Writing for Money

Motives in life—and the publishing industry–can be squishy.

Keep a secretBut life is all about the motive. The heart of the matter is what we’ll likely be judged by.

I started writing for money. That was my motive. It was 1988 and I was toward the end of a decade-long youth ministry gig. Loved about 8 years of it, but the last year was the worst. Support was low, two small kids, so I had to find more income. Consulting. Singles Pastor. Youth leader. And “writer.” Four “jobs.”

I got $35 each to write the “I Wonder” notes in the Life Application Bible for Students. Sixty-six of them. Big money at a time when I really needed it. (Thank you, Dave Veerman.)

Hmmmm, I thought, maybe someone will pay me to write something else. So I started writing a Bible study; a magazine article or three (thank you, Steve Strang, for publishing my first magazine article); training manuals. (Not a lot of money in training manuals…for me, none.)

But because I needed money and wrote “I Wonder” notes, I got a call from Focus on the Family in the summer of 1989. They were looking for a magazine editor. Someone who knew teen boys. “We’ll teach you commas and periods,” I was told. They did. (Thank you, Dean Merrill.) I soon had a “youth group” of 100,000 teen boys. Um, that was a bit larger than the one I had in Campus Life.

And those 66 “I Wonder” notes became my first book, If I Could Ask God One Question (Tyndale 1990). That led to more books written and co-written…21 of them over the next 12 years. (Thank you, Susie Shellenberger, Mike Yorkey, and Michael Ross.) I also made extra dough on the side writing magazine articles (200 of them). But what I discovered I loved was the idea portion of books; the fleshing out of proposals, and then the selling of those ideas where a publisher wrote me checks I wanted to take pictures of.

Oh, and writing the books once they sent the first half of the advance. That was okay, too.

But leaving my family to get on planes on weekends to speak, constant radio interviews…I didn’t like so much. Even though there were only four others I knew of at the time, maybe I could become a literary agent. That way I could work close to home, still be involved with ideas and proposals and books…and maybe someone would still send me checks for that. (Thank you, Rick Christian.)

Eighteen years later, I’ve been privileged to represent about 2,200 books. I’ve met some of the best hearted people in the world—creative types who write on eternal subjects, tell stories that move the soul, stay up late and get up early to pound out words on their computer, get on planes to speak to the few and to masses…why do they do it? Why did they start? How do they keep going?

I wonder if C.S. Lewis would have written ”The Chronicles of Narnia” if someone hadn’t written him a check of some sort to spend hours at his Royal typewriter; if they hadn’t promised to pay him odd-sounding British coins and pounds for each book sold.

And this takes us back to money. Is it okay to write for money? I ponder sometimes what my life would have been like if someone hadn’t asked me to write…for money. No small percentage of wonderfully inspired prose would have been created (nor a much larger percentage of really mediocre content, unlike seo services), no introductions to talented wordsmiths who could help me know where commas and periods go and who were patient with me as I learned the difference between its and it’s. No lifetime friends in an industry of people dedicated to making their lives count. No involvement with authors and books and stories that are shaping the life and faith of millions of readers.

And maybe no bills paid when I needed them paid.

This is why motives are squishy. Writing only for money isn’t always the best idea, but sometimes it takes you to a place that certain Someone may want you to go; perhaps to a life where your words will outlive you and still make an impact for eternity well after you’re gone.

Nothing wrong with that motive.

Question: How do you feel about writing for money, as well as other motives as it relates to writing?

Greg Johnson is President of WordServe Literary Group, a literary agency based near Denver, Colo.

13 Replies to “Writing for Money”

  1. Great article! I found a freelance editor who CHANGED my life and writing style because she was “motivated by money” to take on editor jobs rather than only use royalties from her books. If she hadn’t branched out because she needed the money . . . who knows? I’m grateful she needed the money enough to steer my life. (A task she didn’t realize she was even doing!)

  2. I think we do many things for money. Most often its to eat and how can that be a bad thing ? If writing puts food on the table is it more noble than digging a ditch, teaching, pumping gas or a myriad of other jobs. Since I eat daily writing to eat doesn’t sound so bad.

  3. Great thoughts! I love speaking to school groups about writing. At some point a child will raise their hand and ask, “How much do you have to pay to do that?” I say “The amazing answer is that they pay you.” Book advances and royalties over the years have given me the freedom to make writing my job, allowing me to follow my passion for writing and to stay home to raise my kids. I am thankful for that! Betsy

  4. I love the thank-yous interspersed in this post. A reminder of how God uses many wonderful people to make things happen in one life. He also uses our personal motives. I got serious about writing because I love the creative process. Getting paid for it sounded nice too. But what I found along the way was something amazing. God has used my writing to help people, myself included. I find I internalize what I read in the Bible more now than I did before, because I immerse myself in the “character’s” lives and I process what I learned on my ministry blog. And now that I have to develop a “platform” as a writer, I’ve reached out to people and groups I’d never have met before, that I now find indispensable in my life. Amazing! Though it’s hard work, I LOVE this writing stuff!

  5. Greg, your encouraging segment is perfect timing for me. I think many of us writers who are vying to capture the Christian reader–and those readers who are wondering about or even fist-fighting with God–sometimes fight guilt when it comes to devoting much time over our writing in light that a substantial benefit of publication is the money. I’ve just made a major step in this direction by cutting back a day at the grueling day job so I can devote more time to my writing, and believing that God is leading me in the right direction. Thank you for writing about this squishy topic. I would like to believe that my stories can help others to hope and to trust that Someone, way after I’m gone.

  6. It’s always interesting to me when we writers begin to feel guilty over making money. My husband goes to work as a college professor where he reaches many students (in a roundabout way) with the gospel, yet he feels no shame or guilt over being paid for his work. Some pastors do work side jobs, whether full or part time, because they aren’t paid. But most pastors I know are paid for their work in shepherding the flock. Do they feel guilty taking money because they are in the ministry? Quite honestly, I don’t know. But the Apostle Paul wrote at great length about supporting financially those who spread the gospel. I don’t disagree with you, Greg, about squishy motives. I think that’s a testament to our desire to minister when we question what may feel selfish in our motives. But I’ll admit that I’m increasing my submissions of articles and short stories so that I can pay my own way to the ACFW conference this year. And I’m praying, with each submission, that it encourages and uplifts each reader. Thanks for your honesty and analysis.

  7. Greg, thanks for sharing your story. Sometimes the whole writing journey feels squishy, but I believe God reveals our path squish by squish. Money remains one factor that keeps me writing, but mostly it’s the desire to be in God’s will and the excitement of the journey. People (you, my network, and my readers) are my biggest motivators. When God touches a reader, that’s the biggest thrill and pay off of all.

  8. Mr. Johnson,

    Thank you for sharing your writing journey and for thanking the folks along the way who recognized your talent.

    The first time that I was paid to write an article, I was elated. I could finally say, “I’m a freelance writer.” However, I identified as a writer, before I received payment of any kind.
    While I appreciate receiving payment for my writing, I try to remember that I write because I love to write.

    Sometimes I simply grab a note card and write a friend or a family member a letter. Sometimes I write silly stories with my daughter. Sometimes I write a poem – intended for no one.

    I’ll admit that as a freelance writer, I’ve never had to work harder. Yet, I’ve never been happier. I, too, am so thankful to the editors who give me opportunities.

    Heather Villa

  9. Thanks for all of your comments. Certainly money without the bigger picture of helping others simply makes authoring a job. Not bad, of course, but if we’re not helping others and the Kingdom, then how can our gifts be used for the highest good?

  10. I’m with you, Greg, on the idea of earning for writing. I’ve been guilty of giving away too much work for free. A turning point came for me when I started counting the time I was giving to unpaid writing as time taken from my family. For me, writing is an art, a ministry, and a business, and I try to maintain a balance between those elements.

  11. I have written for myself, as a cathartic way to share life’s humor, joy and despair in raising five kiddos with disabilities. I do public speaking for non-profit groups for no fee. While making money would certainly be nice…it is not my driving force.

  12. In my field of endeavour, there is more controversy about playing the organ for church than for writing. My education started at the age of four with piano lessons, moving on to organ lessons at age 12 and continuing until I entered college as a music major for seven years. Now I’ve been praising God through music in various churches for sixty years, some as a volunteer, but mostly for pay, as the church wanted some control over my hours and what I played. I also love to write. As a retired social workers with developmentally disabled adults, I still have a position in a church and am taking every free writing class I can find online, as well as making friends with writers and reading their newsletters, blogs, posts, and books. Is it wrong for me to take money as a church organist? I look at it as God providing me with money to pay bills and buy groceries. Every where I move, there has been a position open, with an offer of a salary. God gives each person talents with which to support themselves, be it a church musician or a writer, or a social worker. I’ve also written many Individual Program Plans for my clients, as well as utilizing music therapy. Whatever you are paid, God provided it to be used for His Glory.

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