Words on a Page Writings about writing

A look at some of the realities of being a freelance writer

A laptop and a pair of notebooks

It sounds like a sweet gig, doesn’t it? Write what you want, for whomever you want to. And get paid for it. Best of all, you’re not tied down to a desk in a cubicle in some office building somewhere.

That’s a common perception of freelance writing. And some of it’s true. While slinging a freelance typewriter for a living can be rewarding, it’s also a lot of work. More work than many new or wannabe freelancers realize.

There a number of realities about the life of a freelance writer that you need to face before you make the jump. Here’s a look at a few of them.

You’re on your own

Sure, you might know other writers who can refer work to you or can offer you some support. But when it comes to doing the work, you’re on your own.

You don’t have other members of a team to fall back on, or who can pick up any slack. You have to make sure that:

  1. You can complete any work you take on within the deadline, and
  2. The work is of a high enough standard to keep the client happy

That means knowing your own limitations and abilities. It also means being able to manage your time efficiently and effectively.

Drumming up business is hard work

I know very few freelancers who have work fall into their laps. If they do, it doesn’t happen consistently. That’s the dream, but dreams are free. You have to pay for the reality.

And that payment is doing a lot of leg work. A lot of applying for gigs, cold calling, contacting clients and former customers. All of that kind of thing.

You can expect to spend anywhere from 15% to 20% of your time prospecting for business. If you’re an introvert, you have to push beyond that barrier and learn how to sell yourself and your services.

You won’t get every gig

When I started freelancing back in the late 1980s and early 1990s, I read that if you had three or four pitches out of 10 accepted you were doing really well. That metric applied to querying magazines and newspapers, but could easily apply to other writing gigs too.

Not much has changed. Well, that’s not true. The amount of competition has increased. And there are writers who are willing to work for less than you are. In some cases, much less.

Get used to the fact that only a small number of your applications and pitches will be given a green light.

You’ll probably have to take on a variety of work

In my early days as a freelance writer, I hoped to be able to support myself writing articles for newspapers and magazines. And maybe penning the odd book.

That didn’t turn out quite as I expected it to. I found I had to take on editing and proofreading work, with the occasional corporate contract, to be able to pay the bills.

Most of you won’t be able to support yourself just writing articles or blog posts. You’ll probably need to take on contract gigs, usually in the corporate sphere, to pay the bills. And that’s OK — corporate writing is still writing.

What kinds of gigs can you make a play for? They range from marketing to copywriting to content marketing to technical writing. None of that writing is glamorous. It’s probably not what you want to write or are interested in writing. It does pays the bills and it can give you some financial breathing space to write what want.

You probably won’t get rich

For most of us, freelance writing isn’t the path to wealth. It never really has been, and I don’t think it ever will be. Most of us, however, don’t get into the business to strike it rich.

If you’re good, if you hustle, you can make a living as a freelance writer. That living can range from being decent to being quite comfortable. The type of living you’ll make will depend on the amount and quality of the work you take and on what you charge.

There will be times when work dries up

Sometimes, that happens unexpectedly. I know writers who have gone months without a steady gig or steady stream of assignments. It’s happened to me a couple of times.

That might be due to an increase in competition, editorial calendars being full, or clients not having the budgets to hire a freelancer.

When work dries up, it can be demoralizing. It can sap your motivation and confidence. But you shouldn’t let it get you down.

You’ll need to get creative about revenue streams

For most freelancers, gone are the days when we could support ourselves with one type of writing. Or with writing in general. Now, you might need to find other ways to pull in a buck or two (or whatever your unit of currency is).

You’ll need to keep your mind and imagination open to any and all options. Options like paid blogging, ghostwriting, creating online courses, writing books. If you have the skills, you could even try doing something like content strategy or web design.

Diversification doesn’t just ensure you’ll have a variety of work. It can keep money flowing in when certain types of work dry up.

It’s not all gravy

Imagine getting your first payment as a freelance writer. Let’s say it’s a cheque for $1,500. A tidy sum, to be sure. Realize, however, not all of it’s going into your pocket.

As a freelance writer, you’ll need to set aside some of your earnings for various taxes, for health insurance, for your retirement plan. You might even want, or need, to contribute to unemployment insurance (or its equivalent in your neck of the woods).

All of that eats into what finally winds up in your bank account. They’re necessary evils. Some would argue that they’re evils, period.

I advise new freelancers that they need to pay taxes and pay their bills first, then pay themselves. You might not have a lot of money left over, but you’ll still be in business.

I also advise freelancer writers, new or experienced, to hire an accountant or bookkeeper if they can afford it. Why? They can do the fiddly number crunching for you, which lets you write and try to drum up more business.

Final thoughts

There’s more to being a freelance writer than writing. It’s a tough profession. It can also be an interesting and rewarding one. If you’re prepared to face the realities of being a freelance writer then you’ll be ahead of your competition.

Thoughts? Let's start a conversation on Twitter.