $0.10 in sales.

People hate this part of business planning, but you are not planning TO fail; you are planning to NOT fail if various unfortunate incidents befall you. Illness (yours or somebody else's). Or all your agent query letters go unanswered. Or they get answered but your manuscript is always rejected. Or you get terms quickly; how do you know if a scammer has found you?

Don't go into business until you know the mechanics of that business; and once you know the mechanics, put on your author's hat, become a villain, and try to see the attacks and frauds they could make to extract money (or rights) from naive authors and research that. Make a plan to NOT be victimized. Make a plan to deal with rejection. Make a plan to not run out of money before you have given this business a fair shot.

  • Loneliness: Writing is primarily a solitary activity. Many software developers are introverts already, so lots of solitude and isolation may not bother you, but for me, as a social person, it's one of the main barriers to happiness as a writer.

  • Disconnection From Reality: You're going to be spending an awful lot of time inside your own head, and as a result, you might find an already tenuous connection to reality starting to weaken.

  • Poverty: Most novelists, with some key exceptions, don't do particularly well financially. It would take several "reasonably successful" novels or one particularly successful bestseller per year to equal the income of an average software developer. And that's not counting the lag time before publication, which can be years. (There do exist less glamorous, more reliable writing career paths, but you're not really asking about those.)

  • Lack of Structure: Being a writer means being your own boss, and while that may sound good, lack of structure may bring you down unless you're incredibly self disciplined. When I was much younger, I quit my job to write full time at one point, and ended up producing far less writing than I do now, holding down a fulltime job (as a software developer).

  • Rejection: Even good and famous authors have to deal with a huge amount of rejection and it can be truly soul-crushing (there's an excellent non-fiction chronicle of this called Mortification, including, if I recall correctly, Handmaiden Tale's author Margaret Atwood's sad story of being booked to do an unsuccessful book signing in the lingerie department of a local store). You have to have an ego of steel to withstand it and keep on going...

My advice would be to do what I'm doing --keep your job as a software developer, but commit to writing an hour or so every single day. (I've actually encountered a huge number of other developers using their day job to subsidize a second career in the arts --probably because it's one of the few truly lucrative day jobs that has any creativity attached to it.)

If you write that bestseller, you can always quit then...

  • I'd agree that making a living as an entertainment writer (books or scripts) is as difficult as making a living as other artists. Bands and/or music, painting, acting, dancing, singing, film, stand up comedy, game writing. It can be done, but the path to success is a hundred miles long with the bodies of those that tried and failed strewn on both sides.
    – Amadeus
    Jul 2, 2018 at 15:41
  • @Amadeus Good point. While the OP pretty clearly is asking about novels, I've edited to hint at the fact that there are more stable writing careers focused on functional writing. Jul 2, 2018 at 17:39

Your question is:

  • What are the occupational hazards to being a full-time writer?

But based on what you describe I would flip that and perhaps ask:

  • What are the occupational hazards to being a part-time software developer?

The reality is simple economics anywhere in the world: There is more of a need for—and thus more stability in—being a software developer than being a writer. Software developers develop software and that is a fairly endless need. Writers write novels and then… What else?

  • How many novels are needed? Seriously, I think I am well read but only have a few books in my home and many of them used.
  • Why would someone want a new novel from you even if you a popular writer? Okay, you are a good author but why would someone want a new book from you? I have F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “The Great Gatsby” in my home library; why should I care about his other works? I don’t and he’s popular.
  • How much do you believe you will be paid or a novel? Publisher advances are often impressive their own but for average schmoes they are less than a menial job.
  • How many of your novels might provide an income stream based on licensing for movies and or TV shows? The chances of you becoming the next J.D. Salinger and living off of the profits from the sale of just books is zilch. There is no purity to books nowadays: Any book you write on any theme nowadays will need to be structured into something that can then be licensed and sold in other mediums. If you don’t think this way, your book is just a personal project. At the end of the day it is a product. And writing a book nowadays means creating a platform; not a standalone thing.

So my advice to you is if software development is grinding you down, then fix that problem: Figure out how to minimize the impact the job you need to survive is having on your life. And then use that freed up time do what you love… Whether that love be being a writer, artist, traveller, etc…

But while being a writer might seem fun to you casually, making that fun thing into a career might just grind you down and make you into the type of writer you are not passionate about.


Russo-Ukrainian writer Yuri Nikitin (author of one of the longest novel series The Richard Longarms Cycle) wrote in his memories that if you write for more than 3-4 hours per day, there is a high risk of developing aversion to writing.

He justifies it using the statistics of the writers he knows. The progression is like this: A writer produces one book per year while working in a full-time job. After several years, he abandons the job and starts to write full-time. The next book comes out in 3 years, the following -- in 5. And at some point he stops to write at all.

He offers a solution for full-time writers: Write for 3-4 hours per day, and spend the rest of the day playing intellectually challenging videogames.


Alcoholism has been described as a major occupational hazard for writers (not only in this article but my memory is failing me and that's what a few minutes of googling could uncover).


Well, as a software developer who is a partner to a full time published (4x) author, I can attest that hazards will include:

  • Arguing. Authors have a lot of "characters" in their head at any one time, so you'll surely find yourself taking on the persona of one of them at some point. Actions taken by the recipient could be to shake their head and walk away to punching "some sense" into you (disclosure: I haven't done this with my partner. I tend to ask some enquiring questions first to determine to whom I am dealing with. And no, she's not crazy, just an author)

  • Bitching about the state of royalties. You may find (depending on where you reside) that author royalties are being eroded or reduced. Not good news if you want to survive.

  • Repetitively playing Moxy Fruvous "My baby loves a bunch of authors" If the other two points don't push all your friends away, this is guaranteed to work - Knock yourself out here

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    I think my wife would divorce me if I did the last one. She can take about 1 public airing of my Bargainville album every 5 years or so. Jul 2, 2018 at 15:28

Writing, as a career, suffers from what I call The Artist's Bane -- there is more talent out there than there is market to support that talent. But you can sell what you write, if you're willing to put in the effort. But do address the question of marketing before your book is printed. Once it's available for sale, if you then ask how do I actually sell this, it's too late.

I've read a stack of books just on marketing:

  • How To Make A Living With Your Writing
  • How To Market A Book
  • Youtility
  • Blogging For Dummies
  • Wordpress For Dummies

There is, of course, more hazards out there than marketing, but this is one of the main ones. Good luck

  • 1
    Hi Jennifer. Please don't use code formatting for prose. I have changed the formatting to a list instead.
    – user
    Jul 2, 2018 at 12:17

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