The last years haven’t been too easy for freelance writers. Publications are slashing their budgets, readers are increasingly used to not paying for the content they read, and Facebook and Google’s inscrutable algorithms sometimes promote bad content at the expense of good. In other words: These are bad times for freelance writers.
That’s why I was so happy to find an article on Medium by Elizabeth Spiers on How To Make It Work As A Freelance Writer. Spiers knows the territory she’s discussing; she is the founding editor of the late blog Gawker and now runs virtual reality consultancy The Insurrection.
It’s a no-nonsense, smart guide on how to embark on a livable career of being a freelance writer in 2016.
So How Do I Work As A Freelance Writer, Anyway?
Spiers’ strategy boils down to a few things:
- Have an “anchor gig” or two “anchor gigs” which pay well, takes up less than 50% of your total work time, and pays enough money to take care of the bills and handle your basic income.
- Line up an anchor gig before you leave your day job, if you are still at your day job.
- Before you line up your anchor gig, do some math on how much your basic expenses cost each month. Make sure your anchor gig(s) can pay that amount.
- Research the publications you want to write for, find out their freelance policy, and strategize/think before you pitch.
- Write for free, but not for other people. Write the kind of content you want to write for yourself, put it on high-visibility outlets like Medium, and use it to passively attract the kind of content work you want to do for a living.
She also adds one important thing: As a freelancer, you need to take your cost of living and expenses into account before embarking on your journey. I’ll add that your cost of living if you’re in a city where media companies are concentrated (Specifically New York, San Francisco, Washington D.C., or Los Angeles) are likely to be much higher than they would be in other markets.
But here’s the challenge: The editors you’re likely to work with as a freelancer are disproportionately likely to live and work in those cities. Even if you don’t live there, odds are good that you’ll want to at least occasionally travel to those cities to meet with editors and network with new potential clients.
You Have To Hustle: Working As A Freelance Writer
One thing I’ll add to Spiers’ article is that working as a freelance writer requires a lot of strategizing, a lot of hard work, and a healthy tolerance for failure and rejection.
The media landscape in 2016 is built around a handful of legacy publications (many of which have far smaller budgets than you’d imagine), a number of large magazines and newspapers who have successfully navigated the transition from print to digital, and an ever-changing landscape of digital-only publications, social media-centric content generators who base their business models around Facebook or Twitter’s algorithms, and individual creators making content for everything from YouTube to Facebook to Snapchat to Instagram.
A 16 year old kid playing with their iPhone can (and sometimes should) get more eyeballs on their Instagram feed than the most esteemed of daily newspapers. That means that the people who usually paid freelance writers don’t have as much money as they had in the past, which means you have to find new ways to make money.
Now, here’s the confession…. I’ve worked as a freelance writer in one capacity or another for the past decade. Sometimes it’s been as a full-time freelancer, other times freelance writing has been my side gig while working at a day job. But no matter what, freelancing has always been there as an option.
The thing that surprised me the most about freelancing was surprising. I discovered that the key to success as a freelance writer wasn’t being a good writer (though it helps)… it was being willing to hustle and dedicate long hours to my freelance projects. And, you know, handling ten rejection letters to every successful story or project that was placed.
Perfecting the business skills that surround freelance writing–being able to track your profits and expenses, being comfortable pitching editors, and investing time into posting original content to Medium or WordPress–is the most important key for thriving as a freelancer, in my opinion.
So, readers, I’m curious: What are the most important non-writing skills that you feel freelance writers should have?