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Writing Part-Time – Feasible For A Living?

wptfIt seems like everybody’s doing it. Part-time writing, I mean. This past summer, for example, full-time First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton started a weekly newspaper column for Creators Syndicate of Los Angeles. Full-time singer/songwriter Judy Collins was plugging her first novel, Shameless. And Little, Brown announced it was advancing full-time actor Ethan Hawke $300,000 for his first novel.

If they can do it, why can’t we?

Of course, for every part-time writer who snags a $300,000 advance, there are hundreds of other writers who struggle to pay for postage. Part-time writing has many rewards, but big money isn’t always one of them. A 1994 survey conducted for the Authors League Fund reported that the median hourly wage for “limited part-time” writers (those giving it fewer than 30 hours a week) was $3.47. And that was the good news. Part-timers who spent more than 30 hours a week at it earned a measly $2.96. In my own experience, I’ve had years when part-time freelancing boosted my income by 30% or more. I also had a year when I spent more money than I took in and had to claim a loss on my taxes.

But, profit or loss, most of my fellow part-timers seem to be enjoying themselves full-time. Here, from their experiences and my own, are some part-timely tips.

Seize the Moment

When you think about it, all writers are really part-timers. Even men and women lucky enough to make a living with words still have to sleep, eat, get their teeth cleaned twice a year and fill out the occasional tax form.

Fact is, even if you have a full-time job, you probably have more spare hours at your disposal than you realize. Let’s do the math. Say you work 40 hours a week and spend another ten hours commuting. That’s just 50 hours out of the 168 hours in any seven-day week. You’ve still got another 118 hours to do with as you please. What’s more, you can usually find 15 minutes here or half an hour there within those 50 hours to write, or at least to plan your next move.

I’m not claiming that part-time writing is always easy. For one thing, not all hours are created equal. If you’re like most people you probably think and write more clearly at 10 in the morning or 4 in the afternoon than you will at the end of a long, tough workday. And if you have a family, there will be days when you want to go to your computer and they want you to go to the mall. But with a little creativity and a lot of discipline, you can make the time you do have really count for something.

Research may be the biggest stumbling block for part-timers, particularly nonfiction writers. You may be happy to write from 10 p.m. to midnight, but chances are the people you need to interview would rather talk to you between 9 a.m. and 5 p.m. One solution: Try to schedule your interviews during whatever free time you can carve out during the day. For this article, I interviewed three writers at lunchtime and caught a fourth just after I got home from work. Because I live in the East and the fourth writer lives in the West, I was able to interview him at 7:30 my time, which was still just 4:30 his time. West Coast writers can take advantage of time-zone differences at the other end of the day, by making calls to people in the East before work. When it’s 6 a.m. in Burbank, it’s already 9 in Boston. (And they’ll never know you’re still in your pajamas.)

Other ways to make time for research:

* Use spare vacation days. Jay Stuller, who works full-time in Chevron Corp.’s public affairs department and freelances for major magazines, tries to do most of his reporting by phone. But he saves some vacation time for stories that require out-of-town travel. An article on the Dallas-Ft. Worth Airport published in Smithsonian, for example, required five vacation days of reporting–and he never even got to leave the airport.

* Learn the hours of your local libraries. You can probably squeeze in some library time at lunch, after work or on weekends. In a pinch, librarians will sometimes look things up for you and answer your questions over the phone.

* Start your own library. Save yourself some trips to the library (and spend that time writing) by building a decent reference collection at home. It doesn’t have to be anything fancy. In writing this article, I was aided by the 31-year-old set of the Encyclopedia Britannica I’ve had since boyhood. You might find a newer set (one that actually knows something about Watergate, Neil Armstrong and the Rolling Stones) for next to nothing at a used-book sale. Or, if you have a computer with a CD-ROM drive, you can get a nearly up-to-date encyclopedia on disk for about $60.

* Hook your computer up to an online service. These services–CompuServe, America Online, Prodigy, among others–put a ton of research material at your disposal (newspapers, magazines, government data, you name it) whenever you want to access it. You can also use their bulletin boards to connect with real people. That’s useful, for example, when you need anecdotes for an article.

* Interview by mail. I’ve done this on rare occasions when I wasn’t able to reach a subject by telephone. Some people will just throw your letter out, of course, or never get around to answering you. Others, however, will be so intrigued by your quaint approach that they’ll answer more thoughtfully than they would have on the phone. I’ve found this technique works well with authors and others who are comfortable putting words on paper. It’s also an option if you–or your subject–are shy by nature or easily tongue-tied.

Get Down to Business

Once you’ve made some time to write, the next step is actually putting words on paper. That, as we all know, can be the toughest job of all. There’s something about having to concentrate on your writing that sets off every car alarm in the neighborhood, gets the phone ringing and starts the baby crying. The late Robert Benchley, whose skill as a humorist seems to have been matched only by his resourcefulness as a procrastinator, once offered this principle for getting things done: “Anyone can do any amount of work, provided it isn’t the work he is supposed to be doing at that moment.” So try a little reverse psychology: Tune out the distractions and pretend that instead of writing, you really should be balancing your checkbook or waxing the car.

Many writers find it helps to have a regular place to work. You don’t necessarily need a corner office or even an office or, for that matter, even a corner. B.F. Skinner, the Harvard psychologist famed for conditioning rats to press levers and pigeons to play Ping-Pong, conditioned himself to write for two hours every morning at a certain desk in his home. When he wanted to write a personal letter or pay bills, he did it in another part of the house.

Marissa Piesman, author of four mystery novels and the recently published Alternate Sides, has trained herself to write on the subway as she commutes to her job as an assistant state attorney general in New York City. “The subway is actually an easy place to concentrate,” she says. “It’s so noisy that you don’t get distracted by other people’s conversations. And there’s nothing much to see out the window.” Writing in longhand on a steno pad, Piesman found that she could do 400 words during her 45-minute morning commute–or a 2,000-word chapter every week. At the end of 36 weeks, she had a 35-chapter, 70,000-word manuscript. Piesman’s routine has worked so well that she now writes on the ride home, too.

Whether you write at a rolltop desk or in a rolling subway car, you’ll also need a place to keep your works in progress. A filing cabinet is fine for filing things away, but that’s also its main drawback. Out of sight, out of mind, as the 15th-century monk and part-time writer Thomas a Kempis observed.

To keep yourself motivated (and to make yourself feel guilty if you waste spare moments when you should be writing something), stow your work in plain sight. I’ve found one remarkable, low-tech solution: the shoe box. Through some miracle of package design, the standard men’s shoe box is just the right size to hold letter-size file folders upright. One shoe box can easily accommodate several dozen file folders stuffed with article ideas, clippings and manuscripts in progress. Plus, you (or your significant male other) will have an excuse for buying shoes whenever you need to expand your filing space.

Choose Your Targets

Part-time writers learn pretty quickly not to overpromise. Don’t, for example, propose an article in which you’d walk the path of Lewis and Clark, unless your real-job boss won’t miss you for the next two years or so.

Rick Wolff, a full-time editor of business, sports and humor titles for Warner Books, and the part-time author of more than a dozen books of his own, offers some simple advice: “Try to pick subjects where you don’t have to do much research because you already know about it,” he says. “Say you’re an accountant whose hobby is gardening, and you’re very proud of your pumpkins. It probably wouldn’t make sense for you to try to write a novel about 18th-century Russia. But you could write about the best ways to grow pumpkins or how to keep raccoons away from your crop.” Following his own advice, Wolff, a former minor league ballplayer, has focused most of his books on baseball.

If you aren’t already an expert on, say, pumpkins or pinch-hitting, that doesn’t mean you can’t write about them. Indeed, one joy of freelancing is the constant learning of new things. But it’s also possible to waste months or even years researching some topic that no editor will be interested in. A good middle ground, I’ve found, is to do enough research to write a persuasive query, then stop. If you get a go-ahead from an editor, you can then invest the time necessary to become an expert. If you don’t, consider your general knowledge enhanced and move on to another story idea.

Beware the Boss

Being a part-time writer can be, alas, a good way to get yourself in trouble with your full-time employer. As a general rule, try not to do anything that would give your boss the idea that your writing is more important to you than your full-time job (even if it is). For example, if you’re writing a savage expose of your company, or a comic novel whose most idiotic character bears a striking resemblance to your company’s president, it’s probably not a good idea to do it on the office computer or to leave the manuscript on your desk.

Jay Stuller, who has successfully juggled corporate work and part-time freelancing for 22 years, says, “I always do anything I’m supposed to do and then some.” And he contends that the freelancing he does actually benefits his employer. “I learn a lot from the things I’m exposed to in doing outside projects,” he says, “and I bring that back to the work I do here.”

Your employer may well have rules on outside work, including writing. If you don’t know, ask. And if you value your job, do your best to comply with them. I had to check with my masters at Time, Inc., before writing this article, for example. To protect yourself, try to get any rules on outside writing in writing.

When all else fails, consider a pen name. That’s the story behind “Stanley Bing,” a Fortune magazine columnist who also wrote for Esquire for more than a decade. Under his real name, Bing has a day job he characterizes as “a senior type for a vast multinational conglomerate.” While Bing’s secret identity isn’t as secret as it once was, it does have its uses. “At the beginning it was a way of protecting me from my employers,” he says. “Now it also serves to protect my employer.” That is, the readers of Bing’s column on office life or his book Crazy Bosses won’t automatically assume he’s writing about his particular vast multinational conglomerate.

Writing under a pen name does have a downside, of course. “You must have a strong core ego,” says Bing, “because you’ll hear people at the office praising something your alter ego just published, and you can’t even tell them that it was yours.”

Sell Yourself

Selling is a tough job for any writer, and it doesn’t get any easier when you’re doing it part-time. Not only do you have fewer hours to research new markets and polish your queries, but the mere fact that you’re a part-timer will sometimes be held against you. One magazine editor recently told me that she won’t assign anything to part-time freelancers, simply because she can’t count on them to be available at a moment’s notice to answer questions or do more work on a manuscript.

How can you combat this perception? Simple: Don’t advertise your part-time status. Don’t lie about it if you’re asked, of course, but unless your full-time job is relevant to the story you’re pitching, there’s no compelling reason to bring it up. Many editors don’t care whether you’re full-time or part-time–as long as you can deliver on time.

The pseudonymous Stanley Bing says it’s particularly important for part-timers to cultivate relationships with editors. “Get to know as many editors as you possibly can,” he says. “Develop long-term relationships with them. That way you’re not always pitching ideas to editors who don’t know you. And never say no, no matter how busy you are.”

One of the best part-time gigs I’ve had in nearly two decades of freelancing was a series of Q&A interviews I did for seven years for a slick quarterly magazine published by a big accounting firm. The interviewing was fun, the editing was top-notch, and the money wasn’t bad either. Most important, I could schedule the interviews (and the weekends for transcribing the tapes and writing them up) well in advance, to avoid any conflicts with my full-time work. Bing has another bit of shrewd advice for part-timers: “Charge enough to make it worth the invasion of your life space,” he says. “Don’t work for cheap.”

To which I’d add only: unless you really want to. Because when you’re a part-time writer, you’re your own boss. More so, in fact, than all but the richest of full-time writers. So whether it’s fortune, fame, or simply the pleasure of a well-crafted page that motivates you, go for it.

As for me, I’d better be getting ready for work.

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