Successful freelance writers aren’t just good at their craft; they’re good at running a business.
“They know what their numbers are, they know what their best markets are, they know how to promote themselves and their writing,” says Gwen Moran, a freelance business and finance writer. “If you don’t treat it like a business, it’s a terribly stressful, sporadic-paying way to make a living. You need to tend [to] all the elements that make any other type of business successful. You need to be sure you’re providing a quality service. You need to be sure that you’re innovating, and, in our case, that’s reinventing yourself and adapting to technology and developing new developing skills. You may need to become better at social media. You may need be able to put together a simple video or a slideshow. You need to be marketing yourself, you need to be selling.”
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Another aspect is looking at return on investment (ROI): appraising your time and evaluating your projects’ worth beyond the payday.
The strategy has become crucial. Lisa DePaulo, whose articles have appeared in Esquire, GQ, and other major consumer publications, says “The days of the nice cushy contracts are over…Nobody is being paid what they used to be paid.”
Here’s how to get the most value from your work.
1. Put passion through a cost-benefit analysis
Passion projects may not pay well, but they sometimes serve a benefit. “I have various jobs that can be dry at times, but my thinking is always ‘I’m trying to be working on at least one thing that I’m passionate about,’” says Alan Siegel, who has written for The Ringer and Slate. “That’s not always a financial concern; it’s more for my own mental well-being, I think. I always want something to look forward to, work-wise.”
“That creative work is very important, because it also strengthens the work that may not be considered as creative,” says Moran, who has contributed to numerous national publications. “When you’re writing the 100th service piece on ‘100 Ways to Do Something Better,’ exercising those creative muscles can help you find fresher ways to tell those stories.”
It’s not as easy as it sounds.
Journalist Stephen Fried, the author of several nonfiction books (including Thing of Beauty: The Tragedy of Supermodel Gia), says return on investment is “almost completely uncontrollable…It’s more of a thing you look back in retrospect to try not to do the same dumb thing again.” The goal is “to always have long-term projects and more regular money-making projects going on at the same time. If not, you just, at a certain point, burn through savings (as I am doing writing my current book and writing this email).”
I say you are doing something wrong when your creativity gets fed while your checking account and soul starve.
Here’s my tale.
For nearly 30 years, I have not relinquished my dream to become the next Roger Ebert. When I got the chance to review movies a couple of times a month for The Weekender (Scranton, PA), I was thrilled. After three-plus years, my enthusiasm was depleted. The reason lay in the arithmetic. (All of the following are rough estimates, especially as movie ticket prices changed over the years.)
Forty minutes: Amount of time spent traveling to the multiplex and back home.
Two hours: Length of your average movie.
Three hours: How long it took me to write something semi-coherent.
Twenty-five dollars: What I was making per review.
Seven dollars: The cost of a matinee ticket.
Two dollars: Cost of gas.
That left me with $16. Divide that by five hours and 40 minutes (my time invested). That’s $2.83/hour, slightly above the minimum wage…for 1978.
Glenn Stout, an author (The Selling of the Babe: The Deal that Changed Baseball and Created a Legend) and writing consultant, has taken jobs that pay little or even nothing. He knows the benefit. Maybe his name gets in front of people or it leads to a paying gig.
Stout stops when “there’s no upward benefit. It’s both financial and creative. It’s not taking you anywhere toward more interesting stories that pay better or are higher-profile.”
Exactly: The energy I spent dissecting I, Frankenstein and If I Stay for pennies per word could now be spent on pitches for better-paying work. My schedule opened; I could take other assignments. Now I could entice editors with my film experience at different outlets, such as reviewing basketball movies at Hoop.com. What I got paid for those two months of reviews would have taken me a year to make at The Weekender.
And I got reimbursed for the cost of some of those movies, which I watched in my house.