The typical writer’s dream is to quit his day job and write from his home office for a few hours every day while selling enough books to support his family.
No more stress, no more commute, no more worries beyond hammering out the next story. Just pure art and plenty of time for the important things in life.
That all sounds great, and it probably is for those few souls who have managed to achieve it.
But the truth is that becoming a successful writer is a struggle, and you need every advantage you can get to make it as far as you possibly can, as fast as you possibly can.
One of the chief advantages that you have as a writer with a day job is … well, it’s your day job!
There are any number of reasons why hanging onto a career you love (or even like) is a good idea as you begin writing more, but you can go beyond just hanging on.
Here are 15 ways you can actively use your job to make you a better writer.
Support Your Writing
Let’s face it: the main reason that most of us work in the jobs we do is for money and benefits. Holding down a regular 9-to-5 can be numbing at times, but it is a reliable way to keep the wheels on the business of running a family. After all, we have to pay for housing, food, medical expenses, cars, and more each and every month.
But the money you earn from your day job also provides you with at least a little disposable income most of the time, and that can be a boon to your writing. For instance, you could try out new tools like Scrivener or the Story App, or maybe treat yourself to a handy leather-bound journal once a year. Or maybe you just want to read more books and set aside some of your budget for the Kindle Store.
Whatever the case, your day job can provide you with the funds you need to boost your writing goals.
Related to the point above about directly supporting your writing, a steady job can help you reduce anxiety and focus more on your writing outside of work.
Now, you may be thinking that your job is a source of stress and anxiety, not a cure, but it can be both.
While most jobs come with plenty of stressors on a day-to-day basis, they also provide a modicum of security and stability.
If you’re relying on your next novel or blog post to pay the bills, the pressure to succeed can be debilitating. With a strong, steady job behind you, though, you can just sit down at the keyboard and do your best work without having to worry about keeping the lights on.
Revel in this luxury if you have it, and your writing will only improve.
Find New Tools
Most modern jobs involve spending a good portion of each day in front of the computer. That can be both good an bad, but you can use it to your advantage when it comes to improving your writing.
In particular, you and your co-workers have undoubtedly identified a set of tools that help you perform you job better, from project management software to productivity apps to best-of-breed word processors. As you move through each new tool at work, take note of which ones might be useful for you in your writing career.
A prime example from my own experience is Trello, an agile project management application that I first encountered at work but now use for organizing my writing projects, too.
Meet New People
Character development is one of the key elements of successful fiction writing, but it can also be one of the toughest. As much as we love to write, we’re not gods, and it can be difficult to create new people from whole cloth.
The good news is that you don’t have to start from scratch. Rather, you can stitch together personality traits and mannerisms of people you already know in real life to come up with the players in your stories.
And your workplace is a rich source of personalities from which to draw, but you need to take an active role in cultivating those relationships.
When a new employee comes on board, go out of your way to introduce yourself and spend a few minutes chatting, maybe over coffee.
Ask to be included in new projects that will help you meet people in different areas of the company.
Work with vendors and collaboration partners as much as possible to expand your base of acquaintances.
The more people you know, the more varied your library of persona components that you can use to build new characters. Just be careful not to mirror an individual role directly from any of your co-workers, especially if you’re constructing a villain.
Beyond stoking your imagination, your co-workers can help boost your writing career in a very important way: networking.
We tend to talk about our downtime and hobbies when we’re at work, and if you let it slip that you write, you just might find that Bob in Receiving is an aspiring author, too. Maybe you can form a writers group that meets for lunch once a month or trades reviews and editing favors.
Even if you don’t find any kindred spirits, getting the word out — without turning the office into your own billboard — about your writing can only help.
Maybe someone has an editor or agent in the family. Maybe they know about resources you don’t.
At the very least, you’re bound to gain a couple of new readers.
Most of the time, your job will involve sitting in the office or in meetings for eight or nine hours a day.
Occasionally, though, you will have the opportunity to travel to a different company or even another part of the country for business purposes. While frequent work trips can become burdensome, a change of scenery can do wonders for your creative process.
New places and new faces (see above) give you a wider experience base from which to build your stories, and sometimes just getting out of your daily grind can jar loose new story ideas.
So, the next time you’re tasked with hitting the road for you company, view it as a direct lead on your next novel or story.
Schedule Your Writing
Everyone complains about the boredom and drudgery of our daily work routine, but you can use that regularity to help you write more and better.
Because you get up at the same time every day, go to work at the same time every day, eat lunch at the same time every day, and come home at the same time every day — all roughly speaking — you can predictably identify the blocks of time you have available for writing.
For instance, if your morning routine is well-established, you could get up 15 minutes early each day and use that time to write. You’d also be virtually guaranteed that it would be untouched by other obligations.
Similarly, if you take your lunch at Noon each day, why not grab your laptop or a pad of paper, find a quiet corner somewhere, and crank out a few hundred words while you eat? Again, it’s a reliable block of time that you can use to boost your word count each and every work day.
You can fully exploit this concept by scrutinizing your daily routine for free blocks of time, and then scheduling those as writing “appointments” on whatever calendar system you use. When you do this, you’ll probably be surprised by just how much time you really do have to devote to writing.
Write During Your Commute
Ugh … the daily commute!
We all hate it, right?
It’s that two-pronged black hole of our day when we’re trapped in a car or train or bus for 30-90 minutes (or more), each way, to and from work.
Traffic, frustration, and stress all run high. What’s worse is all that time is just lost … poof! Gone.
But it doesn’t have to be that way, depending on your situation. In fact, you might be able to transform your commute into one of those golden pockets of time that are just perfect for writing. Here are few ideas on how to accomplish this:
If you ride a bus, train, or subway to work … take a tablet, laptop, or hand-written journal with you and crank out as many words as you can during your ride. It may be bumpy, and there will be days when you have to throw a jacket over your head to get some peace, but it can be done. Alternatively, or on select days, you could strike up a conversation or engage in some people-watching, both of which will feed your writing later on. Reading is always a good option, too, and can stoke your creative fires.
If you carpool … then, again, you should be able to squeeze in some writing time on days you don’t drive, though you may need to be a bit more sociable than you would on mass transit. On days you drive, pump your car-mates for some good stories that you might leverage in your work. You should always have a book available as backup, too.
If you drive yourself … then you obviously can’t write or type in the traditional sense. What you CAN do is dictate into your cell phone or tablet. If you haven’t tried dictation before, then you’re in for a productivity treat, because writer’s block generally happens between the brain and the fingers; the mouth is often exempted. If you don’t want to talk while you drive for some reason, then you could always listen to audio books.
Appreciate Your Writing Time
I always head into vacations and weekends with big plans for how much writing I will get done before heading back to work, but it hardly ever happens.
Part of the problem is that my time off lacks the structure of the work week, and that structure keeps me on point in all areas of my life, writing included.
More insidious is the general air of leisure that downtime imparts. There are plenty of hours between now and Monday morning, I tell myself on Friday night or Saturday, so why bust my hump writing NOW or sticking to a rigid schedule? If I do manage to sit down at my keyboard, I often fiddle around with Facebook or WordPress layouts.
Before I know it, hours or days have passed with hardly any words bleeding onto the page, and my opportunity is lost.
During the work week, though, with the pressures of the previous day and the next day always pushing down, I’m acutely aware of time and how precious it is. This sense of urgency carries through to every area of life, and I approach my writing with laser focus. Almost without fail, the most productive writing sessions I have are squeezed in between other obligations.
When I’m perking along at full steam, it’s not uncommon to splash down 1000 words in half an hour or more than 500 in 15 minutes or so.
But (usually) only during the work week.
Work hard, keep your commitments, and you will surely learn to really appreciate and make the most of your writing opportunities.
Sharpen Your Interview Skills
Another area that’s tough to master for many fiction writers is character dialogue. It’s challenging to make it sound natural without becoming mundane or boring, and you have to learn to switch between the dialect or vernacular of your characters and the more rigid grammar and punctuation of your main copy.
One way to tease out how a certain character might talk is to conduct a mock interview with him. Come up with a series of questions, either about your plot or about the character’s backstory, and then type out how he would answer. Be prepared for him to ask some questions of you, too, though!
If this idea seems a bit forced or awkward, the workplace can give you plenty of practice in interviewing people, both those you know and those you don’t.
For instance, when you are meeting with internal customers about some work your department is going to do for them, treat it like an interview and arrive with a set of scripted questions to guide you. Your conversation will drift from that center line, but that’s OK. The experience will help you conduct your character interviews later on, and being more prepared for your meetings will help at work.
The same idea applies when you’re dealing with vendors, meeting with your boss, or interviewing job candidates.
And if you want to get adventurous, turn the tables and apply for that job that seems over your head but which also is a dream position. Who knows? Maybe you’ll get an interview … and the job!
Interact with People
Beyond formal meetings and interviews, your job also brings you into contact with all sorts of people each week. Make it a goal to engage at least one person a day in a quick, non-work-related conversation. Once a week, try to strike up a conversation with someone you don’t know, or don’t know well.
And always be receptive to others’ invitations to talk shop as long as it won’t negatively impact your work.
Speaking with a wide variety of people is one of the best ways to work on your dialogue skills, understand how body language and social cues might impact your writing, and stumble upon new story ideas.
You don’t always have to engage people to benefit from their presence.
Watching people in normal situations is one of the best methods to learn about mannerisms and body language, which you can then use to infuse your writing with more detail.
Few places give you so many opportunities to people-watch without feeling like a Peeping Tom as the office.
In an average day, you will encounter dozens or maybe even hundreds of people at work, in settings ranging from walking down the hall (gait) to eating lunch (table manners) to standing in the break room gossiping (posture and dialog).
And maybe the best people-watching venues of all are all those meetings we all hate so much. Watch how your co-workers interact with each other; listen to the words they use and the inflection in their voices; look for changes in facial expression and body positioning as the topics flow from one to another.
You can use all of these cues in your writing to build layered, interesting characters who connect with your audience.
Find Story Ideas
I’ve hinted at this a couple of times, but you should always be receptive to new story ideas, however they may arise.
As you’re speaking with people or sitting in meetings throughout the day, take note of any interesting points that might enter the conversation.
For example, before meetings, staff members often recount to each other news from their personal lives.
Dan from accounting may be gearing up for a Tough Mudder run at night, while Sally from IT is working on her MBA on the weekends. And her son is getting ready to graduate from college.
Can you imagine writing a story about a corporate type who signs up for an adventure run, only to find out halfway through that all the other contestants are *gulp* zombies?
Or how about the teenager who starts a micro drone company during college and then hires his business-savvy mom to help him — and his machines — infiltrate some of the biggest corporations in the world?
Listen hard, keep your imagination fired up, and make connections where you can. There is a story idea lurking beyond every office door.
Email is the lifeblood of communications for most businesses in the 21st century.
Everyone has an email account, and most of us have multiple email accounts that we use on a regular basis. It’s not uncommon for busy people to send and receive hundreds of email each and every day, and email often serves as a proxy for meetings or phone calls.
Given how ubiquitous email has become, you ‘d think that we’ all be masters by now, but the truth is far uglier.
If you’ve been in the workforce for any length of time, you have undoubtedly noticed the glut of email messages that arrive full of typos and grammatical mistakes, often lacking any kind of salutation or attribution other than the “from” and “to” addresses. Spelling gaffes, rude comments, terse replies, horrible formatting, indecipherable shorthand, atrocious emojis, and jarring font choices are just a few of the other pitfalls that we have to maneuver every day just to do business in the modern times.
You can be better than that.
And in being better, you can practice your writing skills all day long, every day.
By treating every email message as you would a page in your latest novel.
Write it out, then spellcheck it, then edit it. Then edit it again.
Re-read your final draft for clarity, and if it’s muddy, edit yet again.
When you start a new email thread, make sure you include a proper salutation and attribution.
If you make a conscious effort to keep your email prose tight, you will improve the mechanics of your other writing overtime.
You’ll also make yourself look good at work, which can pay all kinds of dividends.
Volunteer to Write
Much like email, other types of business writing have fallen into disrepair in the digital age.
Technical specifications, policy documents, website copy, and even instructional signs we print out and hang around the office are sometimes disorganized and confusing, and often abysmal in terms of grammar, spelling, and punctuation.
What’s more, almost no one wants to write work-related documentation. Ask for a volunteer to write up your next set of project requirements, and you’re likely to be greeted with a set of floor-cast, eye-avoiding stares that transform your co-workers into a class of high school seniors who forgot to do their reading assignment.
That’s OK, though, because these vacant or mangled writing opportunities mean you can be the hero at work AND improve your writing. Take on all the writing assignments you can handle, but make sure you’re turning out top-quality work. Strive to get better with every training manual and online lexicon that you produce.
Soon, you may be churning out thousands of words a day at work, which will almost automatically boost the quality of your writing over time, not to mention your vocabulary.
As a bonus, you’ll be doing good things for your company and may even see some benefits in terms of increased recognition and esteem in the workplace.
Building your writing career while continuing to nurture another job that you want to keep is a tough road, but it’s one worth traveling.
If you approach it the right way, in fact, your day job can actually help you become a better writer than if you were free to write all day long.
And the best part may be that becoming a better writer can make you a more valuable employee.
You win on both fronts!
These tips will help you use your current job to become a better writer, and I’m sure there are plenty more we haven’t covered here. All you have to do is find and apply them.
So what are you waiting for?