What it Really Takes to Make a Living Writing

Confident freelance writerIt’s the question everyone comes to this blog with — how can I make a living writing? What would it take to enable me to pay all my bills just from what I write?

The exact answer is going to be different for every writer, depending on your background, your income goals, and the types of writing you’re willing to do.

But there are a few common traits I believe freelance writers need to be successful. Here they are:

  1. Self-confidence. You have to believe, deep down, that you can do this, or it’s really a non-starter.
  2. A network. You need a circle of friends or fellow writers who know that you’re looking for clients, and who will give feedback and support along the way.
  3. Willingness to do marketing. This is a business. Gigs will not come from the sky. You need to be willing to do consistent marketing to ensure a steady stream of prospective clients contacting you, so that you can pick and choose the best. Otherwise, you end up stuck writing for pennies.
  4. Big goals. Behind every well-heeled freelance writer is a cash cow client or two — the type that send reliable work every month. You have to aim high, beyond the local paper or small business on the corner. Set goals to move up and land better clients to get this sort of security, which is what makes freelance writing into a reliable bill-paying activity.
  5. Money-management skills. Earning well requires turning down some gigs. If you feel broke because you can’t manage your finances and live within your means, you take anything and everything, including gigs at rock-bottom rates from dysfunctional clients.
  6. Flexibility. Top-earning freelancers don’t just write about their favorite topic, or write when they’re in the mood for it. They learn to write well about specialized topics that pay well, and to write on deadline.
  7. Love of challenge. Pro freelance writers are forever taking on more difficult assignments and stretching their skills. to earn more Sticking with the status quo and what’s easy often results in skimpy pay.
  8. A drive to improve. Writers often ask me whether their writing is good enough to make a living. My answer — if you’re willing to listen, learn, and keep improving, you’ll be fine.
  9. Sustainability. You can’t need two weeks to recover every time you finish a big writing project, as one writer once told me they did. You have to eat right, stay fit, get enough sleep and treat freelance writing like the marathon haul it is, or you’ll burn out or get sidelined by injury.
  10. Persistence. Freelance writing isn’t a good way to earn quickly. It takes time to build a high-earning freelance business, and you have to be willing to slog along until you get there.

What do you think are the traits needed to make a living writing? Leave a comment and add your take.

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44 comments on “What it Really Takes to Make a Living Writing
  1. Jeanette says:

    Thank for sharing this. I have just started and I have a lot to learn:)

  2. I think this is a solid post that is worth sharing! I have some similar opinions about running a successful freelance business if you’d like to read them…

    http://www.writerliz.com/2/post/2013/09/running-a-successful-freelance-writing-business.html

    But to sum it all up, I think the two most important things you need to do to be successful are:

    1. Be a good writer! Because honestly, all of that other stuff won’t help you a lick if you can’t spell or compose a sentence.

    2. Run your writing business as a BUSINESS, which touches on a lot of what you wrote.

    Cheers!

  3. Matt Blake says:

    Love it, Carol. Flexibility and persistence… two things that people who dream of become a writer lack a lot of the time. As with any ‘job’ you will not always be writing about something you are really passionate about, at least not getting paid for that writing. And in this day and age too many people jump from idea to idea, project to project, scheme to scheme; looking for what is going to make them a bunch of money in the shortest period possible. And by the time you run yourself in circles looking for that ‘get rick quick’ plan you could have built yourself a real nice freelance business. So much energy spent looking for the short-cuts. Hand work is almost easier!

    Thanks, Carol… love your posts!
    Matt Blake recently posted…8 Things your sales letter must have to be effective!My Profile

    • Ouch. Matt, I knew it already, but you just described perfectly my own approach of the last five years: no wonder my business has shown so little ROI. My first New Year’s resolution for 2014 is to stick to a consistently scheduled e-book marketing/blog and social media focus for an absolute minimum of three months; my second resolution is to find someone who will hold me accountable for sticking with that focus when I hit the first setback and immediately start second-guessing the whole idea. (See main post Point 2, “network.”)

  4. Robelias says:

    Carol,

    Thank you for a well-written, informative article. You continue to send out so much help and concern to want-to-be writers. Keep up the good work. I wish I had started subscribing years earlier instead of just a month ago.

    Your list could be called the “Ten Commandments of Making a Living Writing.” I have made a copy and posted on my “Motivation Board” next to my monitor screen to view it daily.

    I also admire your devoted following of sincere communicators. Merry Christmas/Happy New Year to all of them, and especially to you.

  5. Alicia says:

    I love this list.

    I think one thing that’s also important is time-management skills. In freelance writing, no one is going to tell you when to work or to get out of bed in the morning. It’s all up to you, and if you don’t have the skills to manage your time properly, you’re going to miss deadlines and disappoint your clients.
    Alicia recently posted…6 Steps to Coming Out of Freelance Writing AliveMy Profile

  6. Rob says:

    Just yesterday I had coffee with a young freelancer in my area who contacted me because he wanted to pick my brain about getting writing gigs. In the course of the conversation, I found myself mentioning things I should do myself, but keep putting off. One of them was improving my LinkedIn profile and getting more active there. He said he didn’t like social media. I agreed, but told him I had it on good authority that LinkedIn can help establish professional contacts you might miss otherwise. So I guess the trait he and I were missing that might be holding us back is the ability to take a pragmatic approach to gig hunting. If something works or shows promise, take advantage of it.
    Rob recently posted…How to become a digital nomadMy Profile

    • Carol Tice says:

      Or if you hate social media…market some other way. I know one writer who gets all his gigs calling editors on the phone.

      I believe an optimized LI profile coupled with a strong writer website has been proven to help get inbound clients…but it’s not the only way to get a gig.

      • I’m the exact opposite: love to communicate by social media (it’s a form of WRITING, after all), but would about as soon grab a live power line as make a cold call. I say, thank God for the day technology made instant-communication-in-writing an option!
        Katherine Swarts recently posted…Let There Be PeaceMy Profile

  7. Joy Collado says:

    This is exactly what I needed to hear. Especially number 1. There is no exact formula on how to build solid self-confidence. There are a lot of tips on how to do that but you’re right, I should believe in myself that I can do this. No matter how much tips I read and consume if I don’t believe in myself first they’re useless. Nobody will build my freelance writing career for me.

    Thanks Carol!
    Joy Collado recently posted…Moonlight SonataMy Profile

  8. Holly Bowne says:

    I think one additional key is to make sure you hear the right voices in your head.

    And I don’t mean self-talk (although that’s important too!). I mean finding the right support network, the right professional writing groups, classes, blogs, etc. When I first started out, I had no idea what I was doing, nor that there was such a massive disparity in potential earnings. If I hadn’t stumbled across writers like you, Linda Formicelli and Peter Bowerman, I probably would have thrown in the towel long ago.

  9. 1 and 4, confidence and the cash cow, ring the bell loudest. Like all writers, I’m a reader. I read for confidence by starting in the middle of a page with a few lines to see if the writer really wants me to start at the beginning.

    Moving a reader off the random page back to the beginning to see how the story got there is strong stuff.

    On the cash cow, I read a story about the ad firm Wieden and Kennedy when they were starting out. They had commercial rejected by Nike. It wasn’t good enough until a video editor came in and turned it into gold. They went from there to world domination, or the ad man’s equivalent. It’s a big dream.
    David Gillaspie recently posted…Portland Trail Blazer Fantasy Coaching Combinations For Baby BoomersMy Profile

  10. Katie says:

    I very much agree with the concept of “loving the challenge.” It’s rare that I get a really fun assignment. If I didn’t love a good challenge, I’d definitely be losing out on projects!

    • Carol Tice says:

      And if you don’t love challenge, you never dare to stretch and do new projects. And then you don’t learn new skills and grow your pay.

      At one point someone called me and asked me to write a recruiting package for nurses on behalf of a big hospital. I’d never done anything like that before! And it was a blast.

      I think at some point you have to realize you have basic skills — you know how to gather research, do interviews, pursue an angle, organize material, find great quotes, weave it together. And that means you can write about anything.

      I personally am short-attention-span theater…I’d go nuts if I kept just doing the same thing. I need those different and more challenging projects. Just like with your body, stretching feels good and builds muscle. 😉

  11. I really liked Carol’s list, but I’d also add that a truly successful freelancer has to know how to be honest, professional, and genuine with clients. If you want a first-time client to become a repeat customer (or give you a higher rate in the future), you’ve got to treat them with consideration, professionalism, and fairness. In the short term (see the last item on Carol’s list), you might not see a difference, but a few months or a year down the line, you’ll see it.
    Rebecca Klempner recently posted…Conducting interviews to bring realism to your fictionMy Profile

  12. Mike Johnson says:

    Great article, great comments!

    I’d like to add one more trait exhibited by successful freelance writers:

    11. Use writing skills to create an incredible life.

    Successful writers RESPECT the power of the written word. The most powerful skill on earth is the ability to assemble 26 letters into combinations that create anything you desire out of thin air. Successful writers realize that Persuasive Writing is actually a Super Power.

    Applying writing skills toward money alone is like using a chainsaw to cut trees without ever starting the engine.

    In skilled hands, Persuasive Writing is miraculous wherever it’s applied.

    Persuasive Writing can convince your veterinarian to donate an expensive surgery to save your dog’s life. Or, Persuasive Writing can inspire massive donations that save a THOUSAND dogs’ lives. It’s all where you focus your efforts.

    Persuasive Writing is a Super Power.

    The formula is simple. Choose a topic, choose an audience, create a miracle.

    Small request + small audience = small miracle. Large request + large audience = large miracle.

    Need that management position that just opened at your company? Write a letter. Need a loan to buy a property with a passive income stream? Write a letter. Need to convince your daughter to stop using drugs? Write a letter. Need a doctor to donate that heart transplant to save your wife’s life? Write a letter.

    If you can imagine it, you can manifest it using the Super Power of Persuasive Writing.

    Persuasive Writing can create an incredible career. Enlightened writers discover they can use those same skills to create an incredible life.

    • Carol Tice says:

      Hi Mike — it’s true. I think those of us who excel at writing forget how hard it is for most people and how much many business owners dread writing tasks.

      FYI, my system won’t let you stuff links into your post. Use the commentluv tool if you want to link to a recent blog post, please!

  13. John Soares says:

    Self-confidence was crucial for me. It took a while to develop, but getting enough of it, along with some courage, was what I needed to launch my freelance writing career.
    John Soares recently posted…The Best Way to Bid a Freelance ProjectMy Profile

    • Carol Tice says:

      Can’t believe I didn’t include that in my list! Definitely important.

      Oh wait! I did — it’s #1! You can tell I’m trying to do too many things today. But the good news is, think today was the last crazy work day I have to have in 2013…on the wind down now. 😉

  14. Margie MD says:

    Being creative in your marketing helps too. When all the other freelance writers are responding to ads or going after the same consumer pubs, go in the opposite direction and chase down untapped markets. They may not be as “sexy” as having a byline in a particular pub, but your success rates (and freelance rates) will probably be much higher.

    • Most experts (in freelance AND day-job opportunity-seeking) agree that focusing the bulk of your time on the most obvious routes (i. e., posted ads) is a bad idea. Not only is the competition tougher by sheer virtue of quantity; but as the quick-and-easy way, the “posting” route is also first choice for employers in the “content mills and others offering second-rate-and-worse opportunities” category. The best opportunities tend to be harder to find; but ultimately, you’ll make more money for time spent–and will pay a lower cost on the tedium-and-frustration level.
      Katherine Swarts recently posted…Let There Be PeaceMy Profile

      • Margie MD says:

        Definitely! I’m concentrating on custom publishers right now and have been sniffing around, finding some that I’ve never heard of before and aren’t even listed with the Custom Content Council, and am having some pretty good response rates to my LOIs. Crossing fingers some of these will turn into regular work soon.

    • Carol Tice says:

      Well, to me that’s not marketing – that’s understanding markets. Most folks don’t know about many of the better-paying ones.

      I actually had a writer contact me yesterday to ask if there was still any pay at consumer magazines or if it was all free now like the Huffington Post. I said yes, they still pay — but so competitive! Why not try some trade pubs instead? Or company magazines? Those low-glamour markets are how I earned the bulk of my writing income, along with writing for businesses.

      Once you identify those, THEN the question is how to be creative in marketing to them. I’ve got a fun post about that coming up, so stay tuned! There’s a very creative marketer out there right now I’ve just got to riff on.

  15. Carol, I had at least a visceral understanding of each of the listed items. Good to have a written list. I’ll post it in my office. I am lucky enough to be able to go through moderate periods of time with no income from writing, which will be helpful as I ramp up my business. I hope others have the luxury of at least some time to focus on their writing business exclusively. Sometimes I will start work at 8am and the first time I check the clock it will be 2 in the afternoon. I think having the time to focus helps.

    • Carol Tice says:

      I’m the same — sometimes I think I’m in one of those time-lapse sequences in a movie. When I’m writing, the time just flies…feel like I can almost see the hands of the clock spinning around.

  16. Great truth telling Carol. I am taking this list with me to my executive planning, business planning session for the new year with me, myself and I! Another trait I would add to this list is “risk taking,” which may be related to confidence or not, but implies taking definitive action! I had been building my freelance career hoping to graduate to full time status for a year. Everything I did within the year was worthy. I gained experience, improved my writing and built clips but I didn’t take off with better paying gigs and take the leap of faith to freelance full time until I put myself out there and used the tools I gained in my mentoring relationship with you. I went full time with better paying gigs by updating my LinkedIn profile and contacting key folks in my network to ask directly for writing gigs. I had to risk rejection.

  17. I’d balance the need for flexibility (#6) with the need for focus. Writers with a sense of purpose and mission (goes hand in hand with #1, self-confidence) know when to say no to marketing approaches and writing projects that would steal time from THEIR best things to do; those whose vision stops with “writing for a living” follow everyone’s advice, say yes to everything, and burn out again and again (the antithesis of sustainability, #9)–probably less from overwork per se than from frustration over the world’s refusal to filter its demands to their capabilities. It’s not just better planning that allows focused workers to get more done and recharge in less time; it’s the fact that ALL their energy–emotional, mental, and physical–goes to doing the task itself instead of to wishing things were different.
    Katherine Swarts recently posted…Let There Be PeaceMy Profile

  18. J. Delancy says:

    Solid post Carol. Numbers 1 & 3 are my sticking points, hence no freelance writing business! I’d hustle to the list but that applies to almost any freelancing business.
    J. Delancy recently posted…6 Things I Learnt About Blogging, After I Quit Blogging.My Profile

    • Carol Tice says:

      I think that’s covered under persistence…but yeah.

      And what – no freelance business? Well get going then! We’re expecting big things from you in 2014. 😉

  19. Jack Ori says:

    Great blog Carol! I would say time management is right up there with money management. I’m a blogger and coach that writes novels on the side, so I know how easy it is to get overwhelmed. It all comes down to commitment I think. If you are committed to making a living as a writer, you take the good with the bad.
    Jack Ori recently posted…Tips for Beginning BloggersMy Profile

    • Carol Tice says:

      Right on. I read a great piece recently by Bob Bly, who mused on how people accuse him of being a liar when he describes all the writing he cranks out. It’s because they’re inefficient and have no vision of how much you could get done. He says “I have a goal of being prolific, so I am.” Exactly.

  20. Great list, Carol. I think another good trait to have, which is perhaps a subset of #1, is a ‘thick hide.’ If you’re easily derailed by rejection, the arc of your freelance career will be short. And it doesn’t hurt to have a sense of humor either!

    • Carol Tice says:

      Definitely — great addition there! I meet so many writers who get one rejection and go lick their wounds for six months. That’s not going to work if you’re going to do this for a living.

  21. To add to your final point about persistence, Carol, I remember a great line from a post on Copyblogger just last month.

    It was in a great piece by Nick Whitmore about persistence in general. But the line that really stood out for me was:

    “Without persistence, rejection is final”
    Kevin Carlton recently posted…3 dangerously destructive writing habits every copywriter should avoidMy Profile

  22. Hi Carol,

    thanks for an excellent list with good information each one. It came at just the right time and perfectly answers a number of questions I’ve had, and some which were cropping up. I particularly agree with point 2, having a network. I appreciate this is something I’ve not done well to date, so am actively working to build it up and out.

    thanks again.

    Matt
    Matthew Setter recently posted…A Business Owner and a Technologist – What’s DifferenceMy Profile

    • Carol Tice says:

      You know, I felt nervous doing in-person networking at first, but I quickly discovered the secret: it’s fun! You get to meet people, have a drink, nibble, you make new friends. What’s not to like?

      Also, I met the editor of Costco Connection, the editor of Microsoft Office Live, and the editor for a startup pub that I wrote for for years — $300 articles that used to hit the home page of Yahoo.

      But more important than the editors is to meet other writers and build your network there. I know someone who was referred a book contract that way. You NEED that sounding board so you know what going rates are in town, who takes 9 months to pay…no other way to get that dirt than by getting to know the other writers in your niche.