How to Make Money as a Freelance Writer
By Amy Paturel
Think writers can’t make a good living? It’s a common misconception.
True, writers who focus on creative forms — novels, essays and other projects that don’t come with an advance payment — may have trouble making ends meet. But for those of us who can transform ourselves into content-producing machines, crafting targeted messaging for a variety of different clients and markets, the power of the pen can mean a lucrative freelance writing business.
“I made $163,000 last year and I can name five writers in my network who made more than $200,000,” says Jennifer Goforth Gregory, B2B Technology Freelance Content Marketing Writer. “There’s no reason it can’t be you.”
Ready for the challenge? These dozen strategies will help you amplify your earning potential as a freelance writer!
1. Aim high.
Plenty of “make money writing” articles suggest that writers should take any and every job they get, no matter how big or small. The reality: You can make a better living if you select your clients carefully. Instead of soliciting work from lower paying organizations or pay-per-message outfits, reach out to more lucrative publications and agencies. Whether you’re writing a feature story or crafting content marketing pieces, the key is to start at the top and go from there.
2. Write what you know.
You don’t have to be a “writer” to make money writing. Freelancer Elizabeth Hanes BSN, RN, health content writer and founder of RN2writer transitioned from a nursing career to writing.” I enjoyed nursing, but I loved writing,” she says. “My late husband encouraged me to take my degree and become a writer with it.” As a nurse, what she loved most was patient education. So she took that passion and used it to educate millions of patients at once through her writing work. Don’t love writing about what you know? Consider it a way to “get in the game” so you can make money doing what you love.
Writing is just like the stock market. Well, it’s not just like the stock market, but I think you know where I’m heading. It’s important to diversify your client portfolio. After all, if you write only for one or two high-paying clients, your income can take a nosedive if one of those regular gigs dries up.
As someone who has been doing this for the better part of two decades, I have the ability to carefully select at least three “anchor” clients (not just one), so if one of those anchor clients vanishes, I still have two others to fill the hole. In addition to those three anchors, I work for several other clients during a given year, not only to keep money coming in, but also to keep things interesting.
4. Deliver quality content.
Early in my career, I worked with a team at AOL producing health content. When AOL began laying off staff, every member of that team took me with them to their next gig. Before long, I had writing assignments for EverydayHealth.com, Real Simple, and WebMD — all because these individuals knew my work and enjoyed working with me. In fact, it’s not uncommon for editors and content managers to share their best writers with their colleagues.
5. Try content marketing.
Many traditional journalists, including me, made the pivot to content marketing years ago. In addition to the occasional science story for Discover Magazine and essay for The New York Times and Good Housekeeping, I write health blogs and feature articles for academic medical centers, hospital systems and healthcare nonprofits. Hanes, too, began her writing career writing for women’s magazines and various print publications. Now, she writes exclusively branded content, including her own RN2Writer course materials.
6. Make it easy for clients to find you.
In today’s world, building a website is a relatively easy pursuit. Create an SEO-driven site by including keywords that describe exactly what you want to do and you may discover that clients come to you before you even have a chance to reach out.
When Gregory started her content marketing blog in 2013, she got a high Google ranking for “content marketing writer” by using that term in all of her content. That helped launch her content marketing career. “This week alone, I’ve had three or four contacts reach out to me for work after finding me online with a simple search,” she says.
Don’t have the chops to create SEO content? There are plenty of web-savvy folks who would be happy to help. To find them, post in freelance writer groups or even at Freelance University.
7. Develop a niche.
The writers who make the most cash tend to be the ones who specialize in a certain area. “You can absolutely be a generalist, but you can’t market yourself as a generalist,” Gregory says. “You have to market yourself to the agriculture and technology companies differently, even though you’re the same person.” Equally important, narrow your niche. So instead of “specializing in healthcare, for example, drill down so your niche is cancer, diabetes or heart disease.”
8. Send LOIs.
For many successful writers, sending LOIs, or letters of introduction, is a cornerstone of their business model. When Gregory was starting out, she sent out hundreds of LOIs and followed up with every one of them. “I was very strategic in how I built my business,” Gregory says. “I wrote about specific topics to get clips and then targeted industries and agencies using those clips to establish myself as an expert.” And every January, she still sends out 100 to 150 LOIs. “It’s a numbers game,” she says.
9. Consider ghostwriting.
Don’t want to write for an agency or about your own life? Ghostwriting may be right up your alley. Whether you write for a historian, physician or a powerful executive or thought leader, there’s money to be made crafting other people’s messages for them.
One of my students makes a huge chunk of change writing people’s personal histories for retirees. While it can be difficult to find these gigs, becoming a member of freelance organizations, such as the American Society of Journalists and Authors, can point you in the right direction.
Teaching can be a great side gig for a freelance writer, particularly if you are highly skilled in a specific area. Hanes believes nurses should own the healthcare writing space so she has made it her mission to expose a writing career to as many nurses as possible. Her RN2Writer course trains nurses to become writers. Me? I took on an associate professor position in the Health Sciences Department at a local college. What I love most about this gig is that I get to interact with students and advance their learning in topics that will ultimately lead them to create healthier, more satisfying lives. But my real passion is helping essay writers find — and sell — their personal stories. I have a self-guided class that generates income with almost no effort on my end as well as an intensive workshop-style course that sucks up a ton of time but fills my spiritual cup.
11. Start making passive income.
Tired of making hourly wages? Find a way to develop passive revenue streams. For writers like Hanes, that means selling content to others. Her RN2Writer courses net her thousands of dollars each year. “Self-study courses allow people to work at their own pace, and they’re highly scalable,” Hanes says. “I’ve sold 200 courses this month alone, which requires zero involvement from me.”
12. Write essays.
Unless you’re David Sedaris, Lena Dunham, or Joan Didion, essays probably won’t become your bread and butter. It can be tough to make a solid living on essay income alone. But essay writing does have a remarkably high payoff: It’s cheap therapy! When Charlotte-based student, Nikki Campo, landed her first national clip, she said, “Had Amy not nudged me along in class, believing my story had merit and I had the ability to write it, it would probably still be in my folder of unfinished drafts.” The reality is, classes are a great way to not only learn new information but to motivate you to make more sales.
Most freelance writers don’t have (or need) a Journalism or English degree to make money writing. You don’t need fancy gadgets, apps, or even friends in high places. But you do need to make it easy for prospective clients to find you — and you need to build a network for referrals. After all, happy clients are the best free advertising out there.
About the Author:
Amy is a freelance journalist in Southern California who writes about health, fitness, food, wine and travel. You’ll find her byline in niche publications, anthologies, and popular newsstand magazines, including AARP, Good Housekeeping, Real Simple, Parents, Reader’s Digest and O, The Oprah Magazine. She also regularly writes for websites including WebMD.com and BabyCenter.com. Check out some of Amy’s popular writing classes here.
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