Secrets of a Freelance Writer
How to Make $100,000 a Year or More
By Robert W. Bly
Henry Holt and Company Copyright © 2006 Robert W. Bly
All rights reserved.
AN INTRODUCTION TO HIGH-PROFIT WRITING
When asked by Esquire magazine what he would have done if it hadn't been for writing, novelist Richard Ford replied: "Make more money." And that, I think, sums up the plight of the freelance writer in America today.
When I speak to groups of writers and would-be writers, I ask, "How many of you think it's possible to earn $40,000 this year from your writing?" A few hesitant hands make their way into the air, but most of the audience members sit silently, staring down at their laps ... because they don't think they'll ever make a living at the computer keyboard, and $40,000 seems a fantastic sum.
They are shocked when I tell them that it's ridiculously easy to earn $40,000 a year writing.
That an annual income of $40,000 can be theirs without much sweat.
That, if they're willing to reexamine their attitude toward the writing life — and commercial, moneymaking writing in particular — they can earn $100,000 or $150,000, or even $200,000 or more.
I've done it. And so can you.
IS A SIX-FIGURE INCOME IN YOUR FUTURE?
What does it take to make $100,000 or more a year, every year, writing?
First, it doesn't take genius. You have to be reasonably intelligent to be a writer, I suppose. But not brilliant. Intellectual curiosity and enthusiasm are far more important than sheer brainpower when it comes to being a good and successful writer. "From what I can tell, copywriting isn't rocket science," says copywriter John Forde. "True, it does take a certain knack, but patience and dedication will get you far."
Second, it doesn't take greatness. To succeed as a commercial writer, you have to be good at what you do. But you don't need to be great. Clients look to freelance writers for solid, reliable work, not creative genius. If you rate yourself good, excellent, or even just competent as a writer, you can make $100,000 a year writing. "Being the very best at what you do is not essential," says Cam Foote, a successful freelance corporate writer. "Good is all that's required; excellent isn't."
Now if you don't need genius or greatness, what does it take? Three things:
1. A new attitude. If you've always looked down your nose at the type of commercial writing I'm going to describe in this book, take another look. There can be great joy, dignity, and pride in being a successful commercial writer — not to mention more opportunities and better pay. Although 90 percent of my time is devoted to handling projects for corporate clients, I love my work, and I am proud of consistently earning a six-figure income year after year in a profession where most fulltime writers are scrambling to make the rent payment each month.
2. Dedication. Whether you handle commercial projects full-time or part-time, you have to dedicate yourself to the task. You must treat the work you do for your clients with respect, not contempt. If you can really muster no enthusiasm for writing an annual report, corporate brochure, Web site, or sales letter, your lack of enthusiasm will show in your writing.
3. A businesslike approach. Stockbroker Jim Hansberger says, "We are all salespeople ... at least part of the time." This applies to stockbrokers, doctors, accountants, dentists, teachers, college presidents — and writers, too.
"There are dozens, perhaps even hundreds, of competitors doing what you do, going after the same business you go after," writes Cameron Foote in "Creative Business." "Marketing allows you to direct the course of your business, rather than being dependent on whatever happens to come your way."
Whether you're writing copy for an ad agency, or the Great American Novel for the Great American Publisher, you have to sell your work in order to live. Fortunately, selling is an easily acquired skill and it can be great fun, too. I know some writers who say they enjoy the selling part of this business almost as much as the writing.
THE AWFUL TRUTH ABOUT "TRADITIONAL" FREELANCE WRITING
When I ask beginning writers how they plan to earn money, they almost always reply, "By writing books and magazine articles." This is the conventional approach to freelance writing. Writers, would-be writers, and people outside writing think of a "real" writer as someone who writes magazine articles and, if fortunate, books, too.
But the sad fact is, writing magazine articles and books doesn't pay very well. A recent survey from the American Society of Journalists and Authors revealed that nearly 7 out of 10 freelance journalists earn less than $50,000 a year. And according to literary agent Michael Larsen, author of Literary Agents:What They Do, How They Do It, advances for a full-length adult nonfiction book today are in the $5,000 to $25,000 range, but the advance for a genre novel or literary first novel may be less than that.
Says novelist and Advertising Age columnist James Brady, "Writing novels is not a career. Or an amusement. Or, God knows, a business. It is an addiction those of us afflicted by it are powerless to resist."
The first step to making a lot of money as a freelance writer is to avoid the "poverty mentality" so many writers have. This is the belief that (a) freelance writers earn very little money; (b) freelance writers deserve to earn very little money; (c) it's impossible to make a lot of money as a freelance writer unless you hit with a bestseller or big movie script; and (d) therefore you will never make or have a lot of money as a freelance writer.
Set your sights higher. Don't aim for an income of $40,000 a year. Aim for $100,000 a year, or even $250,000 a year. You may not make your goal. But even if you come only halfway to achieving those high goals, you'll be a lot better off than writers who deliberately aim low.
Believe that you deserve and can earn a good living as a writer because you do and, more important, you can.
Put the $25,000 to $50,000 a year you read about writers making out of your head. You will earn much more than that. When you think about it, $25,000 a year is easy. After all, the average poverty threshold for a family of four is an annual income of around $15,000 a year. Surely you don't expect to live in poverty.
The average New York City doorman makes about $37,300 a year. Doesn't it seem likely that corporations will pay you more to write their Web sites than landlords will pay you to open a door? An article in the New York Daily News told of a "squeegee guy" (a person who walks up to your car in Manhattan at a red light, cleans the windshield, and asks for money) who, when booked for disorderly conduct by the police, was found to have $4,918 in cash in his pockets. If the squeegee guy can make this kind of money, you can, too.
A NEW TYPE OF FREELANCING: HIGH-PROFIT WRITING
Fortunately, there is another way to make money at writing. Some call it "corporate writing" or "business writing." My term is "high-profit writing."
It isn't hard to break into. And it gives you an opportunity to build a regular client base, a steady, solid career, and a business that grows and prospers year after year.
The odds of success are in your favor. In fact, if you are a competent writer, and follow the advice presented in this book, I can almost assure you of a steady, decent income for life.
It's fun. It's rewarding. It's a challenge. And it pays extremely well.
I know of no other area of writing that is so lucrative yet so easy to get started in. In High-Profit Writing, your client is a corporation, small business, or other commercial enterprise — not a magazine or book publisher.
My dictionary defines commercial as an activity "1: having profit, success, or immediate results as its chief aim," and "2: sponsored by an advertiser."
High-Profit Writing is work performed for a client who intends to use your copy for commercial purposes. The writing may be used to motivate, educate, inform, or persuade. Most commercial writing is designed to sell or help sell some product or service.
Usually, your client is a corporation that sells goods or services for profit, and your writing is aimed at helping the client achieve this sales goal. Some High-Profit Writers serve other types of clients, such as nonprofit organizations, colleges, politicians, hospitals, trade associations, community centers, churches, fund-raisers, museums, and government agencies. Most, however, find their best client is corporate America — companies that manufacture products, distribute merchandise, publish information, or render services.
High-Profit Writing encompasses just about any type of printed, electronic, and online presentation clients may need to promote their products, services, organizations, or ideas. These assignments include, but are not limited to, advertisements, annual reports, articles, booklets, brochures, case histories, catalogs, CD-ROMs, circulars, data sheets, direct-mail packages, e-mail marketing campaigns, employee communications, film scripts, fliers, instruction manuals, invoice stuffers, newsletters, press releases, product labels and packaging, proposals, radio commercials, reports, sales letters, sales promotion materials, seminars, slide- and computer-based presentations, speeches, technical papers, trade show exhibits, training materials, TV commercials, videotapes, and Web pages.
In this book, I'll tell you everything you need to know to get started in this exciting business — including how the business works, who the clients are, where to find clients, how to get people to hire you, how to set and negotiate fees, how to complete assignments successfully, how to handle revisions, how to make sure you get paid, how to collect past-due bills, how to resolve difficulties and problems, how to market your writing services, plus how to get more assignments from current clients.
After reading this book, you will be able to start and run your own successful freelance writing business, specializing in commercial High-Profit Writing assignments. Of course, you are free to devote as much or as little time to this endeavor as you please.
If you work at it full-time, you can achieve an annual income in excess of $100,000. If you work at it part-time, you can earn a nice sum and have many free hours to devote to writing novels, short stories, poems, or whatever else is your pleasure, without having to depend on these literary endeavors for your income.
I can't guarantee your success, of course. But I can point the way.
PROS AND CONS OF FREELANCE COMMERCIAL WRITING
Although it may not be what you dreamed of when you first got hooked on writing, being a commercial writer has its advantages. Among them:
1. You make much more money than in other types of writing. On average, freelance writers doing corporate work earn two to four times as much money as freelance writers doing magazine articles and books.
2. Commercial writing is a business that can build up nicely, with a regular client base and steady assignments. Freelancing for magazines and book publishers, on the other hand, is an uncertain occupation at best. In High-Profit Writing, the client is buying you as a writer, your writing services. If the service is good, she will come back to you again and again. In the publishing world, the publisher is buying your book or article idea; even if you did a good job the first time, they'll turn you down if your next idea doesn't turn them on.
3. There is tremendous variety in commercial assignments. Each client and each project is different. You will rarely be bored.
4. Corporations have a real and pressing need to get things written. There is a huge demand for commercial freelance writers. Assignments for competent freelancers are never in short supply. There is much less competition than in books, magazine articles, television writing, or movies.
5. The relationship between writer and client is on a highly professional level. Writers are generally treated better by their corporate clients than by publishers.
6. There is little or no "on spec" work. With rare exception, commercial writers always get paid for services rendered.
7. There's no need for you to sit around and dream up ideas. Clients will come to you with projects and assignments. This eliminates the need to write query letters and proposals — a time-consuming activity for which writers do not get paid.
8. High-Profit Writers enjoy the sense of dignity, self-esteem, and peace of mind that comes from being well paid. They do not sit in cold garrets hunched over antiquated electric typewriters and outdated PCs bemoaning their poverty. Successful commercial writers earn enough to support a home, a family, and the other necessities and luxuries of life.
9. High-Profit Writers who know how to market themselves and are good at what they do can ensure a steady stream of new clients and new business all year long. The agony of sitting around with nothing to do, waiting for a letter or phone call from an editor, need not be a part of the commercial writer's life.
Of course, there are disadvantages as well:
1. You don't get a byline. Most of your copy, including ads, brochures, and catalogs, is sent out under the client company's logo. If you ghostwrite speeches or articles for a client, the client, not you, is credited as the author.
2. The work you are doing is, by its nature, commercial, not literary. This bothers some people. But most writers with literary aspirations can enjoy both types of assignments, commercial and literary, for what they are.
"In the writer's youthful dreams, literature had been the freest of all countries and the thought of it the only possible way of escaping from the vileness and submissions of daily life to a proud equality, and no doubt many had pursued such dreams," writes Peter Handke in his book The Afternoon of a Writer (Minerva). As a freelance commercial writer, be prepared to deal with the real world of "crass commerce" and dispense with your literary illusions — at least while you're working on client projects. You can always create art on your own time.
3. The ideas are not your own. It is the client who dictates the nature of the assignment (the type of copy needed, the product to be promoted, the key sales points or themes to be stressed). Writers' creativity comes into play when they shape the raw material into an interesting, compelling, persuasive piece of copy. But the basic idea originates with the client. You usually do not work with material that is totally of your own choosing, as you would writing a novel, play, or poem.
4. The client dictates the final form. If the client wants revisions, you must make them, even if you disagree. The client, not the writer, is gambling his money on your TV commercial or sales letter or advertisement, so ultimately the client must be happy and comfortable with it. A smart client pays close attention to his writer's recommendations and opinions. But the client, not the writer, has the final say.
Most documents produced in organizations must be approved by multiple reviewers, which can make the revision process slow and sometimes tedious. No writer is immune to this. In her book What I Saw at the Revolution (Random House), White House speechwriter Peggy Noonan says that every presidential speech was circulated for comments and reviewed by twenty to fifty people, depending on the importance of the occasion and the topic.
5. As with many other types of businesses, payments are sometimes slow in coming. This is not a deliberate attempt to cheat the writer. It is simply that many large corporations routinely take 60 or 90 days to authorize payment for a vendor's invoice. With 10 to 70 percent of your assets tied up in accounts receivable, slow payments can create serious cash-flow problems for the freelancer. This can be alleviated by building up a steady flow of business and a "rainy day" nest egg in the bank.
6. Disputes occasionally arise between client and writer. The client is displeased with the copy and refuses to pay. Or the writer thinks the client's suggested revisions are stupid. Few businesses operate without some complaints and dissatisfaction. But problems are amplified by the fact that commercial writing is a highly personal endeavor. Writers take criticisms of their writing as criticisms of themselves. In chapter 15, I'll show you how to handle and resolve the various types of client conflicts. (Continues...)
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