Okay. I'm a Freelancer. Now Where's the Money?

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Here's a situation I've seen a lot in the last few years:

The economy sucks. My company had to downsize. I got laid off. But I still need to pay my bills and support my family. I can't get another job in this job market. So I'll try freelancing.

I keep looking at job boards and applying for everything I see. But no one seems to be paying well, and I can't land enough gigs to make ends meet. So where exactly is this elusive money?

On one hand I feel bad for people in this situation, where freelancing seems like the only interim possibility between Job A and Job B. I know what it's like to struggle and wonder where the next rent payment is coming from. On the other hand, it makes me want to beat my head against the wall when I hear stories like these because it highlights common ignorance about the freelance life.

Newsflash: Freelance writing (or any kind of freelancing) is not a quick money game. It's not "easy" money either. If it was a simple trick to go out and get freelance clients to pay your bills, a lot more people would move into freelancing. But it doesn't work that way. Freelancing isn't a temp job. It's a business. And unless you're prepared to treat it as such, it's highly unlikely that you'll earn enough to support yourself or your family, even in the short-term.

Now look. I'm not against people turning to freelancing if they lose a job, as long as they're qualified and not leading clients on. But what I hate to see is someone thinking freelancing is going to be a quick fix for their problems or save their skin in some way when they have no idea what it really involves.


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So please. Crappy economy or not, don't jump into freelance writing on a whim because you don't know what else to do. Think it through as much as you'd think through accepting a job you might be stuck in for the next ten years. Think about the tax implications. Think about the marketing you'll have to do, especially in the beginning. Think about whether or not you really have the discipline to work alone at home (many people do not).

If you can handle all of that, can take it seriously, and understand that good money rarely comes around immediately, freelancing might be the right option for you and your situation. But if you're doing it solely out of desperation and you really don't know what it takes to succeed in this kind of work, try something else first. You might cause more financial problems by falling into freelancing unprepared than you would by leaving it alone from the start.

If you do go into freelancing, who knows? Maybe (like many of us) you'll find that you love it too much to go back to the 9-5 grind anyway.

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Jennifer Mattern is a professional blogger, freelance business writer, and indie author. She began writing for clients in 1999 and started her first blog in 2004.

She owns 3 Beat Media - a publishing and client services company which operates All Indie Writers as well as several other websites and blogs including The Busy Author's Guide and BizAmmo. Jenn comes from a background in online PR and social media consulting, having owned a small PR firm for several years before choosing to pursue a full-time writing and publishing career.

Jenn also writes fiction under multiple pen names in the areas of children's fiction, mysteries, and horror fiction. Jenn is an active member of the Horror Writers Association (HWA) and currently serves as the organization's Assistant Coordinator of Promotions and Social Media.


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26 Comments

  1. Rebecca Garland October 8, 2010 Reply

    Thank you for putting this out there so clearly. Not everyone can freelance. Not everyone can run a business. And…wait for it…not everyone can write the way you need to in this business, even if you’re a teacher, a college student, a grade A student, whatever.

    Writing a novel you’ve been dreaming of for years is vastly different than taking a topic and working it into the right sort of material, under a deadline, when you’re sick, and even though you’d rather be doing something – anything – else at the moment.

    Oops – sorry, I got a bit carried away there. *grins*

    • Jennifer Mattern October 10, 2010 Reply

      That was one of my (many) pet peeves when I was active on “the forum that shall go unnamed.” People would advertise their freelance writing services with little more in the way of credentials than “I always get As on my school papers.” Um, who cares? Frankly, who even cares if you’re an English major? Most clients do not, unless they’re hiring you to write about literature. There’s this conception that if you can string sentences together or even make your words sound poetic, then you’re going to be a successful freelancer. Not so. As another person pointed out here it’s business first, writing second.

  2. Jael Strong October 8, 2010 Reply

    I have a been a freelance musician for years and I am trying to apply what I know about freelancing in the music world to my efforts in the freelance writing industry. You are absolutely correct about the time, effort, and ability involved with freelancing. You have to know from the outset what is going to be involved.

    • Jennifer Mattern October 10, 2010 Reply

      Musicians are definitely another group that face similar issues. While indie bands are a bit different than traditional freelance musicians, they deal with similar things — not always knowing where the next pay check is coming from, and having to deal with the issues of being self-employed. There’s a lot of disillusionment in the music world, although I think that’s slowly changing as artists are learning there’s more they can do individually to get by and even thrive. I think it’s happening with writers too (indie publishing and authors for example), although perhaps a bit slower overall, especially on the freelance side. There’s not even the feeling that it’s a creative business. Sadly the “business” concept seems to be ignored a lot completely — as though freelancing is an alternative to going into business as opposed to being a type of business. Fortunately there are resources to point them in the right direction. Beyond that, it’s up to individual freelancers to do that research and figure things out for themselves. I’m glad to hear from a musician to seems to have the business side of freelancing down. :)

  3. Dan S. J. Griffiths October 8, 2010 Reply

    As an aspiring freelancer, I have already committed a range of faux pas, the first being that fact that I am trying to market myself whilst working full time (the horror of it! I ought to be unemployed and moaning that I’ve got no money!), and the second being the fact that I have submitted a number of articles in exchange for… nothing. That’s right, I’m undermining ‘real’ freelancers in exchange for clips.
    This clips thing seems to be a real catch 22 situation – you need to published to get clips, yet can’t get published without clips! So the plan is to gain some clips from these initial freebies, then settle for nothing less than cold hard cash from there on!

    And until I can match or improve my current full time income with a monies gained from freelancing, I will be staying put.

    However, this does present another dilemma in itself – How can one market and successfully write enough material in the spare few hours full time employment allows, in order to create enough income to justify making the ‘jump’?

    Evidently, freelancing is going to be a nightmare at times. Although I’m sure the benefits will by far outweigh the drawbacks.

    • Jennifer Mattern October 9, 2010 Reply

      1. One reason a lot of people don’t make it in freelancing, is because they hold onto that safety net of full-time employment too long. When you start a business, you need to be prepared to put in a lot of long hours in the early phase. Freelancing as a career is very different than freelancing part-time for a bit of money. You need to be stricter with what you charge, and you need to keep a larger flow of clients coming in. I don’t recommend the slow transition from full-time to freelance as a career. But for those doing it, you need to understand that you risk burnout. You can’t just spend a few hours here and there. The bulk of your free time will have to go into launching your freelance career. Otherwise you risk getting stuck in a less-than-ideal market because your time committment simply won’t allow for you to pursue better.

      2. If you’re giving away free content, keep a few things in mind. First, free and low paying content usually begets more of the same — not great-paying gigs. Second, try to keep any free work to places like respected nonprofits. You get respectable clips (rather than something for unknown webmasters for example) and you get the good PR value out of helping the organization. And third, don’t count on direct referrals from people you did free work for. While sometimes they can pay off, that’s the exception rather than the rule. When someone refers a freelancer to a colleague of theirs they’re likely going to mention things like budgets and rates. And if you let one undercut you, you make yourself a target for others to try as well — or lose the referrals.

  4. Jake P October 8, 2010 Reply

    My new next-door neighbor has been freelancing for about 18 months, and we’ve had this conversation a couple of times. I’m trying to guide her in the right direction(s), but there simply isn’t an express lane that many people seem to think there is. Businessperson first, writer/editor second, or you’re going to end up in the breakdown lane, instead.

    Good stuff, as always, JM.

    • Jennifer Mattern October 9, 2010 Reply

      Excellent summary there Jake. I think that’s a great way to put things for a new freelancer.

  5. Cathy Miller October 9, 2010 Reply

    After 30+ years in Corporate World, and over 20 years in management, I thought I was prepared for freelancing, but it is a different world. I have no doubt that my experience has served me well in this chosen career, but there are definite adjustments.

    Maybe, it’s all the How I Earned 6 Figures Working 3 Days a Week hype that is so prevalent that makes people think it’s a “quick cash” solution.

    There are many talented people who know diddly squat about running a business and are blindsided by the challenge. You definitely have to be in it for the long haul. I am sure overnight successes happen, but they are few and far between.

    • LaToya Irby October 11, 2010 Reply

      I wish those How I Earned 6 Figures Working 3 Days a Week type books would add the subtitle After I Retired From My Corporate Job That Gave Me the Critical Skills I Need to Make This 3-Day Work Week Actually Work.

  6. Kimberly October 9, 2010 Reply

    I’m going to point a couple of people who’ve recently contacted me about freelancing to this post because you’ve said it all. Freelancing is a lot of WORK – especially in the early days spent getting clients/published. You’ve highlighted some important points one should consider before declaring freelance writing as their life’s ambition: Are you disciplined enough to work from home on your own? Can you deal with the isolation of working from home? How will you manage the “feast or famine” cycles that commonly occur when you’re first getting established? If you’re planning on taking the leap, do so with your eyes wide open.

    • Jennifer Mattern October 11, 2010 Reply

      I’ve never understood why the concept of work turns so many people off. For me I appreciate high earnings more because I know I did just that — earned them. I don’t get the entitled attitude some folks have, thinking they should be paid a lot just because others are — those people got there through hard work, and so does anyone else.

  7. Wendy S. Johnson October 10, 2010 Reply

    Some of them come off the high of reading the ‘Make zillions of dollars overnight freelancing!’ type ebooks. Then, when I tell them some of the things I do for my business, I get a response of :

    “But, you don’t have to do it that way, this book says you don’t need to.” I send them to blogs like this one, anne’s and a few others to get the real story and let them decide if they’re still interested in continuing on.

  8. Allena October 11, 2010 Reply

    See, the thing is that I HAVE brought in over 100K and I don’t work that many hours per week. But guess what? It took me YEARS (YEARS!!!!) to get there!! My first year I put in 60 hour weeks and made 20k!!! I’ve just stayed in long enough and built up enough clients to go on the flip side. I EARNED my 25 hour work weeks!

    • Cathy Miller October 11, 2010 Reply

      @Allena-The key there is the years it took – something that many of the authors of How I Earned 6 Figures Working 3 Days a Week forget to mention.

      I was earning 6 figures in Corporate America, too, but wouldn’t go back to it. Maybe I’ll get there again, although it’s not my benchmark of success anymore. It all depends on your place in life.

      • Jennifer Mattern October 11, 2010 Reply

        Corporate America — ewwwwwww. ;)

      • LaToya Irby October 11, 2010 Reply

        Ha! I just said the same thing above. Should have scrolled down a little more before commenting.

        • Cathy Miller October 13, 2010 Reply

          Just shows we share great minds, LaToya! :-)

          P.S. I guess we saw the ads for the same book. :-D

    • Jennifer Mattern October 11, 2010 Reply

      Yep – you have it exactly right. You can earn that much, and only working a few days per week. I’m slightly longer work-week-wise than you (at 28). But like you said, to earn that kind of money with fewer hours you really need to put time into getting the business to that point. It can be done. It just can’t usually be done quickly, by a newbie with no experience in freelancing, marketing, and handling the business side of things. Once you figure all of that out and get into the right market effectively, it’s just about productivity and organization to make it happen.

  9. J.Carter Shelton October 11, 2010 Reply

    An excellent, straight-forward post! I am a freelance writer and voice-over artist, which is similar. I start each day with a blank slate, looking for ways to gather new clients. It’s not easy, but with time and patience (and discipline), can really pay off in the long run. I would never go back to the 9-5 grind either. This life is good! Keep up the fine work.

  10. Lucy Smith October 11, 2010 Reply

    The other thing I tend to find, especially reading some blogs, is that people are way too focussed on online job boards and bid sites (though I haven’t heard as much about those recently). Sites like Craigslist are all well and good, but if that’s the only place you’re looking for work, good luck with that. Competition on those sites is fierce, and I’ve also found that if you don’t live in the US you can pretty much forget it.

    Instead, people need to look more at their local markets – go out and find businesses in your town that might need you. Then you have something in common, even before you’ve met, and it’s often just easier. Nothing compares to in-person networking. If you can get telecommuting gigs, great, but don’t let that be your sole focus.

    • Jennifer Mattern October 11, 2010 Reply

      Local markets are definitely one option. But in-person networking isn’t necessary unless you specifically want that local focus. If you want the long-distance / international clients for things like Web writing work, the keys are being found in search engines easily and having a strong referral network. Between that and a bit of direct pitching, no freelance writer really needs to use job boards or freelance bidding sites, which do little more than lump them into a pool where sadly more often than not decisions seem to be made on price. Too many just seem to figure this out too late, so they’ve already wasted weeks, months, or even years of time that could have gone into building a strong presence that attracts more clients than they can handle.

  11. Christina (@CashCampfire) October 15, 2010 Reply

    I started freelancing about a year ago. And, let me tell you, it has been a slow process. I also had a feeling that it might be when I first got started, but I loved to write and was going to college to be an English teacher, until I realized that my passion really was in writing.

    I’m still not where I want to be yet in my freelance writing career, but I’m gradually making progress. For those of you thinking about becoming a freelance writer, I would advise to have a backup plan just in case it doesn’t work out.. and something else to do so that you still can get by in case you’re not moving along as quickly as you hoped.

    Freelancing is definitely not a way to make money quickly and should be treated like any job. In order to survive as a freelance writer, you’ll need dedication and discipline. It’s incredibly hard to succeed if you only have one without the other.

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