Want to write for a living? Here’s what you need to know…
Do you dream of making a living from words? Do you have visions of sitting on an idyllic beach, typing away on your laptop, whilst sipping from a coconut? Maybe you picture yourself at some secluded retreat, isolated from the world, whilst you create your next masterpiece?
If you’ve got a passion for words and are willing to work hard, then it is quite possible that these dreams can become reality. However, before you leave the day job and run off to put pen to paper, there are a few things you should consider.
Here’s what you need to know if you want to make money as a freelance writer.
What type of writer will you be?
The word ‘writer’ is very vague. There are lots of types of writer and each requires different skills. Being a writer isn’t solely about being good at writing. It does help to have a good command of the language you are writing in but there’s more to it than that. Some people prefer creative writing, whereas others are drawn to technical writing. Some people can switch between genres, whilst others specialise in a specific area.
Before you start marketing yourself as a writer, it’s worth spending a bit of time working out which route is best suited to you.
I’ll start with copywriting as this is my specialist area. Even the term copywriter is extremely broad. ‘Copy’ refers to the text part of any sales, marketing or advertising materials. Some copywriters choose to focus solely on print or digital, some specialise in one type of copy such as packaging or websites, whereas others cover a wide range.
Types of copy you could write include:
- Landing pages
- Meta descriptions
- Pay per click ads
- Banner ads
- Video scripts
- Social media posts
- Direct mail
- Press ads
- Flyers & leaflets
- Press releases
- Book covers
- Window displays
- Vehicle graphics
- Brand names
Good sales skills are extremely useful in copywriting. The purpose of copy is to try and convince, persuade or inspire the reader to take an action. Copy doesn’t need to be flowery or complex; the more concise you can be the better. You need to get messages across as succinctly as you can.
A ghostwriter is somebody who writes material that somebody else will put their name to. A good example of this is when celebrities write books. Quite often, a ghostwriter writes the book and the celebrity simply puts their name to it. You can make a good income through ghostwriting but you’ll rarely ever get credit for your work.
Ghostwriting isn’t limited to books, it can be applied to any written material. I often write blogs or magazine articles for clients and they are published under the client’s name. Public figures or directors in large corporations may also use ghostwriters to write official correspondence, presentations or speeches.
To be a ghostwriter you need to be able to adapt your writing style to suit the person you are writing for. You need to write in their tone of voice.
Journalists write news stories or articles for newspapers and magazines, either online or printed. They may also prepare news stories for radio or TV broadcast.
Journalists often specialise in a specific area such as sports journalism, crime reports or political updates. Some journalists may report solely on local issues, whereas others may cover national news stories.
Researching, interviewing and information-gathering are key skills for a journalist. Quite often, you won’t be the only journalist covering a story, event or topic and it can be hard to make your article stand out. Reporting accurately is important, but you need to make your story more engaging than your competitors’ if you want to attract readers.
Bloggers write regular content for a defined audience. Your blog could be about anything; fashion, gardening, parenting, business, marketing, food, travel. The important thing is to understand who your readers are or which readers you want to attract and write blog posts they want to read.
Bloggers can make money in various ways. Your blog itself can be a source of income through paid advertising or affiliate marketing. To make money this way, you do need to build up a strong following. If nobody visits your blog, then why would anyone pay to advertise there?
Another way to make money is to ghostwrite blogs for somebody else and get paid for your time. This could be for a specific client, a specific industry or a variety of businesses.
If you have an in-depth knowledge of a subject, blogging can be a good way to get started in writing. You will build your confidence and your writing skills. Journalistic skills can be very useful for bloggers.
Report writing is exactly what it sounds like; you write reports for people. This could be for any industry; technology, healthcare, education, finance.
You may be able to find work as a freelance report writer but you will usually require an in-depth knowledge of the industry for which you are writing. Many report writers work in-house for companies and have a degree in a relevant field.
You need to be able to analyse data and present it clearly for a specific audience. You’ll require good analytical skills, technical writing skills and meticulous attention to detail to ensure data is presented accurately.
A technical writer researches and creates documents such as user manuals, online help guides, training materials, design specifications, product descriptions, project plans and other technical materials.
Being a technical writer often requires the ability to take information and present it in a clear, accurate and comprehensive way for the intended audience. Engineering companies, technology companies, scientists, manufacturers and financial services are examples of industries that may require technical writers.
Speeches have the power to change the world but the people delivering them aren’t always the people who write them. Many politicians, government officials and senior executives use speechwriters.
To be successful as a speechwriter, it is beneficial to have a knowledge of basic economics, politics or policy issues or of the organisation you are writing for. You’ll also need to be able to write in a tone and style that matches the person who will deliver the speech.
If you have a good knowledge of a subject or are prepared to carry out the research, you could make a living writing non-fiction essays, white papers or books. These can be on any subject; history, finance, business, sports, science, travel or anything else.
Hundreds of thousands of books are written every year so there is tough competition. Chances are you won’t become a best-selling author overnight but if you are prepared to put in the work marketing your books or get a good agent, you may be able to make a reasonable living this way.
There is tough competition as a novelist. Self-publishing is on the rise and not all authors go down the traditional route of publishing. This has advantages and disadvantages. It is easier to get your book published but it does also mean there is an abundance of poor quality books out in the world.
Like most other types of writing, there are various genres to choose from including romance, erotica, science-fiction, thrillers, children’s stories. Many authors tend to stick to one, although some cover multiple genres.
Being a novelist takes a good imagination, creative writing skills and a lot of patience. However, there are many novelists that have made their fortunes through writing.
A screenwriter writes scripts for TV or radio shows, films and even video games. These could be original scripts or screenplays adapted from books, plays or comics.
Most screenwriters are freelance and start their career by writing scripts on spec. This means that they don’t get paid or they only get paid if the script is used. Once you are established as a screenwriter, it can be a lucrative business.
Script-doctoring is another way to make money in this area. This involves rewriting existing scripts to make dialogue or characters stronger.
You don’t need any professional qualifications to become a screenwriter but you will need a good imagination and storytelling ability.
A playwright, also known as a dramatist, writes stage plays. This is a competitive market. Stage has far more limitations than TV or film, so playwrights must have the ability to write strong characters.
You need a good imagination and a knowledge of how to write for the stage, although no formal qualification is needed.
Poet or Lyricist
Writing poetry or song lyrics is another avenue if you are creative. Poems can be used for greetings cards or gifts or you may decide to publish a collection of poems as a book. There are also numerous poetry competitions offering cash prizes for winners. Song writing is competitive but new bands who don’t write their own material may pay you if your lyrics suit their style.
Writing reviews as a professional critic is another income stream for writers. This could be reviewing events, concerts, plays, books, restaurants or venues. You may choose to do this for your own site or blog, alternatively, some sites or publications will pay for honest, well-written reviews.
Editing can be an alternative option to writing. Your job is to make someone else’s work the best it can be. Some works will only need minor edits, whereas others will need a lot of work. It is very common for authors to work with an editor as they become so close to the subject on which they are writing that they find it difficult to be objective when it comes to refining the copy.
A good editor will find the balance between retaining the author’s ideas and tone of voice, whilst making the copy as engaging as possible for the reader.
If you have an eye for detail and a good knowledge of spelling, grammar and punctuation, then you may decide to stick to proofreading material rather than writing it yourself. Businesses and authors will often pay for a proofreader to give their work a final check before it is published. Nobody wants to pay a fortune for hundreds of books or marketing materials that are ruined by a few stray typos.
If you are fluent in multiple languages and can write to an excellent standard, then you could get paid to translate documents or online content.
Building your skills
Once you have an idea of what type of writing you are interested in, you need to build your skills. Simply being good at writing isn’t enough, you must understand the area you want to specialise in if you want to make a career out of it.
Research the industry. If you want to write plays, learn the basics of how theatre works. If you want to be a blogger, research what makes a blog successful and how to market it.
Read as much as you can around the area you want to work in. That can be reading other people’s work or reading about the technical aspects of your chosen area. Google is an excellent place to start, you can find articles on pretty much anything. Alternatively, here are some of my book recommendations, depending on which area you are interested in:
The original version of this writing style guide was written in 1918 and it has been revised several times since then. This is an absolute must-read for anyone who writes for a living or wants to improve their writing style.
You might also like to subscribe to Writing Magazine which is packed full of writing tips and advice. This is more aimed at creative writers, but does occasionally have articles on business writing. It also lists publications accepting features and stories, and lists a host of writing competitions and events.
You don’t just wake up as a brilliant writer, it takes practice to hone your skills. Even some of the most accomplished writers will admit that when they started out, they produced some mediocre work. The more you write, the better you will get.
Courses are a great investment if you are serious about writing for a living. There are hundreds of writing courses available in all the writing areas we have mentioned above. These range from one-day workshops, right through to week-long residencies or year-long distance learning courses.
If you’re interested in copywriting as a career, I offer a 12 week one-on-one training and mentoring programme.
You might find it beneficial to work for an agency before setting up on your own. This can give you valuable experience and a good insight into the areas you want to work in with the security of a full-time salary.
When trying to break into competitive areas such as screenwriting or novel writing, you are unlikely to get paid before you have done the work. For business writing such as copywriting or blogging, you could offer to complete a project for free for a charity or friend to get some experience and build your portfolio. Once you have one or two examples of your work, you should be able to start charging.
Many freelancers start out writing around a full-time job. This gives you a chance to build up a client base and hone your skills. Once you are ready to make the move to full-time freelancer, here are the areas that need attention.
Although you may have a handful of clients already, it’s important that you source enough work to pay your bills. This means you need to market your services.
Networking events can be a good way to build connections and find work as a business writer. Connect with agencies that outsource and let them know that you have availability.
For creative writing, it’s not enough to just write a book, you will need to promote it too. If you have written a play or film script, you’ll need to find an agent or try to contact producers yourself.
A website is an excellent marketing tool. You can promote your services and use your blog to showcase your writing style and knowledge. You should also spend time promoting your services or your books on social media. The more people that know about you, the more business you are likely to find.
Setting your prices
Pricing can be a very tricky area. It’s very easy to undervalue your skills. When you price up a project, you have to take into consideration all the time needed to research, write, edit and proofread your work. You also need to consider the time needed to complete any amendments. At first, this can take a bit of getting used to, but after a while, you’ll get a feel for how long a project will take.
You also need to account for other costs and time spent marketing, doing admin and taking care of running your business. It is unlikely you will be writing 40 hours a week if you are running a business at the same time, so your billable work has to cover your non-billable time.
It is highly likely that you will have clients who try and get your prices down. Stick to your guns. If that’s what you think you are worth, then don’t sell yourself short. Being competitive is fine but do you really want to be known as cheap? You’ll end up only attracting low-paying work and you’re unlikely to be able to sustain this long-term. What if you get too busy doing low-paid work that you don’t have a chance to go out and win the high-paying work?
There may be some instances where you want to offer a discount to win a project. Perhaps you know it will lead to much more work or it’s a project you really want to work on. It’s up to you when you discount but don’t do it every time.
Set yourself targets. To earn an amount you are happy with, how many projects do you need to win each month and at what average price?
Finding your niche
When you first set out, you may not know exactly which direction you want to go in. It’s fine to try a few different projects and take on some things you aren’t sure about whilst you find your feet.
You’ll quickly realise what type of work you enjoy, which projects you feel most comfortable with, which work earns the most money.
Eventually, you may decide to become very specialist. For example, you might decide that you will only offer a direct mail writing service. If this is what you enjoy and what you are good at, then you can position yourself as an expert. You’ll be comfortable and confident and you will become known as a specialist in this area.
Choosing your hours
Many people think that being self-employed means picking and choosing your hours and working when you feel like it. Unfortunately, this is only true to a certain point.
Time management skills and organisation are key. You need to allow plenty of time to complete work and still allow time to win more work. If you work solely on paid projects, then once you’ve completed them, you’ll have nothing lined up. You’ll then have weeks of lining up more work but not earning any money, followed by another period of heavy workloads.
In the early days of your business, you are highly likely to experience this “feast and famine” when it comes to workload. This often means having to work evenings and weekends as well as all week to meet deadlines. Your plans for working three-day weeks will soon disappear.
As you build regular work and become better at managing your time, you’ll start to get more consistency. That’s when you can start to pick and choose your hours.
Choosing your projects
Again, this is a very nice idea that doesn’t always work out immediately. When you are building your experience and reputation, you may have to take some projects that you find difficult or don’t enjoy. You may also have to tolerate clients that aren’t pleasant to work with.
As you grow your business, some of your best clients may ask you to complete projects that you would usually refuse. You then need to decide whether to keep your best client happy by accepting the work or risk letting them down by saying no.
As you build your business and find your niche, you’ll find it easier to attract more of the projects you want and you can start turning away the work you don’t. Connect with other writers; it looks more professional if you can recommend someone else who can help rather than just turning clients away completely.
Writing can be a very isolated profession. The difficult part is dealing with the self-doubt that can creep in. If you aren’t connecting with other people, how do you know if you are doing it right?
You need someone to bounce ideas off, pick you up when you have a bad day and reassures you when a client gives bad feedback or questions your pricing.
Make sure you have a support network. Join a writing group, find a mentor or connect with other freelancers who you can call on for advice or encouragement.
Sometimes you might need to collaborate with other companies. For example, if you are writing website copy, you might need to work closely with a web designer. If you are creating a brochure, there might be a graphic designer or photographer involved. It is worth building your own network of creatives who you are comfortable working with and can recommend to clients.
It is also worth understanding the very basics of these professions so that you make the collaboration run as smoothly as possible. If you’re easy to work with, then the other collaborators are more likely to recommend you for future projects.
7 things to remember
There is value in what you do
Not everyone will value your skills so it’s important that you do. Don’t let those that don’t understand what you do make you doubt yourself.
The customer isn’t always right
You’re never writing for yourself, you are writing for the reader. And the reader isn’t always the person paying you, so be prepared to push back sometimes.
Not everyone will love your work
Everyone has different tastes. That’s why we don’t all like the same books, films or works of art. Accept that not everyone will like your style.
It will never be perfect
You can edit and edit and edit and still it might never be perfect. Make it the very best it can be and know when to stop editing.
You will never know everything
Never stop learning. The biggest mistake you can make is thinking that you know everything. Keep reading, researching and improving.
There will always be someone ‘better’
You will get professional envy and it’s a good thing. It’s important to admire, respect, and appreciate other writers, otherwise, you get complacent.
You love writing
When times get tough, you get writer’s block, or you’re working on something you aren’t enjoying, remember why you started out. You love writing.
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