Can you really make a living as a writer, without being one of the lucky few who make the New York Times Bestseller list? Can you quit your day job, or must writing always come last on your list of ways to earn a living?
Certainly you can make a living—and a good one—as a writer, without having a long list of novels under your belt. Here are some steps toward building your writing portfolio; landing paying jobs as a writer, editor, or proofreader; getting published; and yes, eventually quitting the daily grind of your current job.
- Tell everyone you know that you’re a professional writer who’s available for hire. One of the biggest mistakes people make when trying to become paid writers is keeping their mouths shut! Tell everyone you meet that you’re a writer and that you’re available for work. What kind of work? Any kind, as long as it includes some form of writing and a paycheck.
- Successful service industries and businesses get the word out about their services. You do have a business card or contact card, right? And what about word of mouth? It’s vital to becoming a paid writer. Social media? Make sure your Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn connections know you’re available for work. Start local. Do you have references? Start a list of your publications and clients for whom you’ve written. Do it today.
- Hand out business cards and flyers to bridal shops, book clubs, churches, community groups, your child’s school, libraries, and small businesses in your community. Organizations like the Elks, Moose, Eagles, and Freemasons not only publish national magazines, but often need to have local newsletters and press releases professionally written. Businesses need blog articles, employee handbooks, technical manuals, and company newsletters prepared. If you have specialized training in your background (i.e., medical experience, IT experience, etc.) solicit work from companies in that field, marketing yourself as an expert.
- Don’t be afraid to start small. And yes, small can be a synonym for free when you’re getting started. If you don’t have a writer’s resume or list of professional writing references and publications, you must start somewhere. Write weekly bulletins for your church, a PTA press release, a groom’s tribute for a wedding program, or even short speeches for local banquets. Your current employer may need to have the office policy or benefits package updated and rewritten. Offer to do it free, after work hours, in exchange for a letter of reference, testimonial, or recommendation. Then, once you’ve written your company’s policy, you can solicit other similar businesses, charging a fee to update theirs.
The Beginner’s Bottom Line
Don’t look at any of your first writing jobs as “free,” even if they don’t pay with cash. You’re earning a byline, a professional business reference, and perhaps a long-term client who may hire you for higher-paying jobs in the future.
Now, About That Money . . .
You’ve got a bite. There’s a fish on the hook. All you gotta do is reel him in and serve him for dinner. But how much do you charge? Who sets the standards for what you can and should charge, once you’ve established yourself as a professional writer? The short answer: You do!
By the hour – What’s your time worth? How much would you make per hour at your day job? Does the fee you have in mind compete with other writers in your area? How much is too much? Even worse, how much is too little? Always consider your level of expertise. Beginners simply can’t charge the same hourly rate as someone with a long list of bylines attached to their name. Check the Web for information on going prices in your state, and base your price competitively. My recommendation? Consider $20-60 per hour, depending on the project and company, with a set minimum fee. Minimum fees (say, $45-$60) help weed out clients who “only want a short paragraph,” but who will take up three days of your time to get that paragraph “just right.”
By the project – You might quote large, standardized, one-time projects with a set amount. Be careful not to under-quote yourself in these cases, because sometimes a small article can turn into a huge volume overnight. Consider whether research is involved. If so, can you apply that research to other similar jobs in the future? As an example, early in my freelance career, I wrote employee handbooks for various companies. When I wrote the first one, I spent a lot of time researching federal workplace laws, state employment laws, the employer’s benefit packages, and so forth. Once the first manual was written, subsequent clients only required minor changes specific to their company, because the state and federal laws remained the same. Your client doesn’t need to know that, however. For those jobs, in the early 2000s, I charged a flat rate of $450, which the clients were quite happy to pay. (Maybe I should have charged more!)
By the word – Charging a flat fee per word is an excellent way to receive a fair amount of pay for a fair amount of work, and it notifies your clients what you expect for the quantity of work they want delivered. Then, if they add extra pages to the job, you’ll earn extra pay!
Share the Wealth
If you follow these steps and you provide quality work, it won’t be long until you have more work than you can handle. As you build your portfolio, network with other writers, and read samples of their work. Offer to proofread each other’s project. Then, instead of turning away a job that seems too big, too involved, too rushed, or too time-consuming for you, offer it to another strong writer, with the understanding that they’ll return the favor. You might even retain a percentage of the company’s payment as a finder’s fee.
Remember, the best writers are only as strong as their network, so don’t hesitate to pay it forward. Uplift other writers, offering to pick up extra work when they’re overwhelmed, and sharing your overburden in return. As soon as the customers for whom you’re freelancing learn that you are available for any project, regardless of size or deadline, your business will grow–and so will your bank account.