Writing: Is It a Hobby or a Job?

The question many writers often face when asking themselves about their writing is: Is it a hobby or job? Let's explore and see if we can put an end to the debate.
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The question many writers often face when asking themselves about their writing is: Is it a hobby or job?

This is an argument I’ve had with my husband Mike many times, and you’ll no doubt have it with parents, friends, and teachers as you venture down your own writing path.

Guess which one I think it is?

—Kerri Majors, author of This Is NOT a Writing Manual:
Notes for the Young Writer in the Real World

Yep. Except, I don’t get paid.

Which is why Mike says it’s a hobby.

See, for him, the key is money. If it won’t keep you fed or pay your rent, it’s a hobby. A hobby could be the great passion of a person’s life, the thing he or she lives to do, but it ain’t a job.

That, as they say, is why they call jobs work.

But you’re a writer, so you feel strongly about the nuances of words, and to you, “hobby” just doesn’t cut it. “Hobby” implies “side gig,” or “weekend fun.” It does not imply sitting for hours at your computer, turning down invitations from friends, anxiously stringing together words on the page, and biting your nails while strangers read and judge your work.

Hey, there’s that word work again.

Surely writing is work, if there ever was work. It’s hard. It may be the only thing you want to do in life, but it’s still really, really hard. It requires discipline and study, and many failed attempts. You may labor at it on the side of your paid work, at night and on the weekends, but it is work. It feels like a job.

Sure, my devil’s-advocate-on-my-shoulder, a mini-Mike, says, but so can a hobby.

Let me cite a relevant example in the form of friend of ours, Phil. Phil and his wife Jo moved to New York from London a few years ago, because Jo is a cardiac surgeon and she got a big fellowship at a New York hospital. This required Phil to quit his job in London, and because of visa issues, he has not been able to secure a work permit in the States. As a result, he has had some time to pursue his hobbies—namely triathlons and photography. Because of these hobbies, not only is their apartment decorated with stunning, arty pictures he’s taken, he looks ten years younger than his real age, and he’s placing respectably in triathlons all over the world. He appears happy. His days are full.

And surely he had to study, apply amazing discipline, and endure many failed attempts in his quest for triathlon and arty photography success.

So: Hobby or job?

For some reason, I would agree with mini-Mike that Phil’s “work” endeavors are hobbies. Why? For this critical reason: Phil doesn’t aspire to get paid to do photography or triathlons. It would be nice, I’m sure, but that’s not his goal.

For many, many writers—likely the kind of writers who are reading this book—the goal is to make a living at writing.

Phil’s photography and triathlons are “work,” but they do not equate to a “job.” He’s just lucky enough to be able to fill his days with his hobbies.

So now we’re getting somewhere. You can be doing work, and it can be difficult and tedious as well as rewarding and essential, but that doesn’t make it a job.

Let’s look at a more directly relevant example for a minute.

Julie Powell temped all day to pay her rent and buy groceries, but her hobby was cooking. For fun, she decided to cook her way through every single recipe in Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking in a single year and blog about her triumphs and failures. Her blog caught on like wildfire, got written up in The New York Times, and ultimately landed her a book contract and movie deal.

Okay: hobby or job?

It seems to me that the cooking and blogging were hobbies. Side gig. Weekend fun.

But having read her book, I know that the cooking and blogging were hard work. Some days she had to drag herself through the tasks. She got little sleep and schlepped all over the city to procure ingredients.

Work.

But I’m a writer, so shouldn’t I call it a job? I mean, she was writing, after all. And she did dream that her project would eventually become profitable, maybe even enough to allow her to quit temping.

I’m no hypocrite. Wasn’t her blog a job?

Why am I so hesitant to call it that?

Probably because I am realizing as I write this that although it was work, it was not a job. I’m sure it felt like a job, just like my own writing sometimes feels like a thankless job.

But what I’m realizing is this: Until your writing pays you, it’s work, not a job.

But mini-Mike and everyone else who tells you it’s a hobby is also wrong.

Writing is NOT A HOBBY.

Writing is just too freaking hard to label it with a word that connotes relaxation and pleasure. It’s work. It may not pay you—so you can agree that it’s not a job, and let the other person feel like they’re winning part of the argument—but for your own sense of self-worth, and for all the other writers out there toiling away on their novels in their spare time, be sure you call it work.

Postscript: I wrote the above for my book proposal, when I was still a bit clueless when it came to the idea of getting paid for your writing. After discussing this issue with other writer friends, I have discovered yet another wrinkle in this hobby/job/work conundrum. What if the writing pays you, but it doesn’t pay enough to cover your rent or childcare, or anything else you need to function in order to finish the writing?

What if winning a triathlon involves a monetary prize?

Knotty problems, aren’t they?

It seems to me that my original argument stands: If money is involved, it’s a job, with all the stresses that come with a job—a boss/editor, deadlines, performance anxiety, and so on. It’s just a poorly paid job that you need to supplement with other paid work. This is when you turn to the chapter on “getting a real job.” I apologize in advance.

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