Melissa May | January 2002
Many writers graduating from schools experience a shock upon entering the "real world" where money must be made-and creative writing is often not the way to do it. If you are a member of the 9-to-5 world, there is often not enough time to feed your creative habit. But is there a way to balance your monetary needs with your writerly interests?
Freelance writing, a solution which can be both creatively satisfying and financially rewarding, is a course of action an artist may take to get an income, or to supplement it.
By definition, freelancers are people without long-term contractual obligations to any single employer or company. They find their own work, discuss the terms and conditions-including compensation-and deliver the completed work for the approval of their employer. In the field of writing, this translates to people focusing their creative energy on writing articles and essays for magazines, newspapers, and other media.
It is the intention of this article to show how a creative writer can put his or her skills to use not just by writing in a strictly literary format, but also by operating as a freelance writer who sells work in a journalistic context in order to get or supplement an income. If you’re beginning this creative pursuit with previous experience as a writer, you are fortunate, because you have probably already tried your hand at different genres and subjects, and you may already be familiar with the process of submitting query letters.
There are many ways to earn money as a freelance writer: stringing, which is doing assignments for local or regional newspapers; writing the text for greeting cards (you don’t have to provide art as well); and editing, among other things. Moira Allen, a long time freelancer who writes articles about freelancing, often turns to the last option, citing it as a source of more dependable income. Allen has the following to say about freelance editing: "It’s often easier to find a large, well-paying project that will bring in $2,000 or $3,000 a month, compared to trying to earn the same amount by sending out several different articles."
Most writers, however, earn money as freelancers by writing articles for magazines. This is easier to do than most might think. Many magazines, whether small or mainstream, welcome freelance articles and article ideas and regularly assign projects to writers who are not employed as staff.
In order to begin the process and earn money, all you need to do is apply your marketing skills, do some research, and do the creative work you love.
Here are some of the basic steps for submitting a piece for publication as a freelance writer:
- Choose a subject area which interests you. You don’t have to be an expert in the topic you want to write about, though you have to have some enthusiasm for the subject and the energy to pursue it. Sarah Anne Johnson, a freelancer whose work is regularly published for financial services copy, Web content, and magazines such as The Writer’s Chronicle, says, "I’m attracted to topics I’m knowledgeable about, but even these require a great deal of research… I enjoy the research and the opportunity to learn and broaden my knowledge-an asset for any freelancer." For Johnson and many other freelance writers, one’s own experience is the fountain from which inspiration springs: "I’m always looking for ways to combine my interests to create nichés for myself that will set me apart as a writer."
- Study articles in magazines which cover that topic. "Writers interested in doing freelance work should buy the magazines that they would like to write for and learn about their format, style, and personality," Johnson advises. "Most magazines discuss their editorial needs and submission guidelines either in print or on their websites. Choosing the magazines you want to write for requires research, and if you spend the time to learn your market, your chances for success will improve." Linda Lowenthal, acting editor of the Boston Phoenix Literary Supplement, agrees. She feels that the biggest mistake writers can make is to neglect to understand the market to which they are submitting their work.
- Write the article. Relax and enjoy yourself. You have a passion for your subject and you know what your audience wants to hear-your effort and enthusiasm will become evident in your writing and will also stir up the interest of those who read it.
- Submit a query. If you’ve never done this before or just need a brush-up, there are plenty of books in the market on this subject. Try a guide like How to Write Attention-Grabbing Query and Cover Letters by John Wood (Writer’s Digest Books). Lowenthal says that she reacts favorably when writers also send some clips (examples of their published writing) that show lively writing, an interesting sensibility, and an ability to choose and shape compelling topics. "If they seem good enough I’ll just pass on their stuff to an appropriate editor and let that editor discuss story ideas with them, which has been known to result in assignments."
- Handle rejection optimistically. By now, you don’t need anyone to tell you how many math courses Albert Einstein flunked before he came up with the theory of relativity. In much the same way, don’t expect every query you send out to meet with success. For even experienced freelancers, an acceptance rate of 50% is considered successful!
- Keep writing. With time and trial continually improving your work, someone is bound to notice it and want to use it in their publication-but this will only happen if you keep trying! There’s a reason why "don’t give up" is the tried-and-true maxim.
Allen warns that a mistake beginning freelance writers tend to make is expecting too much, too soon. "I get letters from writers who are just starting out, and are interested in breaking into Newsweek or Cosmopolitan-with no credentials or writing experience under their belt," she says. "It isn’t going to happen… Writing is like any other business. You start at the entry level and you work your way up. You may be able to work up very quickly, but you still have to have a realistic understanding of where you are when you enter and what you can do there."
Perhaps some of you have already experienced a degree of success with freelance writing and would like to take your work to the next level-to the point where it becomes your only work. But the decision to become a full-time freelance writer cannot be taken lightly. Allen cautions that it is often very hard to earn a living wage as a freelance writer, and even more difficult to support two people or a family with children by earning an income this way. Most freelancers, including Allen herself, have another income-earner in the family.
Allen points out that though earning a living as a freelance writer is challenging, it is not to say that it hasn’t been done. "To do it, you have to really think about this work as a full-time job. You have to be willing to be at your desk from 9-5 (or the equivalent), spending time pursuing leads and handling both the writing and the business side of it."
Before you quit your day job and, as Allen terms it, "take the plunge" into the freelance world, here are some things to consider:
- The amount of writing you already do. With a full-time job, it’s hard to find even five hours a week to spend on writing. So probably the most important question you can ask yourself is: do you have the discipline to write on a regular basis?
- Your rate of submission. Are you confident enough to submit new queries and articles regularly, instead of continually re-editing and keeping them hidden in a drawer?
- Your rate of acceptance. Again, having 50% of your submissions published is considered a high rate of acceptance. With this kind of success, you can be fairly certain that any rejections you receive aren’t due to poor quality.
- Your average pay. A dependable gauge of your success is that a good number of the markets you sell your articles to-50% or more-pay more than $100 per article. Making freelance writing your career means that you have to support yourself reasonably, so it is important that you can rely on some markets to pay you a decent amount of money.
- Contacts in the market you’ve made. Many freelancers rely on their friends and professional links in order to receive referrals and to set up new projects. "Every job I’ve had has been because somebody recommended me," Johnson says. "My literary journalism hasn’t required contacts for publication, but it has relied on contacts to line up interviews. Many of the writers that I interviewed I knew through my affiliation with Bennington College, PEN/New England, or the Provincetown Fine Arts Work Center."
- Your familiarity with the specifics of the writing market. You should have a good degree of fluency in the terminology of the writing world and know the importance in using the tools of the trade.
- Your previous income from writing. Allen suggests that earning $5000 or more from writing activities during the course of a year is a sign that one may be ready for a freelancing career.
- Your ability to market yourself. "Freelancing is 20% writing and 80% marketing yourself," Allen says. "The most important thing you have to learn is how to pitch your work (and your credentials). If you can’t do that, you won’t get assignments. You also have to be willing to get out there and take risks, approaching markets that you may think are beyond your credentials and abilities."
- Your ability to cooperate. Lowenthal names this as one of the most desirable characteristics editors look for in writers. "The easiest-to-pin-down criterion for deciding which freelance writers to work with is how cooperative they are about editing and rewriting. If someone is a prima donna about changing anything, doesn’t adequately answer the questions I ask, or is simply hard to reach, it is not very appealing to work with that person again. Of course, the more fundamental criterion is how good the writing is, because that could make all the cooperating and rewriting unnecessary."
- Your degree of flexibility. This might seem like an odd thing to consider, but many freelance writers will tell you that they had to learn to adapt to the uncertainty of the freelancing lifestyle. You may be asked to drop everything or pick up new projects on a whim, or you may experience a dry spell in your sales from time to time. The ability to cope with the unexpected is one of the characteristic traits of a good freelance writer. Johnson says, "Your flexibility with regard to what you write about will also have an effect on your success. The more topics you feel comfortable with, the more you’re willing to learn, the broader your market will be."
Having a high success rate in each of these areas is a reliable indicator that you will have the strength and discipline to succeed as a full-time freelancer. If you’ve taken things such as these into consideration and feel adequately prepared to make your living as a freelance writer, there’s one more thing you need to do.
As with making any dream come to life, you must step back and make a plan before putting your aspiration into action. In the months before you begin your new venture, you should prepare yourself for the new rules which will govern your working life. Make sure you discuss your decision with those people in your life whom it will affect: your spouse, children, employer, and others. If those who play important roles in your life aren’t aware of your new plan and how it will affect them, you’re already digging a dangerous hole for yourself.
Because being a full-time freelance writer means that your source of income is not always consistent, Allen suggests making two wise moves before you enact your decision: assess your household budget and make cuts wherever you can, and start saving money.
Finally, you should create a realistic business plan that enables you to increase your income from your existing markets in a practical manner. Determine how many articles you have to sell at a certain price in order to help support yourself or your family and set practical goals for yourself. Since your ultimate goal is to sell more articles, first set your sights on writing and submitting more articles to one or many magazines; you will sell more articles the harder you work and the more material you send out. Make sure to keep track of when your assignments are due and set aside time to write and polish other articles you’re working on.
But above all, don’t lose yourself in the business. "I think the biggest danger is forgetting why you became a writer in the first place," Allen says. "For many of us, it wasn’t to make a buck, or even to ‘earn a living.’ It was because we wanted to write." She suggests that in order to avoid forgetting who you are as a writer while working as a freelancer, you should only accept projects or assignments that fit your business and/or personal goals, and you should try to make a plan that includes time to work on your personal writing projects. Johnson says, "When looking for writing gigs either in business, or online, or in magazines, find something that truly interests you, something you’ll enjoy and learn from. You have only one life, after all, so have fun with it."
Though it is difficult to make a living as a freelance writer, it can be very rewarding to supplement one’s income and quench one’s creative thirst in one full swoop. Enjoy your new venture, and remember what drives to you to begin it: the love for communicating through the written word.