Could You Earn More By Writing About What You Love?

Carol Tice

As a writer, do you feel like you’ve got to put your favorite writing projects aside to focus on earning a good living?

I met a couple recently at SOBCon who are living proof that it can work the opposite way — that you can use your passion projects to attract great clients. Here is their story:

Not long ago, A.J. and Melissa Leon were a fairly ordinary young couple. A.J. was earning good money in finance. Melissa worked with nonprofits.

But they hated their lives.

They wanted to travel and feel like they were making a difference in the world.

So A.J. quit his job, they sold their stuff, and they started a new company, Misfits, Inc., a “nomadic creative shop.” It has no office.

Its flagship activity — the thing A.J. and Melissa like to do most — is travel to Third World countries and help nonprofits improve people’s lives. They design impactful social-media campaigns, and use Webinar and cel-phone technology to connect people far away directly with donors in the U.S.

I got to hear about the work they did with Global Hope Network International helping villages in Kenya and Ethiopia improve their water supply, and it was freakin’ awesome. They created websites where the village can recruit honorary ‘villagers’ as their sponsors. When enough people commit to a small donation, their project funds and the village gets a well.

It’s far more impactful than writing a check. Organizations were ecstatic with the results.

And suddenly, A.J. and Melissa had some amazing projects in their portfolio.

Soon, the paying clients started knocking. They wanted to connect with their customers in social media in creative, impactful ways, too. Soon, A.J. and Melissa found themselves with top-drawer corporate clients, whose work helps pay for them to keep on the road, doing their nonprofit work. Since 2008, they’ve worked in 35 countries.

Concentrating on their social mission also led to many new revenue streams for them. Now, they have a $9-a-month membership community for people who want to get ideas from them and watch their training Webinars. They’re creating a series of “Misfit Guides” next. Melissa started an education and publishing company, OpenSourceCharity.

The contact page of their site says they’re not currently accepting any new clients. They’re fully booked.

The passion work led them to great-paying work.

All of which raises the question — are you living the life you were meant to live, as a writer? Are you doing projects that make you excited, and proud?

If not, maybe it’s time to take a risk. Shake things up. Figure out what you really want to write about — and then go out and find the opportunity to tell that story.

It’s scary. Yep. But it might lead you somewhere amazing.

How can you make your freebie work pay off?

Before you all rush off to volunteer at the bitty little charity you like in your town, let’s take a minute to think this through.

There’s freebie work, and then there’s pro bono work. What you want is the latter — high-profile, high-impact volunteer work that will give you a killer portfolio sample.

Listening to International Freelancers Day recently, I was struck by a set of tips from Tyler Tervooren of Advanced Riskology about how to use pro bono work to get great clients.

His rules (and some of mine):

  • Only do a gratis project for high-priority prospects, to show what you can do. (A.J. and Melissa obviously took a different tack here, but this is an interesting strategy too — volunteering to ‘try out’ for target clients.)
  • Only do pro bono work for clients you know will recommend you.
  • I’d extend that to — only do pro bono work on a project that you know will allow you do to your best work. Something that stretches you creatively. A type of writing you know could be of interest to lucrative clients and will give you a great portfolio piece.
  • I’d also add — if you have no clips and need some, find some pro bono projects to do to create a portfolio. That’s way better than working for peanuts for a mill because you think you can’t pitch real clients because you don’t have a portfolio.
  • Swear the pro bono client to secrecy. No one is ever going to know you didn’t get paid on this project. You will present it along with the rest of your portfolio as client work.
  • Say NO to the wrong clients. Draw some boundaries and be very picky about your volunteer projects.
  • Don’t ever do freebie ghosting work where the client wants to pretend they wrote it, and you can’t use it as a sample.

What sort of writing would you like to be doing right now? Leave a comment and tell us about it.


  1. Sarah

    I have to say that some of this sounds a bit anti-altruistic (I’m sure that’s not the right word). I have volunteered for charities for a long time and currently do the website of a Portuguese animal charity entirely for free. I do use it on my portfolio but I didn’t set out with that intention. I am just trying to do my bit to help out. In fact, I am just starting to do the same thing with another charity, this time in Romania and this time it will take up even more of my time, but I am focusing on how I can help them not how they can help me.

    Setting out to help a charity in need with the intention of getting work off the back of it just doesn’t feel right to me.

    However, I do believe that doing something that you enjoy will give you the benefits in the end.

    • Carol Tice

      Well, AJ & Melissa have a terrific passion for the organizations they’re helping. Loads of us do what you’re doing — the occasional nonprofit volunteering gig. I think what AJ & Melissa’s success highlights is that if you’re doing pro bono work, we need to think about how to do it in an extraordinary way.

      So that it both takes that organization to a new level, and takes your skills to a new level, too. Which leads you to better gigs, and the charity to greater effectiveness. They’ve put helping nonprofits at the center of their business, and it’s made the business very successful, and taken their lives in whole new directions. To me it shows how you can lift up everything doing pro bono work – the organization’s life and your life too.

      I think most of us think of these things in separate boxes — I have my freelance writing paid work, and then I have the occasional free charity project I do on the side, because I like the organization. I was fascinated to see how AJ & Melissa have integrated the two together, to the benefit of both.

      • Sarah

        I agree with you and I think it is fantastic that they have been able to do this. I think their goals and determination are inspiring.

        My comment was in response to the end of the post, I just disagree with setting out to help charities with the intention of making money off the back of it.

  2. Christina

    This story is inspiring. Thank you. When we think outside the box, and create new opportunities by using our talents in unique ways, you never know what will happen.

  3. Ruth - Freelance Writing Blog

    This is interesting because I worked for 15 years in non profit management before transitioning to the corporate sector. I worked for some wonderful charities and the work was very gratifying, but the pay was ultimately mediocre and after so many years, I wanted to be more in control of my professional pursuits. I continue to serve on volunteer Boards for causes about which I am passionate – but those aren’t money making engagements. I suppose the ideal would be to marry the two worlds – passion and $$, but it’s a lot easier said than done. My passion is writing – so in that sense, I’m doing what I love. I think that it’s probably a spectrum – and it’s important to make sure that you are fulfilling your needs across the spectrum.

    • Carol Tice

      Exactly — this is the challenge for all of us. I thought AJ & Melissa provided an inspiring example of how passion for social change and seeing the world AND earning a good living could be brought together.

  4. Linda

    I have been thinking about this post all day. I wonder how many of us are truly listening to that inner voice that tells us what we really love. I’m not sure I am. I’m thinking about Steve Job’s advice to Stanford students — “Stay hungry, Stay foolish.” We all need a little bit of that I think. I think there’s a lot of wisdom in trying to narrow down your pro bono work to organizations or people that somehow relate to what you do. It’s not opportunistic if you do it in the right way. I have my writing business but I also have a long-term dream of having an online creative writing community for teens and college students. I’m getting ready to give a two of scholarships away for free writing/creative writing coaching to local high school students. I want them to be my prototype students. But when I get ready to really do this thing, I hope I will have done enough pro bono work to start a little buzz. Seems like a win-win.

  5. Edna

    Thanks for another inspiring post, Carol.

    A couple years ago I decided to find work writing about what I love — horses. I got my first gig writing for a small midwestern horse magazine. It didn’t pay much but I got some great clips from it before the owners sold the magazine. It took a while to land the next horse related gig, in fact I had put that on the back burner for a while. Then the need flaired up again to write about animals that have changed my life many times and remained a constant love since my childhood.

    So I answered “writer needed” listing from Texas on Craigslist early one morning, hoping I might be the first one to respond to the ad. He said no initially, that he’d already hired someone and then emailed back and said he needed two writers that could write about horses for a blog and for SEO. The gig eventually grew into a marketing/writing position and though his business has fluctuated and the work has been off and on sometimes, I’ve worked for the company for over two years.

    That one gig has led to several other horse related opportunities this year, one with a horse related marketing company and another for a magazine to interview up and coming hunter/jumper riders in the US. I’m still doing other gigs that there to pay the bills, but it’s easier now that I do have several projects that I’m really passionate about 🙂

    • Carol Tice

      Great story Edna. It illustrates one of the things I’m always saying — you want to carefully choose the projects you do. Because work of one kind tends to lead to work of that same kind. So start with something that relates in some way to what you want to do, because this work will tend to lead you there.

      If you love horses but you were writing about grocery-store refrigeration units, it’d be harder to get over to your passion topics.

  6. Dawn

    I have to agree that this story is inspiring. Thanks! When we think outside the box, and create new opportunities by utilizing our talents in unique ways, who knows what’s going to happen.

  7. Anna

    I must agree with Dawn. Thinking outside the box provide you with the opportunity not only to be more creative, thus successful but also to improve your mind and the way you see the world! Such an experience!!

  8. Pinar Tarhan

    It has always been my goal to make money writing what I love. I quit my day job because I wasn’t happy, so writing about things I didn’t enjoy would really make that pointless. But it can be difficult to find well paying clients for some niches, such as entertainment. I run my own blog, but I’ll be over the moon when I am hired to write movie/tv show reviews. Most publications in this area either only want guest posts, pay very little or work with in-house writers. Thankfully, that is not the only area I love. I also enjoy writing about freelance writing and relationships:)

  9. Jade

    Thanks for this thought-provoking post, Carol!

    My first long-term copywriting gig was for an upscale cosmetics website in 2004. I wrote for them on and off for a few years and loved it. Since the economic downturn, I’ve found it hard to find decent-paying clients, and I’ve resorted to writing for content mills and low-paying clients. I’ve written about everything from hernia trusses to Lindsay Lohan, subjects I would have never chosen on my own. For two years, I saw poorly written and researched articles splashed across the front pages of these sites while my articles languished in the background. I finally figured, “If I can’t get paid well for writing anymore, I might as well write about what I want.” Since then, I’ve focused on my interests – entertainment, travel and pets. I’m making slightly more than I did writing for content mills, and I don’t dread sitting at the computer anymore. I’m also making quality connections that may lead to high-paying writing work, something that would never had happened if I stuck with content mills.


    • Carol Tice

      Thanks for sharing that success story, Jade! It’s really hard to make less than you do working for mills, if you do any marketing at all.

  10. John

    Wow, that’s an amazing story. I can’t imagine just quitting and traveling around the world believing that my new business would succeed. I’m personally trying to build up my skillset first and try to get a good profile under my belt by doing pro bono work. I guess the hardest part after raising my skills is finding the clients though.

  11. ashley

    I am just starting to do the same thing with another charity, this time in Romania and this time it will take up even more of my time, but I am focusing on how I can help them not how they can help me.

  12. Ben Locker

    Great tips about the types of pro bono work you should accept. I’ve often made the mistake of choosing pro bono jobs on the basis of liking the person, rather than the topic.

    These days I don’t touch work I’m not interested in, or a member of the team isn’t interested in. It’s too easy for it to fall flat – and that’s bad for your reputation.

  13. Tony Scott

    “Don’t ever do freebie ghosting work where the client wants to pretend they wrote it, and you can’t use it as a sample.” I agree, unless the client is your own father! I’ve had experiences that come under this category and I could only tell about those instances but no one would believe. Can’t even show prospective employers anything. Ahh, lessons learned the hard way.

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