How To Write For a Living
Writing for a living sounds like a dream come true, right? You can sit at home in your pajamas or travel the world, turning words into art that inspires and informs your readers. What could be better?
In my opinion: not much.
In addition to doing a fair amount of satire, fiction, academic, and legal writing, I’ve supported my household solely from freelance writing for the past decade, and this website contains a lot of the details on how I do it. Here’s the overview you need to start planning your own freelance writing career: everything you need to figure out how to write for a living.
1. Gather what you need.
Writing is one of the cheapest businesses to start. Generally speaking, you’re ready to write if you have:
- a computer with word processing tools (Google Docs counts) and Internet access
- a place you can both write and think
- a copy of your resume (optimized for freelance writing) and a few samples
A few other tools will come in handy as well, like a printer and a place to keep paperwork.
The other essential you need to make a living writing? Time.
Many people do launch successful freelance careers while also working a day job. There’s something to be said for that: you always have income to fall back on.
On the other hand, launching your writing career while also working full-time takes longer. There’s less motivation to make it work, and less available energy to devote to it.
If you have the luxury of deciding whether or not to quit a current job while you work on building a writing career, spend some time weighing the pros and cons. Look at your budget, look at your schedule, and decide what’s going to (a) give you the time and energy to write while (b) ensuring you can eat.
2. Understand what you bring to the table.
Every freelance writer has a slightly different background, and the successful ones all play to their strengths.
For instance, I started writing after leaving the practice of law, and for the first several years, all I did was legal writing. I branched briefly into writing on education while earning my BA in English, and now I focus almost solely on writing epic content for B2B tech companies.
Sit down and make a list. What jobs have you had in the past, and what topics did you learn about there? What subjects in school sparked your passions? If you’ve written before, what was it about – and do you want to write more in that same topic area?
Try to identify both your ideal writing topics and those in which you already possess a reasonable knowledge base. You’ll strive for the ideals, but the ones in which you’re competent will often be the source of your base income, especially in the beginning.
While you’re daydreaming, determine what your ideal freelance writing clients look like:
- Do you want to work on retainer for a few large clients, guaranteeing a certain amount of work each week in exchange for a certain amount of pay, even if you’re not thrilled by the topics?
- Do you enjoy the chase, always looking for new assignments and new topics?
- Do you want to be a subject matter expert in one topic area, no matter how many new clients you have to rustle up to get there?
Understanding your preferences helps you organize your search, so you spend more time contacting the types of clients you want and avoiding the types you don’t.
Also, take some time to think about your ideal schedule. When will you write? How much time do you want between receiving an assignment and completing it (per 100 words)? Timing will factor into your choices as well, so consider what does and doesn’t work for you.
3. Figure out what you’re looking for and look for it.
Once you know what you bring to the table and what your ideal clients and schedule look like, it’s time to start looking for freelance work. There are three primary ways to do this:
- Cold-contacting. Find companies, organizations, etc. that could benefit from the type of writing you want to do. Call or email them. Let them know you’re available. There are dozens of guides to cold-calling for freelance writers online, but it’s tough for me to give solid advice in this area because…I’ve never actually done it.
- Freelance writer ads. Craigslist offers dozens of new ads for freelance writers every single day. Sites like Freelance Writing Jobs (which I’ve used for years) curate these so you don’t end up spending your whole day on Craigslist. Googling “freelance writing jobs” provides a number of similar sources.
- Contracting or agency sites. Sites like Fiverr let you offer your services (in some cases, for specific flat fees), while agencies like BKA hire writers to turn out copy, often for very low rates. Consider what jobs you can afford to take before you take them.
When you find a job that looks promising, send a brief email, fill out the application, or whatever else they asked for. Include your resume and/or a link to your online portfolio, if you have one.
If you fear rejections:
The overwhelming majority of “responses” you’ll get will be non-responses. Total silence. This is still true for me a decade into the business. It’s rude, but it’s standard.
You will get a few rejections. Don’t worry too hard about them, and don’t try to change your approach unless all you’re getting are rejections.
Reject others first:
4. Set boundaries.
Professional writers absolutely require two skills to survive in this business. The first, of course, is writing.
The second is the ability to sniff out nonsense and set boundaries.
As you read freelance writing ads, you’ll get better at spotting scams and potentially bad clients. As a rule, however, it’s time to walk away from an ad or to fire a freelance writing client when they:
- Are vague about what they need
- Have unrealistic expectations as to timing, demand rush work for no extra pay, or presume that you’re available 24/7 (unless you’ve negotiated otherwise and are being paid for it)
- Don’t specify exactly how much they are paying for exactly what work
- Expect you to do any work, even a sample, for free
Because it’s possible to work 24/7 as a freelancer, it’s tempting to do exactly that. Don’t. Set specific work hours for yourself, stick to them, and only take on work outside those times when it suits you to do so.
5. Live within your means.
The arrival of that first pay for your writing is a real rush. Time to party, right?
Not so fast.
To make a living as a freelance writer, you’ll need to stay on top of your earnings. You’ll also need to understand the difference between income and cash flow.
- Put 50 percent of every payment you receive into savings. Of this half, expect to send 60 percent (or 30 percent of the total payment) to the government for taxes. The other 20 percent is your retirement account. Want a savings account on top of these? Put away more than 50 percent of each paycheck.
- Keep track of what invoices you’ve sent out, what you’re owed, and what you’ve been paid. If you have bookkeeping skills, you can do this according to generally accepted accounting principles; if not, a spreadsheet with slots for client, amount, the job done, and the date invoices were sent/payment was received will serve the purpose.
- Track your business expenses. One of the best parts of writing for a living is that if you can find a way to get paid to write about it, it’s a business expense. Take a look at the IRS guidance on business expenses, and keep your receipt for everything you think might qualify.
Income is how much you’ve made; it’s the amount on your spreadsheet tracking invoices you’ve sent out. Cash flow is how much money you have on hand; it’s the amount on your spreadsheet tracking which invoices clients have paid.
As a freelance writer, you will have times where your income is sufficient to cover your bills but your cash flow is not. Writers call this the “feast-famine” cycle. It’s a way of life. To beat it, put away a bit more than 50 percent of each paycheck (so you have a resource to draw from when bills are due but checks haven’t arrived yet).
6. Change with the times.
Twenty years ago, content writing – the bulk of the paid work I do today – didn’t exist. It wasn’t a job one could have.
Ten years ago, content writing consisted almost entirely of dashing off the cheapest, ugliest, keyword-stuffed nonsense you could manage in order to fill a webpage. When I started writing for the Web, I wrote fast and badly.
Today, writing fast and badly doesn’t work. There are still a handful of agencies that will pay for it, but most are aware that as search algorithms have changed, 300 words with the keyword repeated exactly three times just doesn’t cut it anymore. Google doesn’t see that as an authority and won’t kick it to the top of the results page – and that’s what a lot of content writing is meant to do.
Whether you decide to write content, to specialize in newsletters, to stick with technical manuals or to foray into journalism, stay on top of trends in the field. It doesn’t look like it did ten years ago, and it won’t look the same ten years from now.
7. Stay tuned.
There’s a ton of content here on writing both fiction and non-fiction for a living, and I’m adding more all the time. Follow the blog for more info!
Writing as a Career