Cover photo by Blair Speed
I spent my late teenage years and the bulk of my 20s freelancing before I decided to stop. I wrote for local and regional magazines, namely outdoor culture and sustainable food publications. I also wrote a few essays published in literary journals.
Freelancing, it turned out, requires hustle. Lots of hustle. The writer spends hours crafting the piece—researching and interviewing on top of composing. Unless contracted to write the piece, the writer then shops it around, asking publications to buy it.
More often than not, especially in the beginning of a freelancer’s career, the answer is no. If no one buys the piece, the writer may then ask a non-paying publication to take it. Having the piece in print helps flesh out the CV, hopefully creating more opportunities to be paid for publication in the future.
Even when I was paid for my freelance writing, the hourly rate often came out below minimum wage. As a young writer, this didn’t matter as much. The thrill of seeing my name in print outweighed the fact I made five bucks an hour for my work. And the resume tactic does work, if one has the tenacity to power through rejections and feeling undervalued. A friend of mine did this, and now she works as an editor-at-large for a thriving online journal on top of making good money for her freelance writing.
I, though, did not. I recognized the freelance hustle diminished my creativity and love for writing. I also found magazines often edited out my voice to fit inside their own brand image. No one can necessarily fault the editors for doing this, but I realized many of the pieces on my CV didn’t reflect who I was as a writer, much less the writer I wanted to become.
It’s no secret making a living as a writer isn’t easy. I won’t say it’s improbable, as some people might—there’s too many success stories out there proving dedication and resiliency do pay off in all careers, writing included.
Indeed, there are many routes to paying the bills through writing. All of them require hard work. Freelancing is not the only way. In fact, I think freelancing is often why many writers quit before their careers even start. They burn out on the no’s, editors whittling their work down to hollow commercial articles, the paychecks paying for the coffee required to write the work and little else.
If you enjoy freelancing, yay! You do you. Like I said, a writer-friend I respect makes a solid income for her work. (Just bought a house in the Bozeman market as a matter of fact!) If you don’t like freelancing, but feel you have to if you want to make writing your career, this blog post is for you.
First of all, the hypothetical goal of freelancing, especially when it comes to articles you don’t want to write, is building the CV. In theory, this CV will open up doors to publications you do want to write for, and hopefully these desired publications will allow you to write articles you want to create.
Yet if many of the published articles don’t reflect your voice, then how can the desired publications know what you’re really selling, or what you’d like to sell, anyways? Or maybe you’re not even sure what your voice actually reads like because you’ve been freelancing commercial pieces for so long you’ve lost touch with your authentic pen.
Here’s the heart of the danger: by seeking approval from the gatekeepers of publications, the writer risks compromising talents waiting to be discovered. As mentioned, freelancing takes hustle—it takes time and energy. Time and energy spent on trying to meet others’ expectations, rather than exploring one’s natural gifts and practicing skills.
Most publications work off money from advertisements. A magazine’s goal is to sell as many copies as possible to appease and attract advertisers. Before a writer becomes well-known for her unique voice, the article she writes serves to build the magazine’s brand. This is why the voice of writers without their own brand-voice often experience ruthless editing; the writer’s article serves to fill the pages between advertisements.
Once a writer becomes known and desired by readers, he’s no longer filler-material, but a selling point. He’s created a brand for himself. He can sell his work with authority. He may even make a livable wage.
When I stopped freelancing, I started blogging. Publishing on my website allows me to share my work, exercise my voice, lean into my comfort zones, learn, grow, and experiment. I am not actively pursing an income from my website at this point because I’m still exploring my voice. I don’t want advertisements interfering with the explorations.
So at the time I am not making money from my writing, but I’ve never felt more an author than I do now. In my opinion, financial compensation doesn’t validate. Receiving another’s permission to be published doesn’t necessarily make one writer better than the other who received the no, thank you. I’ve been on both the yes and no sides of publication, and in both cases I wondered what I was writing, why, and for whom.
Sources of income remain the same as they did when I was freelancing. The time I once invested in freelancing now goes into projects, like this website, where I can nurture an authentic voice. Since I began investing my writing time and energy in creating a “brand” for myself through this website, magazines have invited me to write for them. I’m kindly declining for the time being, as I still feel I am exploring that question: what am I writing, why, and for whom.
The concluding thought here, friends, is this: there are many ways to forge a career for yourself as a writer. Freelancing is not the only way to create the “author brand” needed in today’s publishing industry to be paid a livable wage. If you find yourself feeling discouraged by freelancing, create an online platform where you can explore your unique voice. The time and energy you spent freelancing may be better spent creating your brand apart from the agenda of another.