"Master Dayton" might be humorous, (I mean if Ph.Ds are called "Doctors," shouldn't MFAs be called "Masters?") but in all seriousness I have made a living freelance writing and after several years I have tons of information I want to share to help out my fellow writers, regardless of age, experience, goals, situation, or background. This blog isn't pretty-but it will help if real freelance writing information is what you want.

Monday, September 6, 2010

The Truth About Freelance Writing

The Truth About Freelance Writing: What a Writing Career is Really Like

There are many different important freelance writing topics I cover with this blog, and while they are all perfectly valid, I wonder how many beginners stop and think about why they want to be freelance writers. More to the point, I wonder if they understand what a freelance writing career is really like, or if they hold a romanticized notion of what a writing career is really like. It's not that being a freelance writer isn't great - there isn't another career out there I'd rather be doing (and I fold my passive income work into the general term "freelance writer career" as well), but that doesn't mean this doesn't come without its own set of costs or difficulties. Some of these difficulties are easy to overcome if you really don't care what other people think, and this is a job that I thoroughly believe is much easier if you are single as opposed to raising a family.

So I wanted to take some time in this post to explain the truth about starting your own freelance writing career, and explain both the positives and the negatives: and how sometimes they can be the exact same thing. This post isn't meant to force people to jump in and become writers, nor is it here to try to scare you away from pursuing a freelance career whether it is part time (which I think is probably right or better for most people, especially starting out) versus full time. This post will hopefully simply lay out the truth about what a freelance writing career is like, both good and bad, and give you a better idea if this is the right road for you - or indeed since there are many different ways and routes to becoming a full time writer, which specific road might be the one you're most comfortable with pursuing.

First of all, the disclaimer: there are ALWAYS exceptions to the basic "rules" of any given industry, and freelance writing is no exception. I've met a couple of people who just were in the right time, right place, starting out and were good enough to turn it into a full career very quickly. Over 99% of the time, this isn't going to happen. And the majority of the time someone leaves a snarky comment on a writing blog about how quickly they made $50k+ a year right out of school writing, notice the less than stellar writing and lack of a URL linked to the name. There are more trolls claiming to be successful freelance writers than there are really good freelance writers making a living. Most successful freelancers I know are more than friendly and go above and beyond in sharing their time and advice with newbies. In fact, there's only one I've run into who isn't. All the others are more than happy to help someone who is willing to do the work needed to prove they're really dedicated to making it.

Not everyone will experience all of these, but based on my 5+ years experience as a freelance writer, I'm going to go over my experiences as a freelance writing and mention not only the positives and drawbacks of being a professional writer, but also go into the things that I think others could have issues with as well.

Common freelance writing beliefs or questions

#1: Freelance writers can work anytime they want. This is one of those freelance writing beliefs that is both true and false. Yes, you do get to set your own hours. This means if you get up one morning in April and the water levels are finally down after a wet winter and the trout streams were stocked for the first time all year, you can choose not to write that morning or even the early afternoon. Pure freedom, right? Wrong. A more accurate description of this common belief is that: freelance writers can move their working hours around any way they want. You can go fishing when the fishing is good, but that means you won't be going to bed at nine at night. You'll be staying up until 1, 2, 3, or maybe even 4 a.m. making sure you get your needed writing in and get any assignments done on time. The work MUST be done, and it MUST be done on time and on deadline when applicable. So yes, you can move your schedule around and it helps to lead a richer and fuller life, IMO, but you WILL make up for it. Flexible Schedule? Absolutely. Work whenever you want with no consequences? Not bloody likely.

#2: The Respect Issue. There are generally two, and only two, reactions you get after telling someone you are a professional freelance writer. The first reaction is what most non-writers or beginning freelance writers imagine: surprise, interest, and a strong sense of respect, often out of interest in what you do and how you pull it off. The second reaction is a little (actually probably a lot - I'm fortunate in that I'm surrounded by family and friends who more or less gave up on me ever going the conventional route for a job or life by the time I was 17) more common and surprises many beginning writers: smirking, arrogance, or absolute disdain. Don't be surprised if many people look down at you, believe you can't get a "real" job, or will never believe you no matter how easily you can prove that you're successful. Don't be surprised if everyone who looks at you with disdain thinks they could do your job easily, even though most can't. And you will NEVER convince them otherwise. I'm making double per month what some people who know me are, and they still snicker and make fun of me for being "just a writer." If you crave or need the respect of others, sad truth is you just might not have the skin to be a freelance writer. That's a hard truth, but it is one you need to be aware of before making an unwise jump into the freelance writing business.

#3: You get to write what you want. No, you don't. This doesn't mean you can't start your own blogs or write specialty articles, but most people will never be able to make a living writing articles on only things they are interested in. Even if you are very capable like Celeste Stewart over at Constant-Content and can write excellent high quality articles on topics you choose and sell them: they still have to be in topics in demand. I might be able to write 20 great articles on the historical philosophical and political ties between the Kingdom of Morocco and the United States, but no one is going to buy them. You are allowed to turn down jobs you're not comfortable with, and I 100% suggest that you do just that, but getting clients means writing the way they need you to write for the jobs that they need you to do for them. Period. That's the only way you can make it as a full time freelance writer.

#4: Freelance writing is easy. This is a misnomer. Personally, I find the writing part easy and natural. I've literally been writing since I was 3 years old and have never wanted to be anything else other than a writer. But there are always jobs that are harder than others, and writing is only one part of being a freelance writer. Taxes, finding clients, pleasing clients, dealing with problem clients, finding more work, adjusting with ever-changing markets, writing online, writing offline, learning different writing styles, editing, budgeting, loneliness, self-motivation, discipline, providing own benefits, marketing, and balancing life and work are all important aspects of being a writer, and balancing all of those is NOT easy in any way, shape, or form. And if you're stuck doing technical writing, you're making a lot of money but the writing itself won't be easy either.

#5: Freelance writing is lucrative. This is one where it's hard to nail it exactly, because freelance writing can be lucrative. It can be extremely lucrative, especially on a per hour basis. However getting to that point can be very difficult and take a long time. I started out at about $4 an hour while learning the ropes. If you've followed this blog and some of the other excellent resources online that were not around back in 2004 or 2005, then you should be able to start at quite a bit more than that. But even then, getting to $20 an hour or $30 an hour or more can take a ton of work, a lot of time, and working for countless 50, 60, or 80 hour weeks or more building up your portfolio, looking for better long term clients, and constantly working not only to keep up with the rent, but to keep pushing your freelance writing business towards more growth and more movement.

A Writer's Market article from several years ago mentioned that a stunning number of freelance writers would never make enough in a year to pull them above the poverty line. Somewhere in the 75%+ mark. Making above 30k as a freelance writer puts you in the top 10%. While the top writers make six figures - there's no question they are in the top 1% of all earners. Passive income can muddle this up a bit, but even in that field there are far more trying to make good money at writing and blogging than are actually making it.

As a part time job, second income, or hobby that's used just to fill an IRA or save up for a vacation once a year, freelance writing is a great gig that is very lucrative and attractive for limited goals such as these. As a long term freelancing career, it's hard.

Other points of interest to beginning freelance writers:
There are several other points I want to make from personal experience, because there is so much that can be covered on this topic, but it's hard to dive into everything fully for people who haven't been through the same, and as with all things, different people react differently. Loneliness is a major problem for many people, while it's just not that big a thing to me. Additionally, I'm willing to do more with less because I don't have a family, which makes many things simple for me that are harder for others (like insurance, day care, extra expenses, working at home while trying to balance family life, etc).

Going in a bullet point format, here is a final list of tips. If there's any point or number of points that you want to know more about, or if there's even something else I haven't covered completely, feel free to ask a question in the comments section. I'll do my best to answer based on my own experiences.

More truth on the freelance writing experience:

  • Develop a thick skin. Even if you are one of the best, you'll get rejected a LOT. If you take it personally, you'll burn out too early to ever see success. Develop a thick skin and go from there.
  • Recognize you could get lonely. Freelance writing is a long lonely job. Take a break and spend an hour at a book store, take a walk in the park, or go out for a cheap meal. Just being around people often helps, and you need this to keep your sanity over the long run.
  • The money will be hard early on. Very hard.
  • Private clients will pay the most, and will be the hardest to find.
  • Some types of writing, like technical and sales copy writing, will pay far better than others (like content writing). The more expensive the writing, the harder it is to break into that market.
  • You pay self-employment tax. This varies greatly based on circumstances, but a basic rule of thumb is that you will pay 12-15% more than you are used to.
  • You must have self-confidence, because many people who think they are helping you will inadvertently (or maybe even intentionally) put you down during the hard times when you need support the most. At these times only your own self confidence and determination will see you through.
  • Get a community. A supportive online community can be very helpful during the rough times - but don't go there so often that you spend more there than actually writing.
  • Be open to learning multiple styles of writing. This makes cobbling together clients and a solid writing resume, as well as a working income, much simpler.
  • Specialize in a popular niche to really get some private client attention.
  • If you don't know what cold calling is, learn it. This remains one of the best ways to find private clients who can become your biggest paychecks.
  • Never undersell yourself. If in doubt, charge 20-30% more than you think you're worth. I was stunned when I did this and saw my workload double, then did it again and saw the demand stay exactly the same. Don't work for less when clients have already decided you're worth more. I've been told by clients who pay me $36 an hour that I don't charge nearly enough. Good to know.
  • You have to learn to concentrate on the very short term, in a one-step-at-a-time method to keep your work running smoothly and keep yourself sane but if you want to succeed long term you have to be able to keep an eye on the long term picture without getting overwhelmed. It can be a tough balancing act.
  • Learn what passive income is right away and devote a MINIMUM of 10% of all your working time towards building this passive income. Start with HubPages, InfoBarrel, Suite101, and Xomba and go from there. It may take two years to see big results, but you'll kick yourself in the butt for not doing more while being thankful you started at all.
  • If you have the choice, start at part time and go from there. If you're a college student and money's not an issue, jump right in.
That's it for this new post on learning some truth about freelance writing. I hope you found this useful, and feel free to leave any comments or questions you have.


  1. Hey Shane,

    Great post as I've come to expect, and I have to say that in my short time as a freelance writer, this is spot on, especially about working whenever you want. I actually find that those times I do choose to take a day off, I end up feeling pretty guilty about it, even if it's for a good reason. So even though I can theoretically take days off until my heart's content, I rarely enjoy them.

    I haven't had one person show any disrespect toward me for being a writer though. It may be because I live in an area where everyone hates their jobs because there are only bad jobs available, but I've never even heard of that happening until now.

    Finding and getting private clients definitely seems to be difficult, and I'm currently trying to figure it out. Have you ever considered writing a post about that? I have found some info out there, but it usually comes in the form of a 500 word-or less-gloss over. You tend to write with a lot of attention to detail, and I think you could write a real solid post on the topic. Just a thought. You can keep it on the back burner if you ever need an idea.


  2. Hi Rick,

    Thanks for the great comment. Always appreciated! Yeah, the guilt part is something that definitely needs to be tempered and dealt with. I think part of the problem is that when you work a shift job, you get trained not to be results oriented or production oriented, but you are trained to work X number of hours each day and every day. If you've never read "The Four Hour Work Week" I highly recommend it. I know the title sounds hypey and not everything in it is applicable, but it's a great read for reevaluating a lot of things and readjusting to free yourself from bad habits. So even if you do enough freelance work in two days to make a week's worth of pay, if you take time off and it's not Saturday or Sunday, it's easy to feel guilty when there's really no need. As long as you get the work done and build the foundation for future work and passive income, you're good. Spend the money on the most recent edition of the 4HWW, it's by Timothy Ferriss. Enjoying days off is critical to long term success freelancing because you can literally find a way to work 16 hour days, 7 days a week until you put yourself into a hospital. I've done it, and in retrospect, as tough as the budget was and everything else, it just wasn't worth it. Gotta' have that time off.

    Glad you haven't run into any of the haters. I ran into a lot more when I started in 2005 than I do now. I have a feeling it's not only the fact that I'm still at it after this much time, but it's also the fact that with the economy doing what it's done, freelancers suddenly look really damn smart and secure - more so than anyone with a traditional job. As wages stay low, more and more people I think are shifting towards respect as opposed to disdain. We might not get any unemployment benefits, but we never need them, either.

    Private clients is the hardest part. I'm fairly lucky to be more or less set in this area - I would look at doubling what I have now if I wasn't starting my own businesses and focusing so much on passive income, but for what I'm doing now it's excellent. I think it's definitely a great topic and I've been trying to work on how to write a blog post that can actually help in this respect, seeing as how it is definitely at the top of the "no cookie cutter formula" area of freelance writing. But it's definitely coming up here soon.

    Thanks again for the comment!

  3. A few months ago I was forced to move to another state so I quite my office job. Instead of looking for another one, I decided I wanted to work from home. My cost of living is extremely low and after 3 months I can finally make enough to not dip into my savings account (barely). Definitely wouldn't recommend just jumping into it for most though. Haven't found any private clients yet, a post about that would be appreciated :)

    Guilt is funny as it works both ways. I schedule my days by work not by hours but when I am done with all my work and haven't worked an 8 hour day, I feel like I am slacking.

    I haven't had any negative responses from people asking me what I am doing but I certainly have from my parents. I don't see them ever accepting this as a real job.

    Loneliness isn't really a problem either, I just schedule time with friends and my dog keeps me good company :) But reading blogs like yours certainly keeps things interesting.

  4. Hi Alex,

    Appreciate the comment. Always good to get another point of view. I fell into freelancing the same way. I wouldn't recommend the jump in completely with no safety net route, but if you're desperate you can make it work. Cost of living is a huge part of the equation, and is the main reason I keep heading back to the Midwest. If you're flying solo it's ridiculous how far you can stretch 20k or even less if you stay out of the cities and know where to look. Early on, it might be that you want to work more than 8 hours a day (or more) even if you can get your work done - finding new work, building passive income, upgrading your paying jobs, etc. But I also will recommend the book "The 4 Hour Work Week" to you as well, because while not all of it is useful or on track, plenty is. Part of the benefit of being a freelancer is developing your career to the point you can take long vacations or get good enough to work less hours. Fridays I have a weekly report I do that requires a lot of specialty writing - and so it comes out to about $48.50 an hour on average, and three hours and I'm done (or sometimes two)...so why should I work another 5 for $15-20 an hour? For me Fridays are fiction, passive income, or vacation. Enjoying the benefits is critical to long term success. Yeah, parents can be the toughest critics. But you only get one life, and the old way just isn't working anymore.

    I think this is the first time I've had back to back votes for a blog topic, so I'll get right on that. Thanks for commenting!

  5. As usual, great post. I'd recommend Peter Bowerman's book, "The Well Fed Writer," for those wanting to learn how to find private clients. It's a good guide for the novice and can be applied to more than just copywriting.

  6. Wow=) That's quite a post, will definitely recommend it to some of my friends/skillful writers, who still hesitate to become freelance writers! =)

  7. Hi Prudence, always great to hear from you! That's actually one of the books I'm going to recommend on the next blog post, so well spotted!