Day in the life of a freelance writer?
March 24, 2011 3:38 PM   Subscribe

Day in the life of a freelance writer? Details inside!

I'm in my mid-twenties, living in an urban area in Canada, and I hate my job. Worse, it's the job I'm trained for and, really, the only one I know how to do. It's in a very small industry and I'm not sure I'd be able to get work outside my industry even if I wanted to try.

What I'd honestly like to do is try my hand at freelancing. My husband makes enough money to pay the rent, so we won't starve even if I do quit my (very low-paying) full time job. So this isn't really a "should I do it?" question, although any advice for or against that would be appreciated.

What I'd really like to know is exactly what the life of a freelance writer looks like. All the information I can find online is either tongue-in-cheek, on sites obviously bent on selling "how to make millions from home!" books, or from over five years ago. So:

1. How do you find work? How often is there work? Do you use guru.com and the like?

2. How do the stress levels compare to whatever desk job you left (if you did)?

3. What do your days look like?

4. Did you ever start making enough money to pay the rent? How long did it take you to make it to certain financial milestones ($1000 a month? $2000?)? Did you ever manage it?

Really, any honest information would be useful at this point.
posted by anonymous to Work & Money (22 answers total) 44 users marked this as a favorite
 
I'm a full-time freelancer. I mostly write for the web, occasionally for print (magazines and small newspapers), and never on fiction projects. The landscape of a freelancer's day changes dramatically based on what kind of writing they do.

I make about 1/4th what I used to, have no benefits, and cannot afford to take time off. There are no sick days or paid vacation days. I have developed the ability to make an astonishing variety of filling and nutritious meals based on two or three cheap ingredients. I aim for a per-meal cost of 50 cents or less. I have become quite the frugality ninja.

Luckily I'm a single adult with no children to care for. And I have extremely cheap rent, as well as an understanding landlord, who takes work in trade.

I am constantly juggling projects and contracts. I have some business friends who send me work when I find it (and vice versa). I have one main client, who I found through a Craigslist ad. I also have a list of non-writing work, which I slot in as I have time to do it. Basically it's a patchwork of up to 10 revenue streams per month.

I was able to transition somewhat gradually from another work-at-home job with flexible hours. So I can't really say when I hit my first $1,000/month. It was within the first month or two, though. (It had to be - I don't have a working spouse to help support me. Sharpens the wit, it does.)

You will be shocked at how much self-motivation and organization you will have to muster. The actual act of sitting down and writing is, by my estimation, by far the easiest part of the day. I say this as someone who bangs out an average of 3,200 words per day divided between my many projects.

Is it stressful? Yes, you come to miss things you always took for granted, like a regular paycheck arriving on a set schedule, the ability to zone out for a few hours and still get paid for it, health care, paid vacation, etc.

That's the down side.

The up side? It's the best fucking thing ever, I am literally working my dream job - the dream job I have wanted ever since I was a little girl - and my heart would break if I ever had to go back to a "real job."
posted by ErikaB at 4:07 PM on March 24, 2011 [7 favorites]


(Gosh, your question has been up for an hour and I'm the only respondent? There's a lesson for you in what the life of a freelancer is like. If you'd posted this during business hours, the AskMe "We Should Be Working But We're Farting Around Online Instead" Freelancer Brigade woulda been all over it!)

Anyway I realized I forgot to add my standard advice to aspiring freelancers, which is to start doing the thing you want to freelance at now, while you're still employed.

If you want to be a professional blogger, start writing a blog. If you want to be a website designer, design websites. If you want to be a fiction author, start writing fiction. etc.

This helps build your portfolio, gives you a track record you can point to, sharpens your craft, and helps build the time management and motivational skills that a freelancing career requires.
posted by ErikaB at 4:28 PM on March 24, 2011 [2 favorites]


I'm a full-time freelancer, but only part-time of that is writing.
I'm always at work. If I don't have an active paying gig, I'm pitching editors, writing up pitches, researching ideas, networking, etc. I can't afford to wait for inspiration to strike.

Mediabistro is a fairly useful site--read the forums, but I don't think that you need to join the Advanced thing to get the benefit of the collective wisdom.

I never use any of those sites--maybe CL, but most of my work comes from editors I pitched, relationships I developed, networking, etc.

Is it stressful? I usually have a number of projects at the same time, and I try to keep my priorities straight, but I can't afford to turn down most paying work.

If you want to give it a shot, start with local publications on a subject that you know cold--a story that only you could write. (Mine was about how academics could get jobs as consultants on TV and film.)
posted by Ideefixe at 4:29 PM on March 24, 2011 [1 favorite]


My favorite forum is The Article Writing Forum. Parts of it are free, parts of it are subscription-based, but the subscription is definitely worth it. If you're looking into developing a full-time income from freelance writing, this place is packed with valuable suggestions from seasoned professionals. There's even a critique section where you can upload your work for feedback.

Textbroker is a good place to start. You can sign up for an account there and get started writing immediately. You initially submit a sample and they rank it on a scale from 1-5. The higher the ranking, the higher your per-word rate. Most of the textbroker stuff is SEO spam, though, which can get a little tiring to write after a while.

I mainly write for Demand Media Studios which produces content for the trails.com, livestrong.com, cracked.com, etc. brands. You have to submit a resume and a writing sample and some evidence that you are an expert in your field. Articles start at around $15 for 400-500 words. Mini-articles can be had for $7.50. The editors are picky and they do expect professionalism. Webinars and a Writers' Resource Center help you develop your skills.

I could go on and on with other content mills - there are dozens!

Locally, you really need to market yourself. Offer to write and publish newsletters for local businesses. Attend trade shows and try to drum up business that way. Honestly, face-to-face meetings are like gold. Develop a personal web site. Do direct mail postcards to small businesses in the area outlining your services.

Ma Mail me if you have questions - I've got a crabby toddler to tend to now!
posted by Ostara at 4:41 PM on March 24, 2011


I am not a freelancer anymore. I left the job because - for me - it sucked so bad, and my writing was starting to suck, too. My ethics had already taken a long freefall. To answer your questions:

How do you find work? How often is there work? Do you use guru.com and the like?

In order: Networks, cold-calling type stuff, and regular gigs like columns; there was generally enough work to occupy myself with, the question you need to ask yourself is quality vs time vs money; hell no I didn't use websites like that.

How do the stress levels compare to whatever desk job you left (if you did)?

High. Not as high as some "Real" jobs I've had, but out of ten, I would rate it at around a seven, especially when you're jsut starting out. Magazines etc fold all the time; you won't get any money from them. Organisations of all stripes can be months late in paying you, or not pay you the right amount etc. You're constantly juggling your ability to hassle for money with the chances of it affecting your future work offers from wherever. Deadlines are deadlines; you can't miss these. If you do it more than once the odds are good you will no longer get work from that source. You're often dealing multiple publications in an almost-cold-calling type sense which is very fraught. New editorial relationships can be tricky, and - luckily this only happen to me twice - but if somebody really rips you a new arsehole when you send them in a piece, it can be quite stressful dealing with not only the criticism of your writing itself, but also whether it's worth pursuing that relationship and whether the criticism is right or you should fight for your piece etc.

3. What do your days look like?

As already mentioned this will vary dramatically based on what kind of writing you do. My days would typically be broken into discrete chunks, things like:

Going to the state library or trawling internet for research
Emailing editors/subeditors drafts, pitches, clarifications for work etc
Actual writing
Substantial edits as opposed to edits-as-you-go and rewrites
Interviews in person or by phone
Typing up transcripts of interviews
Writing invoices and emailing/mailing
Following up on invoices
Logging expenses and basic accountkeeping
I've probably forgotten a couple of other things.

4. Did you ever start making enough money to pay the rent? How long did it take you to make it to certain financial milestones ($1000 a month? $2000?)? Did you ever manage it?

Yes I did. I started out as a casual hobby whilst in uni and deliberately expanded it as I was going through my honours year. By time I left I was earning enough to scrape together a living. Earning potential is decent if you work hard, network, and pitch well for places that pay well. You may not want to write for the kind of places that pay well sometimes. This will frustrate you when you see fellow colleagues writing shitty shit for shitty publications and getting paid more for it - and their name up in lights. Successful freelancing is by and large not really about writing ability, forget that. It's mostly like running any kind of small business. If you can string a sentence together that's about enough and being the next Faulkner can oft-times be more of a liability than an asset. People who think they're great writers are generally bad at meeting their briefs and listening to their editors.

Also, you will need good small-business management skills. You need to know how to do your tax, claim expenses, monitor in and outgoings etc.

Also, you don't mention what your qualifications are. I had a great portfolio, experience in broadcast media and an honours degree from a great university in the topics I was primarily writing about it. If you start from scratch, you're probably gonna have to start for free, unless you want to do corporate work not journalism - which I actually recommend, the pay is generally great in comparison to publications and big companies are slow to pay but reliable when they do so.

Finally, I sense - like a lot of people interested in this job - a little bit of naivety from you. Only a little bit, and the fact you're even asking this question is a good sign. The life of a "writer" is not glamorous. It's mostly grubby, can be depressing and at times very lonely. Calling yourself a writer does have a certain glamor to it, I grant you, and there are some good perks if you get into reviewing. But they are perks that come at the expense of a hell of a lot of stuff. All the free movies you want is no help when your phone is about to be cut off and you really really need to go to the doctor and buy some medicine but someone's not cutting you the three grand cheque you deserve for work you did five months ago.

Honestly? This is a really bad idea. There is nothing to stop anyone - anyone from beginning a freelancing career whilst holding down a job. The notion that suddenly quitting and printing up a bunch of cards that say "freelancer" will turn you into a writer is wrong. It takes practice, hard work, and time. Quitting your job will not make this easier, it will make it harder. Thing of it like a plane taking off. It's not like a helicopter; it can't just lift off the ground, it needs to go along the runway, getting faster and faster until finally it's ready to fly, at which point it's going so fast it's almost flying anyway.

If you want to be a freelancer, start freelancing, and enjoy the security your job gives you to pick the right pieces that you want to do, rather than the two-dollar-whore experience that requiring the money and just starting out will give you; you will end up taking anything and that's bad.
posted by smoke at 4:47 PM on March 24, 2011 [12 favorites]


Also: don't write for content mills; it will destroy your soul, and any writing ability you once possessed shortly after. Those places pay like utter shit, and they generally get what they pay for. Don't become a statistic!

If you can, write for an agency with a stable of content specialists, or directly for the client. It's much less exploitative.
posted by smoke at 4:49 PM on March 24, 2011 [6 favorites]


Okay, crabby toddler has been handed off to her daddy.

I find more than enough work - I sometimes have to turn down work.

Since I have kids, I work during nap time and after they've gone to bed. My schedule is kind of crazy that way.

I enjoy deadlines, so I don't find writing stressful.
posted by Ostara at 4:50 PM on March 24, 2011


I am supposed to be working on my freelance project due tomorrow, but obviously I have the attention span of a gnat. As a heads up, it varies widely, especially when you are starting out. But I am now into this at 2.25 years.

How I find clients:

I sent letters of introduction to companies that write or have projects similar to what I write (in the beginning). Something along the lines of To Company X, do you work with freelance/independent writers. I am a freelance blah blah and specialize in blah blah. Bullet points describing a few projects/type of work that I do.

This approach got me work, starting in the first year as a freelancer. People may reply to your email anywhere from a month to several months later. Also, I got work from former contacts (tell people that you may have worked with that you are leaving your job).

What works even better for me now is believe it or not, linkedin. I filled out a detailed profile (included my former employers where I wrote similar material), listed the types of projects that I do. I also included a link to my webpage so that they could contact me. To be honest, this has worked the best for me. By the time these companies find me, they are looking for someone with the exact same specialties, they know my rate, etc.

I have never used guru or other bidding type sites. Seems odd to bid on projects, but YMMV.


Stress

This really, really varies and I need to emphasize that it is now stress but a different kind of stress. During year 1 and 2 I often panicked about $ (would they pay on time? What if I find/found no work?) Even though you may drown in work for 2 months, you may only have a small amount a few months later. I don’t think anyone can understand this unless they go through it – it may not be a concern for you, though, if you have another salary (sounds like you do...it is just hard to do that all the time).

By the way, now I have waaaaay too much work. I feel obligated to finish projects, get tight timelines, and the stress is very high. Put it this way…if you are at a job and mess up, they usually keep you. Freelancing…you may never work with a company again (often times, it isn’t you, but the project only lasts for a few months). So you feel obligated to ALWAYS do your best (not that everyone should not do that).

I am going to emphasize again that stress will be there, in some ways worse than before. But it is a different kind. However, I no longer 1) have office politics, 2) don’t have to commute, 3) may have several days/weeks off, 4) can pick my schedule (to some degree). I never did well in the cube and it is far less draining to deal with people each day. To be honest, I will never ever go back.


What the Days look like.

Varies widely, even from month to month. Right now I am working all the time, including weekends.

By the way, when I do not have work lined up, I do something. Send emails to potential clients. Send emails to clients I worked with in the past, etc.

Making enough $ to pay rent.

I always made enough, even at the start (during the first year, I made ~ 2/3rd of what I made as an employee, but that was a monthly average). However, this is a warning – make sure your clients pay (hound them if they are several months late and don’t keep working with slow payers…that is how I work, at least). I can’t emphasize this enough because in my first few months when I just started I finished several projects but did not see the money for at least 6 months (good thing I had that savings buffer). If I had a client like this again, I would followup much earlier and drop them like a hot potato if it continued. Please note, though, that I have always been paid so it isn’t that bad. I just don’t have the patience for companies that act like this.


I'm now making much more than I made as an employee. I can discuss specifics if you want to memail me, but I am not going to print what I get paid here. Just a hint, though (I strongly believe this is the key and this is what I do now). Don't take it unless you think it will pay your hourly rate. It will cost you $ to take lower paying projects. I post on my website what my hourly rate is. Think about it - you don't go into a store and start bidding on prices for an item, nor do you start arguing about the price with the cashier.

For a rate, I actually calculate 2.5 X what my hourly rate was as an employee. You will not be working 40 hours a week (generally) when you start out, by the way -- because you will be spending some time sending out emails, etc., looking for projects. Over time I have increased the rate when I get too busy. I will probably raise it again, soon.

You really should have at least a few months worth of savings, always if you are freelancing. This way you don't panic and take the low paying work -- it takes the stress and edge off .


I did start by doing this fulltime; I called up a few former coworkers and had 1 potential client lined up, and then I quit my job. I would never be motivated to find clients if I had an employer with a pay check as a cushion, but that's me.
posted by Wolfster at 5:20 PM on March 24, 2011 [5 favorites]


The other night at a party, I met a former reality TV star who said she needed superstar journalists for her service journalism website. When you hear this kind of thing, it is not like when startups are looking for superstar Ruby on Rails programmers. These freelance writer employers are not exactly hungering to pay someone $100K/year.

She e-mails to ask what my rate is. I said, how much you offering? She goes, "Twenty-five dollars an article." I said I could remember a time when Freelance Writers got like $250. "Haha," she writes back, "writers do get paid such shitty wages now."

You should check out this article from Slate about how much the field has changed. "The economics of the freelance life seem worse than ever," writes Ben Yagoda, "and they were never good." But he wrote that in 2005 before the Content Mills came on the scene to pour out low-cost search engine bait.

Like a lot of job titles, the Freelance Writer feels like a description of something from before 2000 where the romance is still hanging around but the lifestyle has completely changed. I'm halfway out of that world but if I wanted to make a serious go at it I would probably hit up a bunch of rich corporations or computer companies to do material for them, like what Smoke says. I know people who seem to be doing great working on stuff for PayPal or the health industry.

Everywhere else--forget it. The legendary journalist Ken Layne has said about traditional media freelancing:
"Find something else to do. Media — especially blogging — is saturated. This is not about talent. I know many talented and hard-working people who cannot find a paying job … adults with house payments and little kids. There are too many people willing to this stuff without pay. You can’t compete with free, not if you need to pay rent and buy groceries.

"If I was 20 or 25 today, I would not pursue writing. Not for a living. For art, maybe. For fun. But not for a living. It’s just a road of heartbreak and backstabbing and desperation."
posted by Victorvacendak at 5:32 PM on March 24, 2011 [6 favorites]


Okay I obviously don’t want to do my project, but it will be no more metafilter for me after this tonght.

I just saw Smoke’s comment and wanted to elaborate on something that he said.
Smoke is absolutely correct in regards to “anyone” can slap on the label.

OP, you also don’t mention your background in regards to writing.

If you don’t have industry type samples that you can show, you may want to consider becoming employed for a company as a writer.

It isn’t as hard as you think it is …I followed the advice here (to my own ask me a few years ago) and did get hired as a writer for a company. To be honest, I only had to take a writing test.

There are many, many reasons that you may want to do this. For example, 1) watch how the project is managed (because they can go wrong, very wrong…you want to try to avert that), 2) acquire industry contacts (my first 6 months were projects given to me from a former work contact), 3) the company name/experience means something in terms of getting similar projects, 4) you have the samples to show that you are not just hanging out a shingle. In addition, to be honest, there are companies that will pay good rates and this work is in certain niches. The only way they will hire you for a freelance gig is if you have that former experience (usually, but not always….but put the odds in your favor, especially when you start out).

You may want to do a bit of information interviewing to find out what matches your background and what pays. I will be honest and say that I did this many years ago. I love science and potentially yes, I could write about any biology-related material. However, I found out that some industries/niches paid more than others and that was the job I went after. YMMV.
posted by Wolfster at 5:43 PM on March 24, 2011 [3 favorites]


I work from home. All of my recent paying gigs have been freelance writing, mostly comic scripts with children's book pitching and a screenplay thrown in the mix. All of that paid work has been of the work-for-hire variety.

1. All of my successful freelance work has been a result of personal contacts and recommendations. A friend of mine was an editor for a magazine I did scripts for; that same friend brought me in on a graphic novel project several years later; the husband of an old coworker recommended me for the screenplay job; my old boss recommended me for the children's book project. My career started when I was working full-time as a production assistant at NYC animation studio -- I pitched and sold episode ideas for about a year in my free time, and then later wrote several full episodes. That absolutely greased the wheels for all the work I've done since, and played a big part in teaching me the discipline I would need to write professionally as a career.

I have tried to pursue a few jobs through CraigsList. That did not go well for me personally, but I have friends who've ended up with crappy but decently-paying ghostwriter jobs that way.

2. Freelance is absolutely more stressful for me than my old desk job, but then, I worked in a creative field on a show that I really loved staffed by talented and interesting people. I really miss being in an office sometimes, I miss the stability of a regular paycheck, I miss being in the middle of things instead of having to make a deliberate effort to network and stay in touch with old cohorts, I miss not feeling like a hermit, and I miss being financially self-sufficient.

That said, I do NOT miss all the busy work, the need to fill time so that I don't "look bad" by leaving early when my work is done, the office drama, or the thankless administrative tasks that people only notice when I mess them up. I would not want to go back to working an office job unless I could re-enter at a much higher level in a completely creative position -- if a friend got their own show and needed writers, I'd be on board, but I'll never do administrative work again unless I have pressing financial reasons to do so.

On the whole, I prefer freelance to the office, absolutely. But the discipline is really hard. Imposing my own structure on my time is really hard. Telling myself that I'm not a giant failure when I let a couple days slip by without making progress is really hard. Crunching on breathtakingly dull work-for-hire -- which, of course, I need to make SUPER INTERESTING on the page, because that's my job -- for weeks and months on end is really hard. Feeling like I should ALWAYS be working and never really being able to escape from that guilt is really, REALLY hard.

3. When I'm on deadline, I generally try to be up and drinking my coffee by 9AM. Realistically, I spend an hour or two futzing around online, answering emails, playing iphone games, whatever. If I'm hard at work by 10AM I give myself a hearty pat on the back. If I don't get around to it by noon, I try not to feel like too much of a lazy asshole.

On a good day, I'll sit on the couch with my laptop and bang out a few thousand words over the course of several hours, making enough progress to feel like I can chill with my household and do fun things in the evening after dinner. On most days, I force myself to remain physically in front of the keyboard, turn off my internet with Freedom, and peck out bits and pieces all afternoon and into the night, often losing big chunks of time to mindlessly browsing my iTunes library. On bad days, when I manage something like 300 words between 7 and 9PM after having struggled to concentrate since waking up at 10AM, I wonder what the hell I think I'm doing with my life and bemoan my own terrible flaws as a writer and a human being, annoying the hell out of my husband and roommate in the process. On the very worst days, I rewrite 10,000 words of screenplay because my deadline was three days ago, drinking endless cups of coffee until I finally make it through the final scene at 5AM, knowing I'll have to wake up in three hours to proofread what I've just forced myself to type before I send it off to the client, and praying that it's at least comprehensible English.

4. Like you, I'm married to someone who can afford our living expenses when I'm having a dry spell. When my most recent full-time job fell through (after the show was prematurely cancelled) I had just signed a contract to work on an original graphic novel. Ostensibly, my working from home was to enable progress on that book, while I earned cash on the side to supplement our household income. Because of this, I've never been super-aggressive about hunting down freelance, and I think my pay averaged around $15,000-$20,000 a year at its peak.

However, I would stress that I whenever I DID have a freelance project due, it took up pretty much all of my time, and my GN would be put on hiatus until after the deadline had passed. At one point I was co-writing two graphic novels simultaneously, with less than three-months to do the pitches, write outlines, complete both of the scripts and make any revisions. That pretty much destroyed me while it was going on.

The key thing is that I have NEVER had anything remotely like a monthly salary. Maybe I could have managed it if I was more willing to write things I don't care about and more aggressive about finding work, but in my experience any income arrives in bursts -- $5000 for one script, $450 for another, $2,500 for an advance on a project, etc, with months and months often passing in between. Big clients pay me promptly and well; smaller clients often need to be harassed for months until they get back to me. I have one friend who's been waiting for one check for over a year.

I don't mean to be alarming or discouraging with all of this. My goals and standards have often been creative ones rather than financial ones, and consequently I earn less than some people. If I wanted to earn ANYTHING like what I did when I worked full time, I would have to dedicate FAR more energy to pursuing lucrative gigs and churning out content than I am now, and would have to completely abandon the original project that's supposedly my reason for working from home in the first place.

TL;DR -- Don't do this for the money. And if you DO want to try and make a living wage, understand that you'll have to work very hard on projects you may or may not care about. If you don't already have solid and desirable contacts, you'll have to take a lot of gigs blind, meet with crazy and/or unreasonable clients, and risk never getting paid for whatever work you produce. This is the kind of job that you probably shouldn't do if you think you could be happy doing just about anything else.
posted by Narrative Priorities at 5:46 PM on March 24, 2011 [3 favorites]


Drinking, crying a lot.

Actually, no, but it is stressful (either too little work or too much) and a tremendous amount of hard work (long, strange hours) for far less money than you would get fronting up to a normal job. Lots of pressure on you to perform in all aspects and the writing part is only a small fraction of what you actually have to do and be good at doing. In fact, it's one of the least important things. Having a lucrative area (i.e. science) is the way to go - it's not the path I went down and I regret that.

I am moving out of freelance writing/editing and into another field that is less competitive, more niche, and more lucrative so that I can write as a hobby.
posted by mleigh at 5:55 PM on March 24, 2011 [1 favorite]


All my life I dreamed of being a full time freelancer. I worked hard for 30+ years towards that goal, to retire and write non-fiction and medical articles. I have outlines of hundreds of projects and now, the state of journalism is nothing but a pile of steaming crap. The quality of websites with pseudo-information has *spelling* errors in them, there is no oversight in the twenty-first century, and plagiarism is rampant.

For example, the Dr. Oz show is the most poorly written show in history IMHO, and people watch it without grasping the absurdity of the content, even his website had "Lorem Ipsum" in one of his placeholders. (ACK ACK ACK!)

I ragged one of the mods here about SEO writing, defended it like a child with a candy bar, but it too feels like I have to eat a shit sandwich when I log in.

Nobody cares that you are a good writer. You can craft a deliriously excellent piece and get nothing but a few pennies per word, unless you know someone that knows someone that knows someone.

A cynic you say? You betcha. Now I write boring newsletters and whore myself out to content farms, and that my friend is the American Dream in the 21st century.

If you get lucky, and I really hope you do, those fine folks above this post have said it all, do it at your own risk.

.
posted by ~Sushma~ at 6:56 PM on March 24, 2011 [2 favorites]


I tried freelancing about 10 years ago--part-time, while I was working a full-time job--and it was pretty hard. It's definitely not for everyone. I'm also in Canada, where (it seems, based on my experiences at the time) freelancing/telecommuting opportunities are not as great as in the US. Also, I'm not very disciplined when left to my own devices and need some structure in my day, and I didn't have a real niche.

What I found worked for me was technical writing. My previous experience had been in corporate training, and I'd written some training materials before. I started applying for tech writing jobs and landed my first one about six years ago.

You don't say what your industry is, but can you turn your expertise in that industry into your niche as a freelancer? Or if not that, you can also look for jobs with companies in that industry. Sometimes I browse postings at workopolis, Service Canada, monster.ca, etc. for "writer", and find writing jobs in many, many markets: software, gaming, sales, construction, medicine, aerospace, and more. You might also want to look at positions for copy writers and copy editors, to get your foot in the door.

BTW If you can write in other languages, especially French, that's a bonus.
posted by methroach at 7:24 PM on March 24, 2011


I took a stab at freelance writing this year. Sort of by luck and because I had a really diverse work history that involved related work, I got a fairly regular decent paying gig writing blog entries and articles for a website. It wasn't enough to pay all my bills, but it was enough to keep me from starving. It was a strong start. It really did just fall in my lap, but then I hustled my butt off every day. But I loved it at first, and it was great to be writing and getting paid to write.

Then I started finding other freelance work around it-- some of it was writing work, some marketing, some social media, or a combination. I found it most off Craigslist, but some by networking and marketing myself a bit. I also wrote a bit for Demand Studios, too, but couldn't swing it after a couple months. oh-so-boring! I broke $1,000 right away with the freelance writing and other writing related work, but it's been hard making more than $2000 and frankly, after about a year, I feel pretty burnt out and thinking about looking for a regular job again. I don't feel burnt out so much with the work-- I still love writing-- but with the constant hustle and the lack of co-workers and work community.


That being said, the flexibility has been awesome. I work probably 3-6 hours per day/4 days per week, though often more than that doing research, writing invoices, editing, etc. I have time to take on more work, but overwhelmed with juggling lots of jobs, so that may be why I'm not making more money.

I'm fast when I get down to the work, but I feel like I waste a lot of time just hanging out online or whatever. It's fun being able to sleep in, or hang out in coffee shops all day, or go to yoga at 2pm while all the other grown ups are at work, but then again, the lack of structure kind of gets old.

My partner also has a regular job, so that's helped with the anxiety about making me great money, but he doesn't make enough to support us both. But it certainly has helped when a check has been late or I'm sick and can't work for a few days or a week.
posted by Rocket26 at 7:25 PM on March 24, 2011


I'm surprised by all the negative posts so far. I feel compelled to do some (unpaid) writing and counter it all.

I'm a full-time freelance writer. I've been one since 2004. The first year I didn't make too much money, under $20,000 (U.S.). The next year I made a little more than that. Seven years later, I'm still not super-rich, but each year I have earned more than the year before. So far this year my sales have been averaging more than $4,000 a month. I feel as if I'm earning more than I would in my city than if I left the freelance world and got a salaried job.

To make it, I found I need to go to where the money is. The money isn't on Guru.com. Don't bother with those sites unless you need to bulk up your portfolio, and even then I wouldn't bother. It would be smarter to do pro bono work for a non-profit or something. There is some but not much money in blogging, journalism, or the like. The money is basically in the business world. Think advertising, marketing, PR. Those areas are at least good places to start. I agree that a lot of the freelance writing advice you find is bad, but one of the better books (but still flawed) is "The Well-Fed Writer."

1. How do you find work?

You pound the pavement.

Start out by doing tons and tons of cold calls. E-mail people. Go to networking functions. Meet people in person whenever you can. Get your name out there.

You should set up a website. But don't worry about SEO too much or Google Ad Words. Although sometimes new clients find my website through search engines, I use my website mostly as a calling card. I send prospects the link once I have identified them as possibly needing my services.

For this to get off the ground, you need to actively search for clients. Search all the time. Remember, you're not really a freelance writer. You are a small business owner who sells writing services. Go find clients. Don't wait for them to find you.

2. How do the stress levels compare to whatever desk job you left (if you did)?

I haven't had a salaried job in a while, but now that I've settled into the freelance lifestyle, the stress level is lower from what I remember. People get stressed when they're not in control. When you're the boss, you're in control. And if you lose your job, your screwed. If you lose a client, you have others. And you'll just go find another one.

I really don't miss office politics. That's stressful.

3. What do your days look like?

I keep hours of 8:30-5. I could work most anytime, but I want to match up with my wife's job and my son's day care.

From 8:30 until 10, I check e-mail, read industry blogs, invoice clients, and do general administrative tasks. From 10-12, I do billable writing. I take an hour lunch. More administration and goofing off from 1-1:30. Then the rest of day until 5, I do billable writing, but I try to devote an hour to marketing, be it calling people, following up, preparing bids, researching new markets, etc. I also take little 10 minute breaks throughout the day.

Not all days are the same. I try to get out now and then and meet people for coffee, go to networking meetings, and so on. Sometimes I need to go to meet clients and prospects.

If I don't have billable writing to do, I do marketing.

So, should you do it? Of course, that's only a question you can answer, but since your husband can help you get through the lean early years, what the hell, I'll say, "Yes, you should do it."
posted by Leontine at 7:53 PM on March 24, 2011 [5 favorites]


I'm fairly new to freelance writing and still doing it only part time, but here's what I've learned so far.

1. Jobs come from networking, sending out queries and letters of introduction, and basically marketing yourself and your skills anyway you can. Sometimes you can find a decent job online but it's like a needle in a haystack. Craigslist is 99% crap as are most "job listings" for freelance writers with maybe one or two exceptions. Avoid content mills and bidding sites like the plague. They are nothing but a colossal waste of time.

2. So far, I love freelancing, but I still have my day job, which sucks in comparison, but also pays my bills, so that probably colors my view of things.

3. I spend the beginning of each writing day doing the easy stuff, checking e-mail, reading helpful blogs, etc. Then I'll work on my marketing (the largest chunk of my day as a beginner). Then, when I'm really awake in the afternoon, I'll work on any writing projects I have. Starting out you'll be spending 25% of your time doing administrative stuff and 75% marketing, then it will go to 25% admin, 50% marketing, 25% actual writing and finally 25% admin, 25% marketing, 50% writing.

4. Not paying the rent yet but I'm starting small. My first goal is to make enough money to quit my day job (no one to support me, sadly). I set a goal date to do that, then an income target for each month. I find you can feel in control of your income though keeping really organized with your marketing efforts.

Bonus advice:

-Check out therenegadewriter.com. It's one of the absolute best resources for non-fiction freelance writers on the internet, and I think I've probably checked them all out by now.

-Set your rates, right away, and you won't have to waste time with low-ball gigs.

-Be flexible. You might want to start off with just one kind of writing (e.g. consumer mag writing), but keep an eye toward expanding when you're comfortable (into books, copywriting, trade mags, whatever).

-Jennifer Mattern at allfreelancewriting.com (another really good site) sells a great "get started" kit called the Query-Free Freelancer. I forget how much it costs, but it's totally worth it.
posted by Jess the Mess at 8:18 AM on March 25, 2011 [2 favorites]


Having read over the replies on this post, particularly Leontine, I'm reminded of another point I probably should have made.

Freelancing rewards extroverted, confident, eager to self-promote types. If you're comfortable making cold calls and constantly selling yourself and your services, you'll have fewer problems with earning a steady income.

If freelancing appeals to you because you're a little introverted and shy...it's not that you CAN'T be a successful freelancer without being a great salesman and marketer. It just makes it harder. And if you (like me) sometimes have to struggle with making phone calls and sending queries and keeping up with contacts instead of sitting in the living room freaking out, there will always be people like Leontine making you feel like you're a weirdo loser who doesn't work hard enough.

For me, it's worth feeling like a loser to do what I love. Only you can do your own calculations regarding this.
posted by Narrative Priorities at 8:24 AM on March 25, 2011


I would never insult someone by implying they're a "weirdo loser" and frankly I'm insulted by the suggestion that I would.

My post was to explain what it takes (in my experience) to make a living as a freelance writer. Just because someone doesn't approach freelance writing from my perspective, it doesn't mean they're a loser.

I also wouldn't describe myself as "eager to self-promote." I remember the first networking functions I went to, I felt awkward, nervous and uncomfortable. I had no idea what to say to anyone. I remember the first cold call I ever made. It took me an hour to work up the nerve to make the call, and I was relieved when I got a voice mail. But I made the call. And the next time was just a little easier, and then the next time was again just a little easier. It takes practice.

This stuff can still make me nervous and uncomfortable, but so what? It's part of my job. I may not be "eager to self-promote," but I do what I have to do because I want to make a living at this.

To the original poster, to make it as a freelance writer, you should be a good writer, but the truth of the matter is you don't have to be the best writer. Suppose Mr. Jones at XYZ Co. needs a writer for a project. He could choose:

a) Sally, an OK writer who met him at a networking function and followed up with him every few months, or...

b) John, an excellent writer whom Mr. Jones has no idea exists because John has never made contact with Mr. Jones.

Who is Mr. Jones going to pick?

To reiterate my earlier post, I believe you need to approach writing like a business, and all businesses do marketing. If you don't, it doesn't mean you're a loser. But it will probably mean your income is wildly inconsistent and you'll face harder challenges in keeping your career alive.

I personally have grown to enjoy the business side of freelance writing. I recently finished a project writing a series of boring sales sheets for a client. If I was a full-time employee, I would have been miserable. But I was fine with the job, because I love pleasing my clients and I was growing my business.
posted by Leontine at 11:25 AM on March 25, 2011




I would never insult someone by implying they're a "weirdo loser" and frankly I'm insulted by the suggestion that I would.

My post was to explain what it takes (in my experience) to make a living as a freelance writer. Just because someone doesn't approach freelance writing from my perspective, it doesn't mean they're a loser.


Apologies -- I didn't mean to imply any kind of ill intent or insult on your part. I should have made that clearer.

What I was trying to communicate was what has been, for me and for the freelancers that I know, a major obstacle in staying positive and productive. The decision to become a full-time freelancer can have major emotional consequences as well as financial ones. Working in isolation for weeks or months on end can make you lose perspective on your own skills and success; working as a part of a community gives you ample opportunity to compare yourself unfavorably to other people, if that's the kind of thing you're inclined to do. The latter doesn't mean that your colleagues are jerks or think that you're a loser -- it just means that you're a human being who can sometimes see other people's strengths as evidence of your perceived failings.

There's a phenomenon that gets talked about a fair amount regarding Facebook. Many people, either intentionally or no, use the site to broadcast a somewhat idealized version of themselves and their lives -- Their kids are cute and brilliant and an endless joy! They're kicking ass on this project for work! They went out every night last week! They spent two hours doing yoga at the gym! Of course, plenty of not-so-impressive things are going on in their lives as well, but those events are rarely shared. As such, particularly when you're feeling kind of down on yourself to begin with, reading your Facebook news feed can make it seem like everyone except you is deliriously happy and super successful.

In my experience, freelancers are PARTICULARLY prone to a professional version of this phenomenon. A writer finds out that a colleague averages 10,000 words a day, and feels ashamed of their comparatively meager progress. An artist reads about a comics creator who finished their graphic novel in six months and wonders what the hell they're doing wrong. Of course, those individuals probably have OTHER areas that they're strong in, but you're rarely seeing a complete picture of the person you're comparing yourself to -- it's easy to feel inferior to someone else's summarized and (often) sanitized version of their work day or their process.

Now, I am ABSOLUTELY not saying that there is any problem in talking about one's own success. I don't think it's bragging. I don't think it's judgmental. I don't think it's something that anyone should feel they can't do. I don't think that you, Leontine, did anything other than write an honest and helpful answer in an askme thread, and I probably shouldn't have singled you out, and wouldn't have if I'd thought about it longer. I was just trying to communicate one particular (and particularly unpleasant) aspect of the freelancer life as I and my friends have experienced it.

This might seem like a strange point to be harping on, and maybe for a lot of people it is. But when one of me freelancer friends spends an hour sitting with me on the couch, wondering aloud why so-and-so can crank through x pages a day when they can only manage x-y, and proceed to lose the better part of a workday to a panic attack about their decision to pass up steady employment to be a freelancer anyway....when I know perfect well that my friend is talented and competent and being needlessly hard on themselves...

Self-doubt looms large in many freelance writers lives, is all. It has a measurable impact on many aspects of their life and work. And it can be incredibly easy to get discouraged. And it seemed worth taking a moment to mention that, in addition to advice about networking and reports on average income.
posted by Narrative Priorities at 5:11 PM on March 25, 2011


Oh, and definitely read this article:Seven Years as a Freelancer Writer, or, How To Make Vitamin Soup which was published in the Awl last summer.
posted by Rocket26 at 6:01 PM on March 26, 2011


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