Are you fed up with having to write about stuff you don’t care about in order to pay the bills?
We had a big chat about this going on recently in Freelance Writers Den.
One member wrote that he was sick of having to write copy to pay the bills:
“I discovered the business-style, droll prose I’d been doing killed my creative writing ability. The work I’d been doing for pharmaceutical companies turned my writing into a pile of crap, and I don’t like that – writing is a passion first, job second. I write to create something beautiful, not to meet a client’s needs. I’m a novelist before I am a copywriter.
So it disillusioned me. I don’t really want to freelance in that same way any longer – the cold-calling, the endless queries…it’s all discouraging when I see no results.
I want to write WHAT I WANT and be paid for it.
I want to write creative, inspiring travel pieces and earn a living, not write boring pieces detailing the newest development in the world of pharmaceuticals.
It’s sometimes just too discouraging to keep going, and I’ve hit a low point.”
So. Here it is.
The old “writing purely for the joy of it” vs. “sell out to pay the bills” debate.
My opinion on this has changed over the years. Here’s the story of when I wouldn’t sell out…and then why I did.
Also how it helped me get to the place I’m at in my writing career now, where the vast majority of my writing is on topics I love.
And why you should sell out, too.
My teenage quest to avoid selling out
Back when I was a teenage songwriter, I sneered at sellouts — hack musicians and songwriters who were playing Top 40 on cruise ships or in divey bars five nights a week to pay the bills.
I wasn’t going to do that. It would drain my creative juices, playing that crap all the time.
I would stay true to my vision of what I wanted to express with my songs, and only play my own music.
To pay the bills, I was a legal secretary. I saw this as a good arrangement that would keep my songwriting “pure.”
But it wasn’t. It sucked.
My typing speed improved, and I learned a lot about lawsuit filings. I didn’t have a lot of opportunity to improve my composition, singing, or keyboard skills.
What with the day job, I didn’t have much time to arrange gigs, so it was hard to line up very many. We didn’t get to practice or play all that much.
No surprise that I didn’t improve very rapidly, or gain a big following.
Next thing I knew I was pushing 30, and my singing career had gone nowhere.
Fortunately, around this time I discovered the type of writing they pay you good money for…nonfiction articles.
Round two: I try selling out
This time around, I had a whole ‘nother attitude.
I was a bold-faced sellout from the start.
I would write anything that anybody would pay me to scribble.
Now, I got it: The most important thing was for me to practice writing. So I looked for chances to write a lot.
Among my hot gigs were five glamorous years writing about nothing but home improvement retailers — lumber yards and hardware stores.
I’ve blogged about surety bonds.
Covered town hall meetings about zoning laws.
Obviously, this was not what I dreamed about when I was scribbling song lyrics in my room as a kid.
I wanted to write stuff that moved people. I wanted my words to make a difference.
But first and foremost, I wanted to not have a boss and to be able to keep my own hours and still pay my bills.
I figured if I took care of that first and my whole job was writing, it would allow me to practice and get better. In the end, I thought, that would help cut me the time I needed to develop the chops to write the topics I wanted.
When the chance came around to write big, important stuff, I’d be ready.
The secret to becoming a successful sellout
How have I tolerated all of the weirdo dork stuff I’ve had to write to pay my bills over the years?
Here’s my secret: I fell in love with the challenge of writing for clients.
Some of this stuff was really hard to pull off! When I did it, I felt a real sense of accomplishment.
When you can come up with three or four story ideas all about lumberyards each and every week and get those written up so that people want to read them, you build a lot of confidence in your writing skills. I can testify.
I didn’t have to love the subject, though I had to have some level of curiosity and interest in it.
I think the mistake the writer above is making is he’s got his sell-out writing in an area where he’s lost the curiosity and love of challenge.
Then, you start to feel this pay-the-bills writing is dragging you down.
Since this writer likes travel topics, maybe writing copy for a cruise-ship company, state tourism alliance, or travel agency would suit him better.
Another secret no one tells you about selling out
As a freelance writer, I also stumbled onto a discovery: Almost nobody out there is writing just what they love.
To pay the bills, we all have bread-and-butter clients — gigs we take mostly to make money.
I first learned about this when I asked a fellow Seattle Times freelancer who else she wrote for.
“Oh, Ford Motor,” she replied.
I’ve since learned that some of the great novelists had writing day jobs. Mark Twain was a longtime newspaper reporter, and Salman Rushdie wrote copy for Ogilvie & Mather, for just two quick examples.
Did it ruin their creativity? Kill their chances for greatness? Hardly.
Writing a lot, and tackling many writing challenges for clients, made them better writers and helped them be successful writing what they really wanted.
I think it works that way more often than it happens that someone who isn’t writing regularly comes out of the blue and writes a hit novel.
Writing for clients builds your sensibility as a writer. You learn how to write for an audience, and to choose your words so you speak to that audience’s hopes and fears. That’s going to come in handy later.
The reality of freelancing
When you start out, you’re not going to get to write what you want as much. Or at least not for pay.
It takes a while to get to that point.
The question you have to ask yourself is this: “Would I rather pump gas, work as a bar back, or a secretary…or do this writing gig?”
As long as the answer is write, you should be a freelancer.
If the answer is pump gas, maybe you want to go live in a garret and be a starving artist working on your novel.
Otherwise, I recommend learning to write for businesses. They pay better than publications.
Every high-earning freelance writer I know does at least some business writing.
The trick is to find the great-paying business clients. That way you make enough fast enough that you have time to work on your personal-passion writing projects.
Then when you get a chance to write a book, or create a blog that helps people, or whatever your writing passion is, you’ll be ready to deliver the goods. It’ll all come together.
Or that’s how it worked for me.
Whatever you do, remember to sell out for good money. If you do this right, you’ll be highly paid to hone your craft for when your dream project comes along.