Conquent: Without Limits
Conquent: Without Limits
Kristen Fife's Blog

Industry Profile - Freelance Writing Career Options

2013-06-23 07:56:58

When most people think of being a "writer", they are usually envisioning a career that is, in essence, being self-employed. Journalists and authors (I'm going to use the term primarily to talk about people writing books or short stories in this context) especially fall under this category. The main difference is that journalists are usually 1099 contractors, whereas authors are in a completely different business classification. There are a number of other writing professions that also usually fall under 1099 contractors: copywriters, editors, researchers, script/screen/play writers.

When approaching the career of being a "freelance writer" it is absolutely vital to understand that this is a BUSINESS, which means that you cannot neglect the business side of your career. This includes a business license, tax ID number, learning what/how to declare business expenses, looking at your business development and marketing options/expenses (sales and advertising), managing your finances on both the business and personal sides, and providing yourself and your family with health benefits. Being a "writer" is not just about having great ideas and committing them to pen/paper or keyboard/screen. Far too many people neglect the setup of *being* a small business owner. I covered some of the tools and aspects of this in my post on the freelance lifestyle, so I'm not going to go into the mechanics of that here. What I do want to address is more the publishing industry and the changes it has undergone in the last decade.

Some of my neighbors are retired publishing sales reps, and the daugther of a colleague of mine is an editor for a major NYC publishing company. I worked at Amazon.com in the late 90's and have been in technology in some capacity for most of the last 15 years. I have been a "professional" writer for about the last 7 years (meaning people have paid me to write or develop content in some way; emphasis being on "paid". Until you receive money for your efforts, it is a hobby and you are an amateur). I have been on the Board of Directors for a local non-profit that puts on writer's conferences, and I have been treating my writing career as I would any other job: getting to know the industry, how the job works, and how to be successful at it. I must say that I am shocked by how many writers DON'T do this.

I'm going to start with personal anecdote. When I was pursuing my bachelor's degree, I went the "liberal arts" route. It is where I am strongest in terms of interest and skills, but I graduated woefully unprepared for finding a "job". I love history and the development of cultures in general, and with a Classical Humanities background, I had a vague idea of going into historical research for some sort of publication such as National Geographic, or the Smithsonian Magazine. Little did I know that: those positions generally require a Master's; they are few and far between; to do it professionally they require relocation to DC or NYC, neither of which I wanted to move to at the time. I spent a significant portion of my professional life defining myself, making very little money, and figuring out what I am really good at. The reason I bring this up is because if you are going to pursue a career as a professional writer, you need to be aware of what it does and does not entail.

The pros of being an independent writer: you can choose your path and interests, for example maybe you love to travel and your decide to try and become a travel writer/blogger (travel bloggers that provide their own photos have slightly better odds of publication). Or you are a foodie and try to go the restaurant critic route. You can set your own hours, subject matter, etc. It is a flexible lifestyle and you can fit your work around your family and social life. If you become good and develop a reputation you are in demand and can pick and choose your assignments. The flip side to this hinges on what I just said: "...if you become good and develop a reputation". This is the downside to being an independent contractor. You need to scratch out a living by developing clients, submitting tons of ideas for articles and content to those entities that may be able to help boost your career signal. There are tons of "opportunities" out there to be published, to make your name, but without the benefit of being paid for it. There is a whole industry of "generating leads" for small media outlets that don't pay a cent for your work but promise you "exposure". Only you can decide if this is a route you want to pursue. I will say that there are a couple of legitimate outfits. Media Bistro is my favorite.

There has been a rise in the last few years of ad-supported content that actually will pay really hot bloggers, by hosting their site and then providing targeted ads for their potential readers (look at my post on "Marketing" to understand how this works.) Three of my favorite bloggers make their living this way: Heather Dooce, Dan Pearce (Single Dad Laughing) and Jenny Lawson , The Blogess. There are plenty of articles and blogs on how to make money as a professional blogger; I like this one. Each of them has a trademark style or subject matter that appeals to readers. Keep in mind that for this lifestyle to work, you must write content regularly, and what you say needs to be consistently appealing to a wide variety of readers.

One path that can lead to a fairly robust income stream (once you have an established reputation) is teaching workshops. I've paid to attend workshops on subject like travel writing and developing my writing style. You can do it locally (community college, special interest series, via a site like Media Bistro) or even as a webinar. If the content is compelling, people will pay to hear and learn. The key is to have a unique point of view and expertise. For example in my case, I earn money by applying my current knowledge of recruiting - tools, processes, compliance regulations - to help people by either writing or editing their resume, or by writing as a journalist for job seekers, or as a blogger for the recruiting industry.


There are still both full time and freelance opportunities for editors and literary agents, but it is very important to understand that in these professions you are not creating your own content, you are enhancing or peddling someone else's work. Editing is highly needed in today's world. I recently read a product blog for the new Google Xphone where a word in the *title* was spelled wrong, as well as a slang term (Customization and techie misspelled "custimization" and "techi", respectively). I was appalled but this is becoming more prevalent. An editor should have been able to spot these errors. Heck, *spell check* would have done the trick! I see an example of laziness. So, with an all new breed of self-published e-book authors, there is definitely a market for freelance editors.

Literary agents still exist, although I see this as a declining market, for the very reason that the need for editors is on the rise, namely self-publishing. A literary agent is basically a headhunter for those in the traditional book publishing realm. They represent authors and work to get manuscripts in front of publishers. It takes a good understanding of market conditions (what will sell), sales and marketing skills, the willingness to read a lot of material, follow through in terms of communication, the ability to build a great network (publishers), and a good understanding of industry contracts. Usually, an agent starts his/her career either as a publishing house editor, or working for a a large agency that has established relationships. It is a lot of account management and relationship building.

Writing is still the main form of human communication in the world. It is a changing profession, with a plethora of opportunities to try new forms of communication.




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