How to Make a Living as a Freelance Writer

Writing for a living sounds like a dream come true, right? You can sit at home in your pajamas or travel the world, turning words into art that inspires and informs your readers. What could be better?

In my opinion: not much.

In addition to doing a fair amount of satire, fiction, academic, and legal writing, I’ve supported my household solely from freelance writing for the past decade, and this website contains a lot of the details on how I do it. Here’s the overview you need to start planning your own freelance writing career: everything you need to figure out how to write for a living.

How to make a living as a writer

1. Gather what you need.

Writing is one of the cheapest businesses to start. Generally speaking, you’re ready to write if you have:

  • a computer with word processing tools (Google Docs counts) and Internet access
  • a place you can both write and think
  • a copy of your resume (optimized for freelance writing) and a few samples

A few other tools will come in handy as well, like a printer and a place to keep paperwork.

The other essential you need to make a living writing? Time.

Many people do launch successful freelance careers while also working a day job. There’s something to be said for that: you always have income to fall back on.

On the other hand, launching your writing career while also working full-time takes longer. There’s less motivation to make it work, and less available energy to devote to it.

If you have the luxury of deciding whether or not to quit a current job while you work on building a writing career, spend some time weighing the pros and cons. Look at your budget, look at your schedule, and decide what’s going to (a) give you the time and energy to write while (b) ensuring you can eat.

2. Understand what you bring to the table.

Every freelance writer has a slightly different background, and the successful ones all play to their strengths.

For instance, I started writing after leaving the practice of law, and for the first several years, all I did was legal writing. I branched briefly into writing on education while earning my BA in English, and now I focus almost solely on writing epic content for B2B tech companies.

Sit down and make a list. What jobs have you had in the past, and what topics did you learn about there? What subjects in school sparked your passions? If you’ve written before, what was it about – and do you want to write more in that same topic area?

Try to identify both your ideal writing topics and those in which you already possess a reasonable knowledge base. You’ll strive for the ideals, but the ones in which you’re competent will often be the source of your base income, especially in the beginning.

While you’re daydreaming, determine what your ideal freelance writing clients look like:

  • Do you want to work on retainer for a few large clients, guaranteeing a certain amount of work each week in exchange for a certain amount of pay, even if you’re not thrilled by the topics?
  • Do you enjoy the chase, always looking for new assignments and new topics?
  • Do you want to be a subject matter expert or a thought leader in one topic area, no matter how many new clients you have to rustle up to get there?

Understanding your preferences helps you organize your search, so you spend more time contacting the types of clients you want and avoiding the types you don’t.

Also, take some time to think about your ideal schedule. When will you write? How much time do you want between receiving an assignment and completing it (per 100 words)? Timing will factor into your choices as well, so consider what does and doesn’t work for you.

3. Figure out what you’re looking for and look for it.

Once you know what you bring to the table and what your ideal clients and schedule look like, it’s time to start looking for freelance work. There are three primary ways to do this:

  • Cold-contacting. Find companies, organizations, etc. that could benefit from the type of writing you want to do. Call or email them. Let them know you’re available. There are dozens of guides to cold-calling for freelance writers online, but it’s tough for me to give solid advice in this area because…I’ve never actually done it.
  • Freelance writer ads. Craigslist offers dozens of new ads for freelance writers every single day. Sites like Freelance Writing Jobs (which I’ve used for years) curate these so you don’t end up spending your whole day on Craigslist. Googling “freelance writing jobs” provides a number of similar sources.
  • Contracting or agency sites. Sites like Fiverr let you offer your services (in some cases, for specific flat fees), while agencies like BKA hire writers to turn out copy, often for very low rates. Consider what jobs you can afford to take before you take them.

When you find a job that looks promising, send a brief email, fill out the application, or whatever else they asked for. Include your resume and/or a link to your online portfolio, if you have one.

If you fear rejections:

Don’t.

The overwhelming majority of “responses” you’ll get will be non-responses. Total silence. This is still true for me a decade into the business. It’s rude, but it’s standard.

You will get a few rejections. Don’t worry too hard about them, and don’t try to change your approach unless all you’re getting are rejections.

Reject others first:

4. Set boundaries.

Professional writers absolutely require two skills to survive in this business. The first, of course, is writing.

The second is the ability to sniff out nonsense and set boundaries.

As you read freelance writing ads, you’ll get better at spotting scams and potentially bad clients. As a rule, however, it’s time to walk away from an ad or to fire a freelance writing client when they:

  • Are vague about what they need
  • Have unrealistic expectations as to timing, demand rush work for no extra pay, or presume that you’re available 24/7 (unless you’ve negotiated otherwise and are being paid for it)
  • Don’t specify exactly how much they are paying for exactly what work
  • Expect you to do any work, even a sample, for free

Because it’s possible to work 24/7 as a freelancer, it’s tempting to do exactly that. Don’t. Set specific work hours for yourself, stick to them, and only take on work outside those times when it suits you to do so.

5. Live within your means.

The arrival of that first pay for your writing is a real rush. Time to party, right?

Not so fast.

To make a living as a freelance writer, you’ll need to stay on top of your earnings. You’ll also need to understand the difference between income and cash flow.

  1. Put 50 percent of every payment you receive into savings. Of this half, expect to send 60 percent (or 30 percent of the total payment) to the government for taxes. The other 20 percent is your retirement account. Want a savings account on top of these? Put away more than 50 percent of each paycheck.
  2. Keep track of what invoices you’ve sent out, what you’re owed, and what you’ve been paid. If you have bookkeeping skills, you can do this according to generally accepted accounting principles; if not, a spreadsheet with slots for client, amount, the job done, and the date invoices were sent/payment was received will serve the purpose.
  3. Track your business expenses. One of the best parts of writing for a living is that if you can find a way to get paid to write about it, it’s a business expense. Take a look at the IRS guidance on business expenses, and keep your receipt for everything you think might qualify.

Income is how much you’ve made; it’s the amount on your spreadsheet tracking invoices you’ve sent out. Cash flow is how much money you have on hand; it’s the amount on your spreadsheet tracking which invoices clients have paid.

As a freelance writer, you will have times where your income is sufficient to cover your bills but your cash flow is not. Writers call this the “feast-famine” cycle. It’s a way of life. To beat it, put away a bit more than 50 percent of each paycheck (so you have a resource to draw from when bills are due but checks haven’t arrived yet).

6. Change with the times.

Twenty years ago, content writing – the bulk of the paid work I do today – didn’t exist. It wasn’t a job one could have.

Ten years ago, content writing consisted almost entirely of dashing off the cheapest, ugliest, keyword-stuffed nonsense you could manage in order to fill a webpage. When I started writing for the Web, I wrote fast and badly.

Today, writing fast and badly doesn’t work. There are still a handful of agencies that will pay for it, but most are aware that as search algorithms have changed, 300 words with the keyword repeated exactly three times just doesn’t cut it anymore. Google doesn’t see that as an authority and won’t kick it to the top of the results page – and that’s what a lot of content writing is meant to do.

Whether you decide to write content, to specialize in newsletters, to stick with technical manuals or to foray into journalism, stay on top of trends in the field. It doesn’t look like it did ten years ago, and it won’t look the same ten years from now.

7. Stay tuned.

There’s a ton of content here on writing both fiction and non-fiction for a living, and I’m adding more all the time. Follow the blog for more info!

Writing as a Career

How to (Almost But Not Quite) Write a Successful Query Letter

Writing Fiction

Good Characters: Who Are They?

Chekov’s Bear Arms, or “Does The Gun Have to Go Off in Act Three?”

Publishing

Why We Need Better Representation in Publishing

Merry Christmas, BIL

My spouse’s family has a sporadic tradition reserved for high-value gifts: Make them impossible to unwrap.

The gold standard is the Christmas my spouse’s grandfather suspended a gold letter opener in the center of a packing tube, then glued it shut so perfectly there were no visible seams. My spouse’s aunt, who received this gift, had a minor breakdown trying to open the tube. After six hours, her father relented and let her use tools.

See, there are two rules to this game:

1. The gift has to be high-value, and

2. The recipient may not use tools or assistance from others to open it.

I did a lower-stakes version a few years ago, when my sister in law decided that her daughter needed a Kindle. Niece was about 7 at the time, making this her first Very Own Device.

I wrapped the Kindle in four separate boxes, nested within one another. From respect for Niece’s age, attention span and fine motor skills, I did not make the boxes hard to open.

This year, my spouse’s brother is back from several months of serious medical stuff. My brother in law is a grown adult.

And my gloves are off.

This is a jar of truffles, wrapped in bubble wrap and wrapping paper. Isn’t it cute? The perfect stocking stuffer for the foodie on your list!

It needed a little something. Like, say, four layers of strapping tape applied in one continuous motion.

I don’t know if we can trust this dollar store wrapping paper to stay on by itself. Better wrap it in a coating of packing tape just to be safe.

“Hey, I got my brother this new tackle box. Would you mind wrapping it for me?” said my spouse.

Not at all, dear. I’d be happy to.

It fits just great into this box that coincidentally fits great into four other boxes I just coincidentally have happened to have been saving for months in case I needed to get revenge on my brother in law for kicking my butt in Bomberman one too many times.

The wrapping paper was not shiny enough. It needed another coat of packing tape.

Also (not shown) this box was not strong enough, and so I added a coat of strapping tape.

This one was acceptably shiny, but I covered every seam in packing tape just to be safe.

This box got wrapped with normal amounts of normal Scotch tape. Lulling the victim recipient into a false sense of comfort is a very important part of the game.

The boxes have gotten so big by this point, I had to move to the floor to wrap. I finished the seams on this one with packing tape as well.

Our tiny truffle jar, all grown up and nestled into its final box! (Cats shown for scale.)

The final wrap job. Since kraft paper is so fragile, and since my roll of packing tape was beginning to wane, I wrapped the entire box in packing tape until I emptied the roll.

“Well…that’ll make it fun,” my spouse said when I announced that I had used an entire roll of packing tape.

Merry Christmas, BIL.

Christmas Carols Nobody Asked For, Vol. 10: Christmas Dinner Belling


(For an explanation of this project and links to the rest of the canon, see the master list.)

My experimentation with Botnik started a few years ago. The first thing I produced, round about Christmas 2017, was this predictive-text carol, made from the same word bank as this year’s Bad Carols:

Lyrics to "Christmas Dinner Belling" in white text on green textured background. The lyrics are reproduced in plaintext in the post.
Lyrics to “Christmas Dinner Belling” (reproduced below).

Since this was The One Bad Carol to Rule Them All, I wanted to give it a truly epic musical setting. To that end, I gave myself two rules:

  1. Score for orchestra plus four-part choir,
  2. Do not crash Noteflight.

….These turned out to be mutually exclusive goals.

The final piece is scored for four-part choir plus string quartet.

Social media share image with blue snowflakes and red text on white background. The text is "Christmas Carols Nobody Asked For, Vol. 10: Christmas dinner belling."

Christmas Dinner Belling

It’s Christmas bells, it’s parson gifts
It’s so dreadfully white
And we believe neighbors blink
On Christmas time tonight

It’s tallest grandpa sandwich time
It’s loaded lots with ants
Let steeple ways be Santa, ’cause
It’s Christmas dinner snitched

Let sleigh ride sinners play the bells
And Mary captive toast
We spend termites of red striped socks
And wild candle thump

It’s just a partridge that you hear
It’s so long since we’ve peace
It’s dolls that are, Mr. Chorus ho
And everyone sang his beard

And everyone sang his beard

The score is here [pdf].

The audio file is here [mp3].

May Tallest Grandpa Sandwich Time bless us, every one.


Musicians are overworked and underpaid, especially during the holidays. You can help: Share this post on social media or drop me a tip.

Christmas Carols Nobody Asked For, Vol. 9: Merry Christmas Baby (The Krampus Song)

(For an explanation of this project and links to previous volumes, see the Master List.)

Christmas is full of carols for children. Many of these were written explicitly for children – for instance, “Jolly Old St. Nicholas” and “Frosty the Snowman.” Some weren’t, but have become heavily associated with children over time, like “Away in a Manger.”

What most of these carols have in common is their mind-numbing simplicity and lyrics that perhaps made sense 150 years ago but certainly do not today.

Here’s what happened when I asked Botnik to write lyrics for a children’s carol. Mind-numbingly simple tune is by me.

Social media image featuring blue snowflakes on which background and the title of this post.

Merry Christmas Baby (The Krampus Song)

Merry Christmas baby,
Everything is love,
Krampus comes and rolls me
Underneath the doves.
Merry Christmas baby,
Sure did treat me nice,
Christmas time is simply
Candy canes and ice.

The score is here [pdf].

The audio file is here [mp3].


Musicians are overworked and underpaid, especially during the holidays. You can help by sharing this post or leaving me a tip.

Christmas Carols Nobody Asked for, Vol. 8: The Christmas Heart Song

(For an explanation of this project and links to previous volumes, see the master list.)

In Volume 6, I complained about how Boomer-era carols have dominated the airwaves for my entire remembered life, the start of which postdates the 1960s by over a decade.

Fortunately, here in The Year of Our Billboard Artists Two Thousand and Ten and Nine, the dominance of the 1940s-1960s era carols is wavering. Pop artists have been unleashing original Christmas tunes in droves over the past several years. None of them have come even close to catching up to Mariah Carey, and many of them are terrible in their own genre-specific ways. But I applaud the effort nonetheless.

To encourage the creation of new popular Christmas songs, I thought I’d contribute to the genre. I imagined myself as a peppy 19 year old, sitting in my dorm room with a laptop and a guitar, convinced at my own ability to become the next pop star by combining instruments in ways that surely have never been done before*, over one of the most well-known chord progressions in pop music.**

The result is poised to be the new “All I Want for Christmas Is You.” In keeping with my irrepressible guitar-toting persona, I named this tune “The Christmas Heart Song.” I fully expect, however, that it will become better known by its most recognizable line, “In Christmas, hot damn.”

The Christmas Heart Song (In Christmas, Hot Damn)

Every heart sang soft tonight,
as another wish came true for me.
Every breath, baby, gave to me
A wonderful life where nothing

Seems to be nice,
With a toy on his beard,
Oh hey Santa,
Bathing suit special,
Reason for my own guitar.

Everyone would have a family,
In Christmas, hot damn, we all share,
Happiness everyone.

In Christmas hot damn,
Happiness everyone,
Throughout the year we have love.

Here is the score (pdf).

Here is the audio file (mp3).

*: It’s been done before.
**: I-V-vi-IV, if you’re wondering.

Christmas Carols Nobody Asked For, Vol. 7: Emily's Christmas Blues

(For an explanation of this nonsense and links to the rest of the volumes, see the Master List.)

The blues have had a decent run in Christmas music, even if they’re not the number-one musical holiday genre. I loved the time I spent as a teen learning to improv over 12-bar blues, so I thought I’d give Botnik the same opportunity.

Lyrics, as always, are produced by Botnik’s predictive-text keyboard and based on a large text file of Christmas carol lyrics. I added the music.

Emily’s Christmas Blues

Blues like fireworks and a pumpkin pie,
Christmas keeps on waiting.
Blues like those that came to us with pudding and a reggae feeling,
That blue Christmas never strays.
Emily, Emily,
Christmas blues they just believe in you.

The score is here [pdf].

The audio file is here [mp3].


Musicians are overworked and underpaid, especially during the winter holidays. You can help by sharing this post or dropping me a tip.

How I Wrote and Published My First Novel in Just Under 10 Months

“Everyone says they want to write a novel,” my undergraduate mentor told me once over coffee, “but what most people want is to have written a novel.”

I didn’t really understand or believe this until I published my first novel, Nantais. It’s a space opera that also deals with the perils of neurodivergent communication, but not many people even asked what it was about.

What most folks expressed was envy: “Wow, I’ve always wanted to write a book!” And what stood out about that response was that I never heard it even once while I was in the process of writing the book.

The first draft of Nantais took me ten months to complete. During that ten months, what most of the world thought I had was “a tedious delusion,” as Marge Piercy put it.

If you’ve been Googling “How do I write a novel?”, chances are that you too are more interested in writing than in having written – or, at least, you’re starting to realize that in order to have written, you need to write.

Writing is a deeply personal thing. My method may or may not work for you. But here’s how I did it.

I wrote and published a novel. Here's How_ Step By Step.

Steps Zero, Zero, and Zero: I Practiced, I Thought, I Learned

I decided I wanted to be a writer at the ripe old age of 7 years. Since writers write, my second-grade brain reasoned, and since I was now a writer, I would write too.

I haven’t stopped since.

I published my first poem at 17, my first essay at 18, and my first short story at 21. At age 27, I decided to try making a full-time living at writing – something not a lot of writers ever accomplish. My first novel came out when I was 34.

Between 7 and 34, I wrote something every single day. Since age 7, I’ve been getting feedback on my writing almost every day: from teachers, friends, editors, and audiences.

When I finally decided to sit down and write Nantais, very little of the book came out of nowhere. Nirala has existed in my head in some form since I was about 9 years old.

It’s changed a lot since then. But I’ve been thinking about it off and on, and writing about it off and on, for years.

Where do writers get their ideas? Literally everywhere. Ideas are cheap as free, and they’re worth about as much until you start writing them down.

Step One: I Got Organized

You may have noticed a pretty big age gap up above. I started submitting works to publishers at age 17, but my novel wouldn’t come out for 17 years after that – another entire lifetime for my high school age self. What’s up with that?

The number-one problem for me was getting organized and focused. A big part of that was the fact that I had untreated (and undiagnosed) ADHD – but it also had to do with having to build a writing system and routine from scratch.

The basics of my current routine are so laughably simple, I’m almost embarrassed to admit they took me 17 years to figure out. They are:

  • A notebook. I write in single-subject college-ruled spiral-bound notebooks. I buy them for about 25 cents each during back to school season, when they’re heavily discounted.
  • A pen. The writing utensil isn’t a big deal for some writers, but it’s a huge one for me. The tactile experience is a big part of why I write every day. I buy Pilot Precise V5 roller ball pens by the dozen.
  • Some space. The desk from my childhood bedroom now lives in our spare bedroom. It has one job: it’s where I write.
  • Time. The bulk of that 17 years was spent learning how to give myself permission to take the time writing requires – not just to put words on paper, but to think and plan, as well. Boredom is a huge asset to my writing: so much so that I took up running, which I find mind-numbing, just to ensure I had enough boredom to drive my creative mind.

So far, so good. What to do with these things?

Step Two: I Made a Plan

I am terrible at outlining, so I use various tools for it. Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat!was a lifesaver for me in the planning process, as were John Truby’s 22 Plot Building Blocks (especially since I, like many Snyder fans, did not initially realize the “Finale” is a five-step process).

A good outline is the cure for writer’s block. With enough planning, I can go anywhere, because I know exactly what comes next the moment I sit down at my desk. It also works for any genre: action/thriller, romance, YA, horror, mystery, you name it.

Though you only see slivers of it in Nantais, the world in which the book is set is absolutely enormous – additional parts of it appear in “Scene From a Barbershop,” “Kill Your Darlings,” and other pieces I’ve published in other venues. To keep all the plot, setting, character, and timeline pieces straight, I use Microsoft OneNote. It’s free, the phone app syncs just fine with my laptop, and it lets me make notes on the go when I can’t get at my notebook (for instance, when I’m standing in a grocery store checkout).

To give myself an extra layer of organizational complexity, I developed Niralanes as an actual language with an actual vocabulary and grammar rules – which meant I also had to keep track of those words and rules as it developed. For this, I use an Excel spreadsheet, which currently has about 520 entries.

Step Three: I Wrote

At my desk. From 9 pm to 11 pm. Every night. For ten months.

Well, almost every night. I stuck to Chuck Wendig’s plan: 350 words a day, weekends off (although once I got rolling, I no longer wanted to take weekends off).

I also added a caveat: That 350 words a day had to be related to the novel in some way, but it didn’t have to be words I intended to appear in the finished novel. If I needed to spend two hours just planning the next scene, or working out a character’s backstory or motivations, or on worldbuilding, that’s what I did.

I also had to spend the entire two hours at my desk, unless I was sick. Then I could write in bed and go to sleep early if I needed to.

Some days, I got 350 words down in the first fifteen minutes. Other days, I spent every second of those two hours fighting for each word, wringing them out one by one.

What I didn’t do was give up.

The point was to be there with the book. If I did that, I won. If I missed a day, I got back in the saddle the next. That was all.

My husband deserves another shout-out here for being wholly supportive of this process, even though it meant (and means) two hours a day he doesn’t see me. Supportive people are a must.

Step Four: I Rewrote

Once I had a draft on paper, at a time and place that was not 9-11 pm or at my desk, I opened up a Word file on my laptop and I rewrote the entire novel.

You read that right. I rewrote every word. From scratch.

I had the handwritten draft to guide me, but I treated it as guidance – as 85,000 words of really, really detailed outline. Probably 90 percent of the sentences in the book you can buy today differ from the sentence in the handwritten draft.

Why? Because it kept me on track while writing the original draft.

  1. I fall down the Wikipedia hole very easily. If I needed to look something up, my two hours of writing were gone. Instead, I made a note in the margin as I worked on the handwritten draft, then looked the thing up and inserted it as I typed. For instance, “Groombridge 1618” appears in the handwritten draft as “STAR WITH HABITABLE ZONE.”
  2. I also fall down the hole of my own OneNote file on worldbuilding very easily, so I used the same method for character minutiae. The handwritten draft is filled with notes like “how old is Jiya?” or “whatever I named that other moon.”
  3. I especially fall down the hole of my own conlang very easily, so unless I could translate from memory, every piece of Niralanes in the finished book appears in the handwritten draft in English, placed in brackets. I did the translations as I typed.

Revising is also far too easy on a computer. I’ve sabotaged any number of projects by backspacing and trying to get each sentence just right before I move on. In the notebook, I just move on. I make a note if I think I need it, but I rarely do – when I’m rewriting, I can tell which sentences work and which don’t.

Finally, because I also do freelance writing for a living, I’ve come to associate my computer screen with speaking to an audience. My notebook, on the other hand, I associate with privacy: no one ever sees it. This frees me to write utter crap and trust my future self to recognize and fix it.

Step Five: I Got Feedback

The first set of eyes that sees my drafts as I produce them belongs to my husband. He’s also great motivation – if I give him the draft of one chapter, it won’t be long before he’s bugging me to give him the next one, which means I have to go write it.

The second set of eyes that sees my drafts belongs to my best friend and primary editor, Athena Lynn Michaels-Dillon. I can trust my husband to praise me and make me want to keep writing: I can trust Athena to tell me exactly why what I just wrote isn’t going to work as literature and definitely why it isn’t going to sell.

After I’ve revised enough times that Athena runs out of reasons to say no, the novel goes to my publisher.

Step Six: I Got By With a Little Help From My Friends

Nantais was published by NeuroQueer Books, an imprint of Autonomous Press, where I’m a developmental editor. The press partners demanded first dibs on the manuscript pretty much the moment I described it to them, back in the summer of 2015.

If this is the part where you want to chuck this blog across the room, remember: first dibs isn’t the same thing as automatic acceptance. The press could have rejected my manuscript, and they would have if it weren’t up to the standard of the other books they publish.

At this stage, four more people started telling me why this book didn’t work and wouldn’t make any money, which meant I did more revising. In fact, thanks to the critical eye of editor and Weird Luck co-author Nick Walker, I did a lot more revising.

Had I not had AutPress behind me at this stage, I would have done what most authors do: started looking for a literary agent, or perhaps submitted the manuscript to another indie publisher and crossed my fingers. Either way, once a press did pick it up, I would certainly have had to deal with four (or more) bright, thoughtful, experienced people telling me exactly what needed to be revised before they could sell it.

Step Seven: I Learned Marketing

No author gets by without doing their own marketing these days. Even J.K. Rowling and Stephen King have Twitter accounts.

And “learned” is misleading here: I’m still learning marketing. I’ll probably keep doing it for the rest of my life.

This was the stage at which I set up a Goodreads account, shined up my Amazon author page, and started paying serious attention to updating this blog. I worked on creating a mailing list. I set up a Facebook page. I ran a Patreon for a while, then moved to Ko-fi. I looked at reviewing options on AuthorsDen and Reedsy. I started giving talks at local schools and bookstores. Marketing took me from “have written a book” to “author.”

My biggest surprise? Book marketing is actually pretty fun. It’s adaptable to the methods you like most – I love teaching, so giving presentations is a natural for me – and you get to meet a ton of bright, passionate people.

Step Eight: I Started Again

I took about a month off after I submitted the final draft of Nantais for publication, and then I dove right back in on its sequel, Nahara. I’ve also written several short stories in the same universe. Once daily writing is a habit, it’s very hard to break.

…And that’s how my first novel became a real thing in the world.

Questions? Send ’em here.

Appreciation? Buy me a coffee or share this article.