How to Make Money Writing
Sometimes, I lose myself in the fact that I write for a living. It’s weird, right? I give people words, and they give me money for them. It seems like some sort cheat code for life. I think that’s what a lot of people see, looking in from the outside. It’s important to remember that writing isn’t a cheat code, though, it’s actually a lot of work.
This isn’t the first time we’ve covered how to make (or not make) money writing, but it’s the first time I’ve exactly phrased it this way. This is not a list of resources or links to freelancing sites. These are the practices which, when applied consistently, will allow you to make money writing reliably. I mean, there will be helpful links and such, but they’re a sideshow here.
I’m breaking this down into a few big categories: Writing Skills, Basic Business Practices, Networking and Outreach, Professionalism, and Intangibles.
Get Good at Writing
There’s no way around this. You need to be a good writer. If you expect someone to pay you to do something, you simply must be good at it. This is especially true of writing. The field is extremely competitive. That’s the bad news: there is a glut of people out there who see writing as either a career or a temporary way to make money.
The good news is that most of your competition is pretty bad at it. So, stand out from the crowd by becoming a better writer. This means a lot of things:
Learning the rules of grammar, punctuation, and spelling.
Learning how to communicate complex points in an engaging fashion.
Learn how to outline.
Get Fast at Writing
This isn’t rocket science. Whether you’re getting paid hourly or by the project, the faster you get things done, the more money you’ll make. In the process, you’ll make your clients happy and ensure that someday, maybe, you’ll have free time.
It’s hard to overstate how important this is.
I looked into switching to Dvorak or another keyboard layout from the standard QWERTY, but the gains didn’t seem to outweigh the costs. Still, a fast typing speed is important.
How fast are you? I’ve got two tests for you. The first is going to test your absolute typing speed, and doesn’t have pesky things like capitalization or punctuation. Here’s mine so you can see I’m not full of it!
As you can see, it tells you where you sit in the percentages, too. I think one of my goals for June will be to hit the 90% threshold. I have dreams of 100+ WPM typing speeds, but I’m not sure my giant man fingers will ever be up to the challenge. The second is more realistic writing, in transcription form. By all rights, you should score lower on this one, though I scored a slightly higher 66 WPM, somehow. I guess punctuation is so ingrained that I have to actively try not to add it.
In both cases, the key is to arrive at the point where you can comfortably read/think one word ahead of what your fingers are actually typing. This way, you aren’t wasting thought-time between words. The next level is to be able to keep in the back of your head the complete sentence you wish to craft. This seems complicated, but it’s a bit like driving. When you first start out, minding your speed, your destination, your surroundings, your blinkers, and so on all at once is nearly impossible. After a few hundred hours in the driver’s seat, it’s second nature.
I would recommend you attain a typing speed of at least 55 WPM, preferably 60, and, keep in mind, that’s a quality speed, not a speed rife with typos. There are tons of resources online for improving your typing. If your basic technique is good, and you want some no-frills practice this site runs you through a lot of the common letter combinations, helping you build muscle memory. If you do want to start from fundamentals, never a bad idea, I think Sense-Lang.org has a fantastic lesson plan, from what I looked through. I’d recommend it.
Get Fast at Reading
Okay, this is the one exception to that “links are the sideshow” statement, because the best way to do this, if you don’t do it naturally, is this website, Spreeder.com. I actually use Spreeder to do quick proofreading sometimes. It’s not good for a deep clean, but it lets me read at 1000+ WPM. That turns a base read of a 60,000 word manuscript into an hour of actual reading time (I need breaks every ten minutes or so). The idea is that most people read by subvocalizing, which limits them to the speed of speaking, rather than the speed of thought.
This has actually been interesting for me, because prior to writing for a living, I did not “hear” words when I read, I saw images. I had to train myself to do the opposite to improve my writing. Since I can speak somewhat faster than I type, this works well for writing, but causes problems when I want to read quickly. I occasionally use Spreeder just to force my brain to remember how to read the quick way.
Learn to Structure Content
This is a big one. Most of what you write will likely be the same sort of content, on different subjects. You carve out a niche, and, though you keep carving, you’re still going to be doing a lot of the same sort of thing. Get good at breaking down similar topics and exploring them in new ways. It should only take about five minutes to outline a thousand word post. From there you’re just filling in the blanks. It may seem formulaic, and boring, but, if you’re a good writer, you can make it interesting.
Constantly Expand Your Skills
Writing is a massive, massive, field. It’s so big that everyone can share it, and, if they want, don’t even have to play the same game. There’s no end to the niches and crannies you can find and excel in. Good at dialog? Great on you, how about regional dialects? Or scene setting? Do you write amazing informative pieces? Lovely, now make yourself dangerous by mastering persuasive writing styles.
Then there’s other stuff. I put this site together. I’ve done bits of code in places. I also do all the art for the posts, which I think is getting pretty damned good. Understanding technical aspects of websites and WordPress, and the basics of graphic design, has solid advantages for me when I’m competing for jobs. Every life is about continuing to learn . . . but the writing life more so than most.
Basic Business Practices
One thing I learned through the harsh lens of experience is writing for fun is a whole different animal from writing as a business. It requires a different mindset, and significantly increased organizational basics.
Learn to Communicate with Your Clients
Your clients are the people who give you the money. You want them to like you. You want to keep them up-to-date on what you’re doing, how you’re doing it, how much it’s costing them, and when it will be done. Communication is everything.
So when you find yourself delayed, let them know. When you aren’t sure about something, let them know. Part of this is clear and concise billing practices. I’ve recently jumped from spreadsheets to FreshBooks, which seems to be doing a great job. All my clients have been thrilled with it.
Stand Up for Yourself
Most of your clients will be business owners of one sort or another, which means they are fine-tuned to locate and exploit weakness. They are looking to maximize what they receive and minimize what it costs them. You need to be willing to draw the line, speak up for yourself, and drive a bargain. If you don’t value your work, why should they?
Figure Out What You Charge
The time to figure out what you charge is before your client asks you about it. I have my rates posted, as do many other writers. It simplifies things. A lot. If you’re trying to figure out where you stand, there are a few different resources you can really pull from. All Indie Writers has a pretty decent calculator to help with that. The first is to calculate how much you need to live, which you can do here. The next is to look at regular rates across the industry.
Don’t Leave Money on the Table
If you have a job waiting, and you have time to do it, then do it. At any given (working) moment, you should be doing one of two things:
1. Clearing your desk, or,
2. putting more work on your desk.
At no point should there be potential money sitting there, just doing nothing, while you chew gum or something.
Work Really Hard
I’m not saying you have to give 100% effort, all the time, but it doesn’t hurt to try. This is a competitive career, and you can bet while you’re slacking someone else is giving it their all. I ran the numbers on this, and the amount of writing you can do if you apply yourself is jaw-dropping.
The biggest barrier facing most writers who want to write for a living is their unwillingness to treat it as a job.
Networking and Outreach
You can’t revolutionize anything by yourself. It’s all about the outreach. Besides, if no one knows you exist, no one gives you money. Simple as that. There are a lot of people out there who need writers, especially good ones, but the real challenge is getting their attention.
Build Your Brand
Make sure people know who you are. Making connections is huge. Why do you think I’ve kept this time-sink money-pit of a website rolling for years and years? It’s an outreach program. It’s become something more, recently, but that’s always been it’s primary purpose; to control what you see when you search for Connor Rickett.
Leverage Established Authority Platforms
This is a fancy way of saying, “Guest blog, dufus.”
There are people out there with established brands. They work hard on their content. Like me, they really like guest bloggers. It expands their networks, it expands your network, it lets us create better articles if we know we’ll have a visiting author filling one post slot in our schedule. This article, for example, was greatly expanded because I had a guest poster this Monday.
I’ve been busy getting this site right before I guest blog, but I do a lot of paid articles for clients who submit them as guest blogs. That alone should tell you that they’ve got some serious reach. Starting in June, I’ve begun budgeting 10,000 words to guest posting. I consider this part of my advertising budget.
Follow Authority Bloggers
There is definitely already someone writing about what you want to write about. Follow them, learn from them. Don’t just listen to their advice, watch what they do. Granted, most of them will tell you exactly how they do what they do.
Although I genuinely enjoy reading their work, and they deliver value, the existence of bloggers like Jeff Bullas, Jeff Goins of GoinsWriter, and Neil Patel of Quicksprout is a source of amusement for me. They run blogs essentially about how to get more traffic on your blog–but all their traffic comes from people who want more traffic. I’ve always thought the best way to make a lot of money writing would be to write a book about how to make money writing.
Hmmm, hang on a second, what was this article called again?
You’ll notice, though, all three of them deliver great content, regularly, and respond to all comments. Traits they share with almost every top authority in any niche you can imagine.
Buy Some Business Cards
Buy five hundred business cards, every three months. Whenever you get the chance, give them away. To other writers, to business owners, stick them to boards and on tables. There’s still no substitute for face-to-face out there. I’ve only recently started doing this (because I ordered way more business cards than I meant to) but here’s the thing: there is no net negative. The worst thing that can happen is that a nickel or two worth of cards gets thrown away now and then.
It never hurts to let people know that you write for a living. You don’t need to rub their noses in it, but you never know when someone might need a writer. I’ve met clients in bars and coffee shops. This is as easy as being friendly, and, even for future crotchety old men like me, that’s not really so hard. People are mostly friendly, mostly nice, and mostly interesting. It’s worth it to get to know them.
Remember that social skills are skil; they can be practiced, trained, and increased. I’m a tremendous nerd who, given the chance, would much rather be somewhere with more animals than people at any given moment, and even I manage to get a handle on it. So if you think you’re hopeless, you’re not!
Appear professional, act professional, take the time to ensure you comport yourself in a professional manner. No one wants to hire an amateur. You don’t become a professional, then put on the suit, you put on the suit and become a professional. On that subject, it seems fair I link to people selling the snazzy suit I used as a reference while making the graphic above. There version is a bit less green.
Deliver Content On Time
This might be the biggest of all. Get it done when you say you will. Or, barring that, communicate when there’s an issue. I think this is a challenge for almost everyone from time to time. Writing is a job, and some days it’s going to be like pulling teeth to get things done. Of course, if you’re ahead of schedule, you can occasionally indulge yourself with a relaxing day.
This is an Achilles’ heel for most writers. It’s easy to over-promise, especially if you’ve been in a lean phase–your instinct is to take all the work you can get, and hoard it. The problem is, if anything goes wrong or delays you, you’re in big trouble.
Treat it Like a Job
Hey, how many jobs have you had where you worked for two hours a day, then spent the rest of your time watching Netflix or browsing the internet? That’s what I thought. If you write as close to forty hours a week as you can, you’ll do well. Really well. Using AllIndieWriters’ rate calculator, I arrived at, for $30/hour rates, and two weeks off a year, $60,000 dollars of income for writers who work eight hours a day, five days a week. That’s not what I’m making yet, but it’s not a horrible total, either.
Dress Like You’re Not Starving
It’s important to look like you’re doing well, even when you’re not. People like to work with winners. Now, you could explain that not starving to death is a big win for a writer, it’s better if the question doesn’t arise. Try to own a few shirts with buttons, and at least one pair of pants that isn’t canvas, denim, or camo-patterned.
Deliver Your Best Content Every Time
If I didn’t follow this rule, I would have had to quit and get a real job years ago. Many times I’ve turned one-off small gigs into long-term relationships or huge projects because I did a really nice job on that one small project. This may be my single most important piece of advice, and it goes well beyond writing. No matter what your job, doing it well is its own reward. I’ve had a couple of terrible jobs where I stayed sane simply by challenging myself to be the very best I could be at it.
Don’t Take Credit for Work that Isn’t Yours
There’s a lot of goofball stuff out there going on we won’t get into, but it would be very fair to say that a lot people take things that don’t belong to them, or inspiration from other, and so on, and pass it off as their own. It’s hard to always know what’s fair in the modern world. It’s a lot easier to copy a file than steal a painting, for example. Don’t be one of those weasels. Do your own work, and acknowledge where things comes from. Most people are very friendly about this sort of thing if you talk to them in advance.
Some things are hard to really put into a category, but they’re still critical. These intangible factors relate mostly to what I–and I hate to use this because it sounds wishy-washy–call the spirit of writing.
You don’t have any boss but you. You need to dig in and find whatever core of ambition, stubbornness, or motivation drives you. Writer’s block is for amateurs. It’s a luxury item, and you don’t have time for that starting out.
There seems to be a universal gesture to enter the freelancer’s club. You put your hand out flat, and then flop your arm about in an exaggerated sine wave. Sound effects are a plus. This is, of course, the “ups and downs” signal. It’s a fact of life that freelancing, especially in the early stages, casts out all certainty. A lot of people can’t live that way. It’s easier to be a freelancer if you’re part of a two-person household, so you’re just bringing in extra, not the sole source of income.
There have been times when I’ve become so accustomed to stress that, when I finally got ahead of my debts, I felt like an actual knot had been released. I’d been so stressed for so long that I actually forgot what it felt like not to be stressed.
I have an incredibly understanding and sweet girlfriend, and even she gets fed up sometimes with what I am willing to do without, and how I live. I’m still not making much, but I’m doing much better than I was during the lean times. And, oh boy, they do get lean.
At one point I stopped chewing gum (I used to chew gum nonstop) because gum was too big a strain on my budget. This was during a period where I was living in an actual closet.
Writers are, almost across the board, stubborn. Even obstinate. The field selects for them, because anyone who wilts in the face of constant rejection, financial challenges, stress, or uncertainty doesn’t last long. You have to be the sort of person who enjoys the challenge.
There are going to be times when you are done. When you’re drained. You’ve tried, and tried, and it wasn’t good enough for one reason or another. You’ve worked your fingers to the bone redesigning your site, but no one’s visiting. You’re late on a credit card payment because a client is a month and a half overdue on a five hundred dollar invoice. You’ve gotten ahead, only to have some expense kick your feet out from beneath you, or job lead after job lead has fallen through . . . and all you want to do is quit and go flip burgers somewhere.
And then you sit down, and you get back to writing, because you’re a writer.