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Freelance Writing: Do the Math
By Paul Lima

Want to earn your living as a freelance writer? Be prepared to hone your writing skills and your business skills   

People often ask me if they can earn a living as a freelance writer. They either find me through my website, contact me through the PWAC Toronto website or they reply to NetWords (PWAC Toronto's electronic newsletter, which I edit).

Now those of you who know me know that I can be a bit of a pessimist. Tell me that you are planning a parade for Sunday and I will mention, in passing, that the weather forecast calls for rain on Sunday. However, I give an optimistic answer to the question, "Can I earn a living as a freelance writer?" My answer goes something like this: "If I can, you can."

After all, I'm barely an English major from York University (had to take a couple of correspondence courses to earn my degree) and I have no entrepreneurial or small business experience. Yet I've been making a living as a freelance writer for more than a dozen years. So if I can, why can't you?

Well folks, I am officially altering my standard reply.

It now goes something like this: "Do the math. Look in the mirror. Decide for yourself."

I am not trying to rain on anyone's parade here. Nor is my pessimistic nature taking hostage the last shreds of my optimism. What I hope to do is help people-- aspiring writers in particular-- understand that writing is a craft, and freelance writing is a business.

I hope to inspire people to take a more business-like approach to the business of freelance writing and to become more passionate about the act of writing.

While I am open to dissenting opinions, as far as I am concerned you can achieve success as a freelance writer if you combine well-honed writing skills with a business-like approach to the craft.

With that in mind, let me help you do the math. Let's say you write 50 articles in a year. That's one a week (with two weeks off for good behavior). Can you imagine pumping out that many articles? I actually wrote 100 articles one year. My wrists still ache.

Say your articles are an average of 1,000 words in length. So we have 50 articles times (x) 1,000 words equals (=) 50,000 words. Now let's say you earn 50 cents per word. (OK, those of you who earn nothing less than a dollar a word, I salute you. However, most newspapers, trade magazines and general interest magazines pay less.)

Multiply your 50,000 words by 50 cents and you have an annual gross income of $25,000. From that you pay your business expenses, taxes, CPP contribution, etc. From what's left over, you pay for rent, food, clothing, etc. Does that add up to a living as far as you are concerned?

Many trade magazines and newspapers like the Toronto Star and Globe and Mail pay less than 50 cents per word. Many general interest magazines pay about 50 cents per word. A buck a word is the top end, what the big glossy magazines pay. (Yes, they sometimes pay more if they want a particular writer to write on a particular topic, but that's an exception. And yes, a buck a word has been the top end since the early '70s, but that's a whole other issue.)

So it's no wonder freelancer writers often combine work for the periodical (newspaper and magazine) market with corporate writing. Corporate work, in most cases, pays more. However, it takes as much if not more effort to be a successful corporate writer as it does to be a successful periodical writer. The clients can be more demanding than editors and they often know less about writing. For thin-skinned writers, that can be an explosive mix.

Even if you are freelancing almost exclusively for the corporate market, you still have to do the math. Let's say you work 20 billable hours per week (the rest of the time you are marketing, between gigs, doing paper work, walking your dog, etc.) If you work 50 weeks per year and you earn $50 per hour... (20 x 50) x $50 = $50,000 gross.

Now $50 per hour should be the rock bottom minimum you should charge for corporate work. Most corporate writers charge more (I sure do). But small businesses (where writers often get started) tend to balk at paying any more than $50 per hour.

So what do you have to do if you want to be a freelance writer who earns at least $40,000 to 50,000 per year (or, if like many struggling writers out there, you would love to hit the $40K mark)? You have to be very business-like in your approach to writing.

If you can write well and you are business-like in your approach, you might even find yourself earning more, much more, than $40 or $50,000 per year. It is possible. I know that for a fact. Although it took me several years to figure out how to do it, and do it consistently.

What is a business-like approach to writing? It's a series of workshops or an entire college course. But, in a nutshell, if you want to write for the periodical market, you have to:


Develop detailed article ideas


Pitch these ideas to the right editors at the right publications


Follow up on your queries.

When you receive an assignment, you have to: 


Conduct effective background research and interviews 


Write well-written, well-researched copy


Meet your assigned word count


File on time (i.e., meet your deadline).

If you impress your editors with your professionalism you can generate repeat business (which cuts down on the time you spend marketing). Oh, and you have to invoice your editors and follow up if payment is not received in the agreed upon time.

If you want to write for the corporate market, you have to take a business-like approach to writing. You have to:


Determine the type of writing you want to do


Determine which sectors you want to write for


Target companies within those sectors with your marketing effort


Follow up on your direct mail or email marketing campaigns.

When you receive an assignment, you have to:


Conduct effective background research and interviews


Write well-written, well-researched copy


Meet assigned word count


File on time. 

You have to impress your clients with your professionalism so you can generate repeat business (increase billable hours; cut down on marketing). You also have to invoice your clients and follow up if payment is not received in the agreed upon time.

In other words, as with any small business, you have to do a lot of work to earn your keep. And that's why I now say: "Do the math." Once you calculate just how hard you have to work to make a full-time living as a full-time freelance writer, you should understand that you have to put in a full-time effort to earn a full-time living as a freelance writer.

I have this sense that some aspiring writers believe that they should be able to make a decent living writing what they want, when they want, for the publications they want. If any you make a living like that, I salute and applaud you. More power to you. However, it doesn't work that way for most of us -- even those with a dozen or more years in the business.

And why should it?

If I wanted to be a political or economic commentator and had impeccable (or even dubious but in-demand) credentials, then I might be able to make my living writing what I wanted. But I am a self-proclaimed freelance writer. A writer for hire. A writing mercenary. As are most of the writers I know. 

Our motivation for writing may be different, but writing for money is what we do. That's why we take a business-like approach to our work.

So much for the math. Hand me the mirror.

I for one love to write. (Can't you tell by the length of this rant?) I've been writing since I was 16 and I am darn proud that I can make a living off my writing, even if I am slightly dyslexic and can't spell worth sh*t!

Maybe that's why I am surprised, even shocked, when I chat with aspiring writers and discover they don't keep journals or diaries. They've never done any creative writing. Outside of assignments, they write (and read) very little.

Where is their passion for the act of (and the process of) writing? Why would they want to make a living writing if they are not passionate about writing? That would be like me saying I want to earn a living as a goalie in the NHL.

OK, bad analogy. I always wanted to be an NHL goalie.

Wait! Maybe it's the perfect analogy.

I wanted to play goal in the NHL but I never learned how to skate. Or play goal. Did I ever become an NHL goalie? No. But I am realistic enough to look at myself in the mirror and acknowledge exactly why I did not become a goalie. At least my passion for writing produced a short story, Hockey Night On Ossington Avenue, about a kid who dreams of becoming an NHL goalie, and doesn't. But he does some other cool stuff...

Am I telling you to put your writing dreams on hold? I sure hope you are hearing the opposite. If you want to be a writer, you have to work at becoming one. Continue to dream, but take action too.

Look in the mirror and ask yourself: "Why do I want to write?" Are you passionate about writing? Do you live to write? (I meant to write "love to write" but I will leave the typo.)

If you have not mastered the craft, it will hold you back. Full stop. Writing will be for you as painful as donning the pads and stepping between the pipes would be for me today.

(Hey, I'd love to try it, and I might even fluke a save, but beyond that, I have no illusions. Visions of flashing red goal lights dance in my head every time I imagine Sundin, or even Domi, breaking in on goal.)

Want to be a writer? Learn how to write. Learn how to become an effective, efficient, productive writer. And a creative one. Learn the craft of writing and the writing process. Become passionate about writing.

Learn about the business too. Talk to other writers. Read books on the freelance writing business. Take courses. Develop a marketing plan. Put your plan into action. Track the time you spend working to develop your business, so you can't delude yourself into thinking your are taking action when you are spinning your wheels or watching TV.

If you are a freelance mercenary you also need to develop a  thick skin to deflect the slings and arrows of editor and client comments, and outright changes. You don't have to agree with each revision, but get used to them. And do not expect to be consulted on each and every change--especially if you are writing for newspapers with tight deadlines and editors and copy editors swarming over each article, or if you are writing non-bylined corporate material.

Every writer needs an editor and not every editor has the time or inclination to negotiate every edit. So...write well, but expect changes.

Can you make a living as a freelance writer? It's your decision. Does the math make sense to you? Are you prepared to work in a business-like manner to earn a living as a freelance writer? Are you passionate about writing? Are you prepared to hone your craft?

To succeed as a freelance writer, you need to combine writing craft with business savvy. Is that raining on your parade? I hope not. But if it feels like rain, then you have ask yourself if you truly, madly, deeply want to become a freelance writer. Because you have to truly want to do this. You have to deeply work at it.

And it helps if you are a little mad too.

That's what I have discovered over the last dozen or so years. From now on, that's what I am telling anyone who asks. But hey, you don't have to become a writing mercenary just because that's how I make a living at it. So if you disagree (or agree) with any of, or all of, this, feel free to let me know.

All the best with your writing craft and your freelance business in 2003!

[Read the companion piece to this article: Deflation and the Freelance Writer]

Paul Lima
VP Communications
PWAC Toronto

Copyright Paul Lima 2003.  Originally published in NetWords, January, 2003.  Reprinted with permission.

Paul Lima (www.paullima.com) has worked as a freelance writer for almost 15 years. Based in Toronto, Ontario, Paul writes articles about technology, small business, new media, new homes and condos, lifestyle and arts and entertainment. He has even written about walking his dog. His articles have appeared in The Toronto Star, National Post, Profit, Globe and Mail, Time Canada, Canadian Screenwriter, Toronto Computes, Your Office, Home Business Report, Network World Canada, Canadian Actor Online, BellZinc.ca and other online and print publications.

Paul is a professional member of the Periodical Writers Association of Canada (PWAC) and conducts writing workshops and online writing courses for the Toronto chapter of PWAC. He is a regular guest speaker for the Feature Writing for the Freelance Market and Freelancing the Future courses at Ryerson Polytechnic University and has published three e-books on freelance and creative writing and writing for corporate markets.



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