Thank You, Day Job

Although I’m now the full-time operator of my own book editing and design business, before that I spent a few decades as a writer for companies and a university. I think my day-job writing has informed and strengthened what I do now as an author, editor, and designer. Maybe you have a similar story in progress.

I started out as a writer of programmed-learning training materials for State Farm Insurance in Bloomington, Illinois—think the driest technical writing ever. I soon transferred to the advertising department where I learned that writing can be fun and that I was good enough to be paid for it. Thank you, day job.

That led to the advertising agency world in Chicago as a copywriter. I eventually became a senior VP and the agency creative director for a mid-sized national agency. Thank you, day job.

Writing advertising—and particularly TV commercials—helped me learn to simplify and condense complex information into easy-to-understand language and visuals that were imminently approachable. More than that, I think, it trained my writer/editor eye to look for the best words to use to deliver maximum clarity, meaning, and emotion. This has benefited not only my writing but my editing, too, where I can help other writers craft the strongest narrative. Thank you, day job.

During that time I became interested in screenwriting and worked on scripts in my spare time, although all that brevity training did have a funny impact on my first screenplay. By page 9 I had told almost half the story. Unfortunately, screenplays need to be about 120 pages. This led to weaning myself from the tight-tight-tight scripting that 30-second commercials call for and the expanded vision demanded by screenwriting—and, ultimately, novels.

A 2-minute animated commercial I did for Cap’n Crunch cereal led to a new kind of day job—it was the key writing sample that got me a position as a scriptwriter and then story editor at a major Los Angeles animation production company. I got to write “funny” all day, every day. Thank you, day job.

I ended up going back into advertising for a time, but that day job was no longer satisfying. After launching the editing side of my career with my blog, Flogging the Quill, I landed a job as web editor/content provider for a university, and my advertising/marketing chops were a key factor.

Then I was tapped to create a video team at the university and my work became scriptwriting with editing and production thrown in. My advertising day-job experience in producing over 75 commercials had given me the insights and skills I needed. Thank you, day job.

I’ve been lucky to work as a writer for my entire career because it has helped me grow in my work as a novelist and as an editor—and get me jobs! Working on ad design with talented art directors has also informed the book cover design work that I now do. Thank you, day job.

Perhaps the one downside of having a writing/creative day job was that, by the time I got home at night, I’d spent the best of my creative juices and that left little for writing screenplays and novels. But, like you I’m sure, soon enough the urge to create my own stuff led to early morning hours that have produced four novels and a book on writing craft.

Now I’m on my own and having fun editing manuscripts and designing books for clients with skills honed by my day-job work.

But, still, I’d love to be able to devote full time to just writing novels. Ahhh, that would be good.

What about you? Has your day job benefited you in your novel or long-form writing? What are the downsides for you? Did you have to unlearn things taught by your day job? And has your moonlight writing impacted your day job?

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About Ray Rhamey

Ray Rhamey is the author of five novels and one craft book, Flogging the Quill, Crafting a Novel that Sells. He's also an editor who has recently expanded his creative services to include book cover and interior design. His website, crrreative.com, offers an a la carte menu of creative services for self-publishers and Indie authors. Learn more about Ray's fiction at rayrhamey.com.

Comments

  1. says

    The biggest impact to my writing was when a day job became impossible for me.
    Illness hit, leaving me with good days and bad days–and the bad days sometimes stretch into weeks. I’d only ever written as a hobby before, but it’s the only thing I can do well within the shattered schedule I have now.
    I don’t think there’s any day job I’ve had which helped or harmed my writing in any specific way. Except the nagging suspicion that I wasted half my life learning how to fix computers when I should have been learning where to put the comma.
    Jeff Clough´s last blog post ..Manliness, Basketball, and the Quest for Balanced Journalism

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  2. says

    As much as I was ready to leave my full-time day job to pursue my novels and editing work, I did learn a lot of valuable skills. As a teacher, it was immensely important that I had a handle on the English grammatical structure, punctuation, and semantics. Because I had to edit students’ work, I had to know my stuff with language! This has helped me immensely in my own writing. I am now a stickler for proper spelling, sentence structure, word usage, and punctuation! Thank you, (Former) Day Job!
    L.M. Sherwin´s last blog post ..Random Writing Stats: August so far

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  3. says

    I, too, was an advertising copywriter before writing and publishing books. The most important lesson I learned was to “write to fit.” If the client’s budget called for a 30-second spot or a quarter-page ad, I could not expect the company to spend more money so more of my words could be presented to the world.

    The techniques of eliminating paragraphs, sentences and words, and substituting words, are invaluable in making pages look right, having chapters end where they should and making a book the right length.

    Michael N. Marcus
    http://www.bookmakingblog.blogspot.com
    http://www.SilverSandsBooks.com
    http://www.BookFur.com
    http://www.Facebook.com/SilverSandsBooks

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  4. says

    In my case it was losing my day job in our wonderful new economy that forced me to finally write seriously–and the need for income that pushed me to self-publish (after nearly a year of submitting query letters) rather than patiently wait for an agent or publisher to decide my off-genre story was worth taking a chance on. I will admit, however, that working as a financial advisor brought me into contact with all sorts of interesting people from all different backgrounds, which helped load my “character toolbox”–a resource that has proved invaluable.
    Marion Harmon´s last blog post ..Rush Rush

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  5. says

    You were fortunate, Ray, that your day jobs were relevant to the craft of writing. Mine were not, specifically. But marketing, management and business travel around the country and Europe piled up bits and pieces that eventually burst forth as stories. It would have been nice to have had copy involvement to drill in English language disciplines. Those had to be acquired separately and intentionally. Did my day jobs contribute? Yes, in content but not style.
    alex wilson´s last blog post ..Where to Write:

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  6. says

    Wow! It sounds, Ray, that you have lived a miracle. I think the people who commented are more typical.

    I was a business writer and a classical music composer until I rashly threw over the career I was building and became a cantor and minor opera singer. I just never got good enough to make my living in music forever – when the fields changed because of an influx of expat singers from Europe and the changing musical tastes of the synagogue, I had to retrain as a teacher. And then I got fired for not changing the culture of hooliganism in the classroom that I, with my Messiah complex, chose to teach in.

    These experiences are reflected in Rafi, one of the characters from my just-finished book 3 Through History: Love in the Time of Republicans, but other than a reservoir of dramatic experiences to draw on, I haven’t benefited from this mess!
    Ronald Fischman´s last blog post ..Hysteria (2002)

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  7. says

    Like Jeff, until illness struck and I couldn’t hold a steady day job anymore, I didn’t commit to writing full-time. Full-time as I can handle. And I write like crazy when I’m feeling even just okay. I have experience from jobs stretching back a few decades now doing academic editing and then editing in the corporate world, pushing myself into positions where I could also write there, too. But I really became committed to writing through journaling as a form of therapy beginning about 20 years ago, and became a college writing and English professor (adjunct) and writing tutor for most of a decade. The teaching “taught” me a lot, and I now teach memoir…to all ages. What comes around goes around, and I hang out with writers as much as possible, still edit for a few dollars each month, and enjoy it all. The day jobs can provide some good mentors and associates, too…some were people I never expected to appear in those roles at those times.
    Dana Bennett´s last blog post ..Post-Mastectomy Blues – Breast Surgery, Part 2

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  8. says

    Like Ray, my day job has influenced my writing tremendously — in fact, my career as a lawyer gave me the subject matter for my first book (Books, Crooks & Counselors: How to Write Accurately About Criminal Law & Courtroom Procedure).

    It gave me the ability to research–both to learn what I didn’t know and to give reader-writers examples for their own work. It’s given me discipline and experience writing on deadline.

    It’s taught me to think about my readers and what they need to know or experience. In my work in civil litigation, I might be writing to a client, an insurance adjuster and his or her supervisiors, opposing counsel, a trial judge or an appellate judge–each with different interests and needs. It’s taught me to think ahead to what my readers will do with the information I give them, and plan my own next steps. It’s also taught me how to read more carefully.

    And while it’s been hugely beneficial in writing nonfiction, it’s also a great help for writing fiction — even the cozy mysteries I’m writing now, where lawyers take a back seat to caterers and retail managers and quilters!

    Thanks, Ray, for prompting me to think about this!

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  9. says

    Ray, this post made me smile all the way through. Not only for your humor and insight, but also because of your shining gratitude. I’m always drawn to and uplifted by that kind of positivity.

    Fun factoid: NYT bestseller Jamie Ford was also a word monkey in the ad industry. :)

    As for day jobs, well, I’m certainly appreciative of the ones I’ve had, for many reasons. I’ve mostly worked in journalism and graphic design, which I think have obvious connections to writing. Deadlines, professional creativity, coworkers, paycheck, good bosses, bad bosses, clients, etc. – all things I am grateful for experiencing.
    Kristan Hoffman´s last blog post ..A tiny beautiful dream

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  10. says

    I’ve been a technical writer for almost 10 years. Yes, I’ve found my day job has helped my writing. I too had to learn to take complex technical concepts and make them easy to understand. It helped take a lot of the blah-blah-blah out of my writing (there’s still some of it though). I’d love to be writing fiction full time, but right now I still have bills to pay. I also have health issues that make me think “work the day job and stockpile the money now, because some day I might not be able to do a day job.” If that happens, I’ll have the writing skills and the money to make a serious run at making a living from fiction.

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  11. says

    Great post! Any kind of writing, including technical or academic, can help you improve whatever type of writing you do for fun. If nothing else, they help reinforce your knowledge of grammar, syntax, logical flow, etc., and those skills are all transferable to novels, memoir, non-fiction, and so on. Make yourself learn from everything you do, because everything has something to teach you.
    Kristin Laughtin´s last blog post ..Don’t let the rules get you down

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  12. says

    Is there truly any occupation that doesn’t enhance one’s writing? Some connections are more obvious that others. But the old saw, “write what you know,” and its corollary, “know something beyond your own navel,” make dipping into our work-a-day lives to paint our creations down right necessary. Not only am I grateful for my jobs, especially the less glamorous ones, but my volunteer experiences. Most have had a writing component, but all have given great fodder.
    Lori (Lara Britt) Sailiata´s last blog post ..Connecting Threads at The Bishop Museum: Traditions, Textured Lives & Alfred Shaheen

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  13. says

    Ray,

    I enjoyed your post and am curious about your Cap’n Crunch commercial! I’ve been writing novels ‘full-time’ (got #6 just now out – TWANG) since 2000, but like a lot of novelists, I teach writing workshops and do some free-lance editing. I’ve heard them called ‘other income streams.’

    Funny, but because so much of writing a novel is solitary, when I do get out there and interact with people, particularly people in the memoir writing class I lead, I come away re-charged.

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  14. says

    Great stuff. I’m a big advocate of having a writing-related day job. When you write for a living, it keeps the tools sharp; it makes you accustomed to working with deadlines, edits, and the concept of writing to please others; and possibly most important, it gets you into the mindset of treating writing as your *job*.

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  15. says

    Thanks for sharing your story. You should write a memoir, we would all buy a copy!

    My day job as a librarian has helped me as a writer in so many ways. First, there is the inspiration of being surrounded by wonderful books all day, getting to lay hands on all the new novels as soon as they come out. That’s probably what led me into the job in the first place.

    There was also hands-on writing practice, since for years I wrote a weekly library column for the local paper and gave a five minute “book talk” live at the radio station every Monday morning.

    But the best part of my day job is the contact I’ve had with all different kinds of people. At the reference desk I do in depth research for writers, engineers, professors, and politicians. I listen, learn, and write. Thank you, day job!
    Carolyn Paul Branch´s last blog post ..Primary Sources Online

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  16. says

    I can echo others in the character material I find on my day job, as well as the ability to self-edit and meet deadlines. But the most valuable thing it provides is limiting my writing time. As a finite resource, I find I conserve it much better now than I did when I had it in abundance. I quit a full time day job in 2001 to freelance and write a collection of short stories. Five years later, the collection was still stuck on story one, and my first child meant the freelance income equation had to change. So I got a day job (part-time PR), and then had child No. 2. It was only after two kids and a day job that I finally managed to write a novel. Too much time is worse than too little!
    Cari Noga´s last blog post ..Olympic fury

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  17. says

    I enjoyed this post. It gave me renewed hope that having my day job as a newspaper reporter is a good idea. The writing I do for my job as certainly helped my non-job writing. I am used to deadlines, used to writing fast and letting it go. I have lots of experience taking complicated subjects and making them “reader friendly.” I dream of doing my own writing full time, but maybe I still have to much to learn in my day job.
    Tina Barbour´s last blog post ..A poem: A surprising encounter with nature

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