The Truth About Freelance Writing: What a Writing Career is Really LikeThere 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.