How do you make a living as a writer?

Learn from my mistakes.

How do you make a living as a writer?

There's lots of reasons why it's difficult to get paid for your writing.

Firstly, there's not a lot of money in the media sector or the publishing business. Sure, there's some exceptions, but look at the balance sheet of most media and publishing businesses and you'll quickly realise that it's a struggle. Costs are high, it's difficult to connect with your audience, and it's a slog trying to create commercial opportunities and generate some revenue. No one really has buckets of spare cash to throw around.

There's also a culture in media and publishing of people doing things for free. It's not nearly as crazy as it is in the fashion world, but you'll still see plenty of examples of unpaid internships that people are queuing up for, as well as people writing stuff and creating content and giving it over to publishers for nothing. There's an inherent expectation that getting something - anything - published is some sort of step along the pathway to building a career. That being published is at least a little bit of validation that your writing is of some value and worthy of being read by the wider world.

A further factor is that there is a bit of a mindset within a lot of publishers and media businesses that they don't need to pay you because they're doing you a favour by publishing your work. By letting your content appear on their platform, and being shared with their audience, they're helping you build your profile, your reputation, and your portfolio. There is some truth to that, but there's no point having a kick-ass portfolio if you've died from starvation because you can't pay the bills.

There's lots of people who will tell you that you shouldn't do anything that you're not getting paid for. That it's a matter of principle. Easy to say, but it's difficult to hold out for a chunky fee if there's numerous equally qualified and competent people offering to do it for free, and they're queued up with their pants down.

On top of all of this, you're going to have to be prepared to chase in the money. Once you've found someone who's agreed to pay you for your work, you've done the work, you've delivered it, you've sent them the invoice - job done, right? No. It's incredibly rare for anyone in the publishing and media sector to pay your invoice promptly without at least one follow-up from you asking where your money is. You're going to have to unfazed by chasing that payment in harder than an intergalactic bounty-hunter. Media organisations and publishers are notoriously bad at paying - almost without exception. Don't be embarrassed by asking someone to pay your invoice. If you don't ask, and chase, and helpfully remind them on a regular basis, chances are you won't get paid.

person typing on black typewriter
Photo by rawpixel / Unsplash

What's the way forward?

Set some goals

Even if you're just at the beginning of building your writing career - even if it's a bit of a stretch to call it your side-hustle - if you're serious about getting paid for your writing then you need to start seeing it as a business.

How does the revenue that you intend to make from writing fit within your overall financial plan? How much income do you need to generate from writing in order to justify the time that you're going to spend on it?

If you're fabulously wealthy, you may decide that you enjoy writing so much that it doesn't matter if you make any money from it or not. That's great. But if you do need to make some money, it's helpful to start to map out how much you need to make and where that income is going to come from.

For example, if you need your writing to generate at least $100 per month in order to justify the time the time that you're going to dedicate to it, where is that $100 going to come from? How much can you sell an article for? How many articles do you need to sell per month in order to hit your target? Where are those sales going to come from?

You may not have all the answers when you're starting out, but it's good to be thinking about those questions as it helps put into context what you're doing and what you're pitching.

Track your work and your revenue

Everyone works in different ways. I like to keep a spreadsheet of what I'm working on. This also gives me an archive of work that I've done. This way, I can easily see what work I've delivered in any given month, what the rate was, when it was published, and when I was paid.

This gives you an easy form of credit control - at the end of each month you can chase up any outstanding payments - and it also helps track your performance against the targets that you've set yourself. If your target was to generate $100 per month from your writing and last month you only generated $80, what went wrong? What can you do differently to get back on track?

Be pragmatic

Your starting point should always be that you need to get paid a fair rate for the work that you're doing. That should be your assumption, and you should walk into every pitch with an expectation that you deserve to get paid.

There might be occasions where you need to compromise on that stance. But make compromises the exception, not the rule.

If you are making a compromise - and accepting a lower rate or even doing something for no pay - make it clear to the client that you are making an exception for them and discounting your rates. You also need to make it clear what you expect in return for the discount that you're giving. You need to understand - and make it clear to the client - why it is worth you discounting your rates in order to book this job.

man wearing hooded cape holds peacock feather and open book
Photo by JJ Jordan / Unsplash

Know the industry

Media and publishing - like pretty much every aspect of life - often depends on who you know. There's also a bit of being in the right place at the right time, but you'll find that your best jobs and your most rewarding partnerships come from knowing the right person, by being introduced to the right decision-maker, by having a foot in the door.

If you're looking to build a career as a writer, then you need to have a solid understanding of who is most likely to publish your work. Understand how they commission work or book writers. Learn who the decision-makers in that process are. Research the best way to get an introduction to those decision-makers and figure out how to start building those relationships - you need to have a plan as to get your name and your work in front of them.

It's also useful to have an understanding of what different publications or sectors are paying for writing. Are they working on a flat-fee structure? Is it on a per-word basis? What sort of pricing range have they got within their discretion, and where do you fit within that range?

man sitting on pathway writing on paper
Photo by Nik Shuliahin / Unsplash

Know who you are

As you're building your career, there's no shame in taking jobs that pay the bills. Writing jobs come in all shapes and sizes, and often the ones that pay the best are the least interesting, or the things that you're least passionate about.

Over time, you need to try and develop a clear understanding in your own mind as to what type of writer you are, or that you want to become.

What do you write about? Who do you write for? What audience responds best to your work? What makes your writing different or more valuable than other writers who are in a similar space?

Knowing the answers to those questions will not only help your writing, but it will also help you pitch ideas and proposals.

man seating on sofa using MacBook beside window
Photo by Andrew Neel / Unsplash

Know your value

Don't wait to be discovered. No one cares about your writing and your career as much as you do.

This is the time to put your introvert insecurities to one side and figure out how to get people to pay attention to you and your writing.

Why should a commissioning editor pay you to write about a subject when they've got someone else who will do it for free? What's special about you and your point of view?

Figure out your unique selling points and you're on your way to figuring out how to make a living as a writer.

Be open to new things

In drama school, they teach you about the audition process. One of the fundamental rules is that you always say Yes. Whatever they're asking you to do, say Yes, say that you can do it. A Scottish accent? No problem. Dance the Argentine Tango? Happy to. Deliver the soliloquy from Hamlet while doing a handstand?  Tell me when to start.

The same general rule applies to the pitch process and identifying new writing opportunities. Don't be too rigid about your perceptions of what being a writer is and what sort of writing you do. The landscape of information and communication is constantly evolving.

You might pitch an idea and the commissioning editor suggests that they'd like it from a different angle. No problem. A commissioning editor might approach you to say they're looking for some fresh content for their social media feed. Happy to help. You might meet someone at a party who says they're looking for some assistance in freshening up their website - make a time to meet up for a coffee so you can take a look at it.

As a writer, if there's words involved then it's something you can do. If you're writing words for someone, then that's something you can invoice for. Small jobs often lead to bigger jobs. Always say yes.

man using gray and white typewriter
Photo by Neel / Unsplash

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