More and more these days, I get emails from people asking me how they can make money writing. I’ve given different responses over the years, but they all sound similar to this most recent one ::
That’s quite the story, my friend. Thanks for sharing.
Off the top of my head:
Forget about freelance websites.
Any job that’s going to pay anything substantial over the long haul will come from relationships or inquiries. This is basic business savvy :: generate new leads. That means (a) invest in the artists and professional writers around you, (b) invest steadily in a handful of markets at first, and (c) find a way to attract those who are unfamiliar with your work. Freelance websites are the equivalent of rich landowners who profit off of day laborers and pay them a pittance. Refuse to participate in these wage-lowering forms of oppression. I say the same thing about them as I say about Uber — just say “no.”
Focus on your craft.
The number one problem I come across when fledgling writers ask me this question is this waning work ethic as applied to writing. Often it’s not that would-be writers can’t write. It’s that would-be writers won’t work. In my experience, most of them also haven’t learned how to learn from anything and everyone, let alone to immediately apply the things they learn to their craft. Others refuse to write every day. When I worked night shift at the hospital, I asked permission from the floor nurses to write in the nurse’s lounge during the 3:30am no-soul’s hour. They always let me if it was (1) a slow night and (2) I had my rounds and prep done. So I learned to work my butt off in the hospital in order to make time to write. Sure, I’d be on call with my buzzer. Sure, I’d be surrounded by the rooms of the sick. Sure, I’d get interrupted frequently to answer questions about patient history. But I treasure many of the stories I wrote in that time because I was working hard at my job so that I’d have room to learn how to tell a story.
Writing is a job just like any job. It’s work and since here on Earth the environment in which work happens is cursed, there are days in which I hate going in to work. But it’s not the work I hate. It’s the environment. So I lower my head, set my mind on learning something from the experience, and focus on building my craft in the midst of adverse circumstances. I wrote on napkins when I sold diamonds and the mall was dead. I wrote on printer paper when I was selling and teaching instruments. I wrote on the backs of scripts when I was a DJ at the radio station. Of course, if any of this creates a conflict of interest in your current job, by all means work on your writing in your free time alone, but I’m assuming that you’re already doing that as often as you can.
Don’t worry about which genre you write,
Every site you read that gives advice for any form of freelance will tell you to specialize, specialize, specialize. They’ll tell you to do this because it makes your “product” — i.e. your self — infinitely more marketable.
I think the American obsession with specialization is a disease, a product of the capitalistic factory mindset and has nothing to do with the classical mind or a classical education. You are a soul, not a product, and there are many more sides to you than the one. I say dabble in copywriting, dabble in editing, dabble in writing fiction or poetry and find all of those things that make you come alive and do them. We don’t need more websites devoted to writing cat poems. We don’t need more businesses devoted to subscription razor services. We need more writers who have come alive, whose minds have marinated in the great compost heap of classic literature. C.S. Lewis, Chesterton, Coleridge, Byron and even J.K. Rowling did this among many, many others.
Don’t sell yourself short,
charge what you’re worth.
My mistake early on was overestimating what I could charge in little old Joplin, Missouri. The average rate for most freelance copywriting or editing nationwide is $65 / hour. But that’s the absolute outer ring of what any of the businesses in Joplin (or any municipality under 100,000 people) will support. So don’t overestimate yourself or your market.
On the other hand, most freelancers I come across underestimate their capabilities. I know one girl who’s charging twenty-five bucks for a four-hour photo session including prints. That’s egregiously too low — she’s getting little more than $6 an hour in a city that pays $14 for mopping floors at Whole Foods. And that’s just for her time — it’s not including her costs as the sole proprietor of her business, her need for insurance, her taxes, etcetera.
And for all that is good and holy, stop giving away your work for free. The plumber gets paid to plunge. The designer gets paid to design. Charge something. Barter if you have to, but a worker is always worth his pay. This includes, but is not limited to: story consulting, editing, proofreading, style revisions, copywriting, fiction, nonfiction, poetry, story editors for films, technical writing, grant writing (and really all development work), business writing, blogging (if you want to do that full-time, I don’t), screenwriting, playwriting, and transcription.
Buy a Writer’s Market.
I repeat this in every chunk of advice I offer, and I’m still amazed at how many people don’t even know that the Market exists. Buy one – it’s the combined phonebook and addressbook and playbook for where and how to sell what you write. Buy one. Buy one.
Buy a Writer’s Market. Seriously.
Then write your rewrite over again from scratch.
Submit. Get rejected. Repeat.
There’s no shortcut other than meaningful time intended toward a specific goal. Just like learning languages, time at task. Time at task.
My good friend Ben Grace is a songwriter. He just recently created this tattoo for 2015 and put it on his forearm ::
Play. Write. Record. Repeat.
Good idea for a songwriter. For the writer, it’s ::
Write. Submit. Get rejected. Repeat.
Read The War of Art
and Turning Pro.
This advice is for all artists reading this. The books will explain themselves.
Reinvest Your Profits
Albert Einstein said the most powerful force in the universe is exponential interest. Warren Buffett puts this at the top of his list of ways to get rich.
But the best illustration is dominoes ::
Consider contributing to
the publishing landscape at large.
Everyone and their dog will email me and the other writers and agents and editors I know with a manuscript. Everyone.
“Read my work! Read my work!”
I get it. I understand. I lost friends early on by badgering them with my writing. Let me save you the pain:
You know what’s unique? A writer who stacks chairs and picks up cans after a literary reading. A writer who starts a unique fiction magazine that combines good literature with local culture. A writer who starts a podcast. A writer who, as Tim Grahl says, is relentlessly helpful for those in the publishing world.
The problem right now isn’t that we have too many writers or even that we have too many books. The problem is that our overall care for the culture and the landscape of publishing is waning, is struggling to keep up with the amount of quality work that could exist in a broader context. Poetry especially, but luckily, as C.D. Wright says, Poetry can live on very little.
So make it easier, sweeter, better for someone to enjoy reading and you’ll attract people to the things you write. The moment I started doing this was the moment I stopped acting like a dude with pamphlets in Penn Station and started letting people come to me to read my work. In most cases concerning American life, I think people quote the following line in order to justify risky and even stupid ventures, but when we talk about culture care it’s completely true ::
If you build it, they will come.