Is Your Writing a Business or a Hobby?

By Kelly James-Enger

Chances are you began writing because you loved to capture your words on the page. Then, as you continued to write, you may have decided to pursue publication. What could be better than seeing your work in print? Why, discovering that you could get paid—sometimes well—for your writing.

Whether you write for love, or for money, or for both isn’t simply a rhetorical question. The answer may have a significant impact on whether you can deduct your writing-related expenses under U.S. law. Read on to learn what you need to know to determine whether your writing is a business or a hobby— and why that distinction is a critical one.

Let’s start with the basics. As a U.S. citizen, the money you make from your writing counts as ‘reportable income.’ Legally, you’re required to report the amount as income on your taxes, regardless of whether your writing is considered a business or a hobby.

But if you’re operating your writing as a business, instead of a hobby, you can deduct legitimate business deductions from that income. That reduces the amount you pay taxes on at the end of the year. On the other hand, if you’re pursuing writing as a hobby, you still have to report the income you make but you can’t take advantage of any business deductions (because you have a hobby, not a business.) Get it?

Let’s say your first year of freelancing, you sell several articles for $800 and win a writing contest which awards you $500. Your writing-related expenses including postage, office supplies, telephone charges, books, and other materials total $200. If you’re operating as a business, you’re allowed to deduct $200 from $1,300 and pay taxes only on the $1,100. If, however, you’re operating as a hobby, you’ll pay taxes on the entire $1,300.

So what’s the difference between a business and a hobby? After all, even if you’re writing to make money, you probably enjoy your craft, right? The key for the Internal Revenue Service comes down to something called ‘profit motive.’ Profit motive essentially means that you’re writing with the intention of making money from your writing—not simply pursuing a pleasurable activity.

How can you convince the IRS you’re writing with a profit motive—to make money, in other words—if you ever are audited? The IRS considers a number of factors, but some of the things you can do to prove this include:

  • Submitting your work only to markets that pay. You’re writing for money, not for exposure.
  • Dedicating significant time and effort to your freelancing career—not approaching it in a sporadic or haphazard fashion.
  • Setting annual financial goals for your writing business, and aiming to maintain or exceed them over time. (Making a profit doesn’t absolutely prove that your writing is a business, not a hobby, but it certainly helps.)
  • Keeping records of your submissions, assignments, income, and expenses like you would with any other business.

The Bonus of a Writing Business

Once you pass the ‘writing as a business’ test, you’re entitled to deduct all ordinary, necessary, and reasonable expenses related to trying to make a profit in your business. According to IRS regulations, those expenses are the ones that are common, accepted, helpful, and appropriate for your writing business. For most freelancers, those expenses would include:

  • Computer and software purchased and used for your business;
  • Paper, letterhead, pens, printing cartridges, and other offices supplies; Postage and mailing expenses (and these can add up fast!);
  • Telephone expenses including long-distance charges (while you can’t deduct your primary phone line, a second one used solely for business is deductible); Travel and entertainment related to your business, such as lunch with an editor or trip to attend a writing conference (note that you can only deduct half of your meals); and
  • Writing-related classes and events.

You may also be entitled to a home office deduction if you use a section of your house or apartment solely and exclusively as your place of business, and to deduct the cost of traveling from your home office to other locations for business reasons— such as mailing manuscripts, conducting face-to-face interviews, meeting with clients at their offices, and attending a networking event. With automotive expenses, you can choose between the actual expense method or the more commonly used standard mileage deduction to write off allowable operating costs.

The bottom line is that if you’re writing with the intention to make money, keeping good business records and maintaining expense receipts can support your ‘profit motive’ position and reduce your tax liability. As a smart, savvy writer, you want to make as much money as possible—but pay as little tax on it as you legally can.

Freelance journalist and speaker Kelly James-Enger is the author of books including Six-Figure Freelancing: The Writer’s Guide to Making More Money (Random House, April, 2005) and Ready, Aim, Specialize! Create Your Own Writing Specialty and Make More Money (The Writer Books, 2003). She can be reached through BodyWise Consulting.

Record-keeping for Your Sanity

By Jan Weeks

I eased into freelancing while teaching middle school. Back then, record-keeping for tracking expenses and income was easy. I just added my meager writing pay to my form 1040 and filed it with my W2 from my regular job. Then I started submitting and selling more, and suddenly all those scraps of paper with mileage and expenses written on them that piled up on my desk from January through December took on a demonic life of their own, and my accountant advised me that I was cheating myself out of legitimate deductions because of poor record-keeping.

I tried using columnar pads meant for bookkeepers for record-keeping but they didn’t help me track all the things I needed to. I tried keeping separate spreadsheets on my computer but couldn’t remember where I filed them. Phone bills disappeared before I could separate the business calls from the personal ones. Editorial contacts, daily word counts, and other important information served as lunch for the labs and tabbies; at least I couldn’t find them when I needed them and had to resort to “Gee, I think I talked to you about a month ago” when contacting editors. I’ve always been organized in hard copy (my favorite birthday present was color-coded file folders) but if it didn’t go in a metal drawer immediately, it was gone for good.

Through 20 years of writing, I’ve refined my record-keeping to three simple systems: an all-purpose Excel spreadsheet, a phone log, and a store-bought daybook. Now I can keep track of everything my CPA and the IRS will ever need to know. Here’s my record-keeping system.

Use a Spreadsheet for Record-keeping

Nine columns tell me and my accountant who, what, where, when, and why:

Image of a nine column spreadsheet for record keeping
Spreadsheet for your records

This format allows me to sort information by category, know when and where I sent queries (abbreviated “?” on the sheet), how much it cost to send, how much I earned, and if a submission was accepted. What more do I need to know? If I wanted to, I could add columns for the publication name, address, and editor’s name, but I already have that information on the query or cover letter, which I file as a Word document, and in my daybook. After I post my expenses, the receipts go directly into a “2005 Writing Receipts” file in my desk drawer. My record-keeping means no more searching for bits of paper.

A code system lets me arrange information quickly at the end of the year, and I don’t have to manually sort data. My codes looks like this:

  1. Postage (Anything that goes USPS, UPS, or FedEx)
  2. Office Supplies (Paper, ink, toner, paper clips, etc.)
  3. Utilities (Phone, lights, Internet server)
  4. Equipment (Computer, printer, etc.)
  5. Travel Expenses (Meals, lodging — I use the standard mileage deduction, so I don’t keep track of gas purchases.)
  6. Professional Development (Writer’s magazine subscriptions, conferences, workshops, etc.)
  7. Photo Supplies (Camera, film, developing)
  8. Income (My favorite!)
  9. Mileage (To and from interviews, research trips, book readings/signings)
  10. Charitable Contributions (What I’d charge if I was paid for editing the church newsletter or writing the press release for a charity bake sale)
  11. Electronic Submissions (Everything e-mailed to an editor: queries, articles)

Postage record-keeping is a little tricky: I don’t enter the amount I shell out for a roll of stamps, because adding that in will inflate my postage expenses. Instead, I trust the IRS (which may be a huge mistake) to understand that a query letter won’t go anywhere without a stamp. I enter the cost of mailing each piece into the spreadsheet as it goes out. If I add proof-of-delivery or other special postage to the envelope, I get a receipt and add that both to the cost of mailing that piece and to my receipt file.

On January 1, I sort the spreadsheet by category, insert a couple of lines below each category, subtotal each category (if money’s involved), and then enter formulas that let me calculate my total income and total expenses. Within an hour, I have the information printed out and on its way to the accountant, which frees up a lot of energy to use on something besides dreading the April 15 deadline.

The Phone Log

The second form I use for record-keeping is a phone log. I don’t have a long distance carrier; instead, I use a prepaid phone card to make business calls. I enter the price of the card in my spreadsheet, then track each call made on a phone log, in case the IRS ever wants documentation of that expense. Since I use my office phone only for business, I record my regular Qwest bill under Utilities in my spreadsheet. If your phone service includes long distance charges, enter them into the spreadsheet as expenses. Get into the habit of recording each call when it’s made, and you’ll have info-at-a-glance if you need to know when you contacted an agent or client.

Image of a spread sheet containing a phone log
Phone log

The Daybook for record-keeping

My preprinted daybook (free from a local savings and loan company) contains monthly, weekly, and daily calendars, which have plenty of room for notes and appointments. In it I keep track of my daily word count, monthly writing goals, to-do lists, and any other notes about writing, such as contest deadlines, websites, and frequently called business phone numbers. Conversations and confirmations get noted, as well as submissions and business appointments. An adjunct to my daybook is transparent business card pockets from the discount store that fit into the same three-ring binder I use for my phone log and hold all the cards I collect.

Even though you’re a creative free spirit, earmark an hour to think like a business owner. Set up your spreadsheet and print your phone log, and you’ll be able to let your cursor do the walking to any record you need. Your tax preparer will love you, your desk will be neater, and you’ll have more time to do what you love: Write.

Jan Weeks is a freelance writer/editor currently living in western Colorado. She wrote her first “book” at age eight; she published her first novel at — well, later. Her articles, poetry, and short stories have appeared in literary journals, newspapers, and regional and national magazines. 

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