How To Make a Living as a Writer: 2021 Edition

Every year, I write a blog post about how I’ve managed to make a living as a writer that year. Following on from 2020’s support grant-heavy income, this year has been a bit more of a mix: the support grants came to an end, and many of us are still trying to figure out what work looks like in this new half-open world.

At the end of 2020, I had a strategy: focus on my existing work channels to buy myself time to write. In practice, this meant not applying for opportunities (such as commissions or project work) which took days of application-writing. It meant waiting – largely – for work to come to me.

So how did that work out?

2021: A Rejection Round-Up

I said this last year, and I’ll say it again here: I’m lucky. I’ve been working freelance as a writer and facilitator for almost a decade, eight years of that in the same county. So I’ve built up enough contacts and relationships with other artists and organisations, which means that work does, now, just drop into my inbox from time to time. Even this year, when everything’s been a bit topsy-turvy, I’ve had work just arrive. So much, in fact, that I’ve even had to turn some of it down.

Wait, what? I’ve turned down work? Paid work?

Yep, that’s right. If you’d told me a year ago that I’d be in this position, I’m not sure I’d have believed you. Even to me now, writing this in the annual financial slump otherwise known as January, it sounds almost unbelievable. But I still think it was the right thing to do – partly because I was so busy, and therefore had to prioritise existing commitments, but also because, this year, I’ve been lucky enough to receive two grants (a Northern Writers’ Award and a Society of Authors Authors Foundation Grant), which buy me time to work on specific projects.

But more about this later on. For now:

What has 2021 looked like for me?

As you can see from the graph, income has been very up and down this year. This isn’t much of a surprise – it generally is.

I had a few decent-sized pieces of online work in the first few months, boosted by the 4th installment of the SEISS Covid grant in April. In May and June, the income took a big dip. Normally, this would be because this is exam time, and so I’m not going into any schools to run workshops – but of course, that hasn’t been happening for the past couple of years anyway.

What I have noticed over the past couple of years, is that when we’ve been in deepest darkest lockdown, there’s been a slow but relatively steady stream of work. It’s when we’re coming out of lockdown, and when there’s uncertainty, that the work all but disappears. It’s still very thin on the ground now, 6 months after the final SEISS grant installment.

But I’m getting ahead of myself – you’ll have till next year’s blog post if you want to hear about this year’s problems.

So. May and June were a bit of a wash-out, but then July and August were successful (thanks partly to SEISS Grant 5 in August), as were October and November. In September, I was Writer in Residence at Gladstone’s Library, and so the stipend from this was my only income for that month. December is almost always a wash-out.

What does all this mean? Well, it means that I need to think ahead when I’m thinking about my finances. I can’t live month to month, because the next month might be a no-income month, and then I’d be stuffed. It means I can’t always rely on more work coming into the inbox – and it’s this which makes that decision to turn work down so scary.

Kendal Poetry Festival: Festival Survival Kits

So where has my income come from this year?

Last year, I listed four categories:

  1. Funding: money from grants.
  2. Facilitation: both workshop facilitation and facilitation of creative projects. (These go into one category, because project money will often include funding for both the delivery and administration side, lumped together.)
  3. Writing: commissions, royalties, ALCS money, PLR money, prize money – anything that comes from the actual writing of the actual words
  4. Events: panel events, chairing and readings (in person and online and even over the phone).
  5. This year I’ve also reinstated a fifth category: residencies. (This was missing last year, because most residencies were closed for so much of 2020.)

As a reminder, here’s where my income came from in 2020:

As we can see, most of it came from grant-funding – unsurprising, given that we were in the thick of the pandemic, and pretty much all other income dropped away for the bulk of the year.

A small amount came from writing. Plus some from facilitation – mostly from a single project, which involved a combination of administration and remote workshop leading.

Let’s compare that to this year:

In 2021, the biggest block is still funding, but it’s a significantly smaller proportion – 44% rather than 72%. This is partly because the Covid support has now stopped, and partly because of the return of (some) other work. Most of the funding support I did receive came from the Northern Writers’ Awards, and from the Society of Authors, who gave me an Authors’ Foundation grant to work on my novel, to stand in place of the income that still hasn’t returned following the pandemic.

Facilitation is another significant chunk (28%) – largely because I started leading online workshops in 2021, which has gone some way towards returning the balance.

I also earned a significant chunk from writing last year – unusual in a year where I didn’t sell a manuscript, and so didn’t get an advance. (You can read more about how books earn money here.) The bulk of this came from just one source: winning the Palette Poetry Prize. This is why big prizes like this are so competitive – alongside being a massive confidence boost, they can also make such a huge difference to a writer’s income, and buy you a good couple of months of writing time if you’re lucky enough to win.

While I did do a couple of residencies and online events in 2021, these are still predictably low, thanks partly to Covid, and partly to my own circumstances, as it’s now two years since the novel came out. I’m keeping things crossed these aspects of my income have a chance to buck up a bit more in 2022!

So what’s next for 2022?

We’re already a good few weeks into 2022, and I’m starting to try to get a sense for how it’s all going to shape up. At this point, it’s always difficult to tell – even in a year where we’re not battling a global pandemic.

I’ll be honest, mostly, things look pretty lousy. A lot of organisations seem (understandably) unwilling to plan things at the moment. In-person-only events remain inaccessible to so many people, hybrid events require extra planning (all of which could be undone at any time by new restrictions), and there seems to be a reluctance by a lot of people to plan online-only events – led, I think, by the belief that people are fed up with them. (Personally, I don’t get this. I love not having to travel for events, and getting to sit on the sofa with the cat and a bowl of ice cream while I’m watching them. But that’s another story.)

In terms of income, this means 2022 looks pretty thin on the ground.

But all is not lost! I have a couple of sizeable things in the pipeline, which I’m keeping my fingers crossed for – but which I’m not mentioning as I’m trying not to jinx. And as always, you never know what might land in the inbox…


Fancy reading some more? How about:

How To Make a Living as a Writer: 2020 Edition

How To Make a Living as a Writer: 2019 Edition

How To Make a Living as a Writer: 2018 Edition

How To Make Money From Your Novel

How To Make a Living as a Poet (advice from people much better at it than me)

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