How seriously do you take yourself as a writer? It’s not just me asking, it’s your government, specifically, the Internal Revenue Service.
I’ve always been pretty rigorous about keeping track of expenses related to writing, although since it’s tough to make much money at this profession I’ve always been cautious about declaring a loss. No more. An article in Poets & Writers March/April 2012 issue changed the way I will approach my taxes from now on.
The article, which unfortunately is not available online (print only), was written by writer Jennifer Wisner Kelly for The Literary Life section. It relates how her husband deducted her MFA tuition as a business expense. At the time Kelly was unpublished. As you might expect, the IRS audited the couple. The couple argued that although she was not making income from her writing, she treated the endeavor as a business, with the intention of making money.
Eventually the IRS agreed and allowed them to deduct the tuition expense.
What an eye opener. I began to look at my chosen profession in a new light. In my case I gave up a totally different life, and sold my business to begin writing with the intention of making this career my primary source of income, which is essentially the logic the IRS used in allowing Kelly’s deduction. Whether I have reached that goal or not doesn’t really matter, since the guiding principle appears to be intent.
From now on, every legitimate expense I make in the name of forwarding my career—books, subscriptions, convention fees and travel, etc.—will be duly recorded and deducted. Maybe I’ll even go get another MFA.
Of course it’s important to note a couple of things: First, I’m no tax expert, so don’t take any of this as advice. Second, it’s important to remember that I really do spend a lot of time in writing related activities—probably four to eight hours a day. I would not recommend this strategy to someone who has a full time job and writes for an hour at night. The difference between the IRS determining whether your writing is a business or a hobby can cost you a lot.
But if you do spend a lot of time and money trying to make it as a writer, there may be some tax relief to offset the strain on your budget (not to mention the strain of constant rejection).
 Little known factoid: I actually worked for the IRS for a season right out of high school as a tax examiner, one of the people responsible for checking returns against what the computers called out as mistakes. A few coworkers and I held a competition that awarded points for working on a famous person’s return. I got Geraldo Rivera and the owner (at the time) of the New York Mets. I tried to wheedle extra points for actress Zena Bethune, but my friends wouldn’t budge.
 I have to say that.
 There are many references to IRS rulings regarding writer activities. Here’s a couple I found: Authors and the Internal Revenue Code by Linda Lewis; Taxes for Writers by Cyn Mason. They’re a bit old and rather technical, but they help make clear the distinctions between writing as a business and as a hobby.