So You Want to Be a Freelance Writer: The Truth About Writing for Pay

Writing for pleasure doesn't exactly pay the bills.

As most of my regular readers already know, I'm a fourth-year university student with tuition and books to pay for, and unfortunately for me, no one is throwing wads of cash at me for my devastatingly witty blog posts each week. 

Pictured: not the average writer's experience.

In order to keep myself in textbooks and wine coolers that my student self so desperately needs, I work as a freelance writer. It's a simple enough way to make money - someone asks me to write something, I write it, they pay me - but every time I mention what I do for a "living", I end up bombarded with disbelieving stares and ceaseless questions. Since most of my friends are at least somewhat literate, those questions are often to the tune of "how do I get started"? Freelance writing may be simple, but the process of starting out is anything but.

So if you're interested in embarking on your own freelance writing adventures, or if you're merely interested in reading about the inconveniences and hardships of the career path in order to bolster your already-immense admiration for me, keep in mind that:


You don't get to write what you want. 

Before I embarked on a freelance writing career, I specialized in writing exactly two things: fiction and snarky blog posts. That's about it. Now, how much of a paying, for-hire market do you suppose there is for either of those things?

If you answered with hysterical laughter followed by gentle sobbing, you're right!

"I'm sorry, ma'am, there's just no market for your creepy Twilight fanfiction."

The problem is that entertainment writing just happens on its own; no one needs to shell out any money to make sure that stories keep getting written. Even if the entire publishing industry were to go up in flames tomorrow, intrepid writers would continue to churn out novels and blogs for the meager reward of page hit counts and a little recognition.

"But wait!" you shout, because you're obviously very passionate about this topic, "what about ghostwriting?" Sure, fiction ghostwriting exists, but it's not what you expect - there's no "write an awesome fantasy novel and reap the sweet, sweet benefits when your wealthy patron gets it published". Almost every listing you'll ever see for a freelance fiction writing job goes something like this:

"I've got what I think is the coolest, most original idea for a novel in the history of mankind, but I don't have the time/patience/skill to actually write it. I need someone who writes like a combination of Stephen King, Douglas Adams and J. K. Rowling - I will accept nothing less. The book should be about 25,000 words, because I have no idea what the industry standards for word count are, and I'm going to make you sign a series of questionable legal documents I made from Word templates to ensure you can't so much as hint at the fact that you had anything to do with its creation. Also, I'm going to need your help getting it published. Pays $200." 

Even those jobs are few and far between; should you actually accept one, you'll become the poster's personal writer on a string. You'll be expected to take the half-baked "Japanese teenagers trapped in a love dodecahedron" idea you were handed and hammer out a coherent plot, while simultaneously fielding all the suggestions, ideas, changes, character descriptions, edits and embellishments that are emailed to you around the clock. Even if you pull it off and create a literary masterpiece, you may find yourself the target of the poster's wrath when they realize that publishers won't touch ghostwritten fiction with a generously long pole.

Fiction ghostwriting sucks, is what I'm saying.

Articles are the bread and butter of freelance writing. Unlike fiction, articles don't just spring forth unbidden from the Internet - no one wakes up in the morning and goes "Gosh, I think I'll write up a detailed guide to troubleshooting my favourite blender and give the rights to the manufacturer so they can post it on their website". Companies need to pay for that to happen, and there are some weird companies out there looking for writers. Every freelance job board out there is a smorgasbord of bizarre jobs that need doing. If you want steady work and you're planning to write in only one or two fields, like parenting articles or makeup tutorials, you're out of luck. Almost every freelance writer eventually has to suck it up and take on whatever work they can find. 

I've written about places I've never been, schools I've never attended, and products I can't even buy in this country. My job history includes topics I know nothing about, like lipstick, childcare, one night stand etiquette, pet names, VPN server configuration, educational toys, iPhones, and boot sector errors, and topics I'm in no way qualified to write about, like architectural standards, building codes, child rearing, stimulant-based medications and fasting diets. Even if you head into a freelance writing career with the intention of specializing, you'll quickly find that your topic selection process consists of little more than seeing a posting for twelve articles about denture adhesive and thinking "I guess I could do that."

You'll start out making less than minimum wage. 

Let's say you're getting $8.00 to write a 400-word article, and you can type 60 words per minute. Even if you take five minutes to plan the article and two minutes to sit around and fantasize about the day that Alan Rickman will burst through your door to take you away from this provincial life, you should be able to crank out articles quickly enough to earn yourself a decent living... right?


Someday my prince will come.

Of course not - at least, not right away. Did you read the previous section? Most of the time you'll be writing about things that you know absolutely nothing about. When that happened in high school, you could fill two pages with "therefore"s, "as such"s, and "Oh please, Mr. Cooper, I'd do just anything - and I do mean anything - to pass this class"s, but that trick won't work on an employer who does know the material you're writing about. Almost everything you write will require some research. If it's a topic you're familiar with, that might mean browsing Wikipedia for a few minutes to make sure that you're on the right track. If you signed up to write a technical computer manual despite the fact that you treat your laptop as little more than a Facebook machine, you might need to pore over guides and tutorials for hours before you're even ready to make the outline. Just remember, you're not getting paid for any of that research. It doesn't matter if it takes you five minutes or five days - you're still only making $8.00.

And don't even get me started on employers who make you conduct original medical research.

Once you've got your feet under you and start taking on bigger jobs, price estimation becomes an issue. What's a reasonable price for a 15,000 word eBook? $200? $300? $500? $1000 or more? Remember, you're probably competing against a dozen or more writers for every single job - bid too high and you risk losing the job to someone who's asking for less money. But bid too low, and you might find yourself earning less per hour than the person who served up your much-needed morning coffee. 

This person makes more money than most freelance writers.

Compounding the problem is the tidal wave of English-speaking writers from faraway lands like India, Pakistan and Egypt, and beginner writers desperate to get a foot in the door, who flood freelancing job boards with bids to do jobs for a fraction of the cost of other writers. Whenever you stumble across a job that you'd consider to be worth around $100, you can be sure that other writers are offering to do it for $15 or less. If you want your freelancing job to be more profitable than picking up cans off the side of the highway, you need to prove to each employer that you're worth every penny you charge. 

You are stuck in a catch-22 before you even start. 

 If you've ever searched for any kind of gainful employment at any point in your life, you already know this one - to get a job, you need experience, and to get experience, you need a job. That's especially true of writers. As a freelance writer, your entire career hinges on your reputation - when you're competing with dozens of other writers, it's tough to convince an employer to hire you if they've never heard of you and don't know anything about you.


On the internet, nobody knows you're a monkey.

Having a writing sample helps, but not as much as you might think. Sure, if you turn in a garbled heap of half-translated Chinese as a writing sample, employers will know not to hire you. But even if you do present them with Pulitzer-quality samples, there's no way to guarantee that it was actually you who wrote that - you could have easily swiped it from someone else. Most importantly, no writing sample you can provide will show someone what you'll actually be like as an employee. Maybe you don't answer emails. Maybe you need constant reassurance that your writing is good. Maybe you handle all requests for edits by mailing parcels filled with a variety of animal feces to your employer. Probably none of those things are true, but until you've gathered reviews, ratings and testimonials that say otherwise, prospective clients look at you as little more than a scruffy urchin clutching a pen. 

This is you.

So how do you get ahead? The options aren't pretty. The easiest way to break into freelance writing is to offer to work for next to nothing. When you've got no work history and no one to vouch for you, the allure of saving a few dollars might be enough to convince a client to take a chance on you. Yes, it sucks, and it means that you'll have to put off having your J.D. Salinger-shaped swimming pool installed while you eat ramen in a cardboard box for a while. A better option is to take on projects that are so unappealing, you're one of the only writers who bids on them. I'm not talking about taking on requests for erotica, either - writers will line up around the block for a shot at writing that for pay. I mean bidding on postings for comprehensive, 20 000 word technical reports about the performance benchmarks of an obscure graphics chip. If you're a brand new freelance writer and you spot a listing filled with technical jargon that required at least twelve Google searches to understand, then congratulations - she's all yours, champ.

How did I land my first freelance writing job? I, uh, did neither of those things. A client read the older, equally snarky blog I used to run and offered me a job based entirely on my unusual writing style. So that's an option too, I guess. 

The steadiest work isn't always morally upstanding. 

Freelance writing careers can be fickle; sometimes, you'll finish off all of your existing jobs and just won't be able to find another right away. Freelance work has a very high turnover rate; your joblessness may last a few hours, a few days, or longer. Unfortunately, you've got cat food and internet porn bills to pay, and you might not be able to afford to just sit at your computer in your underwear for a few days, waiting for work to come along. Well, there is steady work out there, but you're not going to like it.

If you've flipped on a news broadcast on any slow news day, you might have learned that the only thing bigger than mommy and daddy's dream of seeing junior go off to Harvard is mommy and daddy's bank account.


The typical modern mother. Apparently.

Unfortunately for them, Ivy League universities don't auction off their seats to the highest bidder. So what are wealthy parents to do? They could do the responsible thing and hire tutors, of course, but private lessons would take away from their precious darling's video game time, and besides, tutors can't guarantee that he'll stop throwing rocks at peasants long enough to actually write a decent essay. No, if it's a guarantee they want, the only thing to do is to hire a professional writer to crap out a prizewinning high school essay. And that's where you come in.

This is your boss now.

The 'essay writer for hire' business is booming, as students from middle school to the late years of PhD programs discover the joys of cheating to get ahead. And since teachers don't seem to find it at all suspicious that students who have to sound out the tricky words in class can suddenly write like James Joyce, the trend shows no signs of slowing down. For a freelance writer, it's tempting. The work is easy and decent-paying; all you really need is a copy of The Catcher in the Rye and you can make yourself a comfortable living by joining an essay mill or going it alone. All you need is a feeble conscience and a little disclaimer saying that students really shouldn't hand in your products to their teachers, because gosh, that's not very honest, and you can pretend that your work isn't morally questionable.

Now the big question is, have I ever done a student's homework for money? I don't think I have, but I can't be sure. Remember, freelance job boards are filled with everything from tech start-ups looking for someone to write their blog posts, to wealthy old perverts looking for custom Blues Clues erotic fanfiction. You can't always be certain who you're really writing for. Sure, that article on obsessive compulsive disorder might be for a mental health website, or it might get handed in as homework to a college professor. It's not always easy to tell.

You might work for terrible people. 

I need to put a preface on this section: I've been very lucky in my freelance writing career, and thus far, all of my clients have been professional, courteous, and upstanding. I don't have any personal horror stories to tell. My freelancing friends, however, have not been so lucky.

The worst kind of client is one who straight up rips you off. You slave over a project for hours or days, making sure that every phrase is worded properly and every bit of punctuation is in the right place. You turn that sucker in and wait for your payment, but it never arrives. Weeks pass, your emails to the client go unanswered, and all the other contact information you were given turns out to be fake. You've been duped. These clients are awful, but fortunately, they're easy to avoid. Scam artists prey on the 'Golly gee, mister, you want to pay little ol' me to write? This is a dream come true!' mentality that makes beginners too timid to make demands of their clients. Here's a demand you should always be making: use an Escrow service. Escrow services - which are built in features of most freelancing job boards like Elance -  act as an impartial third party to your transaction. The client gives your pay to the service before the job starts, and when you show the service that the job is finished, they release the money to you. Yes, they take a small percentage for themselves, but it's not a lot to pay for peace of mind.


When possible, avoid taking jobs from cartoon villains. 

Other kinds of terrible clients are more subtle. For instance, during one of your slower weeks, you might take on a job that pays a little less than you're accustomed to. No big deal - you hand it in, collect your pay, and start searching for the next scrap of work. Then, sometime later, when things are slow again and you're that special kind of bored, you Google a few quotes from the low-paying piece to see where it ended up. You do find it, but to your surprise, it's accredited to a freelance writing company you have no affiliation with. Since you don't remember accidentally gaining employment as a staff writer, you do a little digging and learn that this particular company not only sold your article to another client, but they got more money for it than you did. What's going on?

You've fallen victim to a middleman. There are a surprising number of groups and individuals out there who seem to sustain themselves solely by taking on high-paying jobs from clients and then outsourcing them to other, lower-paid writers and keeping the difference. It's despicable, and the real client has no idea that only half of their money is going to the person who really wrote their articles, while the rest gets pocketed by some random jackass who may or may not actually know how to write. 

How I envision people who do this. 

Then there are blackmailing clients. Since freelancers who work for larger boards like Odesk and Elance rely on client reviews in order to secure work, sometimes clients take advantage of this system and threaten to leave poor, scathing reviews if the hapless writer doesn't do a metric shitload of free work for them. For writers who only have a handful of reviews to their name, this sort of thing could really cripple their chances at finding future work. Luckily, the review system is a two-way street; some sites let writers leave poor reviews of bad clients, and most sites allow writers report abuse. As long as you refuse to back down to an abusive client, you shouldn't have anything to worry about.

Got any questions or comments about freelance writing? Leave them in the comments!

8 comments

  1. It brings back memories. In the beginning of the century I did a lot of ghostwriting. I had a lot of great clients but a few were terrible. Really terrible. One of them made me rewrite a book 5 times. When she asked me to rewrite it again I was so furious and tired that I did nothing and, after a week of secret vacation, submitted the first draft again. Surprise: they accepted it.

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    1. Urgh, that's terrible. I'm really crossing my fingers that I don't run into anyone like that... You really should have been paid for copyediting after the second draft. :P

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  2. This was great read. I've encountered a couple of these issues and noticed some of the others happening. I'm just barely getting started myself so great advice, Thanks

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  3. become a freelancer writer, you have to get good writing skills. You have to be good in grammar and vocabulary. It will help you to describe any things.

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  4. Great article, very useful for beginners in freelancing. I often worked with them www.proficientwriters.com/freelance-writer. It was not difficult because I had a good experience in writing something. If you are a beginner, I advise you not afraid of difficulties and believe in yourself. This will help you cope with any difficulties and become true professionals.

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  5. Janel you have shared really useful information here. Love you writing style, you have defined everything properly about a freelance writer.


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