The truth about how you can get paid for being a freelance writer
Being paid to write is THE DREAM for most of us.
Unfortunately, with this many people wanting to write, the competition is fierce and so it is little surprise that many (most?) would-be writers end up bitterly disappointed. They might get to blog a bit (thanks, Medium), but earning money is a whole other thing.
So let’s discuss the reality of this whole other thing: getting paid. And while you may still end up disappointed after reading this article, I can at least show you:
- It is possible to earn money writing. because I do,
- How to position yourself to make it more possible, and perhaps most importantly,
- How not to waste your time and money on useless courses, bad advice, and unrealistic goals.
How I Make Money From Writing
First, it’s not from articles on Medium. I just want to get this out of the way straight-up. I may just be late to the party, but it seems that anyone who has made money on Medium is now making less. Worse, just like YouTube and all the other avenues for expression, there was an early-adopter advantage that just isn’t there once the space has matured. Of course, I’ve only written a few articles for Medium so far, so I may be pleasantly surprised, but I sure as heck am not relying on it.
So how do I make money from writing?
I write articles for fitness magazines, write blog posts for fitness providers, and do some freelance writing.
Magazines can pay well. I’ve been able to get up to 50c per word, which in some cases was a $1,000 payday. However, I have also done my share of freebies for “publicity”—the publication lets you put your bio and maybe picture with the article. This can, of course, add to your volume of published work — it’s just that it doesn’t add to your bank account.
Blog posts can make me $70 ($50 for my American friends), but they can be quick to write. Good freelance rates can be up to 50c per word, or an agreed amount for a substantial project.
So yes, even in the time of Fiverr when a 500-word blog post can be bought for $5, there are still opportunities. But I am trying to be really realistic here, and you may not like some of what I have to say.
Notice that I said how I make money from writing, but I didn’t say I only make money from writing. I make most of my money as a personal trainer.
Reality check — for most of you, the money you make from writing will be supplemental, not the bulk of your paycheck. Of course, there are the exceptional few, but we are talking about reality here, and the reality is that making money from writing is likely to be an addition to your income — unless you can live on very little!
How do I position myself to at least make some money?
The reason I get paid by fitness magazines and fitness trainer organisations is that I have some expertise in fitness.
I’m a pretty good writer and could do justice to an article on philosophy (I have a major in it) or gardening (I have a really nice garden), but I am not an expert in those fields.
I have put my time and effort into becoming an expert in fitness.
I have done the courses, I have gotten experience, I have built up a network. I have given literally 1,000s of one-on-one personal training sessions to a wide variety of people. I’ve outlasted the normal industry working life. In short, I have credentials. Oh, and I pitch. And pitch, and pitch again.
Pitching and niches
As I said that I am an expert. And you know what? You probably are, too, in some area (along with a lot of other people).
What has helped me in my pitching is to make it clear what my niche is. No publisher (and I know this from bitter experience) is waiting there for someone to say I know all about wine, or movies, or makeup. Unless, of course, that person is bringing a big following—a big following changes everything.
Assuming you don’t have a following of 500,000 people on Instagram, then your best bet is to get yourself a niche. For me, what that looks like is becoming perceived as an expert in fitness for older, executive people. I am one myself, and I train them daily, so I have real insight into their particular needs.
Armed with my niche expertise, I pitch, I call, I bother and pitch and call and bother magazines, newspapers, big blogs, and any other mediums I can think of again and again. But, before we go deeper into that, there is one significant thing I need to tell you. It might make you give up on this article, or maybe, just maybe it’ll give you the sort of honest truth hit you need to get really creative. You see, although I have taken every opportunity to get my name on a story:
- As a kid, I submitted poetry to the newspaper.
- As a student, I did the school magazine.
- At university, I was a copywriter for a mail-order company.
- As a businessman, I’d buy my way into industry magazines, and my really big break came when…
- I consulted for a fitness magazine.
Although my job started out as a marketing consultant, when one of the publications lost its editor, I volunteered to take over. What was meant to be a short stint of caretaking became, instead, keeping the role for a few years. And this role enabled me to write my heart out (and, importantly, to critique and edit hundreds of other people’s stories). The magazine was called UltraFIT, and it just happened to be owned by my brother. Yep, good old nepotism rearing its head.
After that gig ended, I was confident in my writing, but it was only as I retrained as a personal trainer and put some years in that I was able to get other publications to hire me. Since then, I’ve pitched and called and bothered magazines, newspapers, and anything really that published fitness stories.
But I don’t have a brother who owns a magazine.
Well, that’s a bummer! Of course, I could say things like “it only got me started, I have to prove myself with each new story”, and “I’ve actually been paid to write way before that when I was doing ads and things for the mailorder company”, but we both know — I had my lucky break, and I did well with it.
So How Are We Going to Help You Get Your Lucky Break?
Well, the first thing I wanted to do was be real with you, and to remove any illusions… when 60% of people want to do what you do, you are going to need to be good, and at least “make” some luck. And as a side note, perhaps it’ll stop you beating yourself up if you really take on how hard it is to break through.
The second thing I want to do is save you wasting time (and money) going down some worthless paths. When I started writing on Medium, I read all I could about how to be successful, listened in to webinars, and even spent money on ebooks. The main advice? Write and post often, between once to twice a day depending on who you listen to.
I disagree. The last thing I think the world needs is just more and more words and filler. There is just no way you can be putting out that much volume unless you are full-time, a genius, and are compulsive about it. More likely, you’re none of those things, and the pressure to perform at that rate will remove all joy from the process. So, no — if that is really what it takes, count me out.
Another path to avoid is negative writer’s groups or similar things. I joined a group and the first thing I read was someone saying they’d done everything they were supposed to and their stories were being overlooked, and they were being treated unfairly. I was actually interested and read some of that person’s work, and straightaway saw that it was very negative in tone. No one wants this — that’s what the news is for. We want hope, at least most of the time! If you join a writer’s group of some kind, try to find one where people are upbeat, positive, and generally looking for ways to improve their writing. It will be better for you and be a better influence on your work.
Assuming you don’t have a brother, aunt, second-cousin-twice removed in the business, or that you aren’t actually a student going through a journalism degree or in some way doing this the “right” way, but you have a day job and a daydream, here is what I suggest.
Work on your writing and work on your marketing
I worked as a personal trainer in a big gym chain for several years until COVID-19 turned me into an online trainer. And the thing I noticed there was that there were two kinds of trainers (and very rarely a third kind). The first was the passionate trainer who was constantly taking courses, reviewing programs, and was wonderfully client-focussed — they just didn’t know how to get clients, and were often struggling and ended up out of the business.
Then, there were the salesperson trainers. Often they had come through the sales team or some other sales-oriented conduit. They had more than enough clients, in fact, too many, and (generalisation alert) it seemed to me that it burdened them because the thrill of the sale as a personal trainer actually has to give way to the thrill of the training.
And, of course, there was the third bear, I mean trainer, for whom the mix of training and sales/marketing was not too hot, and not too cold, but just right. And these were the people that made it passed that average 6–12 months career life. The point? You can’t just be a good writer — you have to be selling your product at all times.
Disappointed? I did warn you.
Being paid to write is a highly, perhaps the most highly, competitive career there is, so don’t be disheartened. Instead, be realistic.
Become an expert in a field. Don’t worry how narrow it is; if you know what you are talking about, there is always an audience.
Is there a lucky break you can “make”? Some way into the industry through a friend, an internship? Be creative, be bold, but if the answer is still no, then…
Then be prepared to sell and market, pitch, and bother every magazine, publisher, blogger, and venue. Work on your writing, and write at least once per week. But pitch every day. I have not got into a newspaper yet — that is my next goal, and I am pitching article ideas, stories, and my expertise to whoever will listen!
One More Thing: Praise and Criticism
I don’t really think I need to warn anyone that you will need to be prepared for rejection. So I won’t. But I will say that you really do want to be getting some praise, even if it is from family and friends.
If no one has anything nice to say about what you write, you need to change your approach or think long and hard about whether writing is really right for you.
Getting paid is very validating, but probably even more important to me was have professional editors say nice things about my writing. Still, every time I submit, I go through that horrible feeling of “maybe this one is no good,” or “they were just being nice last time.” It’s tough because you are really putting yourself out there when you write.
So try and get honest feedback from your readers — is this interesting and worthwhile, or am I wasting everyone’s time? Try different styles, approaches, or topics until you hit on a story that resonates with people. Bonus tip? If nothing else be painfully honest, it’s worked for people like Shannon Ashley, it might be a great start for you.
Listen, it’s not getting easier, it’s getting harder. Just this week, a blog I write for has “put their budget elsewhere for the time being,” meaning I have to go and find a new gig. But this really is my final gift to you — don’t be fooled by the “so-called” success stories out there. Just like the fitness industry showing before-and-afters and in the fine-print admitting that these results are not “typical”, it’s not typical to make it.
The reality for most people is that success comes from huge effort, significant time, and a good dash of being in the right place at the right time — so don’t beat yourself up if it’s not yet happening for you!