Listicles, Copy, Content, and Essays: How a Freelance Writer Makes a Living

January 2014 stats:
Total earnings: $3,300.91
Completed pieces (all types): 150
Essays published: 3
Novellas rejected: 1

I’ve been a full-time freelance writer for just over a year. I track everything. I post my freelance income to my Tumblr every week, and am always taking notes on who’s hiring and who’s paying.

In January, for example, I got one new client and two new sub-client relationships that pay through an existing client. I got each of these new jobs the old-fashioned way: by having a current client recommend me. These are the jobs that aren’t advertised. This brings my number of current client relationships up to six.

My two biggest clients buy the rights to my words whether or not my name is attached, which is a decent strategy for making money but — as I worry, night after night — a poor long-term career strategy. I have no idea what the long-term career strategy is for this type of job. I suspect it has something to do with eventually becoming Heather Havrilesky, or Lev Grossman, or Ta-Nehisi Coates. Eventually becoming Nicole Dieker.

This series is about what I have to do before that happens — or, equally likely, what I’m going to do if that never happens.

To start the series, let’s look at four types of assignments I get paid to write: listicles, copy, essays, and content. Three of these types come to me directly from clients. The fourth type I have to pitch. (Guess which one falls into that category.)

They all roughly pay about the same, interestingly enough. I’ll get the same amount of money for writing this piece as I would if I had written “10 Things You Didn’t Know About Batman.” (If you’re wishing you were reading “10 Things You Didn’t Know About Batman” right now instead of “how a freelance writer gets paid,” I am sorry. Also, I don’t think I actually know 10 things about Batman that you don’t already know.)

Listicles are my favorite type of article to write. Please let me tell you the best, funniest, or most shocking of everything. I never get a byline on these, so don’t try to look me up. Are listicles polluting the internet with their vapid, snack-sized distraction entertainment? Maybe — but people still want to read them, and they pay well. (And trust me, I spend just as much time distracting myself with list-shaped brain snacks as you do.)

Copy is my catch-all term for anything to do with advertising. Can I describe this product in 150 words, including a call to action for the consumer? Absolutely. Am I going to get a byline? Nope — I’m not selling myself, after all. (I mean, technically, I am. And get your minds out of the gutter.)

Now that I’ve admitted that I write brain snacks and calls to action, I should throw in something that sounds ambitious and noble, like “but what I really want to do is write essays and novels.” This is both true and much more complicated than that. There are a couple of pieces here that I have to break out and examine.

First, as I mentioned earlier, I post my freelance income to my Tumblr every week. Since we measure what matters, it should be clear that what I really want to do is earn money. Like most of us here on the ‘Fold (can I call it the ‘Fold?), if I don’t earn money, everything falls apart.

Now that I’ve got the defensive posturing aside: well, sure. Of course I “really” want to write essays and columns and novels, but the truth is that I am already doing that. (This is the part where I would add “and I’ve been published in this place and that place,” but you can easily look that stuff up on your own.)

I’m doing the work, making the pitches, and building the clips. It’s just that you can’t build a career on three published essays a month. It doesn’t pay the rent.

So, like many writers before me, I pad out the rest with listicles, copy, ghostwriting, and — here it comes — content.

Okay. (Deep breath.) Yes, I have earned a gob of cash writing how-to and topic articles for the usual suspects. It’s frustrating that they don’t give you a byline; why shouldn’t I get credit for knowing how to French braid hair or how to plunge a toilet? People have this assumption that content writers don’t actually know what they’re writing about, but trust me — I know plenty about braiding hair, and I would like some recognition for that.

Do I still want to be doing content, in a year? The short answer is NO. The longer answer? Honestly, it depends on the type of content. (Let’s just say that some content writing is better than others, in every sense of the word.)

It also depends on a realistic assessment of the types of jobs I can find, and whether I’m willing to go all-in on the idea that I can write more and more essays and novels and columns and eventually “become Nicole Dieker.” (I want to believe in this — the idea that if I just trust myself and be the best Nicole I can be, wonderful things will happen. I want to give myself over to this so badly. But then I remember that statistic that says that even with every job filled at once, 60 percent of the unemployed will still be out of work simply because there aren’t enough jobs. It doesn’t feel like there’s enough room in the world for me to be the best Nicole I can be.)

So … that was January. Next time, I’ll recap February’s income. I’ll also write about how I pitch and how long it takes to get from “pitch” to “paid.” (Spoiler alert: longer than it takes frozen meat to go bad.) Until then, we can talk questions and advice in the comments. I am so interested to know how other people do this, and to share what I’ve learned.

 

Nicole Dieker is a freelance writer and ghostwriter, and is the only member of the band Hello, The Future!

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22 Comments / Post A Comment

rhinoceranita (#5,858)

How are you doing with quarterly taxes? Are you chopping off 30% immediately and putting it somewhere else?

HelloTheFuture (#5,275)

@rhinoceranita I am not doing the “separate savings account” thing for quarterly taxes, although I should. I just pay them out of my checking account every three months.

questingbeast (#2,409)

This was really interesting, thanks! Can I ask, how did you get started? I do a bit of (not super legit) paid writing and was looking to get more into the content stuff, but from just browsing around it’s hard to know which of the sites that are willing to take inexperienced people are any good or will actually pay.

HelloTheFuture (#5,275)

@questingbeast first of all, OMG I GET THAT REFERENCE.

Second of all: A good content site will say up front how much you’ll make and when you’ll get paid. It’ll have a clear, visible process through which you can communicate with site staff and share concerns. It will usually have a standardized test for you to take as part of your application.

I got started by taking the tests at Write.com (which is part of the company Crowdsource). It’s a good content site that pays a reasonable entry-level rate. I earned freelancing money exclusively from Crowdsource for about four months, and then was able to use that experience to expand my client base.

questingbeast (#2,409)

@HelloTheFuture Thanks, that’s really helpful! (Can’t think how all my googling missed something called ‘Write.com’… doh).

Lily Rowan (#70)

What are “the usual suspects” when you’re talking about content production? Not all of us reading this are freelance writers!

HelloTheFuture (#5,275)

@Lily Rowan Crowdsource, Demand Media, Textbroker, Writer’s Domain, ODesk, Mechanical Turk. I do not write for all of these, but I do write for some of them. :)

Lily Rowan (#70)

@HelloTheFuture Wow — I am literally unaware of all of those sites! So interesting.

highjump (#39)

So how much did The Billfold pay you for this article?

HelloTheFuture (#5,275)

@highjump My contracts and payment rates remain the purview of myself and my editors.

However, there is loads of info about writing pay rates at http://whopays.scratchmag.net/.

Mike Dang (#2)

@highjump We have paid anywhere from $0-$100 for pieces. And upwards of $200 for writers who have done sponsored posts for us. Generally anyone who has offered to write “reported” pieces for us (conducted interviews, etc.) get paid on that higher end.

We’re not at a point where we can pay for absolutely everything yet and the main reason for that is that the site was not making any money initially and Logan and I had to take out a loan to get the site built and to feed ourselves (while simultaneously working other jobs, which I still do). That loan is still being paid off. Once that loan gets paid off, we’ll be in a different position. Also, we’ve never asked anyone to write for us for free—it’s always been a writer’s decision to do that or not.

Bill Fostex (#573)

@Mike Dang Logan gives me a handful of jelly beans (blacks and greens removed) for each post I write.

highjump (#39)

@Mike Dang Thanks for the transparency. I was not trying to be a jerk, it just seemed like a natural part of the article that was left out.

highjump (#39)

@Bill Fostex That is VERY thoughtful.

mf (#5,094)

@hellothefuture That site you linked to indicates that the billfold doesn’t pay writers. I was under the assumption that only the awl does? it seems odd to shy away from telling us what you made for this piece, considering the topic of this article and the site’s m.o. of money transparency.

HelloTheFuture (#5,275)

@mf See Mike’s note above re: how The Billfold pays writers.

Re: transparency: I will always share how much I earn (gross) and how many pieces I write. That’s a good piece of data because it tells you how much actual work you have to generate to make a living.

But I won’t say what I earn for individual pieces. Not because The Billfold asked me not to (they didn’t say anything either way), but because other clients do ask me to keep that information confidential and so it’s a good policy across the board.

L Crumbs (#5,957)

@hellothefuture Thanks for writing this! I found it to be really helpful and informative, as I’m looking to start freelancing on the side. I’m curious about your educational background, if you don’t mind sharing that info. (I have a B.S. in natural resources MGMT, but professional writing was my favorite class in college.) Thanks again for all the info!

HelloTheFuture (#5,275)

@L Crumbs Undergrad degree in music, emphasis in composition, from Miami University. MFA in theatre directing from Illinois State.

AfterBerlin (#6,098)

@HelloTheFuture — Thanks for the article, looking forward to future installments. 150 pieces seems like a ton of writing for the month, and that does not include marketing yourself, keeping track of billing and expenses, etc. What is your working day/week like?

HelloTheFuture (#5,275)

@AfterBerlin I keep about a 9-hour workday, which includes researching, writing, pitching, marketing, and staying connected on social media.

(I mean, who am I kidding, I’m “on social media” every hour I’m not sleeping.)

I keep weekends free, for the most part.

Each piece I write is approximately 700 words long, which means that some are 100 and some are 1,500, but most of them hit the 600-800 range. I try to write 5,000 words/day or complete $150 worth of pieces, whichever comes first. Lately I’ve gotten some raises and bigger clients so my word count has gone down and my earnings have gone up.

I am a very fast typist. :)

AfterBerlin (#6,098)

@HelloTheFuture — Thanks for the reply ~~

custom essays (#6,212)

If the writer don’t do any kind of copy pasting from other website then there is no lack of works for them. Everyone just want to have unique and fresh content, which will at a time be attracted by the readers.

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