How To Make Money As A Writer (According To Someone Doing It)
Speaking as someone who earned a bachelor’s degree in writing even though many people advised me not to, I’m thrilled to report that writing is officially my day job — and I couldn’t be prouder of that fact. However, making money as a writer comes with it’s own set of unique challenges. If you’re an extrovert, working from home might not be the healthiest choice for you. If you don’t enjoy writing nonfiction or journalism, then you’re probably going to have a much harder time finding work as a writer than I have. On top of that, most of us don't go from freelance journalists to Joan Didion’s level of success overnight. (If ever.) All of that said, if you want to learn how to make money from your writing, I've got you covered.
Before you quit your day job, you need to ask yourself what you’re comfortable writing about, who you want to write for, and whether you want writing to be how you pay all of your bills. You also need to understand that writing takes a lot of self-discipline, and that burnout is a very real problem facing anyone who works primarily from home.
On that note, here are a few tips on how to start making money from your writing.
Decide Which Topics You're Open To Writing About
As a self-proclaimed confessional writer, I thoroughly enjoy making money off of my personal essays. I couldn't be more thrilled that Bustle has paid me to write about everything from why I waited until I was 21 to have sex to why I'm taking a break from dating. I've never been the most private person, though. If you're more private than I am, then you should never feel pressured to write about your personal life.
Before you decide where you want to pitch your work, you need to figure out which topics you're comfortable covering. Are you OK with writing about your sexuality and life experiences? Or do you only want to write impersonal pieces about research-based topics, like politics and women's health? To some extent, all writing is personal. That said, as popular as personal essays are, there are plenty of other subjects to write about if confessional writing just isn't your thing.
Ultimately, you don't owe anyone your stories, and there's plenty of work out there for people who don't want to write about their lives. So before you do anything else, take some time to consider which topics you're truly up for writing about.
Figure Out Who You Want To Write For
After you've decided what you want to write about, you need to figure out who you want to write for. If you want to cover current events and/or use your voice to fight for reproductive rights, find a politically progressive company that's looking for news writers. If you want to write exclusively about anxiety and depression, then look for publishers that focus on mental health. If you're a parent who wants to write about parenting, then find out who's publishing parenting articles.
Once you've found a few sites/magazines/newspapers that publish the kind of content you want to write about, scope them out even more. How do you feel about the tone of their content? Do their author/editor bios contain any offensive or exclusive language? Would you be proud to have your name associated with their brand? No matter what you want to write about, you should only be writing for places that represent you and your values. For example, if you're queer, you should obviously be pitching to sites that are LGBTQA-friendly. If you identify as female, stick with feminist websites.
Before you pitch your work somewhere, do your research. If you don't see yourself or your ideologies represented somewhere, then keep looking.
Learn How To Pitch
Pitching guidelines vary from publisher to publisher, so there isn't just one way to pitch. What works for Bustle's editors might not work for the folks over at Buzzfeed, or wherever else you're thinking of submitting your work. Part of pitching is learning how to pitch specifically to the sites you're submitting your work to.
That said, there are a few general rules to pitching that we can talk about right now: First off, you need to make sure that whatever story you're pitching is a good fit for the site that you're pitching it to. (E.g., don't pitch a pro-choice piece to an anti-choice website.) Once you've cleared that hurdle, make sure the topic you're pitching hasn't already been covered by a different writer. (Or, if your topic has been covered, at least be sure that you're covering the same topic from a different angle.)
When the time comes to email your potential editor, keep your correspondence as concise and professional as possible. Briefly tell them why they should take a chance on you and your work, attach your draft, proofread the hell out of your message, and then send it. Don't try to get too creative with your subject line, either. Stick to something basic, like this: "Submission: 'How To Comfort A Grieving Loved One'" And just for good measure, before you submit your pitch, double-check that you've followed the publisher's pitching guidelines to the letter.
Maybe Don't Quit Your Day Job For Awhile
Personally, I love the freedom and creativity of writing for a living so much that I can't imagine doing anything else. But writing for a living isn't as easy as it sounds. It took me almost a year to secure enough freelance writing work that I could comfortably quit my day job, and that was one exhausting year.
As you can probably imagine, freelancing isn't the steadiest way to support yourself, which can be stressful. On top of that, most publishers won't be able to offer you high wages until you've been writing for them for a little while. So even though I couldn't love what I do more, I won't pretend that writing for a living is as easy or stress-free as it might sound. No matter how badly you want to start supporting yourself with writing, it's still a good idea to start small. There's less pressure that way, and you might even find that writing one article per week satisfies your creativity. Plus, if you can hack it as a freelancer with a full-time job for even six months, then you'll build up the necessary confidence and financial security to eventually quit your day job without sacrificing your peace of mind in the process.
Create Some Structure For Yourself
In the past two years, I've learned over and over again that self-discipline is crucial when you're a remote writer. I consider myself to be a fairly self-disciplined person, but I definitely still struggle with procrastination sometimes. So no matter how organized and together you think you are, you probably won't find long-term success as a professional writer unless you can create some structure for yourself.
Whether that means getting a part-time job so you'll be motivated to submit your work by a certain time every day, or it means you'll only socialize on weekends from now on, it's important to find effective ways to hold yourself accountable. When writing is your day job, you have to be able to act like your own boss.
Try Not To Make The Same Mistakes I've Made
In the two years that I've been writing professionally, I've f*cked up a few times. I haven't always been proficient in communicating clearly with my editors, I've missed more than one deadline, I've over-committed myself, I've taken on story topics that I had zero interest in writing about, I've foolishly read the comments section on my articles, (never again) and I've allowed burnout to get the best of me.
Fortunately, none of these mistakes have caused me to lose writing jobs, and messing up has taught me a lot about how not to mess up in the future. Further, overcoming these setbacks has made me even more appreciative of my job and dedicated to my work — but I would still recommend avoiding the above-mentioned pitfalls if at all possible. For more on how not to make the mistakes that so many beginner freelancers make, check out this article.
Beware Of Burnout & Learn How To Beat It
Burnout is a very real threat when you make the bulk of your money by writing from home. In the two years that I've been working as a remote writer, I've already dealt with burnout. I burned out for a slough of reasons that varied from my struggles with mental illness to my own temporary lack of self-discipline and structure. But looking back, I think the main reason I burned out so quickly was simply because I stopped making work-life balance a priority.
If you're going to be a remote writer long-term, you have to be able to structure your time realistically, and you have to make self-care a priority. Daily exercise, spending time outdoors, and being unapologetically selfish with my time are just a few of the ways I avoid burnout these days. But there are lots of other ways to deal with burnout at work, and I've written about them here.
Good luck, and keep writing!