There are lots of reasons even working screenwriters don’t quit their day jobs. Some of them love their jobs and can’t imagine leaving. Some aren’t making enough writing screenplays, and need the security. Screenwriting can be a lonely occupation. For some writers the only time they see other people is at work.
You would think the whole reason to have a day job is so you can quit it when you become successful. But let’s say you sell a screenplay or a TV episode. The pay for those sales is probably not going you to allow you to quit your day job for a year. You’re going to need a steady income before you quit, and sometimes that takes years.
There is a whole world of screenwriters who make a living selling non-union scripts, but not enough to quit their day jobs. They might be selling TV movies to Lifetime or the Hallmark Channel. They might be selling low-budget nonunion scripts to independent producers or directors who want to enter films in festivals. Other writes make money as non-union script doctors or screenplay consultants.
It’s also possible that you may not need to quit your day job. Quitting your job to write full time doesn’t guarantee you’ll become successful anyway. However, if you are able to devote twice as much time to your writing, your odds of being successful will probably go up.
Some writers find that they’re happy writing their own low budget features with the salary from their day jobs. Other make short films on the weekends, with their savings. A lot of these filmmakers are doing what they love, although not getting rich doing it.
Most of these writers haven’t given up on making it in the high budget world of big box office films. Everybody secretly wants this kind of success. Not everybody gets it, unfortunately. Not everyone gets it right away. It can take years, and even decades. So you’ll find writers working day jobs and writing scripts at the beginning of their careers.
How can they break through? A few ways. They may write a low-budget movie that stands out. Movies like The Blair Witch Project, Paranormal Activities, Clerks, and She’s Gotta Have It, and started off low budget and became box office successes.
Another way, while their writing their low-budget films, they also work on big budget screenplays. Even though studios don’t buy these very often, sometimes they do. These writers make a living with their non-guild gigs and their day jobs, but may get lucky with a script that breaks through like Juno or The Big Sick.
Who says you have to quit your day job anyway? There are many examples in the publishing world of novelists who hang on to their day jobs. Granted, they have fantastic day jobs that have made them famous and in some cases very rich.
William Faulkner wrote As I Lay Dying in the afternoons before going into work at a university power plant. Joseph Heller made good money in advertising during his day job while writing Catch-22.
For most of her writing career, Toni Morrison worked at Random House as an editor, while at the same time teaching university literature courses, and at the same time, raising her two sons as a single mother.
Is writing full time really that important, then to being successful as a writer? Looking at these examples, apparently it’s not crucial. Some people enjoy the work they do in their day jobs. Some writers have quit their full-time jobs only to find they miss working.
You may not want to face the blank page every morning. You may not be able to cope with the solitude of spending your days alone. People need a human connection in their lives. That’s why there are so many groups for writers on Facebook and Linkedin.
There may also be an aspect of work that keeps your career afloat. For example, if you work in the story department at a studio, most of your networking may be related to that job. If there’s something about your job that keeps you in the public eye, for example, if you’re a newscaster, a journalist, or a novelist, you might not want to write screenplays exclusively.
Look at Stephen King. He’s written many screenplays, but his first love is writing novels. He’s not about to give that up. Same with J.K Rowling. She’s started adapting her own books into screenplays, but you don’t see her doing it full time. Other novelists who wrote scripts, and kept writing novels include Mario Puzo, William Goldman, Dave Eggers and Aldous Huxley.
Whatever your reasons for sticking with your day job, it’s a personal decision that has to make sense to you. Some screenwriters are lawyers who don’t want to give up their practice. The same is true of doctors. A lot of writers who aren’t in Writer’s Guild of America may want to stay at work so they can get their employer’s health insurance.
Usually a screenwriter who’s making six figures a year will gladly quit their day jobs. It’s the writers who aren’t that well off who decide to keep doing both. The decision can depend on whether you have kids to put through college, or difficult mortgage payments or have to pay for health insurance.
I hope that all of you get the chance to at least be in the position to decide whether you want to write full time or not. Remember, there’s no right answer. Do what feels right for you.