Why It’s Never Been Easier to be a Freelance Writer

Freelance writer doing research on mobile phoneDo you feel like today’s freelance writing marketplace is just too difficult to break into? Too competitive for you to move up and earn well?

Well, I disagree. In fact, I believe there’s never been a better time to be a freelance writer.

You might be thinking: How can I say such a thing, in this era of the terrible economy (actually in steady recovery since late 2009)? When the Internet has put writers in competition with everyone who’s ever slung a sentence together anywhere on the globe? And when there are so many shocking low-priced gigs on offer?

For a perspective-setter, let’s contrast the freelance writing scene of today with that of the pre-Internet era. That’s the time period when I first broke into freelance writing, so I’ve got painful firsthand experience with how it used to be.

No, I’m not going to regale you with tales of how I walked three miles through the snow to turn in my articles to my editor. Mostly because I lived in California when I broke in.

But being a freelance writer was definitely a far more difficult process than it is today. Here are some of the ways life has gotten better for freelance writers:

Shoe leather vs Internet research

Then: When I wanted to find new magazines to write for, I got in my car and drove to the library. There, I headed for the reference section, where I could hunt for interesting publications in the Gale Guide. Long hours of leafing through Gale’s tissue-thin pages and hand-jotting contact information ensued.

Researching businesses was usually limited to companies you knew in your town, or read about in your local business journal. Or you could head back to the library and go through their publication archives. I have literally combed through the library’s stacks of phone books from other major cities to find phone numbers or addresses for businesses in other towns. Talk about a time-killer.

Now: Fire up your computer and tap the online edition of The Writer’s Market for instant updates on newly updated listings. Quickly sort by topic or which publications pay the best, and you’re in business.

Want to write for businesses? Your market research is sitting on your desktop — hit the Internet, compare local business’s websites, find the worst ones, and pitch. Or quickly look up major companies anywhere in the world and find contact information in a minute flat. Boom, you’re done.

In-person events vs social media

Then: Want to meet other writers or potential clients? Head on down to your local Chamber of Commerce and spend all night pressing the flesh — and more time the next day following up. More in-person meetings with prospects followed.

Now: Don’t have time to get out? No problem. Your writer website and LinkedIn profile can call out your areas of specialization and help the Internet send you prospective clients, 24/7. Join a few LinkedIn groups, or a writer community to make more connections. Tweet an editor an idea. Take a Skype call with a prospect and quickly nail down an agreement.

Editor gatekeeping vs online publishing

Then: Nothing got published without an editor’s blessing, and the number of publications was fairly finite. You submitted to editors and prayed. They were a hurdle you had to vault in order to become published.

Now: If you strike out with print publications, you can turn to the growing number of paying online markets. Not having any luck getting your ideas out there? Start up a blog and use it as a writing sample, or tap a content mill or bidding site such as Elance to find clients if you’re short on marketing time. Sure, rates might not be the greatest, but you can at least get clips fairly easily.

Outside control vs self-publishing

Then: As a writer, you either got a staff job or hustled freelance gigs. Getting a print book contract was another huge gatekeeping exercise with a few print publishers pulling all the strings.

You had one boss or many. But either way, your ability to earn was in someone else’s hands.

Now: Want to diversify your income and achieve independence? Build a website, draw an audience, and self-publish your own e-books on Amazon with the touch of a button.

SASE and xeroxes vs instant response

Then: Want to send a query letter to a magazine? This laborious process involved heading to Kinko’s to get copies of my print articles, purchasing big envelopes and small ones for that return rejection letter than often came, and then composing my query. Then the best part: Waiting three months or so to find out if the editor was interested in your work.

Now: For the vast majority of publications, you can email off your query with links to your online clips. Often, get a response within an hour, or a week. Cost: Free.

In-person meetings vs online meetings

Then: Businesses and magazines mostly worked with local writers because of how difficult and expensive it was to meet in person otherwise. If you had out-of-town corporate clients or magazines, you got on a plane or drove to meetings, killing days worth of productive writing time.

Now: Go after clients anywhere in the world, because you can meet virtually. Hop on Skype to chat, or use Basecamp or Google Drive to collaborate instantly on evolving drafts.

Stuck at home vs write from anywhere

Then: In the pre-mobile era, being out of town was a nail-biter. Who was emailing me? Who had called? Would my editor hear my voicemail and get my hotel fax number to send me the revisions she had?

Now: Mobile phones go with us everywhere and bring the Internet along. Use online tools such as GoToMyPC to tap into that desktop at home from your hotel’s business center, or bring your laptop and file a story before you even get home. On a recent trip, I helped an editor meet a print magazine deadline with edits I did while at the airport and in a cab.

Credentials required vs wide-open market

Then: In all my 12 years as a staff writer, I was always the one freak who was a college dropout. Everyone else seemed to have gone to Columbia or Medill. Or at least had an English degree.

Now: Then came blogging, and the ability for writers to prove their mettle without sitting through stultifying courses on the history of journalism. These days, I find, nobody cares if you learned your craft at Columbia or under a freeway overpass or from writing 1,000 blog posts on your personal blog. It’s a snap to show what you’ve got, and write your way to the sort of markets you want.

Writing conferences vs online training

Then: Want to learn about emerging issues in the world of freelance writing or take a class to improve your article-writing craft? You could buy a print book at a bookstore and try to suss things out on your own. Or maybe take a college extension class that would take months of in-person class time. Or you could invest hundreds to fly to a writer conference. Spend several days marooned away from your computer.

Now: Free online trainings abound! (Like the first session of Article Writing Masterclass that I made free to all comers in April 2014.)

For more, take a paid, in-depth course you can view online as your schedule permits — and review whenever you like for a refresher. Get instructor feedback without having to go anywhere via live Q&A calls and support forums.

 

Personally, I’d give anything to have become a freelance writer now compared with what a slog it was back then.

One thing hasn’t changed, though — you need the confidence to put yourself out there in a competitive marketplace. But there are so many more types of writing and ways to earn today. For anyone who’s got the moxie, it’s the Golden Age for freelance writers.

Do you think it’s easier or harder to be a freelance writer now? Leave a comment and let us know.

Article Writing Masterclass

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45 comments on “Why It’s Never Been Easier to be a Freelance Writer
  1. Raspal Seni says:

    I had never thought of becoming a writer/blogger even though I sometimes saw my writing skills were quite good. I had heard that writers always starve and can’t earn enough. You, Linda and many other freelance writers of today’s era prove that wrong!

    Online trainings are surely a boon in today’s era. Thank you for today’s free training session. Hope to gain a lot from it.

    I don’t think I’d have ever tried to be a writer, had this been a pre-Internet/pre-Mobile era and if blog platforms like WordPress didn’t exist. That’s where I started writing.
    Raspal Seni recently posted..6 Common Blog Header Mistakes You Should Avoid

    • Carol Tice says:

      Yeah, I don’t want to say we carved it on a rock and hauled it on a mastodon over to the editor’s…but pretty close to it! I definitely faxed in stories at one point.

      It took some kinda hustle back then. Now you can tap into some content mill dashboard and presto, you’re published, if that’s what you’re looking for.

  2. Matt Schmidt says:

    There seems to be lower barriers to entry in the field. However this also means more people are getting into it.
    Online training could be essential. Writers who write for the web should also look at trainings in others areas like programming/HTML/CSS to better understand how these work in conjunction with writing.
    Matt Schmidt recently posted..10 Apps That Can Boost A Freelance Business

    • Carol Tice says:

      I have to disagree, Matt — I think most writers need to focus on writing. Trying to learn how to code, their heads will explode. It’s just not in their wheelhouse. I strongly recommend outsourcing that sort of thing and focusing on what we do best.

      If you happen to be someone with a programming background that’s an awesome expertise to have, but it’s not something we all need. I certainly know nothing in that area — OK, a tiny smidge of HTML so I can bold things or make a photo link to a website. I think if you can do that, you’re good.

      And as you say, barriers to entry have fallen, so having an expertise area is important. But it doesn’t have to be in tech.

  3. It is much, much (much!) easier to be a freelance writer now than ever before.

    For example, I remember attempting to launch a freelance writing career back in 1998. All my research had to be done via travelling to different libraries all over the county – and contacting various official societies via snail mail.

    Now what used to take at least a week to research, takes only a couple of hours at most… and all at the click of a button.
    Katherine James recently posted..How To Listen Your Way To Freelance Writing Success

  4. I remember being a student intern/freelance writer for my local newspaper in 2001/2002. Even back then, when the Internet had already taken over the world, it was hard to do because I had a clunky old desktop with dial-up connection. I was always going down to the local public access internet spot or the library, where I stressed about getting everything done before my time slot was up and I got kicked off the computer.

    But on the down side, it’s so easy to get addicted to your mobile device and ignore your family, especially if you work from home. I am always worrying that I spend to much time online in my son’s presence or whether I am going to influence him to disappear into the cyber world as soon has he gets his first toddler tablet. I also find I have to pry the computers and phones away to get quality time with my husband.

    And on the wider scale the world is no longer 9-5 because you can log on and work any time, whether you are a staffer or a freelancer, which blurs the boundaries between work and home life. I find it enhances stress! And with the freelance writing world so accessible, you have content mills and other sites that make it look like the content production world is cheapening so you have to look harder to find the quality clients. In which case you’re better of going back to the principles of the traditional, pre-internet freelancing world and gleaning the best of both. :)

    • Carol Tice says:

      You point up a couple of the downsides of the rise of technology. We do have to set boundaries and not ignore our kids. I am personally totally offline from Friday night through to Sunday morning every single week, and I think that makes a strong statement to my kids, and make a point of being in the kitchen making snacks and looking into their eyes right after school. Of course, at this point, they’re old enough that they want to start their own blogs… ;-)

      • Yeah they’re from the generation known as “digital natives” (people born with no experience of life before the boom of technology). I am a bit afraid of raising children in the technology age – I’m afraid I will lose them into a world I can’t navigate! Good thing I am getting a jump on it by freelancing in it when my son is small. ;-)

        Sounds like you’ve got some excellent work/home boundaries, Carol. That’s so important and so much harder to do when you work from home. I currently do all my work while my son is asleep, but that will change when he gets older. Ironically, it’s his dad I have to nag to put away the devices when our son is in the room. It’s actually a rule in our house at the moment that our computers and phones have to be put away when our son is in the room, and my husband breaks it all the time. :-/

        • Carol Tice says:

          I get a jump on it by getting my 12-year-old son to HELP me learn to do new online and mobile things. They soak it up. All their courseware is in the cloud for homework! ;-) When they’re older, it can be a family activity. He’s already starting a blog!

  5. Allen Taylor says:

    Absolutely!

    I came out of the Army in 1987 and, while in college, tried kicking off a freelance writing career. I did all of the things you talked about above, but I only partially succeeded (mostly failed). At that time, I had financial hurdles in addition to the time and technology hurdles. The Internet overcomes all of those – even financial. Since I started my business in 2006, I have been full-time and growing. 2014 looks to be my best year yet.
    Allen Taylor recently posted..You Can’t Punch Your Dad

  6. Elke Feuer says:

    This is the best time to be a writer! I’m so excited to share the news that people look at me like I’m crazy. :-) Especially when I tell them you can make a living writing. GASP!

    I’m working my way towards it and encourage the writers in my group to go for it! Yes there’s more competition, but there’s also more options.

    I live on the Cayman Islands and there are no writing courses or regular conferences to attend, so online learning and writing groups have been a huge blessing.

    I took Carol’s article writing course and now I’m writing articles along with books. When I finish up my four book series next year I’ll be doing more freelance jobs to supplement my income and eventually write full-time. I can’t wait!
    Elke Feuer recently posted..CayWriters On The Move

    • Carol Tice says:

      The ability to live anywhere and do this is the new & exciting part of the modern freelance writing era, Elke, for sure.

      Glad my article writing classes have helped you!

  7. peachfront says:

    I don’t see the point of selling the idea that freelance writing is easy. If someone is looking for easy, they’re going to fail. Yes, the 90s (post the huge white collar crash in the magazine industry around 1992) was an awful time to get started. But it doesn’t mean that the 21st century has been a good time if you want to earn a living wage.

    In many ways the best time to be a freelance writer (of the kind of writing people actually want to do, such as journalism or fiction) was the late 19th and early 20th century. Yes, writers of the day had to use typewriters after hiking three miles uphill in the snow but even the less famous names had families and homes paid for by the writing rather than by relentless publicity stunts or a spouse’s job.
    peachfront recently posted..Fun with internet hoax-busting

    • Carol Tice says:

      I didn’t say easy — easiER. ;-)

      But I would violently disagree that the 19th century was a better time to be a writer! Yes, maybe if you were one of the few successful ones that found a spot with a regular newspaper column or got your books published. Most writers languished in total obscurity and utter poverty, with no way to earn from their craft because of the limited number of markets!

      The one thing that was better was that article fees went a lot further. I do always think of Hemingway writing an article, getting paid $1000 — and then going off to live on that in Spain all summer.

  8. I agree that recent technology makes a freelance writer’s life easier and that it would be a good time to become a freelancer. However, tools do no make a writer and you’ll never succeed in this business if you can’t craft a decent sentence. All the time and expense spent on programs, apps and new computers won’t do any good if you don’t actually focus on the most important aspect, your writing. With that in mind, I have learned so much from your blog, as well as the Freelance Writer’s Den. Thanks for sharing so much with new writers.
    Leslie Colin Tribble recently posted..Finding Business Clients

  9. Penny Taylor says:

    I had forgotten how much it’s all changed.

  10. Good Day Carol,

    Once again, you do a fantastic job sharing with us freelance writers resourceful information about the past and present of this business and industry.

    When I came into this business I would have to say that on the “time line”, so to speak, of what you shared above, I was probably in-between where you started and where it is today. In other words, when I came on the freelance writing scene the good “ole” (pardon the pun) internet was always at my disposal. Thank God for that!

    I would have to agree with you Carol, now is the best time to break into this industry and starting living the life that all of us writers really want!

    Thank you again for another great post!

    Warmest,

    William Ballard
    Freelance Writer and Author

  11. Tom Bentley says:

    Carol, I did a lot of library slogging in the hoary days of yore, reading (and taking garbled notes and smeary addresses from) directories of businesses and publishers, and sending out lots of queries with SASEs.

    The resources available through our keyboards now are vast, and as long as you don’t get regularly sucked down the rabbit hole of Net noodling rather than focusing on your freelancing (er, guilty more often than I care to admit), writers and editors have exponentially more possibilities.
    Tom Bentley recently posted..Stealing Grandma’s Word Machine

  12. Casey says:

    Agreed, Carol, it’s much easier to freelance today. Even if the only thing that had changed since I started in 1995 was email versus waiting around for snail-mail replies to queries, it would be easier. The internet has made research, sourcing, and marketing so much simpler and more effective.

    Of course, having that many resources at hand can create a sense of overwhelm, but I’d much rather have that problem than the ones you describe from pre-internet days.

    • Carol Tice says:

      Luckily, we didn’t realize how ridiculously laborious and time-consuming all our writing processes were back then, since we didn’t know any better. ;-)

  13. Tom B. says:

    Wow Carol, that is your best article I’ve read so far; I am now truly encouraged to pursue the career of writing now. Although I have no degree, I do possess some writing skill; and now, in addition, hope – thanks to you.

  14. Willi Morris says:

    I am shocked. Shocked, I tell you, that you mentioned content mills haha. But it is a stepping stone if folks are inexperienced. I was on the tail end of the dark ages of writing before the internet. So thankful times have changed!
    Willi Morris recently posted..How to Make Affiliate Marketing Less Icky

    • Carol Tice says:

      Exactly. I’ve heard from so many new writers who had no confidence and getting published there helped them. And there was no such thing — it was straight onto the pages of your local newspaper for everyone in your town to read, as your first clip, back in the day!

      As with the distraction level the Internet offers us, of course, mills have their dark side too, as too many writers get stuck there because of the low pay and never earning enough to have the marketing time to move up to better markets.

  15. Terri says:

    Carol, I have to agree that breaking into the industry is much easier today than it was a long time ago thanks to the internet. However, I do think the internet has put us at a slight disadvantage as well. Because information is right at our finger tips, many writers struggle to know when it’s appropriate or just too scared to do the extra legwork. For example, since the invention of email so many writers are afraid to to call an editor when necessary. Or to many people are scared to death of in-person networking meetings. Then there are those who won’t do anything but email interviews for articles. And of course some hardly ever go to the library now.

    So yes, it’s now easier to be a freelance writer but it’s also easier to take extra shortcuts and sometimes it’s hard for writers to know the difference. I think it’s important to be able to do things the old school way as well.
    Terri recently posted..The Problem with Your Motivational Quote Obsession And Why It Needs to End

    • Carol Tice says:

      True — I do a lot of trainings about how emails are not interviews. The challenge is keeping your standards high and ethics in place to create great stuff that’s credible.

  16. So true, Carol! The easy access to information also makes it easier to start a writing business on the side while you keep working your day job, since the time investment for research, etc. is so much less.

    I think the barrier to entry now is less about getting started and more about setting a high value on your work. There are a lot of people producing low quality work for pennies, and that can be hard to compete with. The legwork now is finding business that value the skills you have to offer and marketing yourself effectively enough to be able to pay your bills.
    Katharine Paljug recently posted..How to Deal with an Unhappy Client

    • Carol Tice says:

      *Exactly.* So easy to work for pennies, to become demoralized, and even to come to feel there is no good pay out there.

      On my Article Writing Masterclass Webinar, we had one writer ask, “But in this age of austerity, is $1 a word even realistic anymore?” Yes. It is. But many can’t even imagine it. (Also, the economy isn’t that austere any more in many places — officially in recovery here in the US since late 2009 or early 2010, depending on who you ask.)

  17. Sarita says:

    Making a living as a freelance writer is definitely much easier today. It’s just a whole lot more accessible because of the Internet. Since I started writing full-time from home almost four years ago, I’ve often wondered why I waited so long to get started.

    As much as I enjoyed my previous career, there is no way I would go back to a traditional 9 – 5 bricks and mortar job. I’m finally at the point where I’ve replaced my full-time income working slightly more than part-time, a perfect situation which allows me to enjoy my family. I work from home or wherever I happen to be, and I love the flexibility.

    I think the biggest downside is that it’s hard to control my workaholic tendencies…. Carol’s rule of taking the weekend off is a good one!
    Sarita recently posted..A Digital Marketer’s Guide to Finding Your Next Client….Offline

  18. Darlene Strand says:

    Its a comfort to me not to be judged or ignored because of my health issues that suggests it better for me to work at home. I feel comfortable in my surroundings and can take breaks whenever I want. There’s no pressure of someone watching me or looking over my shoulder. Topic, content, or whatever needs changing for improving is always allowed, working from home, no matter which category or of which assignment project performed to earn a living. Some training in writing is always helpful and leads to success. Article writing is an interesting area, I believe having life experiences can contribute to giving good content, also to providing background for blogging. Being unique, creative, and not afraid to speak on most topics, gives me a good start!

    • Carol Tice says:

      Darlene, freelancing and working from home — that’s all still the same as it ever was. Though I guess we had to toddle off to the library and do more in-person interviews than we do now, so I guess in that way this is the best era for you to freelance!

  19. Nadia McDonald says:

    I am totally nervous. I have started the headliner of a major subject I want to use as an article. Unfortunately, writer’s block has gripped me. What am I going to do? Should I start this way? these were questions launched in my head. For weeks I sat in Carol’s training learning and taking notes. Now the moment has arrived to apply what I have learnt. But I sat at the table completely blanked.

  20. Jim says:

    Been a radio journalist for 23 years, do why do I fear my writing won’t be good enough.
    I have so great soft Scottish accent that people around the world like, but would like to take my 45 second writing skills further

    • Carol Tice says:

      Jim, I have a background in radio as well — 2 years at KPFK Los Angeles. The storytelling and writing skills from radio are certainly transferable to feature article writing and news writing.

  21. Jesse says:

    Hey Carol, first – thanks for always sharing my posts on Twitter, I really appreciate it!

    Second – this is a very enlightening and empowering topic. I think it’s important to mention that there are two types of freelance writers:

    1) Confident writers who establish themselves and know their own worth.
    2) Confident writers who under-value their worth and get bullied by editors.

    My friend is in the second situation. She writes a lot of guest posts to try and establish herself but never gets compensated. I told her it’s not worth it and suggested sites that do pay for articles. She’s slowly grasping this and developing a thick skin but there’s one story that really sickens me: she thought if she wrote a mind-blowing article for the editor of a popular site in our social media marketing niche, they would feel amazed enough to compensate her. She ended up writing an epic 5,000 word guide – the editor’s response? “Thanks, looks good.” And that was it. I think it really shook her up that some sites hold themselves so high and mighty they can shrug off hours and hours of free labor. It’s a huge problem that still exists and traps my writers. Fortunately she hasn’t experienced that again but wow, it really surprises you how backwards some editors can be.
    Jesse recently posted..5 Must-Watch TED Talks for Social Media Marketers

    • Carol Tice says:

      People who knock themselves out writing for markets that don’t pay in hopes that the publisher will have some sort of revelation and suddenly begin handing out money are delusional.

      It isn’t that they shrugged it off — their policy is they don’t pay. You aren’t going to change their minds!

      You don’t know their business model or their cash flow or budget. Some folks run their blogs based on free guest posts that serve as valuable marketing for their guests, and others pay. If you want pay, write for the paying markets!

      It’s magical thinking, imagining your awesome post is going to change the business model of the blog you wrote it for.

      And time spent venting about “Gee, why don’t editors get it?” Also a complete waste of your precious time. Also, often editors are hired hands and not the people making pay decisions.

      Hope your friend wises up and saves her 5,000-word opuses for paying markets!

  22. Worli says:

    Hello Carol!

    I think becoming a freelance writer is not difficult. People don’t have to be professionals in order to become one. All it requires is a good command of spelling, as well as grammar. If you can write articles that are free of these errors, then there will be no problem joining companies where freelance writers are wanted.

    But at the same time getting your first writing assignment can be quite tedious and most difficult thing.

    • Carol Tice says:

      Well, becoming a freelance writer isn’t difficult…but I’d say getting paid well as one takes a lot more than being able to construct an error-free English sentence.

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