This week I discovered a wonderfully honest piece by Dana Sitar about how she’s disappointed with the reality of her online writing career: too little income, days full of tasks she doesn’t enjoy, and not enough writing.
That’s why she began the business after all, to write. So she’s stepping back and restructuring her work, trying to figure out how to make enough money to support the life she really wants, one that includes writing.
If you’ve seen Dana’s work, you know she’s great at creating and promoting products, and she has built a robust community online. Yet, she writes:
I’m broke, and paying the bills means being too busy to enjoy the life in the lifestyle business I’ve created. While finding blog readers, gaining subscribers and connecting with influencers has become much easier than when I started blogging three years ago, actually promoting and selling anything to turn a profit remains a constant hustle.
What’s worse: I haven’t been writing… Making a living writing, I learned the hard and naïve way, has nothing to do with creating and everything to do with selling.
She’s so right, and it’s awesome that Dana had the guts to come right out and say just how hard this is.
Because here’s the brutal truth: no one will pay you just to write.
You can certainly write just to write, but you won’t earn a living. That’s because writing just to write isn’t a job — it’s a hobby.
Before you start stomping around and saying this is unfair, it’s not. If you want to earn a living, you have to create something people want to buy. Even well-known novelists, who many writers envy, don’t write just to write; they write a book people are willing to buy, and they often spend a lot of time and effort building up their brand, so people, including a publisher, want what they offer.
Even freelance writers, whose job is the closest career I can think of to pure writing, don’t spend all their time putting pen to paper. You still have to sell yourself and your work, though how often depends on the type of writing you do. If you’re freelancing for magazines and blogs, you have to sell yourself all the time; freelancers spend a lot of their work hours pitching to editors. Even if you’re lucky enough to be paid to write novels that come out every few years, you have to sell your idea to your literary agent and then to a publisher — and nowadays, a publisher wants to see you’ve put time into developing a platform, too.
Still interested in working as a freelance writer, even once you realize it requires more than writing? Sure, there are some writers who make this work. But you should be fully aware that it’s increasingly difficult to make a living this way. Most publications have a smaller budget for freelancers than they used to, and they pay less than they did years ago because more people make their work available for free. (It is, by the way, absolutely useless to complain about this, and far more worth your while to figure out how to make it work for you.)
Sometimes I get interview requests from people writing blog posts about how to earn a living as a freelance writer. But I turn them down, because I’m no longer a freelance writer. In fact — because we need more transparency around this issue — I’ve never worked solely as a freelance writer, never brought in an income I could live on solely from freelance writing. I’ve written a lot of paid pieces for magazines and blogs and newspapers, but I’ve always supplemented that work, first with a full-time job, and later as a self-employed digital strategist. While some writers poo-poo this diversification, I found it fun and lucrative, and quite frankly, it’s smart. Creativity is the key to developing your own income. (Click to tweet this.)
What often happens to freelance writers and other content creators, however, is growth — which comes with both positives and negatives. You realize you can only earn so much as a writer and accomplish so much on your own, so you start to follow other types of opportunities, maybe contract out some tasks here and there… and eventually, you build a business. In many ways, this feels like success, and for some people it is. You make more money, have more work coming in the door, get more recognition… but you also may end up doing less writing.
This is exactly what happened to me. My primary skill is writing, but I now spend my days managing my team and delegating tasks, writing proposals for potential clients (which is writing, but probably not the type of writing you envision yourself doing), brainstorming strategies and setting my team up to execute them. I do some of that execution myself, but almost never through writing for publication; instead, I identify writers to blog for us, edit blog posts and newsletters written by freelance writers, and strengthen headlines so our clients’ posts perform well.
At first, I didn’t like all the management. I missed freelance writing. But once I limited my company to working only with clients who shared our vision and projects we truly enjoyed, my mindset shifted. I love helping our clients succeed, and building a profitable business is a challenge that keeps me learning every day. It’s fun! (This post shares how I bring in income, though it’s a bit out of date.)
In the midst of running my business, I manage to create ebooks and courses — and write this blog. This is now my main outlet for writing, what you’re reading at this very moment. And in my mind, it’s the best kind. It allows me to be creative and share what I learn, without waiting for someone to tell me it’s good enough to press publish. While no one pays me per blog post and I don’t sell advertising, I make money through this blog via ebook and course sales, and indirectly via client referrals. Blogging once a week keeps the creative writer in me alive, and it helps me feel fulfilled in my work.
The job I’ve created gives me a lot of things a traditional job would not: autonomy over my work, flexibility in my schedule and exciting potential to earn. And the part I love best is I am in control. I don’t wait for anyone’s stamp of approval or acceptance or permission. When I want to write an ebook, I write it. All it requires is the gumption to start.
Yet for many people, this is exactly the problem. We’ve been conditioned to wait for the gun to fire before stepping over the starting line, to yearn for our boss’s pat on the back, to rely on a paycheck that shows up in our mailbox every other week. Even for those of us who are natural self-starters, taking control of your career and even your day takes some getting used to. Being your own boss requires serious self-discipline, confidence even when times are tough, and a tolerance for uncertainty, which is why not everyone has the stomach for it.
And that’s okay! We need lots of different people to make this world go ’round: freelancers, entrepreneurs and employees who love the stability of a full-time job. Some of those people have figured out how to fit writing into their job, while others enjoy it as a hobby.
But no one is going to pay you to “just write.” The sooner you face up to that, the sooner you’ll figure out how to work writing into your life in a way that will make you happy.
What do you think? Too much tough love here?