The Renegade Writer

Can You Make a Good Living as a Freelance Writer Writing Only About What You Love?

The other day I had a mentoring client ask me, “Is it possible to make a living writing only what I’m interested in?”

I’d like to answer that question here, because there’s a lot more to it than meets the eye.

First of all: Yes, if what you’re interested in is technology, health, business, or a few other in-demand areas — you can make a living writing only what you’re interested in.

But for the rest of you, who may love writing about quilting, or butterfly collecting, or bluegrass music, or auto racing — it may be somewhat more difficult to earn a good living writing about these topics.

That said, there are ways to make more money than you would expect writing about topics that you love but are in lesser demand. For example, you can think of ways to slant these topics so they’ll fit into a variety of publications.

For instance: My husband Eric is the news editor at BoardgameGeek.com, and before that he wrote about boardgames for magazines. There are really only one or two paying markets for this interest — so what Eric did was to match the boardgame to the market. He wrote about a game called Primordial Soup for Discover, a game about sheep herding for Sheep! magazine, and a game about fish for a magazine for aquarium enthusiasts.

That’s a smart move! But keep in mind that even so, Eric did also have to write about topics that weren’t particularly interesting to him to keep his income up.

Now, I’m going to make a crazy claim: I make most of my writing income writing about what I’m truly interested in.

How is that?

Well, part of my job as a freelance writer is to find what’s interesting about a particular topic and convey that to readers in a fun, reader-friendly way. My job is to be interested in whatever I’m writing about.

For example, I recently wrote an article for a trade magazine about cold-water carpet extraction. It’s not a topic I would normally be interested in, but my editor was paying me to be interested.

I interviewed three experts in the industry, and really, nothing is more fun than talking to people who are passionate about what they do — even if what they do is clean carpets. One of the interviews was especially fun — it was with a source who said, “I can talk about carpet cleaning all day!”

(By the way, it’s funny — I’ll interview a top celebrity who’s a bore, and then have a great time talking with a sanitation/janitorial expert.)

Freelancers need to be inherently curious about everything. If your goal is to make a living through freelance writing and you’re doing a lot of marketing, it’s a certainty that one day you’ll be presented with an assignment on a topic you don’t love. If you can become interested in that idea, then yes — you’re earning a living writing only about what you’re interested in.

How about you — do you write about topics that don’t interest you just to pay the bills? Do you have any tricks for making yourself interested in a topic you don’t love? [lf]

Jan 24, 2013 Advice, Ideas, Money

39 Responses

  1. I’ve been incredibly lucky in that what I’m really interested in is internet business (not the scammy stuff, but how actual businesses can improve their web presence). As a result, I’ve been able to find more paying work in this field than I can handle. It’s a blast because I get to learn more about the subjects I care about and make money at the same time.

    That said, I know that’s not the case for everyone. What a cool idea that your husband had about matching something like board games to various industries in order to expand the size of his market. I’m sure that anyone who’s in a similar position could use that tip to find their own niche writing opportunities.

    • Rachel says:

      That’s interesting, Sarah, because I would have thought that field is saturated by now. How is that you’ve been able to turn a profit with so many others out there competing for such a small niche?

      • No field is saturated—there’s always work to uncover. You just have to be on many publications’ radars at once so you hit the right place/right time button for at least a couple of those. I find the steepest competition isn’t in the trades but for the national magazines. Those pubs are great for when you have the PERFECT idea and the time to put into several revises (and several months’ wait for a check). I like to have a foot in both those worlds.

  2. Lisa says:

    I started out writing about the things that interested me and the topics I was passionate about but over time branched out – sending queries to other publications that I never thought my byline would appear in. Case in point – I pitched a health-related topic (my interest) to a business magazine. I’ve always thought business magazines were a little dull and couldn’t see myself writing for them, but I did think the topic of the article was interesting and would be interesting to their readers. They accepted the article and gave me a contract as a contributing writer – I now write one post a week for their online component. While I mostly write about health-related topics in my posts, sometimes I write about improving the bottom-line, productivity, time-management, etc. but like Linda, I always end up talking to people who are interested in the topic which then makes me interested in it. Bottom line: you never know where your writing may lead you.

  3. Lisa says:

    This is a GREAT topic and a question I ask myself every single day. Because to be honest, I love writing, but not as much as I love my topic, if that makes sense. If I can’t make a living writing only about what I love, then I might want to branch out into other ways to make money instead of branching out into other topics.

    What if your topic is really broad (like, ya know, for example, parenting)? Do you think that makes it easier to earn a living while sticking (loosely) to your subject?

    • I’m new to the profession, but I’ve been researching it for over ten years. In my opinion, parenting is one of those topics with a lot of market opportunities. It’s like business. There are so many parenting magazines, websites, organizations, and even more that can easily be related to parenting.

  4. Bree Brouwer says:

    Eric’s got the right idea. :)

    I am a geek and wanted to write for geek magazines, websites, blogs, etc. This was a huge mistake in terms of making a living. I’ve made lots of connections this way that may pay off later in life, but certainly aren’t paying with real money now.

    So I’ve taken the same approach Eric has. I’m pushing my interests into article ideas that I hope to pitch. For example, I’m interested in history, so I’m coming up with ideas like “The Joan of Arc Guide to Being Yourself.”

    That being said, it’d be a good idea to also approach the topics you love writing about as more hobbies, and through marketing and making contacts, figure out what you CAN stomach writing about for money, like Linda’s janitorial contacts who made her interested in the article. There is a place for hobby writing, too.

    • Jessie Kwak says:

      Bree—I’ve been doing something similar. I like to write about cycling, but it’s not a very big market for freelance work. I’ve had some luck pitching cycling-related articles to non-cycling magazines, though. For example, right now I’m working on a piece about kids’ bikes and teaching kids to ride for a parenting magazine I’ve written for before.

      Good luck insidiously sneaking geek culture into other nooks and crannies. I love it!

  5. I’m totally with Linda on this one – I write about all kinds of things for high tech, pharma, and financial businesses and ALL of it is interesting. That’s not because I’m a geek (I’m not) but because I love to learn new stuff.

    Talking with engineers or financial experts or biochemists and having them open up and share their expertise is fascinating. I don’t care what the topic is, if your interviewee is an expert then there is potential for a really great conversation. There are so many unsung heroes doing amazing things and it’s a privilege to get an hour of their time to just ask questions and find out what’s going on in the world from their point of view.

    Then, of course, there’s the puzzle you have to solve of how to present something new, or dry, or complex in a readable way. What’s not to love?!

    Finally, having done my undergraduate degree in English Literature, I pretty soon realized that writing only about what you love can just as easily suck all the fun out of it. I don’t think I picked up a serious novel or volume of poetry for about 3 years after I graduated…

  6. Cheryl says:

    I love horses and that’s what I’d love to write about but I quickly discovered that writing for horse magazines is like everything else in the horse industry – it doesn’t pay that well and sometimes not at all. So I moved into other niches and I’ll write about anything where I can get paid. Even horses on occasion! A few weeks ago I saw a Facebook post from a writer friend and fellow horse lover who was all excited about having an article accepted in a regional horse publication that I’m familiar with. I know someone else who had a poorly written article published there and they don’t pay. I asked if they pay yet and she said no. She was doing it just for the writing credit. I think that will be the doom of many writers who only write about what they love – they’ll write for love and not money. Unless as this article says they love technology, business, or health.

  7. Pranav says:

    Research works for me. I love technology, science and business but have taken assignments on human resources etc. If I can get good material on a topic after research, then I become interested automatically.

  8. Tom says:

    In my role as a content marketer I often have to create guest posts and infographics about subjects that are a little dry to put it mildly :) Like you I try and stay positive and curious about these topics.

  9. Very good topic for discussion as I’ve met so many people lately who want to go into full-time freelancing. I work part-time and freelance write as much as I work at my school job. I’ve learned much over the last couple of decades of writing. Discipline yourself to take on new projects. Two of the most difficult articles I’ve ever written were business profiles about companies that provided cold storage (10+ years ago) and a company that made pilings for bridges. Both were boring to me but were published. What that taught me was that I could finish articles on topics I had no interest in. I also relished the challenge of presenting these topics so other people like me would want to read them. With 22 years of writing experience today I’m focusing more on pubs that want profiles of people doing something I’m interested in. I write fast and can produce enough of them to keep me busy and paid.

  10. Interesting article and comments. My antennae perked up with the example of Eric matching the games to a more general market. I’m semi-retired, so I don’t write for publications that don’t pay. If I’m going to write for free, I write for me — on my blog, or guesting on someone else’s blog who has a higher profile than I do.

    Earlier in my career though, I did a lot of industrial and technical copywriting. I have a knack for “translating” engineer-speak into English that anyone can understand, and I took pride in that ability. I also got a lot of work rewriting foreign manufacturers’ installation and operation manuals. Boring? Not on your life! Because I have a natural curiosity about other people’s jobs and how things work, I found writing about something new-to-me stimulating and challenging. And I loved interacting with the clients, freelance photographers, and graphic designers.

  11. I’m struggling with that right now, but I know it’s especially difficult because I’m in the process of negotiating for more money. Low rates make a bland topic excruciatingly dull.

  12. Erica says:

    As a copywriter, I actually try to keep the two separate. I my copywriting gigs as a means to fund the rest of my life. Typically, I evaluate copywriting opportunities on a more strategic basis rather than emotional one.

    By removing the expectation of “I thought I would enjoy this,” I get to delve into the subject matter objectively. And more often than not, I find that I really enjoy what I’m working on and I get a lot out of it.

    This approach also helps me avoid making work the end-all-be-all of my life, which is a bad habit I’m prone to picking up to the detriment of my other interests, relationships and houseplants.

    • Bree Brouwer says:

      Erica, that’s a lot of my mindset, too. I figure if I can make a living by approaching assignments or gigs objectively, I won’t be under this expectation that I have to love everything 100%, and that I’ll be able to financially support the type of writing I DO love 100%.

  13. This is very true. I don’t make money writing about my first interest – intercultural relationships. The niche isn’t big enough. I made money as a freelance writer for 4 years writing about home, garden and technology topics. I had a good working knowledge of all three subjects but it was very mundane work for me. It wasn’t exciting or new. Still, it paid the bills and so I did what I had to do.

  14. Wow, so many comments came in while I was off yesterday as I wasn’t feeling well! Thanks to everyone who added your great insights — I’m glad this post seemed to resonate with so many people!

  15. I think you’ve hit it exactly: If you accept a paid assignment, it’s your job to be interested. It’s the professional in you who is interested. Doesn’t mean you have to skip around the house like you’ve hit the lottery, but the assignment will make you smile (if not laugh) all the way to the bank.

    I’ve tweaked my career over the years to focus on marketing in the space I am interested in writing, and that’s where most of my projects come: Book ghostwriting. Specifically, in the business, self-help, or memoir areas. I enjoy the work. But even if I agree to do a project that is not something I am naturally interested in doing, if I take the project on, I will be interested. Simple as that. I’m interested in doing the best work possible and helping my client have a better project than if she had gone off on her own to write that book. Because I’ve been at this for so long (boy, do I sound old!), I can often provide context or insight that my client hasn’t considered, and this can help the client in marketing the book. All this comes from being “interested,” and loving what I write.

    One thing I would say to writers who aren’t thrilled about writing in an area they don’t really love: Getting paid to write some things you don’t love gives you the means and freedom to write what you do love. So every project you take on that doesn’t make you all tingly, know that the income you get from that project makes things just a bit sweeter down the line as those projects pay your mortgage/rent, insurance, kid’s tuition, vacation expenses, etc.

    I absolutely agree with you. Writers can make a living writing what they love, especially when what they love is doing a good job and being paid well for it.

  16. So far I’ve been able to match writing what I enjoy to the markets that are interested in those topics. But I’m not even close to making “a living” and that’s okay; I still have my day job for a few more years.

    That being said, as I start to branch out in my ideas, I would be interested in writing about topics outside my areas of interest. You just never know who you might meet and what you might learn.

  17. While of course it’s possible to make a good living writing about what you love, I’d encourage EVERY freelancer to remain open to a separate, but related, possibility: that you may—and very possibly will—BECOME interested in a subject that you were, at one time, just writing about for the money.

    A good journalist can become interested in absolutely anything, but when I started working with trade publications, I didn’t really know if that could (or would) be the case with me. Two years later, having interviewed countless business owners in admittedly non-sexy industries, I’ve really learned to love it. I may not be writing groundbreaking, investigative policy pieces, but my work is being read by everyday people who work really hard to keep the lights on at their stores, juggling family life with entrepreneurship. This, to me, is every bit as noble and educational for me as a writer.

  18. Will Morris says:

    I’m so glad to see this article! I blogged about this and have been moderately successful. I can’t wait to do it more. And I would LOVE to work for your husband. That is a great site.

    I think the great thing about being a writer is that you get a free education in the topic of whatever you are writing about. You definitely find out new things that you are interested in that way!

  19. Steve says:

    Whoa, did you open up a can of worms! You mention scouring the world of writing to find out ways to make money. Then there is that classic idea that was drilled into us that if we don’t write about our passion or what inspires us we will end up selling out big time. That is where, for many writers, reality collides full steam against aspirations. Many, many writers find out that their particular passion is not something people are willing to pay money to learn about. So they begin this epic struggle. When they slave for days on a piece with absolutely no inspiration, they sometimes complete a project and get a little cash for it. When they write what they think is a masterpiece about their passion, no publisher may appear fascinated. I’ve written for decades and sold some books, but none of them paid big money or had a great circulation. I know individuals who don’t particularly like to write, but they’re great marketers. They somehow hammer out a draft, maybe get it ghosted by someone, and sell scads of copies. Now who’s the true writer here? I’ve also spent decades helping other aspiring writers get manuscripts into good enough shape that they can get them published. They may sell copies only to close friends or family. When they claim to be writers, should we snarl and say, “Are you kidding me? I only made your drivel halfway readable.” This all gets fairly complicated, but I’m going to let these folks continue to tell people that they’re writers because it really makes them feel worthwhile.

  20. I can’t say enough how true this article is. I wish I could add something intelligent to what’s already been said in the post, but I’m afraid I can’t – Linda’s said it all for me!

    To answer one of the questions you posed at the bottom of your post – “do you write about topics that don’t interest you just to pay the bills? Do you have any tricks for making yourself interested in a topic you don’t love?” – the only thing I can think of to say is this: if you end up writing something you don’t “love” every now and again, think of it as a learning experience. There is something to be learned from every piece you write.

    For instance, I write regularly for a business magazine, and one recent commission was to write an obituary for a businessman who had been well-known in his local area… and man, that was hard. But I learned a lot from it – not least how to conduct interviews in very sensitive situations (for example I had to speak to his widow as well as one of his ex-colleagues). For ages I dreaded picking up the phone, because I didn’t want to cause more hurt and distress than these people had already been through, but I tried to put myself in their shoes and imagine how I’d like to be treated. I practised in my head and out loud what I was going to say and how I was going to behave, and despite the difficult circumstances it actually ended up going really well, and the people involved indicated they really appreciated what I did and how I handled it. So from that difficult commission, with so much potential for things to go terribly wrong, I think that’s one skill I learned from it that’ll definitely prove valuable in future.

  21. Holly Bowne says:

    I’ve always joked that if being a student paid money, that’s how I’d earn my living. That’s what is so COOL about freelance writing! I do have some favorite topics, but I guess I do fall into the camp of becoming interested in whatever it is I’m writing about.

  22. I love that point, Linda, that being interested is your job; that part of being a freelance writer is to be curious and find the interesting angle.

  23. Wow, a TON of insights in these great comments! Thanks so much, everyone, for reading the blog and sending in such thoughtful comments.

  24. NZ Muse says:

    Most of my freelancing is on businessy topics (SO glad I have experience with business writing!) but I actually find it really interesting. I write about HR, marketing, digital and social media, tech tools, etc, so it’s actually quite fascinating and I learn a lot in the process of writing each post. I’m not PASSIONATE about these things but they are enjoyable.

  25. [...] Can You Make a Good Living as a Freelance Writer Writing Only About What You Love? — from The Renegade Writer [...]

  26. Work that you accept is work that you like, even just at a very latent level.

    I’m not dying for automotive mags, I’m not too fond of finance, and I downright hate soccer— but I’m trying to understand these niches because I noticed there is high demand in the market. Some preliminary knowledge and the guts to at least make the effort to try will pay off in the long run.

    What I won’t write for and I won’t try to get interested in is a (small) set of niches that go against my personal ethics or feelings (i.e. weight loss, guns, hunting for sports, …).

    I don’t want that kind of burden in my life.

    But no regrets either (for not trying with niches I *could* easily develop an interest in). :)

    ~ Luana S.

  27. A great example of the difference attitude makes. If you try to find a connection with the topic, you probably will.

    • Thanks! That’s a great way of putting it.

      • I love how concise and to the point your comment is, Michelle. ;) It’s like you summarized Linda’s post in a line or so!

        Finding connections is always the way to go, otherwise work becomes a pain to do. I recall doing that often with school work— trying to find connections whenever and wherever I could to make so many topics and subjects at least tolerable. Well… it paid off at the graduation exam. C:

        ~ Luana S.

  28. Linda, clients often say to me things such as ‘Writing about all this must be so boring for you’.

    But I always reply ‘Not at all’.

    To do a genuinely good job of the copy, you need to immerse yourself in the subject matter. This means that, after a while, I always get into whatever I’m writing about.

    And isn’t that just what you’re saying?

  29. Phil Maguire says:

    Your title is a bit of a cheat. Loving something and being interested in it are not the same thing. I don’t think you’d be too impressed if your husband Eric came up to you and said “Darling I’m interested in you.”

    Surely the answer to this question is “What do you love about writing?” And if the answer is that you loving indulging yourself in narcassistic meandering then the reply is “Maybe”. After all, Shelley and Byron wrote to indulge themselves and people still like it. In fact, I’m partial to a soupcon of Shelley myself occasionally.

    However, if the answer is that you love communicating ideas or seeing how the power of words transform people’s live then the reply should “Yes, yes and yes again”

    The subject is irrelevant. All it is the excuse to connect with someone.

  30. [...] the Freelance Writer’s Den indicates that my experiences aren’t unique.  Linda Formichelli, of The Renegade Writer, shared [...]

  31. jlynn sheridan says:

    I had the most interesting conversation with my septic system guy while he was “vacuuming” our system. (Sorry for the visual) All about Indian burial grounds and bones his family company had uncovered. Think I might go back and interview him.

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