Freelance Writing For A Living: Part 1
January 28, 2008
One of you (Aimless) asked that I write about becoming a freelance writer. Well, be careful what you wish for, I suppose. I'm starting a series of blog posts on that subject. I'll try to keep them short and focused, because it's a subject I can write on and on and on about. If you have specific questions, ask them, I'll try to answer. If you're an experienced freelancer and you have something to add or disagree with me, please put your 2 cents in.
I've been a full-time freelance writer for about 3-1/2 years. My first paid publication was in 1993 (it was a whopping $50), and I probably could have done this much earlier if I hadn't spent all my time and energy on fiction writing. Now I'm making a LOT more than I did working for Henry Ford Hospital and I love it.
So, Part 1: What do you write?
I'm always discovering new ways of making money writing. But here are some of them.
My writer friend Eric Mayer once said to me, "Magazine writing is brutal."
What he meant was, in terms of making a living, it's hard to do. The pay is all over the board, the work tends to be irregular and unpredictable. That said, I've done a fair amount of it and I find it to be some of the more satisfying writing I do. I do less of it now, but I keep my hand in because you never know when one type of writing will dry up on you.
There are 2 broad types of magazines, consumer and trade. Consumer are the ones you see at the grocery and drug store--Redbook, Cosmo, Time, Newsweek, Guitar World, etc. Trade journals are aimed at specific professional readers--Podiatry Management, which I write for, for podiatrists; Medical Economics, for physicians; Gravel Quarry, or some such thing, aimed at people in the gravel industry. Or, frankly, name an industry, they probably have a magazine aimed at their readers: nursing, medical technologists, lawyers, entrepreneurs, business people, minority business people, retail managers, pizza store owners, food distributors, network administrators, funeral home directors.
I've done a little bit of consumer mag writing. Here's my gut reaction to it: it's hard to break into and unless you're lucky and break into the top ones, the pay is fairly mediocre. I've written a lot for trade publications (as well as websites) and the pay is better, sometimes excellent and they're a lot easier to break into than consumer magazines. Any writer thinks they can write: "11 Ways To Make Improve Your Love Life" for Cosmo, and if they do it successfully, they'll get paid a bundle. But the competition is fierce. Now, can you write, "7 Ways To Increase Your Podiatric Practice's Profits"? Because if you can, or are willing to figure out how--and apply that "7 Ways..." sort of article to different fields, then you're going to break into trade publications.
Ack! That's sort of how I feel about writing for newspapers. I had a nice relationship with The Oakland Press here in Michigan. I wrote very regular book reviews for $75 a pop and the occasional feature, typically about medicine, although I wrote one for the food section. They paid me $150 per piece. Then a new editor-in-chief came in, fired damn near everybody on staff including the editor I worked with, essentially eliminated the book page and cut back on features. I also hear they cut the freelancer rate in half, but I don't know because they were already my worst-paying client. I didn't stick around and find out. I did the book reviewing for the free books and because I was getting paid to read books I was going to read anyway, and I did the features when they were easy to do. I also really liked the editor, which sometimes can make up for a lot of deficiencies. Newspapers are cutting back on everything--staff, pay, etc. That probably means that there will be more openings for freelancers, but the pay will get even worse. The pay sucks now. But it's always an option, particularly if you're trying to break in and get clips for your portfolio.
Big corporations crank out a lot of paper. They write press releases, internal technical manuals, external technical manuals, advertising copy, annual reports, etc. Unlike magazines which typically pay per word, they generally pay per hour or per project. I did some work for the Karmanos Cancer Center in Detroit when I first started out. I charged $40 an hour (a low rate, actually, but I needed the work). The communications department wanted the majority of the center's specialists to be part of an upcoming national directory of cancer specialists, so I got the resumes of about 35 of the docs and wrote their bios and filled out their entry forms. I also put together an internal directory. It wasn't glamorous, but it added up. Karmanos decided they wanted to fill their writing needs internally and asked me if I would apply. I tried to convince them I could do it without being their employee, but apparently they wanted some line-of-sight supervision and I didn't apply for the job. (My guess is what they really wanted was to be able to stick their head in the writer's office at 11:45 and say, "Hey, Mark, Dr. Worthington's got a press conference at 12:00 and we need you to write up a statement for him." I would have been glad to do that for them as a freelancer, but they would have paid a premium for the privilege).
I call it junk mail, but it's direct mail advertising and yes, somebody writes it, yes, somebody gets paid well for it. People like Robert Bly and Peter Bowerman have made excellent money writing this stuff. Not my cup of tea or my type of writing, but don't close your mind to it. It can pay for a lot of lattes.
I've been doing this sort of work increasingly. It's slowly turning me into a business analyst, which is surprising, to say the least. But the fact is, there are a ton of businesses and marketing people and researchers and government bureaucrats and investors who are looking for things like, which laboratory companies make the most money, how much they make, how much they spend, and what the trends are. And it's true for almost any business. This is turning into about 80% of my work.
I do less of this now, but I used to do a lot of it, of a limited sort. In the computer industry, manufacturing, and pharmaceutical industry, the money's laying around in great big freaking piles waiting for writers to come along. If you've got an MS or PhD in science or MD and want to make a lot of money, working on documentation for grants and drug applications for pharmaceutical companies is a big field where $100 an hour is pretty much a starting point. Frankly, despite my technical background, this stuff is beyond me and I've steered clear, even when tempted by the siren song of high pay. I am, however, still the editor of a technical journal.
I think that's enough for today. There's even more out there. Tomorrow I'll give a list of freelance writing resources and recommended books.