Turning your writing passion into a profession sounds like a dream come true. But once you take off the rose-tinted shades, you’ll come to realize it isn’t as idyllic as you envisioned. There are plenty of pros and cons that come with the process.
It was late one night when I had another argument with my mom. She kept telling me to pursue my writing to which I yelled at her, “I hate that God chose to give me such a useless talent.”
But I wasn’t angry at her or God. I was angry at myself.
I looked to the people I knew who had more “practical skills”. My brother was gifted with computers, my friend fixed cars, and my uncles were doctors and financial gurus.
And here I was. A “writer”.
I was born in the wrong era, I thought. As a creative writer, my ideas had already been written.
My prose was nothing extraordinary. And people today are too obsessed with their YouTube and Facebook videos to give a damn about opening a book much less read one.
Most of the articles online are either clickbait trash or dumbed down lists for people with the attention span of a goldfish.
The world of freelance writing, like most industries with an art base, is oversaturated. Too many writers peddle their services for free or write for peanuts (reasons why you shouldn't).
I didn’t have an optimistic view of a career in writing. But I pursued my passion anyhow. I decided to give it a shot.
What it Felt Like Going from Hobbyist to Pro: The Good and Bad
After doing some content writing for free for small websites, I managed to land a few gigs that paid well enough for me to be self-employed.
It didn’t last long, and I took a non-writing side job just to supplement my income. On the plus side, it felt good to have consistent human interaction again.
They always tell you to “do what you love”. So, I did.
I’m not as stupid as I once was.
I didn’t think it would be easy. In fact, I didn’t think of anything. I would just write.
It was depressing, painful, eye-opening, discouraging, head-banging-on-wall, and screaming into a pillow kind of frustrating all rolled into one.
The moment you take something you enjoy and try to make money out of it a little bit of joy comes out.
I had to work under deadlines. This meant writing when I didn’t feel like it and writing to the point I got tired of it. I couldn’t take all the time in the world to polish my writing either. I had to get it done.
It was about volume more than quality. And it took me a while to learn (hacks to write faster). But I needed to get used to constantly writing.
Sometimes it’s quantity that matters more than quality especially if you write for content mills and pay-by-the-article clients.
As a beginning freelancer, I wrote for several content mills. These are sites that pay you per article and depending on the site, require you to produce an exact number of articles per day or week.
Since the pay isn’t that great, I wrote for up to three content mills simultaneously. I was doing over 3,000 words a day easily and this isn’t even counting writing for fun on the side (if I had the time).
The topics I covered ranged anywhere from general business to lifestyle to sports. And I had no problem pounding the keyboard. At the beginning.
About three months in, fatigue sunk in.
There were days where I would dread writing or even think about it. At some point, I didn’t even bother writing for fun because I started getting headaches. I felt burnt out.
But once I landed better-paying gigs, it left me with more breathing room.
I stopped writing for several clients because the pay just didn’t justify what I was putting out. Which brings me to the next point.
Making Money as a Writer
You don’t have to be a “starving artist” as a writer though you’ll often hear several freelancers, not just writers, struggle to keep the lights on in their basement apartments.
Being a freelance writer can be lucrative depending on what you do but writing in content mills is not one of them. Even if you wrote like a machine and put out six 500-word articles per day at $20 apiece, that’s $120. If you write six times a week, that’s $720.
That’s just under $2,880 a month and under $35,000 per annum.
And that’s only if you’re able to consistently do that many articles at that rate. Some clients pay a lot less than that if they pay at all.
It all depends on what industry you write in (top-paying writing jobs). It helps to have a background in finance, business, or STEM (Science, Tech, Engineering, Math). If you do, you’ll kill it, easily.
But unfortunately, I didn’t. I was underqualified to do the high-paying writing gigs like technical writing or copywriting.
Some more growth and personal development were needed. I had to evolve.
Mentorship and Personal Growth
Growing in your career is entirely up to you. But certain industries make seeking out mentors and growth opportunities more easily accessible.
Working in a big box retail, everything gets lost in the shuffle. But I could still talk to superiors personally, network with them, and directly show and tell them I want to move up the ladder.
That’s not how it works in a lot of writing especially as a freelancer.
Content mills are among the worst to help you grow as a writer. It’s a mill for a reason: they’re in the business of producing content like a factory. You’re putting articles out on a conveyor belt then off to the next one.
You can look to move up for better-paying positions like being an editor, or in my case, a social media coordinator, which is professional growth. But if you want to grow your writing skills, look for it elsewhere.
If you develop a great relationship with your editors, which I did to an extent, you can spot better writing opportunities and even use them as awesome references.
There are plenty of growth opportunities as a freelance writer, but you’ll have to work for them. And a lot of these opportunities may not be so much writing-related.
Growing and Picking up New Skills
One of the biggest growths I’ve had writing professionally is learning about all the non-writing matters that come with the territory.
If you haven’t learned about search engine optimization (SEO), learn about it immediately. Most, if not all writing positions require you to have at least basic knowledge of it.
Watch YouTube videos on it. Or take cheap courses online like Udemy.
Other skills I picked up or learned about were:
- Social media marketing
- Image design
- Analytics (social media and Google)
- Google Adwords
Again, you can find courses for any of these all over the Internet along with these other skills that will come in handy:
- Web Design
- Video production
- Advanced research skills
- Verbal communication
If it were up to me, I’d just write.
That’s what I’m here for. To turn thoughts into words. To put words on paper.
But we live in an age where the Internet controls everything. You must adapt, or you’ll be left behind dangerously fast.
I’m still a beginner in most of the skills I put but now dedicate at least 40 per cent of my time to growing these skills and using them.
I use social media marketing to promote my works and my brand as a writer, SEO to figure out what people online are interested in, and image design because they make or break articles.
They are all non-writing skills, but they are writing-related. And if you happen to become great at one of them, you can even land a side gig or a full-time job doing it.
But this part is the fun part when it comes to non-writing stuff. There are still a lot of other things I had to deal with.
Dealing with “Adult Stuff” and Non-Writing Matters
I might eventually master the art of writing for a living, but I’ll never master the art of “adulting”.
As a freelance writer, I’ve had to deal with finances a lot more than when I worked a regular office job (budgeting as a freelancer).
With an office job, I could expect a paycheque every two weeks. But as a freelancer, getting paid was different.
I had to personally do invoices and hand them in just before the deadline or I’d have to wait until the next payment period. Depending on where I wrote, payment came every two weeks, every month, or when the clients felt like it.
Budgeting became a bigger part of my life. I had to be thriftier. I couldn’t splurge as often. The prospect of losing a paycheque or more every month also stressed me out.
At any moment, a client or two could simply stop giving work. Or they’ll “restructure” and change the pay structure.
I wrote for a content mill where we went from being paid $25 per 500 words plus royalties to $40 per 1,000 words, flat.
Then there comes self-management: the biggest bane of my existence.
As a freelancer, managing yourself is half the battle (tips for effective self-management). If you can master going to bed and waking up a certain time, you’re already ahead more than half your peers.
The flexibility of being a freelance writer is great but the price for self-management is steep.
I turned into a night owl because I’d wake up late and work all the way past 2:00 AM. That can’t be good for my health or my networking opportunities.
And of course, there’s the everyday stuff like eating, exercising, socializing etc.
All these things don’t seem important but trust me. If you neglect them, you will suffer a slow horrible descent into madness.
Killing Your Darlings: Lessons in Turning Writing from Hobby to Business
Writing is art. It’s self-expression.
You can get as wacky with your prose as you want and add the f-bomb before every adjective. It's like baking a cake and throwing in all kinds of decoration and toppings that challenge your sanity.
But writing is also a business. It’s for a purpose.
You can add a carnival of colours in your cake all you want but if nobody eats it or even finds it appealing, all that work, despite being fun was all for nought.
As much as I’d like to just sit down and write and let my mind go without worrying about consequence, readership, or practicality, I can’t.
There needs to be a purpose to what I write. And that’s what the professional side of writing has taught me.
The artist part of me weeps going through the articles I’ve written with my plain prose and lack of voice. But they were what got me paid and got me jobs.
I could pursue a career in creative writing, producing short fiction or novels. But I haven’t. And it’s because I value it too much. I don’t want to turn this into business. Not yet.
Writing isn’t always fun. I don’t always love it. I will never be the best at it and God knows how much longer I can do it.
But I know one thing: this is the only thing I want to do. Whether I’m writing for money, writing for others, or writing for the hell of it, I’ll keep doing it.
Embrace writing as both an art form and a profession. If you’re an amateur and you love writing, turn it into a profession. Make money out of it. But don’t be afraid to change or “kill your darlings”.