May 21, 2024

Can You Make a Living as a Freelance Writer?


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{*Did you know you can write on Elephant? Here’s how—big changes: How to Write & Make Money or at least Be of Benefit on Elephant. ~ Waylon}


I’ve been a “successful” freelance writer for almost 30 years. Here’s what I know:

Yes. And no.

I got into freelance writing when it was still possible to make a good living writing as an okay writer.

I’m a pretty decent writer. I’ve got a little game. My editing skills are beyond and my resume has some awesome clips on it—so I can get good gigs. Now. But I didn’t start out that way. No one does. In fact, I started out at a time when I was snail mailing queries and waiting for rejections at the mailbox. I typed my first queries on regular paper—and waited for months for answers.

On a side note: I once wrote a piece that I thought was clever enough for The New Yorker. I had had some success in large newspapers way back in 2001 or so and thought I would give it a shot. I did. I failed. But when the envelope arrived way back then, it was in a beautiful linen envelope with the seal of The New Yorker on the outside. My name was handwritten. Inside, on the heftiest linen stationary I had ever held in my hands outside of a high-falutin’ wedding invitation was the most beautiful rejection letter I have ever received—still to this day. On a perfect little piece of New Yorker stationary, the “form” letter of thank you for your submission was followed by the editor’s own hand signing it and suggesting I try again.

I was so smitten with this rejection that I had it hanging over my desk for years and as soon as I got over the rejection, I wondered if The Atlantic had similarly beautiful rejection letters. They do. But the ink was green.

I have lived a lifetime of rejection in my freelance career. You’d think I’d have a thicker skin. I don’t. But if you really feel like even in the age of AI, and total digital media, and videos that have text so people will actually read things, that you still want to try and be a freelance writer for a job, I will tell you what I tell everyone I know who asks me if it can be done.


And yes. Ish.

I am a pretty good writer. I am funny. I’ve had some great successes. And I’ve been ignored by my agent for years. So. I’ve been to the bottom—a little close to something that once looked like the top—and then back to the beginning again. More than once.

I write because I have to. It’s literally the only way I get through a day. I write because I am compelled to write. I am writing this right now without any expectation of payment or that anyone at all will read it. But I am writing it. Why? I’m not sure. Because it’s been swirling around in my brain for a while. Because people ask me all of the time how to be a writer. Because, at the end of the day, I can’t seem to shut up, and if I don’t say it out loud, I will eventually write it down. Somewhere. In the notes section on my phone. On my Google Docs. On a piece of paper in my kid’s notebook from school that I carefully tear out, fold up, and throw in my own notebook. Napkins. At restaurants and bars.

I just write. Finding a way to get paid for it has been challenging to say the least.

I have done just about every job in writing a person could do over the last 30 years. If it was medieval times, I would have been a scribe. Instead, I’ve been a traveling and exploring mother of eight who is just as comfortable in the woods alone with my dogs in the middle of the winter as I am on the bleachers of every sporting event for children ever invented.

Getting into writing now must be one of the most intimidating things ever—because it seems like the easiest thing to do. But it’s not.

I’ve seen the lists and blog posts. Those “10 jobs you can do from home right now” articles. Heck, I’ve written those articles. For money. Freelance writing is always right up there on the list. Why? Because it seems easy. Just write an article on how to do an oil change? Or how to put up drywall? First of all, there are a lot of jobs that don’t pay well for people who can write those articles and are willing to do it. I was. I traveled from Alaska to California in a 1979 International Harvester school bus with five of my eight kids and my now ex-husband for almost two years by writing articles exactly like that. And this.

How then, does one get paid for freelance writing? If I’m being objective, I think you have a few options. You can be a content churner. These are the people who write—and no judgment because, again, I’ve been once of them—for textbroker.com, and other content mills that provide basic SEO-based content for text providers. They write descriptions of products for catalogs, that kind of thing.

I once made $400 a week writing copy for restaurant product online catalogs. They were keyword-stuffed descriptions, but they kept the dogs I was training to run the Iditarod in premium dog food every month and all I had to do was wake up, write copy for a couple of hours (mind-numbing, stab myself in the eyes copy, but copy nonetheless) and then go feed my kids, my dogs, and live my life. It was awesome. So there’s that kind of writing. But it isn’t satisfying in any way at all except monetarily—and I’m not good at doing that for much more than a couple of hours a day.

If you’re not looking to have a writing “career” and you don’t mind copywriting type of work, there is low-paying work to be had doing this kind of thing. It’s extremely low-paying. You may have to DoorDash anyway—but if you have other sources of income and like making a little extra money doing this type of thing, then there it is. Freelance writing at it’s most basic.

If you’re more entrepreneurial, places like fiverr.com exist so you can freelance for clients. This is also something you can do locally. You can make some money offering writing services to businesses locally—whether it’s website copy or brochures or whatever. A lot of businesses are not comfortable writing their own stuff, so hiring it out is usually their best option—but they will not have a decent budget for this type of thing. Offering them a flat rate will be your best bet here, and you’ll at least build a bit of a portfolio. If you can offer other services like WordPress management and other smaller IT-like services, you can create a bit of a business for yourself.

Alternatively, there is the journalism/novel route. This one is the most fun and can pay the most and the least. This is the one I like but never seem to break through on. I have written for newspapers. Big ones. I have written books. A lot of them. I have self-published a book or two. I have a literary agent. I have a book that was reviewed in The New York Times. And yet, here I am, on Medium, just wishing sometimes that what I write means anything at all.

So yeah. It’s a fun gig sometimes. I did get a pretty big check a few times for that first book. And some of the other books too. But I am pretty glad that I also had other income sources. As a mid-grade, mid-reviewed author and essay writer, I broke through enough but not quite enough to make real money.

I think that if I were willing to bust my bum and constantly query and constantly come up with new angles for stories that you pitch to ever-evolving digital and print magazines, I could do better than I do. Rarely do any of them pay well anymore. Rarely do they give the story assignments to anyone except people who have been writing the same types of stories over and over for years. Those people still have good writing jobs—and they’ll never give them up—until the publication goes under (and it will) because the same four people keep writing for it.

There is still a line of thought that you can really “make it” as a writer. And some of you can—and will. Well, maybe one of you. I’ve been trying for 30 years, and it’s never been me. But one good line of bestselling novels—Twilight style—or that often repeated story of J.K. Rowling, the welfare mum turned author billionaire.

My ex-husband once told me that I shouldn’t try and get my work published by a major publisher because that was like becoming a rock star. Well, I did accomplish it, and it felt good. But I most certainly was not—and am not—anything close to a rock star. It did feel good though to accomplish that big publishing achievement.

Could I get there again? I don’t know. But know that it is possible. If you are willing to work and work and work for free and work for other people and write constantly, you might be able to eke out a living. If you’re willing to self-promote the crap out of yourself and create a platform and do all of those things, then you also could probably call yourself a writer and get a lot of influencer money and all of that.

I’m not an influencer though. And I don’t want to be. I don’t want to teach other people how to be a copywriter or write a blog about how you can write and publish. That seems to be what most of the authors who aren’t making it with their books are doing these days.

I just want to write things and make people think and laugh and think some more. I am compelled to write.

Can I make a living at it? Well.

Yes. And no.


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