The Renegade Writer

Need Money Fast? 3 Reasons You Should Forget Freelance Writing

Sea Turtle, Honokahau, Kona, Hawaii.By Diana Burrell

Here at the Renegade Writer we get e-mails and queries from readers and/or aspiring writers who are desperate to start freelancing because they are broke, have a disability or illness and can’t work a regular job, or lost their jobs and are down to their last nickels.

They write asking for job leads, an assignment to write on our blog, or free books/tuition to our classes. I know Linda struggles with how to respond to these e-mails because she doesn’t like saying no; I have a hard time saying no, too, but with these requests, there’s a bigger issue going on here that needs to be addressed. Here is what I tell these writers:

1. Freelancing is the worst way to make fast money.

That is, excepting illegal or personally offensive means. It baffles me when someone who is desperate for cash and running on empty thinks that writing will help them out of their financial quagmire. 

One hard-and-fast rule we advise writers not to break is to make sure you have at least six months of income saved up before embarking on a full-time writing career. I’d go further than this and urge you to have a year’s worth of income given how tough it is to survive in the media world right now.

Freelancers who have dozens of years of experience under their belts frequently complain to me about how long it takes to land an assignment, never mind get paid for it. The whole process of assigning/getting paid can take months … even years!

So if you have zero or little experience freelancing, and you’re desperate for cash to pay your light bill, embarking upon a freelance writing career is just about the most ill-advised move you could make to secure your financial future. Think about it. Just because you know how to write does not mean you know how to get published.

You don’t have cash. You don’t have prospects. The valuable asset you do have is Time. So don’t squander this one asset by chasing freelance jobs that even experienced writers are struggling to land: look for work that pays quickly. Sometimes it means selling stuff on Craigslist or eBay, bartering, taking a job that gets you a paycheck in weeks — not months — from now, or developing a new business you can get up and rolling faster than a freelance writing career.

Like many millions of Americans in the past few years, my family has suffered financially. The first thing I did when I found out we were in financial trouble was to assess my business. Any work that wouldn’t or couldn’t pay me quickly, I turned down. I didn’t care how much I loved the editor or the assignment — I said no. (That included writing for this blog.) I needed to spend my time on work that brought income into my checking account NOW, not months from now.

I started looking for more reliable ways to earn money. Yes, I even sold stuff on eBay and Craigslist, as other writers I know in similar circumstances have done. I applied for full-time jobs. I looked for ways to trim our budget, going so far as to give up my car for a year to save on fuel, insurance, and maintenance costs (I live in a bike-friendly town. Plus, I couldn’t afford my expensive gym anymore. Double win!) Fortunately I had enough traction as a professional writer to build other avenues of reliable income that bring in a steady flow of cash each month, but still, we had some tough months for a long time.

2. If you can’t afford to buy our books or a spot in our classes, then you really need to think about another career.

At least once a month we get someone who wants free books or a “scholarship” to our classes. Our books (on Kindle) cost less than $5 each. If you can’t afford to spend $5 on a writing book, this tells us you’re in pretty desperate financial straits. Same with the classes, although they cost more.

If I had a student who signed up and they told me they were spending their last dollars to take my class, no, I’m not going to feel sorry for them and let them take it for free. I’m going to return their money promptly, tell them to use it for food or living expenses, and urge them not to waste time in my class, which will not bring them immediate financial relief. You do not want to build your freelance writing career during desperate times.

3. Editors don’t want to hear about your poor health, limited work opportunities, or other tales of woe.

We see this a lot with writers who want to write paying guest posts for us. It doesn’t make me feel sorry for you and reach for my wallet — it scares me. First, because of all I’ve written above. I’m thinking, “Why the hell does this person think freelancing is the answer?” And second I’m thinking, “Why are they telling me this?”

Editors in general really don’t give a crap about your health, your finances, your future job prospects, or really anything about you when they don’t know you. All they care about when they sit down to read your query is the article you’re selling and if it’ll work for their readers. (If you’ve built a working relationship with editors, that’s a slightly different story.)

They don’t want to worry that you’re about to have your phone or Internet turned off (how will you report?) or that you’re about to go for cancer surgery (will you be alive to turn in copy?). I know professional writers who’ve gone through divorce, death of a spouse, death of a child, various cancers, bankruptcies, depression, foreclosure, and more, yet their editors have no idea. When it’s time to get to work, they paste a smile on their face and project an air of confidence and can-do even when they’re crumbling on the inside.

Editors are not your friends. They’re not your confessors. Editors are already wary of hiring someone they don’t know … they’re going to be even more wary of hiring someone whose life is a mess. If you’re still gung-ho about making a go of freelancing, despite everything I’ve written above, at least keep your personal problems to yourself during the querying stage.

Readers, if you were facing a financial crisis or needed to find easy work, would you turn to freelancing? Why or why not? Do you have any tips you can share with readers who need to earn cash fast? Please add your comments below.

photo by: SteveD.

Apr 18, 2013 Advice, Money, Rants

73 Responses

  1. While I think that there are some ways to ramp up a writing career that are faster than others (landing a job board gig for a blog that pays on a weekly basis, for example, will bring in money faster than magazine work), freelancing is never an avenue I’d recommend people turn to in order to resolve financial crises. It just isn’t always stable enough for that.

    That said, I see a lot of people who don’t just want money fast – they want to get it without any hard work.

    If you’re serious about making freelancing pay off fast, you need to be out there building sample work on your blog, reaching out to businesses (whether through cold calls, networking events or whatever) and applying for any jobs you find. If you’ve got the time to want to make freelancing your career, there’s simply no excuse for not putting in the hard work needed to bring about this result.

  2. Willi Morris says:

    This has been covered a lot, but not quite in this way: “You do not want to build your freelance writing career during desperate times.”

    I had just commented about this on one of Carol’s blogs. Your writing productivity just goes WAY down. Right now is a “desperate time” for me, so I’m treating this more like a side business/hobby.

    You are *always* thinking about your money woes when trying to be creative, and it just stifles everything!

    However, if you do develop a great rapport with an editor, they will understand/care about your personal problems, because they have them too! But I do agree to keep them out of the query. That’s just unprofessional.

    • Willi, I’m so sorry to hear you’re going through a difficult time! I totally agree that trying to be creative when you’re having financial problems can be hard. I hope business picks up for you soon…sometimes it helps to focus on lower-hanging fruit, like smaller magazines, magazines you can send Letters of intro to, etc.

  3. Erica says:

    Every point made is spot on.I was thrust into freelancing by repeated layoffs. And when my savings ran out, I found another cubicle and am still building my freelance business on the side. Freelancing is business and businesses take time. I’m still committed and I’m still going to do this. But I gotta keep the lights on too. And I’m okay with that.

    And Willi, you’re right – productivity goes in straight in the tank. There was a Writer’s Digest article a few months back that boiled down to this: when you’re stressed, your lizard brain (the one the looks out for lions) takes over and your cerebral cortex (the one that’s responsible for your creativity and problem-solving) takes a back seat. The exact issue, date and author is lost to time and memory.

    Excellent, straightforward article.

    • Oh, yes, the lizard brain. That’s so true. I’ve had the experience of the lizard brain taking over, like when I’m doing public speaking. It just shuts you down.

      I hope your freelance business picks up! Thanks so much for your comment.

      • Willi Morris says:

        Thanks for the encouraging comments, Linda!

        “Lizard brain” sounds exactly right Ducky. Also I do have to pin some of the blame on not doing enough reading. That’s another creativity/imagination snatcher!

  4. Farrell John Conejos says:

    Hey Diana,

    Your post holds a vast amount of useful information. The three steps you just gave are somewhat true. It seem to be a little harsh when you posted it but nevertheless, the truth hurts and its useless if you posted in a much comfortable manner that tends to lie the readers. Thanks for sharing this “direct to the point” article.

  5. Tracy says:

    While the idea of freelancing has always appealed to me, it would never be my first choice for fast cash. I have spent most of my life trying not to write for a living, mainly because I know that it is an extremely hard field to break in to. I have recently decided to go back to writing, but I will keep my full-time job until I have another source of steady income. I am currently working on a book in me free time, as well as posting to a blog. If I am meant to be a writer, it will only happen with a lot of time and effort.

    • Erica says:

      Tracy, if you’re writing a book and posting to a blog, you’re already a writer. You may have a day job (and I think your cautious approach is smart), but I still think you’re a writer.

      Good for you for keeping it up even if it’s not your full time profession.

    • Very smart outlook! It sounds like you DO have what it takes to make it as a freelance writer, including a full knowledge of the risks and how much work you need to put into it.

  6. Super well-said, Diana!

    I get these emails too, and have the same advice — if you don’t have $25 to join the Den for a whole month of access to 100+ hours of trainings and pros to answer questions on forums…this is not the career for you.

    You can’t do it right now. You do not have the capital to invest in starting a freelance business, of any kind. It does take time to grow.

    In 2005 I came off 12 years of staff writing jobs with a huge portfolio but little marketing knowledge, and it still took at least 6 months to replace my income! Freelance writers need to have a plan for how they will survive that hump until they’re earning.

  7. Joanie says:

    As a full-time freelancer for nearly 14 years, and part-time (with a full-time corporate job) for the two years before that, I know the message in this blog is right on target for most writers out there. However, I do want to point up some particulars I blog about a lot myself and too many writers forget. If you have expert knowledge–like health issues you’ve lived through yourself, that could be sold to magazines like Woman’s World (a pub that comes out weekly and is always on the lookout for health pieces), that could be a faster than normal way toward publication and regular assignments. Several writers I know with health issues have sold articles to Woman’s World from just a good query, and the pay is excellent–plus, their first stories landed them fairly regular gigs with the mag. And on the “how to find money front”, Tawra Kellam has built her reputation and income on her blog “Living on a Dime” after she and her husband suffered financial setbacks. Though their problems are in the past, she still blogs regularly on how to save and make ends meet, and sells books through her website she’s written on this topic.

    I’m not trying to play devil’s advocate as much as I’m trying to point up that EVERYONE in ANY phase of freelancing needs to sit down first and decide “what they know”. That’s the fastest way to get a freelance career started, as it will help give you expert status as you write your queries. Rather than sounding on the verge of being destitute from your problems.

    Joanie

    Left-Brained Business for Write-Brained People

  8. When I started to understand the freelance writing business, I was surprised that getting paid often takes a long time. However, my payments often arrive (possibly months after articles have been submitted,accepted,and even followed by a contracts)right when I need the money the most! It’s a unique business. I think many of us certainly agree. Plus, we do it because we love it.

    Thank you for the truthful post!

  9. Susan says:

    Great post. As someone who is just starting to explore freelance writing part-time (I have a full time job), I appreciate the honesty. I think why some people think freelance writing is a road to quick cash is because some programs make outlandish promises about how much you can make, how quickly you can make it, and how easy it is to be a freelance writer. I think it’s awesome that you are willing to tell it like it is.

    • Lucie says:

      Susan, your comment about “outlandish promises” makes me think of those emails I get from Barefoot Writers who promise a great income via copywriting, after you’ve taken their course. And I’ll admit that once or twice I’ve been tempted to look into said course. But a nudge from my inner common sense voice has stopped me so far.

  10. Terr says:

    Wow, what a blog post!

    I have mixed thoughts about this post. On the one hand, I think that this type of a post might have been needed. I agree from my own experiences that it’s pretty darned hard to focus on building a business and being creative when you’re worried about health issues, financial issues, etc. You just won’t have the mental or the emotional resources that it takes to create and develop a business.

    As Diana and others said, one must be prepared to wait, wait and wait some more for their money. Now, if the writer has been cranking out queries and if they’ve been selling stories, they’ll develop a payment queue that will cash out in time. But even in the best case scenarios, although checks will start to flow regularly, this takes place after a long period of time. One has to develop a payment queue. And again, that’s assuming that the writer is cranking out stories to sell!

    Again, no matter how well-intentioned someone is, if they are filled with anxiety about life, they’re not going to be able to crank out stories or set up a functional business. At least, not with speed. This will be a long process that will take sweat equity, time and persistence.

    I’m going to be open since Linda and Co. already knows: I’m broke and working my way up. No one is helping me in my day to day. You know, I was the person who couldn’t afford the min. payment for Linda’s Basic class when I first heard of it last year. But I told Linda that one day, I’d be able to do so. I had to sit out two different class cycles. I’m currently enrolled in her Basic program but even then, I had to “white knuckle” it.

    But you know what? I’m doing this because I know that writing and selling stories is part of what I’m supposed to do with my life. I’ve learned that there are certain things in life (Such as becoming a professional writer) that separates the figurative wheat from the chaff. I need to make this dream come true.

    So, I keep my goals in mind and in sight. I set smaller goals to make my larger goals happen. I believe in time, things will be different. But this isn’t a career field for the weak of heart and it’s CERTAINLY not a get-rich-quick career field.

    Yeah, people hear of the six-figure writers and the A-list blogger/authors. What they don’t hear, is that it took those people YEARS of working side jobs, being ignored, learning the ropes, etc. before they “hit”. So I’d say, yeah I can relate to the need for cash flow now, yesterday, but this really isn’t a career field for those who don’t have the passion for what they do. It’s that passion that drives you when you’re down to your last dollar (Again), yet you know you’ve got to find a way to take that class, buy that book, hang out on the forum for free, etc., so that you can learn what it takes to make your dream come true.

    Finally, in response to Diana’s thoughts regarding “Why are they telling me this?”, I have to (gently) say (Diana) that it’s because when people are suffering, they are looking for a life-line, a compassionate ear. There’s a level of low that people hit that makes them want to reach out to someone, ANYONE who will take away the pain and the shame, SOMEHOW.

    No, you (Diana and Co.) can’t fix people and it’s not your job. I personally believe that my greatest times of growth happened when I was all alone and I had to figure some things out for myself (Painful as those times were). I’m just sharing that while there are some people who want something for nothing, there are those who genuinely are fighting for the improvement of their lives and would put to action whatever nugget you gave them.

    But then again, this blog and Carol’s blog are awesome resources of free “nuggets”!

    • Terr, thanks for your well thought-out comment. I’m so glad you were able to take my class and hope you’re getting a lot out of it. I can see that you’re serious about your goal.

      I agree…sometimes people write to us with their problems because they need a lifeline. Diana recently spent a lot of time emailing advice to a woman who needed money stat and thought she could get it by writing. Freelancing wouldn’t do the trick, but Diana and her husband brainstormed some ideas that played up the writer’s other strengths.

      But I have to admit I feel flummoxed when I get the emails like the one the other day from the man who started out telling me he was on 7 psychotropic medications, and so on (and on) — only to ask me, at the end of a long email, what is the difference between a nutritionist and dietician. In cases like this, I feel like the writer is playing on my sympathies to get a quicker or better answer.

      Thanks again for commenting. I hope we don’t come across as totally unsympathetic!

      • Terr says:

        Oh yeah, I can understand that you have some interesting types giving telling you inappropriate stories. And I know for certain that (Linda) you are sympathetic, as you were very patient with me.

        I guess the bottom line in all of this, is the wanna-be writer needs to manage their expectations and our writing mentors have to protect their boundaries.

  11. Dana Sitar says:

    Wow! I had no idea people perceived writing as easy money. I’m a little insulted at what they must think our job is like! Thanks for the straightforward advice, Diana.

  12. Lucie says:

    I’m so new to the art of freelance writing that I hardly even know what a content mill is. Seriously. I had never heard the term until perhaps a few months ago. Plus, I’ve only sold seven articles in just under a year. To the same editor/magazine. So I’m a bit of a neophyte to the profession.

    But even I wouldn’t dream of thinking I could make enough “fast money” to get by in a financial crisis…unless I suddenly lost my mind. At this point I’m not even sure that I want to ever freelance full-time. But it is something that I would like to fall back on for extra income. However, as someone who has survived numerous layoffs over the past two decades, and since my current job may end at the close of this year, I am obsessed with having a minimum of a year’s income socked away, and even then I’ll be looking for temporary work or working part-time while I write. Been worried about where my next job’s coming from one too many times.

  13. Joni says:

    Even tho i am a person that has shared too much information and Linda helped me out several years ago i believe the post was necessary.

    To Lucie (you state):
    “But even I wouldn’t dream of thinking I could make enough “fast money” to get by in a financial crisis…unless I suddenly lost my mind.” You must remember that those of us with diagnosed mental illnesses (usually more than one) have more or less “lost our mind.” No, it is no one else’s problem, but I do not believe most people with mental disabilities are trying to get something for nothing or get ahead without hard work. When you have a mental disorder (and esp. if your meds stop working) you don’t think and reason like healthy minded people. That’s the problem. I have embarassed myself many times by sharing TO MUCH INFORMATION. I am working on it. (Except for now).

    It’s like when you run into to someone with mental retardation or autism…they may want to hug you or talk a lot and to you it may feel inappropriate, but they do not mean any harm. I have both worked with people with MR and Mental Health disabilities and am one, so I know of where I speak. People would not dream of thinking badly of someone in a wheel chair or with an amputation; at least not these days. Most of society has come to realize those with physical limitations are just like anyone else. Same with those of us who are “a lil off our rocker” (I can say that….I’m one).

    Like my kind talk about at our support groups, no one in the world would WANT to be mentally sick if we had a choice. However we are told by friends and family alike that we aren’t trying hard enough or what have we got to be depressed about, yada, yada, yada. If those (some of those) who love us don’t understand, certainly people that don’t even know us are going to be rolling there eyes. Many times we regret that we asked people things and told them our problems and promise ourselves we won’t do it again. I realized afterward when I do it. I feel sorry for the people who don’t even realize they are being a pain and have no clue.

    As I stated at the beginning of my post, it is necessary to tell people the truth; especially when they are being unrealistic. I just think some of the statements we a bit to harsh. I believe you can get your point across in a different way. Just my opinion. Please just try to remember, many of those that ask for things don’t even realize they are coming off as they are. Of course, not everyone. I told myself I was not going to reply to this post because most folks don’t change their mind about how they think or feel. But if not for myself, I’m doing it for the thousands of others out there who have been treated differently because of their brain illnesses. No one should have to “put up” with them but maybe think, “except for the grace of God go I.”

    Joni

    • Thank you for your insights, Joni! My take is that if you need fast money, no matter the reason, freelancing is not the way to go. And what Diana said about editors being on guard when they hear about your problems is right. It can only hurt you to overshare with an editor you don’t know. In early 2008, I went through 5 months of clinical depression and daily hour-long panic attacks. I was unable to work for those 5 months. I never told a single editor. When I got an assignment, I would plaster a smile on my face and say thanks, them promptly turn around and give the assignment to my freelance writer husband to do. If I had mentioned these problems in my pitches or other correspondence with my editors, I guarantee I would not have gotten any assignments.

    • Lucie says:

      Joni, thank you for your reply. I wanted to apologize for my choice of words and for any hurt I caused. I was speaking rather flippantly and writing the comment quickly. Having suffered from clinical depression and anxiety for at least two-thirds of my life, I have a special compassion for those with any form of mental disorder, and as such I should have been a bit more careful with my words. Certainly no offense was intended towards anyone.

  14. Holly says:

    I’ve never considered freelance writing to be fast money, and I’ve never dreamed of telling my sad life stories to an editor (or anyone I didn’t know very well.) However, I do have to take exception to one thing mentioned here: the statement that if we can’t afford your classes, we can’t afford to be a freelance writer. Yes, I can afford books (and have bought yours) and I would never ask to take your classes for free. But on my budget, I can’t easily afford $300-$400 for a class. I don’t believe that means that I can’t afford to be a freelance writer – especially because I’m actually earning more as a freelance writer than I did in my last job – but I have to be careful with my money and a couple hundred dollars IS still a lot to me. If I have a couple hundred dollars lying around that I can afford to part with, I’m much more likely to pay on my many medical bills or my student loans instead.

    • Thanks for your comment, Holly! I’m replying because Diana has spotty Internet access today.

      I don’t think she meant one has to take our classes or buy our books to succeed, but that if you truly don’t have a spare $2.99, you’re not in a good place to start a freelance writing career because you need money NOW — and freelancing is not the way to get fast cash.

      • Holly says:

        Got it – and thanks for the clarification! You (and Diana) are right that freelancing is definitely not a get-rich-quick kind of prospect, and you should only begin it as a venture if you have something else to fall back on. One of my first clients regularly took up to six months to pay me, so I was glad to have another job at that time!

  15. Rebecca says:

    I’ve never commented here before (though I read quite often), but this article struck out at me. The message here seems to be, “If you don’t have a cushion to fall back on, you’d be better off pushing carts at Walmart than attempt to build a freelance writing career,” and I don’t think that’s necessarily true. Sure, in a perfect world, we’d all have six months or a year of income to fall back on, but let’s face it: things happen. People get laid off or laid up and can’t work. So, instead, they turn to their dream of writing for a living and they shouldn’t be discouraged from doing so.

    In fact, sometimes being flat out broke can actually work in your favor. It might motivate you to break out of your comfort zone and send a killer pitch to break into your favorite high-paying magazine. You might not take that leap, you’re comfortable financially. And you have to be in it to win it, right? In his book On Writing, Steven King admits that being broke was what compelled him to write story after story until he made it big. Of course, that’s Steven King, but still. Sometimes it’s your passion for rent money – not your passion for writing – that helps you keep going.
    That being said, I don’t think any editor wants to hear, “I can’t pay my electric bill, so here’s hoping you accept this pitch!” They just want to know that you have a great idea and can write it well.

    That’s just my two cents.

    • Thank you for your comment! While we would never want to discourage anyone from going after their freelance dream, The fact is that it takes a long time to get paid, so it’s not the best if you’re looking for fast cash. For example, if you send out a pitch, it can take a month or more to get an assignment, a month to write it, and then a month or more to get paid. And that’s a low estimate! If your goal is to keep the lights on, you really do need some backup money to keep you going until you get that first check.

      • Jenn Mattern says:

        That’s true if you only freelance for magazines. But it’s not true in other types of freelance writing, and I think it’s important that’s pointed out for new writers.

        The old school payment rules so common in the magazine industry do not apply to things like freelancing for business clients (which can even include helping them write magazine features for trades) and many Web writing gigs.

        In those cases when you take the position of being the business owner you are, you set the payment terms. And I know very few who don’t take at least partial up-front payments before the work even begins. When you build enough demand, you can charge your full rates up front if you prefer (I do, and I’ve had very little resistance by the time prospects come to me).

        So yes, there can be quick money in freelance writing. I coached a writer a couple of years back and helped her hit professional level rates within two weeks. I have other colleagues who have gone from nothing at all to earning decent full-time income levels in less than three months. It can be done. And it’s not as uncommon as I think this post makes it seem.

        That’s not to say it’s easy. Not everyone can succeed as a freelance writer. It’s not “easy money.” It’s a business. And as in any other type of business, how much you earn (and how fast you earn it) depends on how you choose to run that business. You won’t do it writing for content mills. You probably won’t do it writing for magazines (although it will get easier once you line up more regular sales). And you probably won’t do it if you don’t find your specialty and put in the work to understand your target market.

        That’s the real problem I’ve seen with new writers. They skip the business planning and market research steps (which don’t have to take that long), and then they wonder later whey they’re not bringing in money weeks or months later. A little planning and professionalism go a long way.

        • Joanie says:

          This is also where networking is an absolute must. Even business projects can be slow pay, especially when the project is a book or something large that uses writers as subcontractors of the design group. Even if you get the first advance, you only get it after “your” client, the official project manager, gets their advance, which can still make for as much as a month after you’ve invoice, even with a contract. No one wants to slow pay, but when there’s a chain of payments and you’re the sub-sub, you’re last to receive money. But networking with other writers helps you get a heads-up about these things in your regional area. Writers are always quick to let me know when they’ve had slow experiences with business projects. Even working directly with companies can be a problem. For example, I was contacted by American Airlines about work, and since I hadn’t worked for them before I made some calls first. Found out they not only were sluggish payers to writers, but this was when the rumors (later substantiated as fact) of a bankruptcy filing was flying. I turned down the job because I didn’t want to stand in line behind other contractors waiting for the bankruptcy court. I’ve learned several contractors who decided to wait are still waiting, almost a year later, since they will only get paid after the dust settles. And they’ve all been contacted by the companies that take advantage of such situations by “offering” to buy the contractors contracts at pennies on the dollar.

          If you don’t live near a local writers group to join, at least connect up with an online one. There are a number of free ones that use Yahoo Groups, for instance. It critical to know who you can throw a question out to before signing on for a project that looks like a good money maker–because while you may eventually get the money later, it won’t pay your rent if it’s months after you’ve already been evicted.

          Joanie

        • Jenn, my post is about magazine writing, not business writing. A whole other kettle of fish. Thanks for sharing your experience, but it IS uncommon to earn decent full-time income as a magazine writer in three months. Suggesting otherwise would be disingenuous.

          • Jenn Mattern says:

            That’s what I figured, and it’s why I commented in reply to Linda who specifically mentions magazine writing. My issue is that if the title is going to talk about “freelance writing” in a general sense and offer advice to new writers who might not know there are differences, it doesn’t hurt to mention those differences. My comment was to offer a different perspective based on that, especially since other types of writing (like content mills) have been brought up in the discussion.

    • Rebecca, you brought up WalMart — personally, I won’t step into the store — and I think you twisted what I said in my post around. When you’re totally broke — meaning you are truly worried that you won’t have enough money to feed your family at the end of the month — starting a freelance writing career when you have no experience is totally bonkers. And believe me, there are people in this country who ARE this broke. People like to bring up Steven King and JK Rowling being broke. Well, they were poor, but they had a roof over their head, food to eat, and place to keep warm. Their basic needs were being met while they were building their writing careers. When you are not able to meet your basic needs and thinking it’s a good idea to start freelancing? I’m not going to sit back and say, “Sure, go for your dreams!” No, I’m going to encourage you to find a faster way to get your basic needs met because magazine writing isn’t the answer and it would be criminal of me to encourage you otherwise.

      • Tia says:

        Spot on, Diana!
        When I worked as a magazine editor, I had so many queries from starting out writers looking for “jobs”, many who were desperate for the pay cheque.

        Not many magazines have staff writer positions any more and thinking of freelance writing as a job – with fixed pay and benefits each month – is a mistake when you have pressing debts and bills to pay. On the other hand, there were a few students, one as young as 14, who submitted some great pieces, got published, and by the time they graduated they had developed their writing skills (including knowing how to pitch) and were able to add “published writer” to their portfolios.

        Great post; judging from the number of comments it has really hit a nerve, Diana.

  16. Cathy Miller says:

    Excellent point, Jenn. One of the reasons I decided against the magazine article route was its notorious reputation for slow payment. A large portion of my business is ghostwriting for trade publications in my industry niche. My clients (who receive the byline) work for the industry company and pay my fee.

    Sure, companies can be slow-paying, but it is my experience that those companies are the exception. Over the years, I have weeded out the slow-payers. And all of my projects require a 50% deposit before I start the project. On smaller projects, I require payment in full before the project starts.

    It’s all about choices. And those choices are going to be different for each individual.

    • Jenn Mattern says:

      Same here Cathy. Even before I charged in-full up front it was rare that I had a slow-paying client for trade features or anything else. It happens. But it doesn’t happen enough, in my experience, to be an issue.

  17. Thanks for all the comments (and thanks Linda for answering while I was away). A couple of things:

    * My post is directed to people who have little or no professional writing experience who think because they have a way with words or that they’ve dreamed of becoming a writer their whole lives that now, when their personal life is in shambles and they’re struggling to pay bills, it’s a great time to start. I would say in 99.9 percent of these cases, no it’s not. Again, I’m talking about people who may know how to write, but they have never written for publication before.

    * I’m not talking to people who are on tight budgets — students, between jobs, whatever — whose basic needs are being met and who aren’t down to their last two nickels. We *do* get e-mails from folks who say they have no money left to pay for basic necessities like food and shelter. Encouraging them to begin a freelance career while in such dire straits is immoral in my mind, and when I get these e-mails, the right thing for me to do is encourage them to go about getting their basic needs met FIRST, then think about writing.

    * And if anyone here thinks I haven’t suffered or lack compassion or don’t understand what it’s like to suffer: you couldn’t be more wrong. And I’ll leave it at that.

  18. Anna says:

    What a great conversation about freelance writing! My take-away from this, which is a much influenced by my own personal experiences as well as what I read in Diana’s post, is many of the emails received show the stereotypical view people have of writers.

    When I was going to school full-time and could have regular writing “office hours”, my family thought nothing of interrupted me during my “work”. Like others, I did have difficulty in setting boundaries. But it also upset me that they didn’t see what I was doing as “work”. Maybe other self-employed people who work at home have run into this as well. But writing in of itself never seems to be taken seriously by non-writers.

    I have often explained that the majority of my job doesn’t involve writing at all! Whether it’s my day job technical writing or building up my freelance career on the side, there is a lot of research, interviews, emails and other tasks that have to be done first. Only at the end do I get to do the “fun” part and write!

    Writing is a business like any other. It takes hard work and time to get to where you want to be.

  19. Cheryl Rhodes says:

    Without commenting too much on the topic, other than the last question posed to us, my husband runs a carpentry/handyman repairs business and I often accompany him to job sites. One of our sidelines is powerwashing – we have our own powerwasher, actually we have have 2 but usually only use the higher water volume one. There’s a townhouse complex that we’ve worked for and they put a message in their newsletter that we’re available for powerwashing on a chosen weekend. We do their driveway, sidewalks, and back patio for a flat fee of $80 or we can break it down if the homeowner only want one or 2 areas done. We have a spinner attachment that gets the job done in a fraction of the time as a regular powerwasher wand. We easily make over $1000 in a weekend, maybe working 5 or 6 hours each day. The sad thing? We’re just too busy and haven’t offered this to the complex in a couple of years. This would be a great sideline business for someone. A weekend of steady clients would pay off the equipment. If people have to go to Home Depot to rent one that costs about $50 for the day and it takes them hours using only the wand attachment that comes with the rental. Not to mention getting wet and dirty. I powerwashed one client’s home (who owns a powerwasher) and he was amazed I did in 2 hours what takes him closer to 10 hours. Its the convenience factor of not doing it themselves that brings in customers. So there you have it. A good side income source if you don’t mind a little water and dirt and doing laundry.

    As for buying the Renegade Writer books on Amazon, and I’m only bringing this up because you mentioned Kindle in the article, I’ve either bought the paperback versions through a bookstore or the ebook versions directly from you using Paypal. I rarely use Amazon unless I’ve found a Kindle freebie. I can’t find your books on iTunes which is my preferred place to go if I’m going to buy an ebook, as opposed to downloading one for free. Just throwing it out there that not everyone has a credit card or wants to use a credit card to buy off Amazon, or has another online bookseller they prefer.

  20. I started freelancing when I couldn’t land a job that I really wanted. I’d just moved to a new city with my now-husband and just had to take something to bring the money in — and it was only part-time work so I could look at freelancing on the side quite easily. But…between my part-time job and my partner’s job we were bringing enough money in so I could justify freelancing on the side to build my business.

    Since then, I’ve managed to freelance full-time, quite the part-time work and now look after a baby at home so it’s all been worth it. I wouldn’t recommend freelancing while unemployed though but I have recommended that people start a blog to get some samples and work on pitching while looking for work if that’s what they really want to do (their passion and not just to bring in money).

  21. It is not my intention to contribute to the problems of the professional writers nor do I want to upset anyone but, seriously, I must make a couple of comments.

    1. I cannot believe the nerve that some people have!
    When did writers become psychologists?

    2. People who do not know the proper usage of “to”, “too”, and “two” are probably the same people who don’t know the difference between “your” and “you’re”, and should not expect to be paid writers until they learn the language!

    • Tia says:

      Hi Lorraine,
      I get you, but its funny because some professions function partly as psychologists too: think of bar tenders and hair dressers and the easy ear and shoulder they provide.
      Writers are part psychologists for a number of reasons: you think deeper into issues and try to figure out what the real issues are underlying the surface problems; you are able to do the research and if you have been in the game for a little while, you probably know a few professional contacts that you can ask questions to and get some great advice for free – including certified therapists.

      Other than that, I so hear you.

  22. Cyn says:

    This post annoyed me at first…but, after reading the comments/follow-ups, I see where it is coming from. It is coming from an annoyance, on the post writer’s part, with people who think it is a good idea to START looking for freelance work when they are down to their last nickel(s)…which may, or may not, be a good idea. Based on the individual looking to do so, and their will, drive, work ethic and circumstances, etc. …

    The post only annoyed me b/c I was doing a Google search about ways to earn more money freelancing…and, to be frank, I’ve found myself in this ‘loop’ of “you can’t do freelance writing if you are broke” before when doing such an online search (and, add annoyance to annoyance, that site was a site of one of the commenters here…)

    THAT said, I will give my own experience in regard to freelance writing/being broke: I had been trying to freelance write and edit since 2009 and, totally broke, I decided to walk dogs (again) in the spring…for $12 an hour (and, keep in mind, I once had my own dogwalking biz–very successful!–where I was making $40+ an hour walking dogs…except, I didn’t want to be a dogwalker…I wanted to be a freelance writer… :/ )

    Anyway, I figured it was a good way to bring in money to ‘stop my financial bleeding’ and to get my feet under me, freelance-wise (i.e., look for better paying work than I’d had with the security of income coming in).

    Thing is, I didn’t figure in (lol) this PARTICULAR New England winter (but, no fears, I am HARDY and I walked the friggin’ dogs post-blizzard and post-ice storm and beyond…), nor the fall down a flight of steps due to a really big and stubborn foxhound mix (ouch).

    Anyway…I gave my notice to the dog boss in March and then looked around for other options…Trader Joe’s? A bookstore? A PT office gig? No bites…

    So, I got back onto (gah! the Devil!) Elance. And I cranked out bids aggressively (never low-bidding, just hard-selling my skills at a fair price).

    And, here’s what happened:

    First, I realized, once again, that I am so in love with the freelancing lifestyle…why? Because you can be dirt poor and then—through sheer will and effort!—have money in your bank account in no time, regardless of whether a job-job place deems you ‘worthy’ of hire, or not. I was, just last week (exact figures) down to: $1.29 bank account; $4 and some change, cash on hand; $12 available on credit one credit card, $9 available on another. And: that was it.

    10 days later…I have $610 in my bank account…with $180 to be deposited on Monday and $260 on the way later in the week and… more work lined up.

    NO. It is not a permanent solution! (Elance exclusively, that is)…but it IS buying me the time/money to scope out my other options (magazines, commercial writing and otherwise)…and I am scrambling to get that in order.

    Point being: I was so broke I couldn’t buy groceries…that’s why I went to dogwalking…and I (literally) fell on my ass…and realized it’s better to be broke and be doing something I am good at and that I love…writing…than to be just-barely-making-it with a bruised and sore ass…

    God willing, I will eventually get to the ‘good pay.’

    In the meantime…I have food and light and other necessities…and I am happy with the work, regardless of its source.

    (And—for what it’s worth—I am not 20-something, or 30-something, or 40-something…

    I am older than that.

    And dedicated to a form of writing that will never pay the bills (sigh)…but always searching out forms of writing that will).

  23. Joanie says:

    Cyn, while you don’t want to be a dog-walker anymore, don’t forget to try to freelance in that direction, too. You’re an expert voice in that field, and you could query magazines about articles that tie to that subject and part-time jobs. I’m thinking, college magazines marketed to students, and even retirement mags like AARP. You might have to talk about several different types of part-time gigs, besides dog-walking, but your experience gives you expert status to know the details that a part-timer at any job like that needs to know.

    Good luck

    Joanie

  24. Cyn says:

    Thank you, Joanie, this is very helpful advice! I’ve been so focused on trying to figure out my ‘niche’ as a freelance writer this week (i.e., articles, marketing materials, ghostwriting, etc.), that I’ve neglected to look at what I’m an expert in content-wise. I tried to figure this out some time ago, but got frustrated because it seems the fields I’m an ‘expert’ in are saturated with talented writers (I was thinking ‘pets’ and ‘creative writing.’). But, taking your angle, I can see that perhaps I didn’t dig deep enough.

    I’m an expert, for instance, in starting pet sitting businesses (I’ve started 3 in 2 different cities over the years. I did ‘mock up’ a pet sitting brochure and website as samples for pursuing marketing clients, but didn’t take it a step further to consider writing about this as a subject); in finding money in a pinch (as you’ve noted, taking on part-time work when needed, and other things, too, such as setting up a used book selling business online and selling antiques I inherited with an emphasis on finding the best price); and in overcoming self-imposed obstacles (decades of inner work that is finally paying off and helping me to see why I keep sabotaging myself and landing on the ‘broke’ square again and again, for instance…I’m sure others could benefit from what I’ve learned/figured out in that regard). And, also, I see that I do have a particular and focused expertise when it comes to pet care: the care of geriatric pets and/or disabled and/or chronically ill pets (which is why I burned out on the biz, to be sure, but that—in combination with taking care of my own over the years– has left me with a whole lot of inside info on caring for pets that require specific skills and patience and tlc).

    All of these are things I can ‘mine’ and then do targeted queries on, as you suggest. And perhaps if I just put one hour a day aside to focus on queries, it will eventually pay off. Another hour on cold-calling/marketing my commercial writing skills to local businesses. Another hour scanning the freelance gig boards for decent gigs. An hour on my used book business. And that leaves 4 -5+ hours to do whatever writing work I have on the table (I can easily work a 12 hour day when I’m writing without it ‘feeling’ like work…)

    Thanks again–your comment provided some good food for thought that has really kick-started my day!

  25. Joanie says:

    Cyn, I’m so glad my comments helped. Another thing I did to build my business, and many of my freelancing friends did as well, was write a specific number of query letters every Monday morning. I started at first with a goal of finding 2 query ideas a week, but as I started seeing query ideas everywhere I expanded that to 5 or more each Monday morning. The best part about that was it got that “work” done and out to editors at the start of the week, so I didn’t have to think about having to do it all week, and I usually got answers about my queries before the end of the week–and like I blogged about it on my own blog, sometimes I had answers from editors I’d worked with before within an hour. You have a great list of skill sets to query from. It’s amazing the amount of ways you can query when you “write what you know”. We’re so prone to discounting our own experiences as not interesting. One of the blogs I’ve had a lot of people talk to me about is one I wrote about building a big blue whale in a pond near the house I lived in middle school. Because the attraction is on Route 66, everyone thinks it was originally built in the ’40s or ’50s, but it was my “first paying job” in the early ’70s, and I’ve sold stories on that whale to an amazing amount of magazines, from from local to U.S. travel.

    Mine that gold.

    Joanie

  26. Writers don’t make money. Writing doesn’t pay. Start with that premise, then notice the FEW stars who hit it big. (Writing as a profession resembles acting as a profession.)

    1. Nobody knows how to make a best-seller.

    2. They have a unique voice that people enjoy and want more of. Writing smooth, serviceable, well-researched prose marks you out as a competent professional but nothing unusual nor in high demand.

    3. People want, nay enjoy, the experience of, “Gee, I never read THAT before.” Make the familiar sound fresh.

    4. Two ways to give them that: Unique content they cannot get elsewhere and/or an original “voice” or “point of view.” For private detective fiction, think Sue Grafton. For hints and humorous commentary on the life of a woman and mother homemaker, think Erma Bombeck. Lots of women wrote helpful (sometimes funny) stuff for women, but Erma Bombeck had a voice, a POV and gained a following.

    5. Have a following. The people who make money (or used to) in publishing (with writers as one of their vendors) deliver a familiar product to a known audience through established channels. With the web, we now have more channels. (Crossovers and category straddlers climb a very steep cliff.)

    6. Start where they are (metaphorically). And give them what they want. You must know their mentality (where they are) and how to take them where you want them to go (developing an appetite for your writing, which can be redefined as your thinking and feeling made visible to others).

    7. On selling fiction to pulp magazines in the 30’s and 40’s, the words of Jack Woodford (nee Josiah Woolfolk) still ring true: “If you want to understand the editors of a magazine, look at the stories. If you want to understand the readers, look at the ads.” I think he would add: “Especially the ones at the back that run every month. Advertisers pay for ads that work and pull the ones that do not.”)

  27. Shaun McLain says:

    Some of the comments that are listed above are factual, but not being able to make it as a “Freelance Writer”, well I would have to agree to disagree with that comment. I have been a freelancer since 1996. I take care of my husband with a disability, and I am putting 5 children through college right now. We have never had any of the problems mentioned here!

    I am always looking for new projects, but I always have 3 to 10 writing projects on my table every day to complete. If you choose to be a freelance writer, you first need to learn the following:

    1. Self Discipline- If you cannot stay focused on your goals, and complete projects on point, then you do not need to even consider this field.

    2. Organized- If you are not organized, you will never make it in this field. You need to be able to keep projects in prospective, keep your affairs in the proper order, and know how to keep files on a computer. (This one is something that bothers me. You cannot have your Family Photos, and you current projects together. Just as you make “New Folders” on a computer, you can make “New Libraries”, I advise you do so before you get started!)

    3. Communication- Learn how to talk to people. Be respectful of others. Humble yourself before an employer. (That does not mean beg that just means to be respectful at all times. They are not your friends, they are your employer, even if just for one job.)

    4. Where to Join- Elance, Odesk, Freelancer, and thousands of others are all online offering millions of projects every day, that does not make them all good for you. If you want constant work, then I would advise Elance. This site offers average to high pay per job. The Jobs are GAURANTEED, Tracked, and Elance deposits daily Monday- Friday.

    5. How to Bid a job- Draft a compelling proposal. Highlight your experience, and how it applies to that job. Attach sample documents, and check back at least 3 times a day to see if you have questions, repsonses, or have been awarded the project. If you don’t you are not keeping good communication and you will not get another job! DO NOT have grammatical errors. If you are bidding a writing job, and you write in Texting format, or have errors, you will NOT get a job.

    You will need to bid several jobs, remember that you have a 1 in however many proposals are submitted, of getting the job. If you do not bid several you will not keep constantly working!

    6. Building a Profile- Profiles are extremely important. Learn how to market yourself. If you cannot do this, you will not get jobs. It is just like being in sales. Sell yourself on your skills. Make sure you have NO ERRORS in your writing!

    If you follow these steps you will succeed. You must be disciplined, honest, and a GOOD writer to be a freelance writer.

  28. Shaun McLain says:

    By the way I average about $1,900 to $7,600 per week writing as a Freelance writer from home.

    • Brandon Baer says:

      May I ask what type of writing it is that you do raking in that much income and what it took for you to get there? Your posts make me feel very optimistic about what I’m aiming to do and what I too often and insidiously doubt my ability to do, especially considering I’m a young(ish), debt-free, childless bachelor simply hoping to take home no more than a grand a week, if that.

  29. jayne says:

    Glad to hear a writer saying this. Finally. Seriously tired of people thinking that they want to stay home and work, so why not just write. Write they do, for peanuts on content mills. Thanks for pushing our already difficult living into a level of Hell that Dante missed. I’m going onto greener pastures. I work in retail on the side, and frankly after 15 years, I cannot stand seeing “professional” writers who lie by telling people (disabled in particular, moms, etc.) how to make a living writing. Thank you for telling them all the truth. Thank you!!!!! … And the morons who claim to make $8,000 per week, who are you raping in the process?

  30. You can make your cautions even more persuasive by knocking down common misperceptions of the work of editors. They are not sultans or satraps sitting regally on high dispensing largesse and favors.

    Chime in here with your own perceptions and observations. They work at an anxiety level and edge needy writers cannot understand. He/She has a hole to fill every issue date and worries galore. Will the Old Reliable writers come through as usual? Will one the best decide she can make more money selling advice to tyros than helping her hit her monthly target? Will the promising but unproven New Kid come in with good quality on time? Or will it be barely usable, requiring he either wrestle it into shape or scramble for a replacement.

    Will the ad revenue cover enough costs to maintain or raise the quality? what will the publisher want and say.

    And so forth. We too easily forget the editor at a publication of any substance looks all-powerful, but in reality is just another at will employee.

    What would you expect from people who have far more skill than you do working under those kinds of pressures?

  31. Needs a bit of proofing correction, I see. Thumbs on smartphone keyboard make accuracy suffer.

  32. Josiah Marx says:

    The jig is up, folks. I started freelancing in 1999 and by 2000 I had a weekly column at a large media outlet, and by 2007 I was making over 100K a year.

    Now – massive firings at every media outlet, massive pay cuts, less money less money less money while rent and cost of living continue to rise.

    My IRA is gone and so is the year’s salary I’d saved and went through while looking for another job. Massive stress led to breakup of marriage of over 10 years. Apartment gone, can’t afford it. I have 12 dollars and a magazine has owned me $750 since May. They don’t give a damn about you, and neither does life. It’s up to you to make it or fall in the gutter, and nobody cares, man.

    The jig is up and it’s going to get worse as the younger folks coming up will work for free or very little money.

    It was nice while it lasted, but it’s over and not coming back.

    So – looking for a job, at age (over 50) while working full time, 7 days a week, writing for money.

    I hear in Mexico you can live well on $500 a month, that may be my move as soon as I can make enough money to buy some eggs and live another day.

    Thanks for listening.

  33. […] Freelance writing isn’t a good way to earn quickly. It takes time to build a high-earning freelance business, and you have to be willing to slog along […]

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