I Need Coffee: What Are Your Writing For?


"I Need Coffee" is a monthly column on Huffington Post Books. INC (and yes, the initialism is deliberate) covers all sorts of writing topics, with an eye toward how to make a living writing. INC's audience includes both authors and aspiring authors, and authors who are both mainstream and independent.

Note: An earlier version of this column first appeared in Underground Book Reviews, an online magazine run by indie authors who are passionate about writing. They publish articles about the world of independent literature, reviews of independent literature, and more.

My husband majored in physics and economics. (Can you say "major nerd"?) But having him around is great when it comes time to making rational business decisions with my writing. He knows all the tricks. And let's just say that I can be a little temperamental sometimes. Here is an example conversation:

Me: This client is ridiculous! I'm quitting!
Him: Your client is ridiculous. You are not quitting.

Then he proceeds to explain tactics for how to manage a difficult writer-client relationship. He helps me write strategic emails so that I can maintain that professional relationship. Luckily, over the years that we've been married, I've managed to absorb a little of his wisdom, so I don't need his intervention 100% of the time. Just sometimes. 

One of the favorite terms I've learned from him is "decision matrix." A decision matrix is a super-rational tool for making decisions. Used properly, it allows you to take into consideration a bunch of variables while keeping the seat of your pants OUT of the equation, so to speak.

When you need to make a decision that has a lot of criteria to consider, you must conduct, in technical terms, a "multi-criteria decision analysis" (a MCDA). And to do a MCDA, you use a decision matrix. This all sounds very fancy. However, my decision matrices are not fancy. I have one simple problem that I use a decision matrix to help me solve, and the matrix is invaluable.

I use a decision matrix to help me decide whether I should take on writing jobs. I can't be trusted to use my instincts to make these decisions because when it comes to writing jobs, my instincts suck.

When crafting my decision matrix, the first thing I did was figure out what kinds of writing jobs I was being offered. I had to label the choices I had to decide between. The three choices were these: 3-R Jobs, Devil's Bargains, and Sweet Spots. Let me explain what each one entails.

(1) 3-R Jobs: Back when I was still building my full-time freelance writing career, and still to this day, I'm presented with work that I feel like I should take because it will help build relationships, or build my resume, or build my reputation as a writer--even though the work doesn't pay well or at all. This kind of job doesn't have much in the way of cash, but it has the three Rs: relationships, resume, and reputation.

(2) Devil's Bargains: Sometimes I take a job because the money is so good that I feel like I can't say no--even though I'm pretty sure I'll hate the work. I quit a career to write full time, so there's always a bit of guilt lurking in the back of my mind, telling me that I'm not pulling my weight around the household with the income that I'm generating. When I take a job like this, I'm trading good money for miserable labor. That's the devil's bargain.

(3) Sweet Spots: Sometimes I get lucky, and I take a job that pays okay, or even well, and I really enjoy the work, too. That's the writer's sweet spot.

The thing is, as any good economist (or my husband) will tell you, if you fill up your calendar with 3-R Jobs or Devil's Bargains, then you have no time left for any Sweet Spot work that might come along. Or, you know, for your next fiction manuscript. The economics term is "opportunity cost": When you choose one alternative, you might get the gains from choosing that alternative, but you lose the potential gains you might have had from the choosing another alternative.

Given that, as professional writers, we're working with a fixed amount of time, and given that we'd like to make some money, whenever we are presented with both time and a writing to project to fill that time with, we each need to ask ourselves this very simple question: "What am I writing for?" 

Are you writing for the money? For the three Rs? Or are you in the sweet spot?

You can use a simple decision matrix to help you decide, rationally, which jobs to take--rather than being driven by fear. Fear is the worst way to make a decision: Is my reputation strong enough? Am I pulling my weight? Will I make the rent?

Make a simple chart. Keep count of the jobs you take. Does it feel like you're only taking soul-killing writing work for the money? Maybe that's because you are. Does it feel like you're taking low-paying work with little financial reward to build your reputation? Maybe you're right. Does it feel like you're not having much fun with your writing? Maybe that's because you aren't. 

Start slow with your decision matrix. Don't even make a full-on matrix. Instead, just use a chart to keep track of what you've been writing. Just a simple count. Start counting now. If you can, dig up some historical data too--what did you write last month? Last year? You might be surprised by the results. Count all of your work: editing, writing coaching--as I wrote in an earlier column, all writing process work counts as writing.

If it turns out you're right, and you have been taking lots of jobs to feed your reputation and not enough to feed your bank account, or you've been so focused on feeding your bank account that you are close to burning out your love of writing, you now have some numerical evidence to prove it. And you can justify saying "no" to a job in the future. You'll know that you're turning down a job because it's time for a different sort of job. You can feel super-rational while you do so, too. 

An earlier version of this column first appeared in Underground Book Reviews. To sign up for Katie's monthly newsletter, Writing Isn't Sexy, and get free books and writing tips, click here: bit.ly/pryalnews.