There’s a reason freelance writers rarely introduce themselves as such when asked, “what do you do?”
It usually shuts down the conversation.
People have their own assumptions about what it means to be a freelancer and those assumptions are rarely positive. As my doctor once said when I told her I was a freelance writer:
“Oh. I’ll give you a prescription for the generic brand.”
Yes, freelancing has its drawbacks (and plenty of ’em), but I thoroughly enjoy the freelance/self-employed/independent contractor lifestyle, including the many frustrating challenges that come with it.
I’ve come to realize there are myths about freelance writing, however, that aren’t exactly true and can make the job even more challenging.
Myth #1: Freelancers Have No Job Security
This myth makes sense on the surface. A full-time, W-4 job just seems more permanent, doesn’t it? You get a handbook, go to weekly meetings — they even give you your very own computer. You even decorate your desk with a photo of your cat and your Hulk bobblehead. It feels like home, like family. Freelancers don’t get that kind of stability: they’re outsiders!
The thing is, though, established freelancers typically work for multiple clients. So even if your freelance status does make your employment with one client unstable, you still have other pots on the stove, so to speak.
Not only that, but freelancers aren’t necessarily the first employees who are let go during a layoff. In fact, it might be the opposite. Generally speaking, the first employees to go are the ones that cost the company the most money.
Tips for a Stable Freelancing Career
That said, they keyword here is established. When you’re new, freelancing can indeed be unstable, especially as you score your first clients. This is why, during this stage, I recommend gradually switching to freelance while you have the steady income of a full-time job, if possible. If not, a “freelance fund” can help you make it through the uncertainty. Before I moved to Los Angeles to switch careers, I did both. I saved for months to cover myself in case I couldn’t find work, but I also got lucky when my then-employer offered to keep me on remotely.
Freelancing certainly can be unstable, but if you do it right, it’s actually more stable than having just one job.
After freelancing for several years, being laid off once, and experiencing a tumultuous work situation with one of my biggest clients, I’ve learned the importance of pursuing multiple clients. It’s a lot like an investment portfolio: you want to diversify to protect yourself, and that means investing in different things. As one financial planner suggested over at Consumer Reports, you should also double down on your emergency fund when you’re freelance.
Finally, if you really want to ensure your stability as a freelancer, make sure you’re good at what you do. That’s obvious, but because freelancers are thought of as outsiders, it’s a point worth emphasizing. If you’re not good, you’re probably not going to keep the gig. Brush up on the skills your client values. Learn to write even better than you already do.
Myth #2: Freelance Writing Doesn’t Pay Anything
Back in 2009, I wanted to learn how much it was possible to earn as a freelance writer. Naturally, I asked Google. I came across the blog of a professional writer who earned $100,000 a year. Even though I asked, I refused to accept the answer. I scoffed, said he probably just got lucky and shut my laptop. It was easier to believe I would be paid crap than to learn how this guy worked to debunk that myth.
It’s amazing how much we’re encouraged to believe that freelance = starving artist, which is why I stopped answering “freelance writer” when people ask what I do for a living. It felt like I had to prove I wasn’t broke, and when you bust your ass to turn your freelance writing career into what is essentially a business, that gets very frustrating. Also, this myth is why so many companies and businesses get away with paying freelancers nothing at all.
How to Earn More Money as a Freelance Writer
There was certainly a time I accepted rates of $50 for a 1,000-word article or 0.16 cents a word or even 0.08 cents a word. I even worked for free! Everything changed when I let go of the idea that freelancers are supposed to be paid next to nothing and started asking for more. Over the past five years, I’ve earned between $75,000 and $100,000 a year (pre-tax, pre-business expenses) as a freelance writer. And I’m not the only one. Maybe 5-10% comes from affiliate income at another website I own or from coaching or some other non-writing related work, but the vast majority of it comes from regular old freelance writing clients.
The first time I revealed this at a finance site I wrote for, readers were skeptical. Like me, they refused to believe that anyone could earn that much as a freelance writer. “Yeah, but you also work on videos,” one reader commented. (I guess script writing isn’t real writing?) Another possible explanation for my income was that I got lucky: I knew someone or I pitched the right person at the right time. The truth is, I have gotten lucky. I started at MSN because I knew someone who happened to like my writing. I started at Lifehacker because they read something I wrote and happened to be hiring a personal finance writer. These were lucky circumstances, but lucky circumstances also require hard work.
I’m certainly not callous enough to suggest that every freelance writer, or even the average writer, will earn six figures, especially in the current state of our economy. But I also know that the “broke freelance writer” stereotype is a huge myth. It’s also a myth many of us are willing to surrender to, turning it into a self-fulfilling prophecy. I was sorely underpaid as a writer for years because I believed the myth. It’s what leads so many writers to offer their work for free for far too long.
Negotiating is a crucial skill for a freelancer. As a social experiment one year, I decided to ask every client for more money. To my surprise, most of them said yes, which made me realize just how underpaid most writers are. I went from accepting $50 for 1,000-word articles to setting my own rates, learning to say no, and most importantly, having confidence in my value as a worker, not just a writer. I’m convinced that for most of us, 90% of successful negotiating is just getting up the nerve to ask.
It’s important to make sure the rate you’re asking is realistic for both your skill level, the client, and the project. You probably aren’t going to get $1,000 for a 500-word article for a startup’s new blog. So how much more can you ask for? According to Clarke University, most employers can likely budget 15-20 percent more than their initial offer, so this is a good starting point to use if your client throws out the first number. If they don’t throw out the first number or you’re just not sure what to expect, check out a website called Who Pays Writers. It’s like Glassdoor, but specifically for freelance writing rates. It will tell you how much different publications pay writers based on experience and word count. It’ll also tell you how quickly you can expect to get paid.
Myth #3: Freelancers Make A Lot of Money
I know, I know. This is contradictory to Myth #2. Oddly enough, though, another myth about freelancers is that they get paid significantly more than traditional employees. I used to think this when I was a full-time technical writer and I found out our company’s freelancers earned $15k more. At the time, one of the freelance writers explained it to me: “I don’t actually make that much more,” he said, “Not when you consider all the benefits I give up being freelance.” At the time, I shrugged this off and just thought he was being humble. Nope, turns out you end up spending a lot of money as a freelancer. Here’s a breakdown of my own spending last year:
- Health insurance: $3,000
- Hiring subcontractors: $9,000
- Web hosting and other advertising: $2,200
This doesn’t include travel to conferences, time off (you don’t get paid for taking a vacation), business meals, home office expenses, or time taking care of administrative work, like invoicing and organizing contracts. It doesn’t include time spent working with a new client and adapting to their style, workflow, and idiosyncrasies. It doesn’t include time spent romancing potential clients and pitching them your story ideas, many of which they disregard.
This is why, if you’re a freelancer, you should earn significantly more than your full-time counterpart. There are a lot of extra expenses to make up for, and if you’re earning the same amount as you would as a full-time employee, you’re losing money.
Myth #4: You’re the Boss
When you work for a company, they are your employer. When you freelance for a company, they become a client.
There’s a difference in connotation here, but the reality is the same: you’re still working for your client.
Just like an employee, you’re expected to stick to a deadline, deliver your work, check in every now and then. You need your clients. You want to make your clients happy. You’d be hard pressed to find a job in which you never have to answer to anyone, even if you own your own business and answer to your customers. In some form, we all have a boss, but freelancing comes with many of the same frustrations you experience with a standard W-4 job.
That said, one of the more rewarding things about freelancing is that there is more autonomy. When I make a client happy, write a viral article, or learn a new skill, it’s good for the client, sure, but it’s even better for me and my business.
For example, when my old Lifehacker editor would send back my drafts with massive markups, I would groan at first, but then I’d remember: I’m getting free writing advice. It worked in my favor to listen to this advice, learn from it, and improve. Improving meant increasing my skills and, ultimately, increasing my earning potential.
Myth #5: Freelance Writing Means You Can Be a Hermit
People have funny ideas of what a writer’s lifestyle looks like.
When I was a kid and I dreamed of writing books, I always envisioned myself typing away in a cabin in the mountains with a cup of coffee, surrounded by cats and — okay, actually, that is what my life looks like sometimes. But there’s also so much social interaction involved with freelancing. Any experienced freelancer will tell you: you have to hustle a little extra to be successful, and that means getting out of your comfort zone and (dun dun DUN) dealing with people. Back in March, I had to go to New York and meet with about eleven publishers in two days to pitch my book. It was exciting but absolutely exhausting. In the corporate world, I never had to deal with this level of hustle. I took naps in my car.
As a freelancer, prepare to:
- Meet people for lunch to talk about collaborations
- Network with other freelancers at events and conferences
- Agree to speak at events to promote your blog or book
- Pitch your ideas to editors and negotiate rates with them
As someone who works best alone and feels drained when I spend too much time around people, this is challenging. If you think of your freelance writing as a business (and you should), prepare to channel your inner extrovert.
As the freelance economy gains momentum, I think stereotypes about freelancing are changing. By 2020, it’s estimated that nearly half of the workforce will be freelance. There are pros and cons to this, and the biggest criticism of the freelance economy is that companies are taking advantage of workers by not paying employees benefits. These companies can potentially save loads of money by hiring their workers as freelancers instead. To be honest, this criticism is not unfounded. (But it’s also why, as a freelancer, you should be earning more than a traditional employee–so many extra expenses.)
On the other hand, if you earn twice as much as a diversified freelancer than a traditional employee, you might not care if you have to pay for your own health insurance. If your income is two or three times as much as it would be as a traditional employee, you might not mind doing your own taxes every quarter.
It’s possible, but not easy, to earn a decent income as a freelance writer. The first step is debunking persisting myths about freelancers, though. Don’t let the starving artist story become a self-fulfilling prophecy — we freelancers are not resigned to a life of underpay.