Yes Virginia, You Can Make a Living as a Freelance Writer…

freelance writing business models

There’s been a lot of uproar in the freelance community recently as a result of journalist Nate Thayer’s decision to publish an email conversation he had with one of the editors at the Atlantic Magazine.  The whole thing is worth a read, but it basically resolves around Thayer’s (highly unnecessary, in my opinion) decision to attack the editor for requesting an “exposure only” article for the Magazine’s website.

(For the record, I think he made great points – I just think that he targeted the wrong person in his attack and aired his grievances in an inappropriate venue.  More on that a little later…)

The result of this fervor has been an uptick in blog articles asking the question, “Can anybody make a living as a freelance writer anymore?”

To me, this is a strange discussion to be having in the first place, as I am currently making a living writing – and so are plenty of other people I know.  If it isn’t possible to do this anymore, I’m confused as to what the people who keep sending me checks each month think I’m doing…

To clear up any doubts about the current availability of freelance writing work, I want to share with you the three writing-oriented business/income models that have allowed me to be fully employed as a writer during different periods of my life.  I’m not advocating that you follow any of these in particular – I just want to show you how exactly it’s possible to make a living as a writer in this day and age:

Model #1 – Run your own content agency

I’m not going to sugar coat it, but there was a time in my life when I was essentially running my own content mill.  It wasn’t that I set out to do so – I simply found myself with more work than I could handle and brought on cheap writers underneath me to help manage the workload.

Because this was pretty early in my career – circa 2007 – I was earning around $15-20/article and outsourcing work at around $7-8/article – leaving me with an average profit of around $10/article.  Since I wasn’t doing the writing myself, I was able to crank out around ten articles per day, resulting in around $35,000/year in profits.  Sure, it was ugly work and I wasn’t well-compensated for my efforts, but it was absolutely a livable salary for somebody right out of college.

Today, as of January 2015, I’m back to this business model with my company Content Conquered. The big difference, however, is that the relationships I’ve built from nearly 10 years of freelance writing work mean I’m able to work with much higher-tier clients, as well as command rates that enable me to pay the writers on my team a decent wage.

Going to an agency model isn’t for everyone. Bringing writers on to work with you means doing a lot less writing yourself, and a lot more editing and administrative work to keep projects rolling and clients happy. It is, however, one of the only ways to get around the fact that you can only write so much in a day, which limits both your income potential and the type of clients you’re able to work with (agencies, for instance, often demand more work than what a solo writer can handle).

Model #2 – Become a well-paid web and business writer

Back in July 2011, when I decided that I wanted to make writing my full-time gig for the second time, I knew that I needed to come up with a more sustainable solution than the earlier “article flipping” games I’d gotten my start with.  At that time, I set out to find clients that offered one (or both) of the following opportunities:

  • Website articles paying between $50-100/post
  • General freelance writing work paying between $75-100/hour

I write fast, which means that I’m able to write most website articles (which aren’t typically expected to have interviews, primary research sources, etc.) in around an hour.  Taking on around 20 hours of work per week at these rates (whether in the form of individual web articles or multi-hour projects), allowed me to earn around $72,000/year (20 hours X $75/hour on average).  For a young professional living in the low-cost-of-living Midwest, that meant a comfortable way of making it full-time as a freelance writer.

These days, I take on fewer projects where I’m the one actually doing the writing, and the rates I charge reflect this. But if you’re just getting started, the rates above make it possible to find a decent volume of work while earning a decently comfortable living.

Model #3 – Find a full-time position as a writer

Okay, this one’s cheating a little bit, since it’s not technically “freelancing.”  That said, as the importance of developing and publishing powerful website content continues to grow in this digital age, I think it’s an opportunity that more freelance writers should keep their eyes out for.

In my case, back in September 2012, one of my long-term freelance clients offered me a full-time position with his company.  In that capacity, I did the same work I was doing as a freelancer and got to keep my remote schedule. The only difference was that I was focused on a single client and received a steady salary in exchange for my work.  Time-permitting, I still took on the occasional freelance client and – together – the two opportunities represented a great balance of income and time spent prospecting for new clients.

So there you have it – three defined business models that absolutely make it possible to earn a living as a freelance writer.

What I think is most important to note is that none of these models reflect the kind of “Sex and the City, $4/word writing for Vogue” ideal that most freelancers envision.  Unfortunately, the way that we consume content in the digital era makes well-paid feature columns a thing of the past for all but the rarest of freelance writers.

Obviously, the conversation about how we compensate writers and how much we’re willing to pay for good content are important discussions to have – but that’s not my point here.  Industries change, and while that must be incredibly frustrating for those who have built their lives around traditional journalism, the reality is that moping over what’s passed causes too many people to miss the opportunities that exist in the present.

If you’re looking for work as a freelance writer, know that websites need your help with their site copy, blog posts and digital download products.  Businesses need help with their technical documentation, whitepapers and marketing materials, as fewer and fewer of them maintain in-house writers.  And trade publications consistently need work, though I’m in no way, shape or form qualified to give you advice on these.

The work is out there – if you’re willing to adjust your focus, work hard and pursue the opportunities that exist today, instead of those that disappeared years ago.

Image: Pixabay

Comments

Jawad @ WritingMyDestiny
Reply

Hey Sarah,

Interesting post. Most successful writers these days are advocating Model#2 which is, I believe, the hardest to break through.

The real challenge is to develop a sustainable income through this Model because for that you would need a loyal pool of clients who absolutely love your work.

Sarah Russell
Reply

I’m definitely a big proponent of Model #2, because I think it gives writers the most flexibility. When you’re earning decent rates, you don’t have to scramble to find crap work just to pay the bills – it allows you to be a bit more strategic about your career and the projects you take on.

That said, I think you can cut the growth curve by looking specifically for clients who need regular work. Marketing agencies and websites have always been my favorite “go to” source because it’s easy to get them to love your work and they always need more of it 🙂

Laura Spencer
Reply

Thanks for the thoughtful post on this topic. I appreciate your shout-out. 🙂 The one revenue model for writers I don’t see above is to develop and sell a product (often an e-book). Otherwise, you pretty much hit the nail on the head.

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