“Why Don’t You Just Get Another Job?” How A Freelance Writer Makes A Living


Part of a series about how a freelance writer does money.

April 2014 stats:

Total earnings: $3,552.72*

Completed pieces (all types): 113

Essays published: in addition to my two Billfold pieces this month, I had a SF&F allegory titled Earth Children published on Yearbook Office

Current active clients: 5

I promised I would answer the question “why don’t I just get another job?” this month, so now I have to sit down and hash it out.

First: any discussion of you need to get another job has to start with the idea that you don’t get jobs. Instead, you are given jobs. You can pitch for jobs, or you can apply for jobs, but in the end, the decision about which job you get is rarely yours to make.

Right now I’m on target to earn $40,000 as a freelance writer this year. This means that to make this at least some kind of reasonable economic trade, I’d need to find someone to give me a $40,000/year job. (I know it’s a bit apples and oranges because of the tax thing and the health insurance thing, but you get the idea. If I’m trading my home office for a commute and a cube, I want at least $40K.)

The $40,000/year minimum eliminates a lot of jobs. The old “You’re an internet freelance writer and you write listicles and email campaigns? Go get a job at Starbucks!” line does not apply here.

I do have a background in office administration, and I could probably find a position in a small office as an administrative assistant or office manager. That’s my shadow self, right now; the person who looks a bit like Joan Holloway. I could be that person and earn around $40-50K and eventually train to become a human resources director. I’d be the person giving jobs to other people. It’s a logical and attainable career path.

If I told you that I wrote my first “book” when I was in kindergarten, and it was called Marijana’s Deram,** I would sound like the biggest cliche ever. But there’s a lot of that in my answer to the question “why don’t you just get another job.”

This isn’t “do what you love” in the presumptuous way. I like, but do not love, writing listicles and email campaigns. Instead, this work feeds my essay habit and fits my talents and abilities in a way no other job has. Writing is how my brain solves problems, and I can use that skill to solve other people’s problems.

There’s also a lot of what we’re going to discuss when we read Rich Dad Poor Dad in a few weeks: the idea that some people just want to be their own boss. I’m not precisely my own boss; my clients and I pass that responsibility back and forth like two people on a blind date sharing a creme brulee. But I am running my own business. We’ll see if it turns me into a Rich Dad.

Am I frustrated, sometimes, at the content mills and the gig economy and the assumption that I’ll be happy to work for three cents a word? Yes — but I know that’s not the only economy out there. I’ve seen what happens when you move up, even just a little bit, in your writing career. I’ve leveled up a lot this year — I’ve even leveled up this month. I can now afford to turn jobs down that don’t fit my interests and goals.

(That, in itself, feels like a significant accomplishment. Not just in my writing career, but in life.)

The “why don’t you just get another job” question only becomes relevant when I stop leveling up, or stop earning money. When none of the jobs clients give me fit my interests and goals. When there’s another job available that’s better than all the pitches I could ever send.

Next month: Advice to New Freelance Writers. If you have specific questions you’d like me to answer in next month’s piece, please drop them in the comments!

*I should flag, because this month it’s actually relevant: I generally earn occasional small amounts of money selling music, which get rolled up into my total earnings. This month I earned $220 from music/merch sales, which is included in the $3,552 figure. TRANSPARENCY, YO.

**There was a girl in my kindergarten named Marijana, and I thought it was a really pretty name. Also I didn’t know how to spell “dream.”


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


18 Comments / Post A Comment

Susan Tidebeck (#5,691)

$3,552 per month and 5 clients? That’s what freelance is all about. Congratulations. As far as I’m concerned you are a success. Granted, April is usually a good month and things slow down in the summer, but come September things ramp up again with the traditional manic intensity.

HelloTheFuture (#5,275)

@Susan Tidebeck Thanks! :)

Stina (#686)

Heck I know I don’t write well, much less have any knowledge of being a freelancer and I’M impressed that you can turn down work. That’s huge! Yay you.

HelloTheFuture (#5,275)

@Stina Thank you! The work I’m turning down is the really low-value stuff. It’s not like I’m saying no to the NYT. (I WOULD NEVER SAY NO TO THE NYT, PLEASE CALL ME.)

I’m really curious about your typical daily schedule. Do you answer all your email at once and leave it alone for a while or are you at it all day? Do you Gchat with clients? Do you Gchat with friends? When do you eat? Do you listen to music? I’m guessing you start pretty early, right? Sorry if I’m being too nosy, I’m always fascinated by how other people work.

I’m currently working two part timers (one creative, one retail) and I’m doing okay money-wise right now, though my savings could easily be gone in a second. This series has made me think about writing in ways that I hadn’t before (invisibly, without a byline), but I worry that I couldn’t handle it or be available 24/7 if that was necessary.

HelloTheFuture (#5,275)

@orange popsicle

Email: I practice GTD.

I’m not a Gchatter; I tend to get the house of cards built up in my head as I work, and letting friends (or clients) knock that over with chat requests is not my idea of a good time. I try to schedule all conversations with clients that can’t be solved in a quick email back-and-forth.

Music: YES YES YES YES ALL THE TIME. Gotta stimulate that sacculus.

Work schedule: 9 a.m. to 7 p.m. usually, with a break for lunch and another break for home office yoga. :)

You don’t have to be available 24/7. Set your boundaries early and people will respect them.

@HelloTheFuture Thanks Nicole!

Sarah Caitlin (#6,630)

I’d really like advice for pitching to publications when you have very little published work on your resume/CV. How do you get started?

HelloTheFuture (#5,275)

@Sarah Caitlin I’m making note of this question for the next series installment. A few questions: what type of publications do you want to pitch? And what is your goal as a freelancer? Do you want to make money, see your name as a byline in a popular blog, etc. etc. etc.???

RachelG8489 (#1,297)

@HelloTheFuture I didn’t ask this question but am also super super interested. I like writing essays and am trying to figure out a way to make a little money on the side off them. So I’m okay with being pickier about the kinds of things I write, since I see it as more side hustle than JOB.

HelloTheFuture (#5,275)

@RachelG8489 Yeah, in your case you just gotta pitch and pitch and pitch. If you don’t have a lot of clips built up, send the completed essay along with your pitch so it can speak for itself.

Have you read my piece about pitching from a few months ago? http://thebillfold.com/2014/03/from-pitch-to-paid-how-a-freelance-writer-makes-a-living/

It contains all the advice I have to give re: pitching essays. :)

mintjulips (#6,277)

How many of the essays you pitch are subjective where, like this one, the primary source of the essay is your personal experience? Do you see subjective longform essays online as more or less profitable than reporting?

HelloTheFuture (#5,275)

@mintjulips Probably 75% personal experience, 25% “other” (book and media reviews, reporting, etc.).

Reporting is more profitable because companies understand there is a time value in sourcing a subject and starting those conversations.

Check out Who Pays Writers at http://whopays.scratchmag.net/ to learn more about what major publications pay for essays, reporting, features, etc. It isn’t that much, most of the time.

I earn the majority of my income doing invisible work like website copy. :)

adv103 (#6,635)

Thanks for writing this series, it’s really interesting. A couple of questions for your next installment:

1) Are there any websites/other resources for those who are looking to start out in freelancing? More specifically, are there resources for people looking to write for blogs, do basic copy editing, or any other work new freelancers can reasonably expect to get their hands on?
2) How do you get into ghostwriting? That’s probably a big question, but if you can’t answer it in the next article, it would be awesome if it you considered giving this its own installment in this series.
3) How do you balance doing the work that you enjoy less (I’m assuming from your articles that this is more of the copy/content stuff) and doing the work that you hope will eventually sustain you (essays, novels)?

Thanks! I’m looking forward to next month’s article.

HelloTheFuture (#5,275)

@adv103 Happy to answer those questions in next month’s article! The ghostwriting answer is going to be REALLY interesting. I have so much to say about that.

I’ll answer the first question right now: I am a huge fan of Chris Guillebeau’s work and recommend his Unconventional Guide to Freelance Writing. There are GOBS of websites, forums, etc. for people who want to learn more about freelance writing. More than a person could read in a lifetime. So try reading the Unconventional Guide first, as well as the blog Make a Living Writing. That should get you started.

HelloTheFuture (#5,275)

@adv103 OH AND ALSO DON’T FORGET TO READ MY TUMBLR (toots own horn)

adv103 (#6,635)

@HelloTheFuture Thanks for the reading recommendations. I’ll definitely check out your Tumblr, as well.

40K? I write non stop, 12 – 14 hours a day as a ghost writer, on textbroker, hirewriters, hustle clist gigs, digitalpoint forums, fiverr, and in my best year I did not get 40K!? 15 years of blogging, and I have to sit through another one of these “I make more money than you” posts about writing? The reality of freelance writing is far less “compelling” but I keep seeing these puff pieces about how someone else is making so much more money. Perhaps thebillfold and other sites should start to interview bloggers, writers, and others that are putting in 80 hours a week and barely getting by, even with 2 degrees, and a love/passion for the craft. I know, I know, I will always come across as a “bitter” writer, but come on, I average 0.006 a word, and that’s the going rate on odesk,elance and others. You win. You get another hit another comment, and more money. I’ll get back to my 0.006 a word and see other writers with less experience make 40K!?! GD

Comments are closed!