The Right Way to Write for a Living

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I'd been working as a full-time freelance writer for eight months when I made a startling realization: I had come to hate writing. The craft that I identified with and the ambition I'd had since Jr. High—to make money as a writer—had backfired. I didn't like the work. I didn't like my life. I didn't even like myself.

It's easy to romanticize the life of a professional writer, but as I quickly discovered, there's a right way and a wrong way to write for a living. In my four years of full-time freelance work (and three years of part-time gig-seeking), I went through a lot of misery. I also learned a great deal. This article is my attempt to distil those lessons for those among you who are pursuing or have been curious about the the freelance lifestyle. So, to start....

Adjust Your Expectations of the Work

Without experience in the field, it's natural to find yourself behind the curve.

When looking at the freelance field, writers tend to sugar-coat the truth: You know that some writers have to take low-paying gigs when they start out, but surely you are above the cut!

Alas, not only are you average, you're below average. Without experience in the field, it's natural to find yourself behind the curve. That won't last forever, but the success rate of your pitches and the types of opportunities available to you will be limited.

There's plenty of work for those willing to be word monkeys, but that work will often pay you about a penny per word.

Adjust Your Expectations of Yourself

The thinking often goes, "When I'm up against a deadline, I can write 500 words in half an hour. So in an eight-hour day, I can write 8000 words!" Even at a miserable $0.01/word rate, that's a solid $80/day—or $20,000/year.

Only it's also bullshit. At your best, you probably can pump out decent content at a rapid rate, but you won't always be at your best. And if you try to work at whip-cracking speeds all of the time, you'll break yourself.

Our brains are pretty awesome at working under stress, but only for a limited time. Prolonged stress takes its toll on our mental and emotional well-being—and the burn-out quickly becomes visible in the quality of your content and your total output.

Define "Work" Broadly

Part of the reason you can't do eight hours of writing at the same pace as you do half an hour is that you'll have to spend some portion of that eight hours doing other tasks. You know how the last company you worked for hired a janitor? Yeah, that's you now. Sales team? Also you. Contracts? Customer support? Project management? Accounting? Training? You, you, you, you, you.

And let's just be honest: You never spent eight hours working during an eight-hour work day.

Plus, you'll no longer get social contact at work or have the chance for recognition from colleagues. The time you will have to spend meeting those social needs will now have to be found outside of your "normal working hours."

And let's just be honest: You never spent eight hours working during an eight-hour work day. Even taking your standard breaks, lunch, and restroom trips into account, the remaining seven or so hours was shaved down by socializing, checking in on Facebook or your personal email, or simply spacing out. The amount of work-work done in a standard eight-hour day is probably closer to four hours, based on studies.

View "Phase One" as an Educational Experience

At the beginning of 2010, I decided to become a full-time freelancer—but it wasn't the first time I'd made that choice. To lock myself into the decision, I moved to a new city and rented an apartment where I would have space for a home office. And then reality settled in. Terrible, terrible reality.

That starting phase is the hardest part. You're making the least amount of money for the largest amount of work, and that combination means you have to set aside space for "phase one" of the freelancing operation.

So should you just dodge freelancing? Well, maybe. Or maybe you shouldn't quit your day job until you've established some clients and a portfolio. Or, if you have enough of a savings account that you can get by with lower income for a few months, you can view this early phase as an investment in your education. You will learn a great deal about writing, the freelance marketplace, and yourself.

Know How to Work Your Deadlines

One of the things you'll find out about yourself is how you respond to stress. In fact, my struggle with freelance stress eventually became my academic specialty (the psychology of creativity).

I know freelancers who don't feel anxious about deadlines, who feel driven to get ahead, and who thrive under pressure. If you're one of those people, I congratulate you. But if you're like me, and you leave work to the last minute, panic when facing deadlines, and lock down under pressure, you'll need to figure out how to adapt your workflow to the way you work.

Now, pay attention to what I just said: It wasn't "ignore" the way you work. It wasn't "adapt the way you work to the job." This is not a matter of willpower, and trying to force yourself into submission comes with a high cost. Trust me. I know.

Strategies for coping with deadlines when you don't do well with them naturally deserves its own article, so I won't go too far into it here. The short version is this: Don't swallow projects whole, don't over-commit, and spend some time finding your rhythm.

Write Good Content

This is me putting anabolic steroids into phrases that leave them with constant agitation and a low sperm count.

While most of those "penny per word" clients will be expecting to get what they paid for in quality, you won't be able to advance your career until you start producing stellar content—no matter what you're being paid. Maybe this seems a bit obvious, but it took me about a year to figure out. I broke down about a year in.

"I just can't do it," I wrote, trying to unravel the way my work disgusted me. "This is me giving one-sentence summaries lip-expansion surgery that would make Jolie jealous. This is me putting anabolic steroids into phrases that leave them with constant agitation and a low sperm count."

After I wrote that post, I changed my approach to the work. It was a pain to write better content than I was being paid for—but within six months, I was being approached by more clients than I could handle, making an average of $0.06/word, and feeling a hell of a lot better about calling myself a "writer."

Prioritize Your Creative Work

I'd dreamt of becoming a writer since I was a little kid, and while my creative ambitions were the important part, the possibility of writing professionally seemed like the perfect route to those dreams. Key word here: Seemed.

When I finally succeeded at becoming a professional writer, I stopped writing creatively. After a stressful day of writing articles, the last thing I wanted to do to wind down was write even more. The necessary action is pretty simple: Prioritize your creative work. Do it before you do your freelance gigs or your academic work or any other writing projects you have. Otherwise, your creative work will be cast to the wayside and left to gather dust.

Specialize in Your Passions

My efforts had been investing in an identity and set of opportunities that I didn't want.

One of the most important things you can do to improve your freelance income is to specialize in a specific topic. As you become recognized, clients start approaching you and offering you consistent work. You can also ask for a higher per-article rate. In short, you do less work and get more money for it.

Until about a year ago, I specialized in web technologies, specifically doing news and analysis. I made that choice because there was lots of work available and my background in web development had given me valuable experience. And, to speak bluntly, I was getting filthy lucre. Each weekday, I wrote six to eight articles, each of which paid an average of $35. Maybe it's not the best income you'll ever see, but it's damn good for a self-employed writer.

And I stuck with that specialty for a long time, even though I didn't care about it. When I started getting offers to attend conferences, I realized that all my efforts had been investing in an identity and set of opportunities that I didn't want.

When you change specialties, you basically start over. So choose a specialty that you can see yourself writing about happily for many years to come.

Focus on the "Free" in "Freelance"

Freelance work is a mixed bag, but it really does offer you freedom. I spent six months backpacking the British Isles while doing freelance work. I've had the chance to make amazing connections and meet awesome people through this lifestyle. But that's not actually the default for freelancers.

What's easy or expected quickly starts to feel like the only option, even when you're working for yourself. I still have a hard time grappling with pursuing my own brand of success. Being free to make your own choices and take your own risks is exciting. And it's terrifying. And exhausting.

But that's the thing about being a freelancer—no, scratch that. That's the thing about life. There are limitless possibilities, and it takes active choice and effort to really take advantage of them.

Robbie Blair

Column by Robbie Blair

Robbie Blair is a world-wandering author and poet who blogs about his adventures, the writing craft, and more. He was doomed to write when, at just three years old, his English-professor father taught him the "To be or not to be" soliloquy. Robbie has since published more than a dozen creative pieces in literary journals (including Touchstones, Enormous Rooms, Warp + Weave, and V Magazine). Robbie Blair's website is loaded with travel narratives; original creative work;  writerly humor; pretty pictures; writing games, lessons, tips, and exercises; and other uber-nifty™ content.

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Comments

Mess_Jess's picture
Mess_Jess from Sydney, Australia, living in Toronto, Canada is reading Perfect by Rachael Joyce January 23, 2014 - 10:35am

Great article, Robbie.

Two other important things for freelancers, I think, are:

1. Decide what rate you can afford to work for and to LIVE for. Calculate how much money you need to live per year, and ascertain your hourly rate from this. You'll need to include a contingency, trust me.

2. When you undercut your rate because you either: a) love the industry/niche/topic you're going to write on, or b) you just really need the work, make your client aware. Send them an invoice with your regularly rates, and put in something like - 25% discount. Let them see your usual cost and your worth. 

Jorge Orduna's picture
Jorge Orduna January 23, 2014 - 10:52am

You're wrong on this point: 

"Only it's also bullshit. At your best, you probably can pump out decent content at a rapid rate, but you won't always be at your best. And if you try to work at whip-cracking speeds all of the time, you'll break yourself."

Since 2009, I've succesfully done this. Under the pen name "Sir Jorge" all over the internet for private companies, and public ones. It's absolute bullshit for someone "mightier than thou" to tell writers they can't do this. It's possible, and I'm living proof of it. 

Simon Pressinger's picture
Simon Pressinger January 23, 2014 - 11:28am

Belligerence is a vice (not a virtue), Jorge Orduna.

Really enjoyed your article, Robbie.

I have never seriously considered freelance writing, but you make it sound very tempting. And thanks to Mess_Jess for those supplementary pointers.

.'s picture
. January 23, 2014 - 12:47pm

Great article! I will check out the other ones on your site that are linked.

M.E.Prince's picture
M.E.Prince from Georgia is reading En man som heter Ove January 23, 2014 - 1:50pm

I have to agree with the point about pacing oneself. I have run myself ragged the past year trying to meet deadlines that I *knew* I could meet, because I *knew* I could regularly produce a certain number of words per day. If I was sick, or just having an off day, well, it was just a couple hundred more to do each day before the deadline. The day before my most recent one, I curled into a ball and couldn't do anything but stare at the wall. Thankfully, the client was completely cool with giving an extension.

I'd also say to plan for vacation time. You don't get paid during it, but it's needed to clear the brain-meats. I had no Christmas break this year (see previously-mentioned extension), and it was sorely missed.

Oh, and don't get discouraged on the freelancing sites. You'll have to wade through some scammers and a LOT of lazy people who have the BEST IDEA EVER and want it in publishable book form for under 500 dollars in a month, but there are also some good ones in the bunch. It just takes time.

vellarahmania's picture
vellarahmania January 24, 2014 - 2:27am

This is exactly what i needed. Thank you Robbie.