The Writing Life: Did You Choose This Career, or Did It Choose You?

Yesterday morning I woke up earlier than I had planned to and got struck by a bolt of inspiration: Why not take one of those online career quizzes and see what pops up? The kind of quiz that tells you what you should be, instead of what you want to be.

This idea had never occurred to me before. My guess is that it was rooted in another question that has been rattling around in my brain lately: Why on earth did I aspire to be a writer?

Not that I haven’t enjoyed it, or found it fulfilling and rewarding. I’ve made a living from writing my whole adult life. It’s become so ingrained in my professional DNA that I can do it without even trying very hard – which is often the case (har har!).

But was it the best choice, based on my skills and personality?

I took the online career quiz to find out. Maybe it would provide insights into the alternative choices I might have made long ago.

First, some background. I never thought too much about what I might pursue as a career because I’ve always known what I wanted to do. Since childhood, I always wanted to be a writer. I never even questioned it. It just appeared out of the mist early in my life, and from then on, that’s what I decided I’d be.

As I grew into my teens, the ambition narrowed to being a journalist – a writer of news and non-fiction. In high school I got involved with journalism career programs, then studied journalism in college.

That manifested itself into a 40-year career spent mostly writing for newspapers and magazines, with a couple of detours along the way (cook, bartender, bookkeeper). I’m a free-lancer now, having left full-time journalism a few years ago to be a stay-at-home Dad and mind the house. But I still write web content for various sites. I probably earned more money last month than I have in any single month my entire career.

Becoming a free-lancer freed up more time to write fiction – something I had done only sporadically through the years, and not successfully. I immediately went about writing a bunch of short stories. I’ve had a modicum of success since then, mainly by doing well in writing contests, which you can read about here.

I have a couple of books out there – a collection of short stories I self-published, and a novel published by a “hybrid” publisher in which the writers share the costs. Learn more about them here.

I always wanted to write books, but didn’t get around to it until six years ago. Maybe this is what inspired me to take an online career quiz – writing books. Because I can’t think of a more ridiculous way to earn a living than writing books, if you want to actually earn a living.

I have researched how much money your average book author earns, and blogged about it in earlier posts. There’s not a lot of reliable data because the industry is so scattered (traditional publishing, self-publishing, e-publishing, web publishing, etc.). The numbers are not easy to aggregate into a single analysis, the way you could with accounting or carpentry.

But I did come across one very good article in my recent research. It’s on the Book Riot website, titled “How Much Do Authors Make Per Book?” It was published in May 2021 and written by Sarah Nicolas, who took a fairly deep dive into the subject. She researched various income analyses and spoke with authors who are both self-published and published by legitimate publishing houses.

One of her conclusions is this: The majority of authors don’t even make a living wage with their books.”

Here’s a key passage:

In 2018, the Authors Guild partnered with 14 other writers’ organizations as well as some publishing platforms to conduct a survey of 5,067 professional writers in the United States. The median 2017 income of participating authors was $6,080, with just $3,100 of that being from book income alone (as opposed to speaking fees, teaching, book reviewing, and other supplemental activities). The median income of people who described themselves as full-time authors was just $20,300 when including all book-related activities.

For comparison’s sake, the median annual income across all job categories in 2017 was about $43,000, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. That’s more than twice as much as the median for full-time authors, and roughly seven times more than authors who took part in the survey.

Keep in mind that the “median” income is merely the middle point between the highest and lowest earners. Which means that for every Stephen King earning $1 million a year, there are 50 other authors earning nothing at all. My personal theory is that for every Stephen King, J.K. Rowling, James Patterson, etc., there are 20,000 other book authors out there earning zilch.

The $20,300/$6,080 figures seem pretty accurate. I don’t imagine they have changed much in the five years since the survey was taken. If anything, they’re probably even lower now. Every year, thousands of new book authors enter the field, and the vast majority earn next to nothing from their books.

I’m among that group, by the way. But luckily, I earn decent money as a writer of web content. Just about all fiction authors earn most of their money doing something else.

So anyway: The career quiz. I wondered if it might unveil some profession I never would have imagined, based on various interests – sports, statistics, cooking, research.

I took the Career Aptitude Test on 123test.com. If you want to do it, it’s pretty quick and simple. It takes about five minutes to complete. You will see 15 sets of four pictures each that show specific work activities. You must choose only one work activity that appeals to you the most and one that appeals to you the least.

I took the test and answered the questions as honestly as I could. I gave the thumbs down to anything that involved mechanics or sales. I usually gave the thumbs up to anything that involved organizing and research. I gave a thumbs up to maybe half the creative pursuits, though I nixed the ones having to do with interior design, fashion design, that kind of thing.

So what profession am I best suited for? What might I have done differently when starting out on my career path lo these many years ago? What was my suggested occupation, based on my answers?

I’ll tell you what:

Writer.

That’s what.

Writer scored 70% among the suggested occupations. That was the highest score of all. The others, in order, were:

  • Translator, interpreter, and sign language interpreter: 69% each
  • Desktop publisher: 66%
  • Lexicographer: 64%
  • Book editor: 64%
  • Montessori schoolteacher: 63%

My actual profession, journalist, ranked tied for No. 8 at 61%.

All in all, it was an astute analysis, considering the nature of the questions, and the fact that “creative writer” only popped up once in a list of 60 different activities. Desktop publisher and book editor are also included, and I’ve always thought I might like being a book editor. Oh, and lexicographer, which I learned is someone who writes and edits dictionary entries. Sounds fun!

I have no idea why translator and interpreter were both so high, seeing as how I have never shown much aptitude or passion for learning other languages. Maybe I never gave it a fair shot.

Interestingly, my personality type based on my answers was a dead heat between “conventional” and “artistic.” These two types don’t seem to have much in common.

Conventional personality types like to “solve problems by appealing to and following rules. They are task oriented (and) have a strong need to follow a routine, get things finished and take care of every detail. A conventional personality type is neat, orderly and practical, and enjoys working with data.”

Artistic personality types are “especially sensitive to color, form, sound and feeling. They have a lively spirit and a lot of enthusiasm and can often stay focused on a creative project and forget everything around them…Their ideas may not always please others, but opposition does not discourage them for long. These individuals are creative, impulsive, sensitive and visionary.”

Odd combination, no? On the one hand, I am orderly and practical. On the other, I am impulsive. It doesn’t seem to make sense, but it’s accurate. I do like order. I am practical. I can be impulsive.

Taken at face value, this seems to make no sense. But think deeper about it, and you can see how it does make sense in terms of being a writer.

Writers need order and organization to succeed. Stories are a series of scenes, conversations, and actions organized to serve a central plot and various subplots. You have to order them correctly so they are logical. This is even true of poetry, which is a series of stanzas organized to serve a central theme or mood.

Only a small percentage of very skilled writers can toss order out the window and create compelling stream-of-consciousness stories that give the middle finger to plot and still attract readers.

Writers also need to be impulsive and unpredictable. Imagination and creativity are often driven by impulse – you need the ability to stop everything you are doing at a moment’s notice and strike while the muse is hot. You might be in settled in bed, ready to doze off, when inspiration strikes, and suddenly you are out of bed and headed to the keyboard – or out into the world, where you walk 12 blocks to a seedy nightclub that plays a key role in the novel you’re writing.

Are people born with these traits? Do they develop them over time? Is it a bit of both?

I’ve always believed that my desire to become a writer was not necessarily a conscious one, but something that presented itself with no prompting. It just fell into me when I was a young boy, and I never bothered to doubt it. Like the quiz said, I’m practical.

All these years later, it’s good to know it was probably the best career choice.

How about you?

2 Comments

  1. Thanks for the idea, and the quiz link.

    I got:

    1. Writer (70%)
    2. Desktop publisher (67%)
    3. Mathematician (67%) – which is odd, because until a few years ago, I’d still have nightmares about being unprepared for maths tests

    and then a whole lot more, including Historian and Proofreader.

    You’re fortunate to have known so early. Back in Grade 2 or 3, I thought I might have a career in writing, but the thought of writer’s block scared me and so I never pursued it. I actually did psychometric tests in Grade 12, which pointed to a career in IT – given my personality.

    And so I embarked on that route, and eventually ended up on the *writing side* of IT (i.e. communications & marketing), so I suppose I did eventually find my way back to my original idea in a way – albeit through a detour.

    But the personal writing – which gives me life way more than anything in the professional world – came as an aside during that career evolution. And I think it’s actually worked out well, because I don’t actually know if my personal writing is something I would want to do as a main profession.

    Maybe it would suck the joy out of it, because I would be doing it as a lifeline for my income, and not out of joy anymore. I don’t enjoy pressure (though pressure is a great teacher)…so to have it encroach on what is almost a sacred space for me, would be horrible. And so, everything is as it should be 🙂

    I actually think the publisher thing would be a good alternative if I ventured out of my current field.

    Regarding the book income thing, I suspect it’s more universal than just this field. I think of the music industry, where artists I used to follow made the bulk of their money not through their actual music (because the label took a lot, and they were often not well-informed on keeping their own publishing, which is a stream of continuous income) – but through concerts and tours, merchandising, and an array of other ventures hanging off their celebrity status (clothing, etc).

    Nowadays, though, there’s NFTs…which seems another insane – but profitable – world for those types.

    As for being born with traits vs developing over time, I think we are born with the natural inclinations and talents. And those are then either nurtured or suppressed based on environmental factors as we grow up. But even if you aren’t born with it, or it isn’t nurtured in you, it is usually possible to learn and become decent at it.

    Whichever route you take, though, the common factor in succeeding is hard work. I think that’s pretty universal.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for sharing, Yacoob. It’s good to see that writer popped up first for you as well since that is something you enjoy and have a talent for. Interesting that mathematician came tied for second — I wonder how many people taking that quiz have writer first and math second. As for the publishing thing — you already are a publisher with “Corona Times,” so that’s another thing you can pursue in the future. I think you did a good job with that book, both in terms of finding interesting material from other writers and in the design and look of it.
      You’re right about writing for enjoyment rather than as a profession — much less pressure. I’ve enjoyed my gig as a journalist/web content writer much more since I started doing it on my own terms rather than a boss’s terms, and without the pressure of having to be the main breadwinner (lucky to have a successful wife).
      In terms of the musician analogy — very true, they make most most of their money through live gigs and that kind of thing. But at least they have that option. For most book authors, it’s either sell books or nothing. Only the mightiest of the mighty get paid to make appearances, sign books, give readings, sell merch, etc.
      Thanks as always for your feedback.

      Liked by 1 person

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