7 Terrible Reasons to Become a Freelance Writer

Carol Tice

Frustrated freelance writer got into it for all the wrong reasons.I’ve got a question for you: Why do you want to become a freelance writer?

It’s worth taking a minute to ponder that. Because I’ve found that pursuing freelance writing for the wrong reasons can spell big problems.

Here are the seven most common reasons I hear from people for why they want to become a freelance writer — and why these wrongheaded motivations often doom those freelance-writing dreams. The items in quotes are all compiled directly from my email inbox:

1. Temporary panic. “I was laid off recently and haven’t been able to find another job, so I thought I’d try this while I keep looking.”

No one wants to hire a writer who is just on a temporary visa to the land of freelance writing.  Who’s sticking one toe in the freelance waters.

Editors and business owners want to hire stable freelancers who are dedicated to working in this mode. Also, dividing your energy between trying to land the next day job and freelancing doesn’t often bring a good outcome for either pursuit.

As Yoda said, there is no “try” in freelance writing. That implies half an effort — and that’s not going to make it happen. There is only making a wholehearted commitment to it, and doing it.

2. You think you’ve got no other options. “I have a disability/must stay home to care for my disabled child/spouse/parent, so I can’t do anything else.”

There are many work-from-home jobs that are easier to ramp up and do than freelance writing. Be a virtual assistant, for instance. Be a remote-based employee for a company — call centers hire lots of personnel that way now. Freelance writing is not your only option, and if you’re choosing it simply because it’s the only idea you’ve got, keep exploring.

Freelance writing is difficult to earn well at if you can never leave the house or take a phone call. Yes, you can build some business online, but eventually, good clients want to take meetings or hop on Skype. This may not be compatible with your situation.

3. You don’t like writing. “Writing isn’t something I’m that enthusiastic about, but I’ve researched the options and this seems like the only thing with the flexibility I need.”

You may laugh, but you’d be surprised how many people seem to choose freelance writing by throwing a dart at a board. It’s not a passion, they haven’t been writing compulsively all their lives. But they have weighed the freelance options and selected writing from a list of possibilities.

Unfortunately, I’ve never met a thriving freelance writer who dislikes writing. That’s because freelance writing isn’t like writing a novel or your journal. It involves working hard on writing craft, marketing, and pleasing clients.

If you don’t start with love of the core task you’ll be doing all day, you’re not going to stick with this. It’ll be agony.

4. You’re unrealistic. “I have five free hours a week and desperately need to quit my job, so I’m planning to quickly launch a freelance writing business in my free time.”

This is a fantasy. Launching a freelance writing business that will pay all your bills will take quite a while to ramp if you only have a few hours a week.

What will likely happen instead is you will hop on content mills and earn a few pennies, because you have no marketing time. You will be very overworked between you day job and this, but it will never add up to a situation where you’ll feel confident quitting your job.

5. You don’t understand the marketplace. “I’m hoping I can earn a living as a freelance writer by getting paid to write poetry/short stories/opinions/essays/book reviews.”

My heart breaks for the many writers I encounter who are hoping this could work. But there is little reliable, well-paid writing in these areas. The bulk of paid freelance writing work is nonfiction, reported articles for magazines, and writing for businesses.

If you could pay the mortgage with poems, I’m sure I wouldn’t find poets serving as many publication editors to pay the bills. You’ll need to broaden your horizons and learn new writing forms if you want to make a steady living from writing.

6. You’re allergic to business. “I really hate everything to do with business, but I’m planning to suck it up and find some clients.”

OK, this one is a big, big problem. Business-haters need to understand that 1) you are going into business yourself here, so that makes you a self-hater and 2) businesses are a big source of great pay in freelance writing.

If you’re coming into it holding your nose, it’s doubtful you’re going to be able to do the marketing necessary or tolerate working for the clients who pay the big bucks.

7. You’re a full-time mom. “I want to be a freelance writer so that I can homeschool/unschool/stay home full time with my baby/preschooler(s).”

This one is the biggest myth in freelancing, that you will somehow magically find great clients and meet their deadlines while the howling baby who also kept you up all night sits on your hip. Or while you create from scratch and teach Liam with your custom-crafted, multi-sensory homeschool curriculum. Not. Going. To. Happen.

They say being a mom is a full-time job because…it’s a full-time job. And so is freelance writing.

I know because I’ve been that mom. And because my Freelance Writers Den forums are full of posts from new moms who are having nervous breakdowns because they’re slowly going broke and can’t get any freelance traction and can’t figure out why. The answer is: You need childcare, hon.

Grandmas or babysitting swaps with other work-at-home moms can be a great solution for a while, but sooner or later, kids need to go to preschool or a nanny comes or there’s a child care center that becomes your friend. For at least a few reliable, half-day blocks of time.

Yes, you can write while they nap (for a couple years) and late at night/early in the morning (if you’re not too tired), and maybe cobble together a small income. But if you’re quitting your corporate job in hopes of replacing a $50,000 income with an occasional spot of writing work you dash off at naptime, that is a pipe dream.

Good reasons to be a freelance writer

Now that we’ve run this down — why should you get into freelance writing? What’s the scenario that tends to lead to success? Key factors:

  • You love writing with a passion.
  • You are willing to write about topics that aren’t your personal favorites.
  • You’re willing to aggressively market your services.
  • You’re game to learn new writing tools, types, and skills to keep up with market needs.
  • You are realistic about how much work it will take, how long it will take to launch this, and how tough the competition is.

My experience is these factors are the basis for building a successful freelance writing business. This isn’t a lark, or a fill-in project, or something you can do in 10 minutes a day.

It takes talent, dedication, and a commitment to seeing it through. If you’ve got that, you can build a freelance writing business that will give you the financial rewards you want, and the personal freedom we all seek.

What’s your reason for becoming a freelance writer? Leave a comment and let us know.

Freelance writing success

53 Comments

  1. David Brown

    Carol,

    You seemed to have cornered the online market for freelance writing advice. Your site keeps coming up in Google searches, and your content is helpful. Congratulations to you. I have wanted to be a writer since I was nine. (I can’t say how many times I have restated that.) But the writing I have in mind is something altogether different. You said:

    “… freelance writing isn’t like writing a novel or your journal….”

    and

    “I think working as a freelance writer is ideal for writers pursuing fiction.”

    When I think of writing, the works of writers such as Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, Dickens, Melville, Hemingway, or H.G. Wells come to mind. I think of crafting fine stories in literary fashion. Or I think of the great non-fiction writings of Winston Churchill, William James, or Carl Jung. What I don’t think of are business blogs or how-to articles. You will argue that this is also the stuff of great writing, but I wonder.

    When I read Leonard Woolley’s account of the Sumerians earlier this year, I was fascinated. I love the way he told about the uncovering of the temple of ancient Ur, and how he described the design of houses in the city. The subject matter fascinates me. But content marketing to improve a company’s financial position? Not so much.

    Here are some articles I recently submitted online (for which I received a pittance):

    “Branding Strategies for Software Providers”
    “Exploding IT Outsourcing Myths”
    “Is Big Data Definable?”

    I know that writing for content marketing or other freelance purposes gives a writer experience in writing economically as well as developing a solid writing work ethic. But what is the return on investment when our minds and souls are limited to such tedious and temporal topics? If it is about making money, I can think of much more interesting things to do that free me from the illusion that I am in the same realm as the timeless and influential authors that I love.

    Become a freelance writer? At what price?

    [I may feed these comments into one of my blog posts, now that I’ve written them. Hope you don’t mind.]

    • Carol Tice

      David, I guess I think if writing copy was good enough for Salman Rushdie (former Ogilvy & Mather), and newspaper reporting was good enough for Mark Twain, it’s good enough for me.

      If you’re writing SEO junk, I’ll agree that it doesn’t do much for skill-building. But that’s not the kind of writing I encourage freelance writers to get into.

      Feel free to use your comments here elsewhere.

  2. Jason

    I’m only 15 years of age, I really want to be a freelance writer because it’s my dream. Writing isn’t just a passion, writing is like oxygen in my lungs. The pencils I use to write are an extension of my heart pouring onto a paper, whether or not I’m emotionally attached to what I’m writing. I believe that this world can benefit from me writing.

    • Carol Tice

      I bet we will benefit, Jason. 😉

  3. Annie Star

    I want to become a freelance writer to help people; to be known for something good and lasting:)

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