Can you REALLY Make a Living Writing?
I’ve not run the numbers, but I’m pretty sure the question I get asked more than any other is whether it’s really possible to make a living writing.
The short answer is “of course it is.” Plenty of people DO make a living writing – and in a variety of ways. Some write articles for other people, some produce corporate communications for businesses, some create and run profitable blogs, and others self-publish and sell their own books. And that’s just the start.
But I know that’s not really the answer people are looking for.
If you’re wondering about writing as a career, it’s reasonable and wise to want to know how optimistic you can be about your prospects. This article sets out to give you truthful answers – with a distinct lack of sugar-coating.
I must start by being harsh but fair.
The first thing you need to consider is what you think qualifies you to make a living writing.
I know that this sounds awfully direct, but it’s important not to be delusional. It’s a depressing reality, but I often receive emails asking about writing work from people I know will struggle to earn a single penny from it. I’m referring to emails that include spelling mistakes, lack capital letters and punctuation, and often show a lack of professional courtesy.
Let’s be honest: People who are sending out emails enquiring about a writing career and falling down on these basics are unlikely to find success.
Unfortunately there’s a whole online marketing industry dedicated to convincing people that being a professional writer is easy. It’s not. There was a time when very average writers could grind out a living writing repetitive and formulaic content, but those days are gone.
Yes, there are still content mills where it’s possible to make some money doing this kind of thing. I’m slightly isolated in this industry for thinking and saying that such sites can be a useful place to learn the ropes. However, to make a good living, doing work that’s enjoyable at least some of the time, you can’t just write. You need to be good at it.
The Attributes of a Successful Freelance Writer
So what does it take to make a success of freelance writing?
The first thing to take note of the fact there’s usually far more to a writing career than crafting your words and offloading them into Microsoft Word. Full-time paid writing jobs are thin on the ground, so for most writers, writing means freelancing. This means you have to think about marketing, finding gigs, admin and accounts – amongst other things.
It often comes as a surprise to aspiring writers when I explain that – in the early days at least – they’ll likely spend as much time hustling for work, sending out pitches and learning more about their craft than they will actually writing.
So let’s start there.
The first attribute of a successful freelance writer is the desire and ability to administer what is essentially a small business, and get out there making contacts and finding work.
But there’s plenty more to think about too. If you’re an aspiring writer, these are the other important qualities you ideally need to have – and why:
- Business acumen and professionalism (so you inspire confidence in potential clients).
- Superior spelling and grammar skills (if you’re the kind of person who constantly notices mistakes in everything you read, this is probably a good thing!)
- A natural flow to your words (have you been complimented on your writing before?)
- Tenacity and determination (because for every writing gig you land, there’ll be a whole bunch you don’t).
- Strong computer skills (everything from creating content to sending out pitch emails is faster if you’re handy with technology).
- The ability to learn and adapt (clients all tend to have different priorities, style guides and quirky requirements).
- Specialist knowledge in one or more niches (so that you can distinguish yourself from the dozens of other writers who will be applying for every job you do!)
Take some time to run through that list and be really honest with yourself about how you measure up. There’s absolutely no point in kidding yourself if you’re lacking some of these skills and abilities.
If you do feel that you fall short, all isn’t necessarily lost. That said, some of these attributes are more easy to learn than others. If you’re not that strong on grammar and haven’t ever stood out as a natural communicator before, you’ll need to be incredibly determined to get to that point.
This is where you have to decide whether you want to be a writer because you have a real passion for it, or because you think it may be a way to make some money. If the only thing that’s made you wonder if you can make a living writing is an advert for a course or a membership scheme, that’s probably not a good enough reason.
What Does Making a Living Writing Mean to You?
With those essentials out of the way, let’s get on to the practical matter of money.
It amuses me when I receive emails from people who ask me if they can make a living writing but tell me nothing about what constitutes “a living” for them.
For example, if you live alone in an inexpensive country in a home that’s bought and paid for, “a living” could mean $1000 or less per month. If you’re only seeking a part-time living, you may need even less.
But at the opposite end of the scale, if you’re living in the UK or US with rent, childcare expenses and big bills to pay, and you’re considering freelance writing as an alternative to a corporate job, you clearly need to find a LOT more than $1000!
That’s why it’s never possible for me to provide an easy answer to those who ask me about this – but hopefully I can give you at least a bit of a steer.
The first thing you need to work out is what you actually need, noting that what you want might be different. We’ve all heard of the “struggling writer” cliché, and it’s not something to romanticise if you’re seriously considering taking this path.
Before you walk away from a lucrative career to pursue a writing dream, make sure you accept that getting to the “what you need” financial goal can take time, and getting to the “what you want” one can take even longer.
Once you have an idea of what you do need, you can start to look at some of the writing gigs out there and do some research on what people are being paid.
Writing Income for Beginners: A Quick Example
Let’s run through an example:
For good writers who tick all the boxes we discussed above, there’s really no shortage of writing work out there paying about $50 for a 1000 word article (five Cents per word). I sometimes pay novices that much myself.
Experienced writers will no doubt turn their nose up at such rates, but for beginners they’re not too shabby. If you’re writing about a subject you’re well-versed in, you can usually write a good 1000 words in two hours or less, making this a minimum hourly rate of $25.
The issue is finding enough of the work.
If your income target is only $1000 per month and you can find five such articles per week at those rates, that’s actually all you need – and you could get that work done within one day per week.
But if you need to earn something more like $5000 per month you clearly need to write a lot more or find some much higher rates.
Those higher rates can and do come, so don’t be too disheartened if this all seems insurmountable. In the writing world, writing 20 articles per month rarely means finding (and pitching to) 20 clients! What tends to happen is that a client will hire you for an initial article, and that then evolves into an “x articles per week” relationship if they’re suitably impressed with your work.
IMPORTANT: The above is just an example. It’s by no means pointing to five Cents per word as any kind of industry standard.
How Freelance Writing Careers Evolve
With the above in mind, this is how a successful writing career evolves for many writers:
It looks simple, and it is. There’s no secret sauce and no mystery, much as many online marketers would like you to believe there was!
The Importance of Diversification
One very important thing to avoid is the following type of thinking:
“Right, I need $2000 per month; I’ve got a client paying me $200 per article and committing to ten per month. I’m there. I’m done!”
Clients come and go, and they don’t only go when you do something wrong. Anything from a change in strategy to a merger or a buy-out can turn a friendly cash-cow to dust.
If you only have one client when that happens, you have a major problem. You can literally go from several thousand “certain” Dollars per month to being back on the job boards hustling for single articles (and fending off the bottom-feeders who only want to pay five bucks for them!)
Only having a single client also does almost nothing for your personal portfolio.
I don’t think I need to say much more on this particular tip. Suffice to say I’ve ignored it myself in the past and come to regret it.
There’s More to Writing than Articles
You’ve probably noticed that this guide has concentrated on working for clients on a “per article” basis. That’s because that’s how the majority of people kick off their freelance writing careers. However, there’s far more on offer in the freelance writing world.
Here are some examples of the many other ways people make a living writing – and it’s far from an exhaustive list:
- Writing books – fiction or non-fiction – and selling them on Amazon via Kindle Direct Publishing and CreateSpace.
- Writing press releases for agencies.
- Producing technical documentation.
- Setting up authority blogs and earning money from advertising and affiliate deals.
- Doing some “local” writing for printed publications.
- Writing product descriptions or other bulk content via content mills and other online platforms.
- Writing advertising copy or sales letters.
The best strategy here is to try to do more than one of these things. Remember we spoke about diversification? Well that’s how you do it right there.
I personally have regular article writing jobs, blogs of my own, and a book out on Amazon that yields monthly royalties. And even after many years of (relative) confidence about my earning ability, I wouldn’t want to be without logons for a couple of content mills – just in case!
I can’t answer the question of whether someone can make a living writing with a simply “yes” or “no.” As you can see, there are myriad factors in play.
What I hope this article has done is help you to understand what those factors are, and made it easier for you to see how feasible making a living writing is for YOU.
If you’d like some personal help getting off the starting blocks, I offer a very limited number of personal coaching slots each month. You’ll find details here.