What it Really Takes to Make a Living Writing

Carol Tice

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.

44 Comments

  1. Matt Blake

    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!

    • Katherine Swarts

      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.”)

  2. Robelias

    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.

  3. Alicia

    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.

    • Carol Tice

      Hi Alicia —

      Yeah, major omission on my part. I tend to solve it by just working a million hours…but I’m trying to get out of that now. 😉

  4. Rob

    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.

    • Carol Tice

      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.

    • Katherine Swarts

      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!

  5. Joy Collado

    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!

    • Carol Tice

      Bingo!

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