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Can you make a living as a freelance writer?

CAN YOUEvery once in a while, I get a random email from a member of Team Fibro, asking questions about freelancing. How to get started. How to pitch. How to handle rejection. Most of these end up fuelling a blog post, mostly because the answers can be long and involved – and I figure if one person is wondering, then maybe others are as well.

Last week, I got a doozy from the lovely Kelly Exeter, a regular commenter here at the Fibro: “Dear Al, Can you make a living as a freelance writer? How?” (there was more, but that’s the gist).

Short answer: Yes. But it’s not for everyone.

Long answer: Oh, my, but it’s a long answer. Settle in. I’ll run you through it point by point.

1. People who make a living from freelance writing work really, really hard.

2. Everyone’s idea of ‘making a living’ is different. The income stream from freelancing ebbs and flows. You can have good months and bad months. Months where several invoices get paid at once. Months where no invoices are paid. For this reason, freelance writers need to be able to budget. It is also a very good idea not to give up the ‘day job’ until you’re established… which can take some time.

3. Diversification is the key. Look for ways to work across the internet, print media, corporate work, books – wherever you can. I can’t stress the importance of this enough.

4. People who make a living from freelance writing are … hustlers. Constantly pitching, constantly thinking of ideas, constantly talking to people. If I pitch a story and it’s successful, I get to work on that story straight away – and send out three or four new ideas at the same time. Sometimes it all goes pear-shaped and I get too much work all at once – but this is balanced out by the times when I’m sitting around wondering where my next job is coming from.

5. Balance longterm projects with short-term projects. Longer feature articles can take a long time to pull together. Books takes months. I try to have a few longer-term projects on the go at any time – even if they’re not paid projects (think book proposals and sample chapters) – and infill with jobs that have short deadlines and turnarounds.

6. Look after your relationships. Freelancing requires a certain amount of salesmanship. You’re selling yourself, and you need to keep in touch with your ‘customer base’ (to use the kind of jargon that I would immediately edit out of any story I was writing). Remind people you’re around, send through great, targeted ideas. You can’t sit around waiting to be discovered.

7. Always do your best work. Even if you’re writing a deadly boring information story, with no discernible fun or creativity, try to make it your own. Give it life where you can. Editors always remember your last story.

8. Value your work. A very wise writer I know once said this to me: “A fair rate for a job is the rate at which you’re willing to do it.” This varies from writer to writer, but has become more and more of a minefield as the internet opens up. There are sites out there who will pay you $5, $10, $20 for a 500-word story. If you’re happy to take that on the basis that you can write 10 such stories a day for them, then that’s a fair rate for you. Only you can decide what your time is worth.

9. Writing for free can be valuable. Can. In the old days, when I started out in journalism, working for free was one way that cadets, interns and editorial assistants began to build their byline. It is still a valid route – publishing credits are not easy to come by and building a portfolio can be difficult. But if you’re going to give away your words, make sure you choose wisely where they go. Writing for free for ‘exposure’ is only worthwhile if the ‘exposure’ you’re getting is from a credible source.

10. At the end of the day, freelance writing is a job. Yes, I get to do it in my slanket and slippers, but if I don’t produce the work, the pay soon dries up. Freelance writers who make a living are disciplined (even if they may spend a little bit too much time on the internet). Deadlines are deadlines and, in this line of work, deadlines are constant. It’s like having homework to do every single day of your life. (And sometimes it’s like you’re doing nothing but algebra and physics.) See point 1.

So there you have it. My two-bob’s (or 10 points’) worth. I hope that answers your question Kelly.

And now I must fly. Deadline, you see.

23 Comments

  • Al, I think nobody has ever summed up my working life better: “It’s like having homework to do every single day of your life”.
    Fortunately I am usually OK at doing homework as long as I have a block of chocolate or a glass of wine at the ready (depending on the time of day). (“Unexplained” weight gain is of course one of the cons of working for yourself from home).
    Great list of useful advice here.

  • Thanks Al…Kelly and I and many others have been discussing this a fair bit. I think for me I need to get passed the WOO HOO phase of having a pitch accepted because it stuns me, then slows me down and then stops me from focussing on multiple stories at the same time. I cant thank you enough for your advice about finishing an email with a positive, firm statement rather than a “I hope you’ll like it”…Im working out how to be my own cheer squad x

  • Great post, Al (as always). You’ve told it how it really is. I love freelancing – I am free to craft and create and choose clients. I’m yet to master the art of diversification, as I’m so wrapped up in corporate copywriting at the moment. But I plan to pitch to a few publications as soon as I wrap up these projects and have a moment to get out of my dressing gown. 🙂

  • You always come through for us Al, thank you so much. One day if I’m ever a famous writer standing at a podium making my thank you speech, you’ll be mentioned right up there (maybe behind my husband and kids) for all the practical advice you’ve so generously given us. It’s like you’re a virtual mentor to all of us trying to make it. Thanks Allison, and thanks Kelly!!!

  • I got so much out of this, Allison. And I think it has put me off being a freelancer for life! I love writing and creating, but saleswork/pitching/deadlines are my idea of hell. Huge respect to you for doing it! I might just stick to writing my books and hoping it all pays off one day. 😉

  • Great post with some helpful and down to earth points – not too sobering, but realistic enough to paint the freelancing life for what it is. You are so right about freelancing being like homework, that it might be algebra or physics (sigh) that we are dealing with, and that freelancers are basically hustlers.

    I missed out on a lucrative freelance project recently because I didn’t follow up on a lead thinking that it wasn’t all that likely, and that it may not come to anything – and telling myself ‘I was too busy writing other more important stuff’ anyway. Silly me. It went to someone else I know, whom they found randomly on the internet.

    Too right Al. Freelancers need to hustle for all their worth – it’s all about ideas and connections, following up, writing well and often, meeting deadlines and working your butt off that count.

  • Oooh love this. I do regular work for two regional papers now and I love it. It doesn’t pay a huge amount but I am sharpening my skills up and love love love interviewing fabulous regional folk.

  • Excellent. I read through thinking “discipline, she hasn’t said discipline yet”. Saved the best for last. I think this is where most people are held back.

  • Amen and amen. Feeling this everyday. It’s your name on the line so beating the deadline and making your product really great is essential. But having said that, I love that I am working freelance. I love this work and this opportunity. I do hope I get to do this long term.

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