Can You Make Money Freelance Writing? – Well…

The broad term “freelance writer” applied to me way back when I began my career. I had just moved to a new country. I survived off odd jobs and savings. One of those odd jobs was writing articles online. Although the dollar I got in return (especially when converted to euro) wasn’t much… it upped my income significantly.

peanuts
I was still earning peanuts… but enough to get by.

As I wrote more and got paid more, I slowly started to appreciate the situation I found myself in. The feeling of freedom and independence was intoxicating. So, I made freelance writing my full-time pursuit for the next few years. Like a lot of writers these days, I started at the bottom with low-paying clients (read: horrible content mills).

The desire to earn more money pushed me to market myself and find new opportunities (all online). I thankfully landed myself a handful of well-paying clients. Being treated like an actual person (what!?) was… refreshing.

london brokers content mill
My first “content mill”… Not as fancy as its name.

“Can you make money freelance writing?” comes up a lot on Google, forums and social media. Successful freelance writers and bloggers have already answered this with a resounding Yes!

Those (successful) bloggers and freelance writers are right. You can make money as a freelance writer. The thing is… That’s not the question you should be asking. In fact, forget that question entirely. It would be more relevant to ask…

Can I make enough money as a freelance writer to fund the lifestyle I want?

By “lifestyle” I’m not referring to yachts, chauffeurs, multiple residences and 35+ servants. I mean a good standard of living: the ability to comfortably pay your rent/mortgage, cover basic expenses (healthcare etc.), save money and occasionally travel/go on holiday. I’ve seen many freelance writing projects advertised that wouldn’t cover the cost of a Happy Meal.

pikachu squirtle happy meal
All that work and not even a toy…

The answer to this question is trickier. You see, there’s something many budding freelance writers forget and it’s this: freelance writing is a business like any other. Don’t have business aptitude? Well, you’d better acquire some.

DON’T quit your day job – What to do instead

Forget the cliché of quitting your job to do the thing you love. Unless you’re independently wealthy or have another source of income, that kind of bullshit doesn’t fly in the real world. The first thing you need to do is know your expenses.

Back when I was starting out, I’d bring in US$1,200.00/month on average (that was a bit less in euro). I had luck on my side: I lived in a “cheap” city and in general, Germany’s cost of living (groceries, going out, etc.) is relatively low. On an hourly basis, I could earn between US$10.00-20.00. It seemed like a good wage at the time – until I factored in how much I worked. Some days, it was 10+ hours. Others, I barely worked three.

If you aim to be a proper professional (as you should), the standard fee a freelance copywriter should charge is around US$50.00 or more.

For anyone starting out (especially if you don’t have much experience), that can seem like a lot. Almost too much, in fact.

Well – get over it.

You’ve got costs to pay. Just like any other business. Even though you’re mainly running it from your laptop, you should consider…

  • The cost of equipment: This includes your smartphone, laptop and other add-ons such as a comfortable place to work (desk & chair – if that’s how you roll) as well as Internet and phone bill (mobile data if you work on the go a lot), hosting for your blog/website etc.
  • Health insurance: Varies by country – but for most people, you’ll have put some money away. One of the few exceptions I know of is the UK – unless you opt for private insurance.
  • Income protection: Again, some countries may have sufficient social welfare to fall back on making this not so much of an issue.
  • Contributions to social welfare/security: Even in countries with good social welfare, you’re required to pay contributions to social welfare.
  • Pension scheme: Even if your country has a state pension, it’s still good to put some money away for retirement.
  • Taxes: Obviously!
  • Other business expenses: Meetings with clients (if they insist on physically meeting in person), etc.
  • And of course, your own wage: How much can you comfortably live on once you’ve subtracted everything else?

Once again, the exact amount you should be charging also depends on where you live. If you’re in Scandinavia, it would cost you a lot more than it would in Thailand. Either way however, US$50.00 per hour is the minimum you should charge.

Will Clients Really Pay Me That Amount?

Any client who tries to stiff you for the lowest amount isn’t a client worth having. There is of course nothing wrong with your client negotiating a slightly lower rate. There’s also nothing wrong with being a little bit flexible, but don’t go too low. Not only does this ruin things for other writers, but it also means lowering your own expectations.

Good clients will pay good rates. The real challenge is finding those clients. That’s where the “business” part of freelance writing comes into play. You are a business and you are selling a service. Get out there and do your marketing!

megaphone
Feel free to yell at people with a megaphone if you think that works. Personally, I’d recommend networking, blogging and getting creative online.

It’s easy for me to say that any client who tries to stiff you isn’t a client worth having. I mean, it is true – but there are certainly times when you’ll feel desperate. However, that’s where having a business plan comes in. That’s why you shouldn’t quit your day job: you may very well need that job to help you get your freelance business up and running.

Making a living as a freelance writer is far from impossible. Many writers consider it a rewarding career. Yet the takeaway here is to never stop thinking of yourself as a business. The job of a writer is more than just typing and sending documents. Work won’t fall into your lap, at least not in the beginning.

The Burning Question for Writers: Should I work for content mills?

Getting paid to write on the Internet – sounds like the best gig ever for some people. And I’ll admit: there were times when I really, really did feel like I had it all. I could set my own schedules, and everyone I worked with was behind Skype and/or email (no one used Slack in those days… I think).

As a budding copywriter, I needed somewhere to hone my skills. As I mentioned in a previous post, the first place I started was at so-called “content mills” or “content farms”.

To be honest, I don’t really like the sound of the name. They sound a lot like “puppy farms” or “kitten farms”.

cute puppies from a farm
And no, puppy farms are not as pleasant as this picture. Look them up if you have too… I won’t be held responsible for the ensuing tears.

Tell us this much then… what are content mills?

In the broadest sense, content mills are money grabbing bastards who suck honest workers dry a business that makes most of its money selling content. This could be content for SEO, press releases, advertising copy, blog posts… You name it.

In essence, the business model is pretty sound. The client pays big, fancy monies for a batch of articles – the more well-written they are, the better. The company then gets money and, of course, pays the writers. Some many content companies/agencies that also hire writers full or part-time and given them stable hours and pay. How nice.

But this particular breed of company, known as a content mill, will almost exclusively outsource all of its writing to freelancers. Not necessarily a bad thing.

But then we get to a rather touchy subject…

How much do content mills pay?

Yuck. The truth is, the vast majority of these word farms (in my experience) pay very, very little. It’s pretty normal to be paid US$3.50 per 500 word article (bear in mind, these articles are churned out one after the other… And fast. Although I don’t do it anymore, I could still easily churn out five or six basic, 500 word articles an hour).

So, in theory, I could be making US$10.50 per hour. Convert that to euro and I’m getting… About 8, almost the same as “minimum wage” jobs.

I’ve also written for platforms which paid upwards of 12 euro (yes, euro!) for a 500-word piece.

And of course, it depends on the content farm itself.

A decent few pay pretty well – but normally at the higher levels (depending on the score you get in their test… which many will give you). Often these companies are more than just content mills, though. They usually have their fingers in many pies.

So, should writers work for these companies?

Let’s phrase the question differently. Ask yourself: What will I get out of it? This is business after all, and you’re a business if you’re looking to do freelance work. If there’s a healthy supply of articles most of the time and you can do them with an average level of effort… Go for it. When I started getting real clients, I kept the content mills for slower times (interspersed with TEFL training work).

The real danger of content mills comes from when you’re earning all your income from them: and have no time, space or energy to find other clients/jobs. But that’s a danger that goes far beyond copywriting – all freelancers are prone to this trap.

I work full-time now, but I run my own projects on the side and pick up the odd bit of freelance work here and there… When I have the time and energy. I would absolutely do some work for a content company again – but only if it were a bit of easy money for a few hours work here and there. Never again will I write for $3.50 an article.

Ever.