Last week, I got a doozy from the lovely Kelly Exeter: “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.
How to make a living as a freelance writer
1. Work hard.
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.
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.
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.
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