It’s Not About the Money, Money, Money
Can you make a living as a freelance writer? Of course.
I work from home in a room referred to as “the library”, “the study”, “the office”, “the den,” or just “Dad’s cave” depending on who’s speaking and in what context.
It houses upwards of 3000 books, mostly reference works and collections, although there’s a good stock of fiction, too. Aside from that, there’s a standing desk and a vast dining table under the window overlooking the village and the woods, which serves as a reading, planning, and writing space. A filing cabinet stands to one side. There are several whiteboards which I use for “tactile thinking” and a cluttered array of knickknacks and mementos. There’s a daybed, a comfy chair, and a meditation corner where my zabuton and zafu reside.
It’s a dreaming space, a reading room, a retreat, a workplace, a study, and a den of literary industry. From this fountain of creative endeavor issues forth a constant stream of words, cascading into many editorial pools, whence they either dry up or flow on to publication.
What flows back is money. It’s how I make my living.
What do I mean by a living? I mean enough money to cover home and bills, support the children through university, travel a little, eat healthily, go out once in a while, and have a little left over to divide between charitable donations and a rather humble savings account.
So, can you make a living as a freelance writer? The short answer is yes. But I suspect that isn’t what you wanted to know. The real question most people want answered isn’t can you do it? It’s how do you do it?
I’ll tell you.
What Price Freedom?
But before we get into that, let me talk about something other than money. Because for most, the world of freelance writing isn’t a romantic or easy place to be. It’s an uncertain, unpredictable, tough, ever-changing landscape through which to navigate. No day is ever the same. Dangers and pitfalls lie hidden at every turn in the road. There’s no guarantee of success. Potential failure broods like a dark cloud, ever-present on the horizon.
If that description scares you, you may be better off getting a proper job. If it sounds like an adventure, you may have it in you to be a freelance writer.
Because what motivates most freelance writers isn’t money. If it was, we’d be bankers or run tech start-ups. What motivates us is freedom.
It’s freedom in the little things, such as the liberty to work in my quirky room, or go to the cafe or a pub, or sit under an oak with pen and paper, rather than in someone else’s utilitarian office space. And it’s freedom in the big things, too. It’s the freedom to do the creative work I want to do, to experiment, take risks, and pursue my dreams.
Give Us This Day Our Daily Bread
But this world constrains us to earn money. So let’s look at how a freelance writer does it.
I write fiction and I’ve published several short stories, novels, and novellas. I’m working on more in that line. But I don’t make a living out of it. It’s pocket money. I expect to earn more from fiction, but that’s part of a five-year plan, and I’m only in year two at the time of writing.
My living comes from writing non-fiction.
I’m never sure what to call my work, it’s so varied: copy writing, content writing, article writing, ghost writing, and journalism.
So What Do Freelance Writers Actually Do?
I publish the lion’s share of my writing without my byline attached to it. If it’s ghost-written, then the client may claim credit for it. I write straight articles on a variety of subjects for magazines and newspapers, informational and commercial content for businesses, blog posts, and newsletters. If it’s ethical, I’ll work on marketing projects and advertising copy, too.
Recent projects have included articles on health and well-being, nutrition, pet care, green technologies, bird watching, home schooling, independent travel, advice for teaching assistants, personal finance, and the history of chocolate.
I drum up work both independently and through an agent. Some sales come from speculative submissions. Established clients commission work from time-to-time.
Millions of Markets Hungry for Words
Go to any newsstand and look at the vast array of publications on every subject under heaven. Go online and do a few searches. Look at the quantity of results returned. It’s often millions of pages. That’s billions and billions of published words every day.
But how many freelance writers can you name? Who are the famous copywriters? The last article you read in a magazine, can you tell me who wrote it?
Somebody wrote all those words. But who? Unknown, invisible, freelance writers.
Can you make a living as a freelance writer? Why not? There’s no shortage of markets, and they are always hungry for new content. If you can find a hungry market and write for it, write something an editor wants to buy, you can earn a crust. It’s as simple as that.
How Much Do Freelance Writers Make?
There isn’t an answer to that.
Some freelancers scrape by. Others work from a private yacht in the Bahamas. Most are somewhere in-between.
How much you earn depends on several factors: your skills as a wordsmith, how hard and smart you work, your self-discipline, creativity, personality, business sense, and luck.
I warned you it’s an unpredictable and uncertain business. So I can’t tell you how much you can earn. But if you get started and keep a record of what you do, what pays and what doesn’t, and keep analyzing, adapting, and refining your workflow, you’ll understand what works for you, and you’ll be able to make reasonable income forecasts. Maybe a few months ahead, maybe a year or two.
If you’re a person who needs all the details upfront and endless reassurance and support, you’re not cut out to be a freelancer.
To make a success of freelance writing, you must be happy to dive in, prepared to drown but confident you’ll learn to swim.
What Qualifications Do You Need to Be a Freelance Writer?
At least you need no formal academic qualifications.
If you have a degree, it may be useful from time-to-time, but it doesn’t matter.
Editors and other paying clients don’t care who you are. They’re not interested in your biography. All that matters is the quality of your work. If you can write, you’re in the game.
But there are informal qualifications. Not least is an ability to write crisp, clean, grammatically correct copy. Which may not be what you’re reading here. This is my informal, personal blog. Here, I relax.
Besides that, you need a cheerful disposition, professionalism, patience, adaptability, passion, determination, a cool business head, and maybe a spark of genius.
Can You Make a Living as a Freelance Writer? Where the Truth Lies
And herein the truth lies. The answer to the question we started with, “Can you make a living as a freelance writer?” has little to do with your schooling, the practicalities of research, the vagaries of an ever-changing market, or the price of fish.
It has everything to do with your personality, your life-skills, and your mindset.
You must love people, the world, and life. Empathy, compassion, involvement, and a wish to help are all attributes of the best writers.
To be a successful freelance writer, you must be a living contradiction; sensitive and thick-skinned, humble and brimming with self-assurance, visionary and realistic; an artist, crafts-person, and entrepreneur all rolled into one.
Above all, you must be in love with words. It helps if the need to write is compulsive, obsessive, urgent, and insatiable. Writing is how you express yourself. It’s integral to your identity.
Think of Christopher Hitchens.
When he was dying of cancer, what did he do? He wrote about it. He was writing on the day he died. There was no question of him thinking, “Oh, I’m dying. I’ll stop writing and focus on more important things.”
To a writer, nothing is more important.
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Image credits: all images (apart from the book covers of my novels and the photo of me) are in the Public Domain and were sourced via the Creative Commons. Click on the image to reveal the name of the artist and the work in the address bar.