The Brutal Truth: No One Will Pay You to Just Write

June 24, 2014

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.

Image: Writer heartbreak

Have unrealistic expectations for writing? It will break your heart…

The difference between working as a freelance writer and running a business

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.

Why entrepreneurship isn’t for everyone

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?

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    16 Replies to “The Brutal Truth: No One Will Pay You to Just Write”

    • Joe Kovacs says:

      Alexis, thanks for this no-nonsense account of how writers can actually earn a living, by diversification. I think there is real allure in just doing what you love to do, which in this case is writing. But I think, no matter who you are or what your profession, whether it’s writing, accounting or whatever, there are components of successfully earning a living that mean you need to get involved in other work–marketing, selling, administration, etc. Our passion does not exist in a bubble. We all need to work hard in so many different areas to make it work. I can tell already what you write about is meaningful to me and what I’m hoping to do with my newish blog. I look forward to reading your posts in the future. Regards, Joe

    • MaryBeth says:

      This is a wonderful blog and spot on: while I get paid to write articles and news releases, I spend a lot of time selling myself to editors and people at local organizations that I work with that I’m the best person for their writing gig. A magazine I wrote for six years recently brought all writing in-house and it has taught me (again) just how much selling is involved. As challenging as it is, however, I would not go back to a “real” job as my mom calls it since I really enjoy the freedom and flexibility that freelancing brings.

    • Dana Sitar says:

      Thanks for the mention, Lexi! And thank you for continuing this conversation. There’s so much to being a freelancer and/or running your own business that is easy to forget amidst the excitement and promises about “doing what you love”. Everyone has to figure out what kind of writer they’re going to be, and it can be tough to accept that maybe that means not earning a living at it ““ or maybe it means taking on additional roles *in order to* make a living at it.

      I love that you mention blogging as your creative outlet, too. That’s what blogging is for me, in addition to my No. 1 tool for platform building. It’s easy to miss all the benefits of this outlet and style of writing when you don’t directly earn income from your blog.

    • Kate James says:

      I love this piece Alexis. You’re so right. I work with a lot of struggling artists (writers, musicians, painters etc) who find it difficult to make a living solely from their art but it’s an unfortunate fact of life. If you’re realistic about this when you start you can plan for it and build a platform or a business or have a part-time job that covers your living expenses at least. There’s nothing more likely to stifle creative flow than not being able to pay the rent or put food on the table.

      I love Joe’s comment that passion doesn’t live in a bubble. That’s the reality.

    • Amanda says:

      Taken out of the entrepreneur/freelancer context for just a sec…someone maybe will pay you just to write…but not always about exactly what you WANT to write about or how you want to write about it. Market forces exist in full time writing/journalism jobs, too. Same thing.

    • Allison says:

      Absolutely not too much tough love! I think the more people are transparent about what it takes to make the freelance/self-employed lifestyle work, the better — especially for those of us just getting started. It sucks having that romantic vision ruined, but the more people who are better prepared means more people who have a good chance of succeeding. Thanks for writing this!

    • This was weighing on my mind heavily today, so thank you for covering it. Diversification and building a network of income can be intimidating, but it’s also a great financial life lesson. If you rely on one income stream, even if it’s your dream job of writing, you’re no better off than if you have a “secure” and “real” job in the workforce. Life lessons, I say!

    • Alicia Rades says:

      This is way too true. Thank you for saying it so well and reminding me of this fact.

    • Rob Farquhar says:

      I didn’t see any tough love in here. Rather, you were telling your own story about how your business works, and how you learned to stop worrying and love the business side – which involved making sure the business side fit you properly.

      I’m definitely interested in the people who are making rounded, un-specialised businesses, who know that it doesn’t all have to be about One Thing. It seems to involve a shift in mindset from Doing What I Love to Helping Others Do Things.

      That bit where Dana mentions being broke worried me a bit, though, as my wife and I are struggling with the bills right now; it’s one of the reasons I’m working on a freelance sideline. But the lesson there seems to be balancing doing what you want with what you need. Heck, I know of one Internet freelancer who makes enough money who’s taken a job at a supermarket because it helps her connect with people.

      So thanks for the perspective, Alexis!

    • Not too tough at all – perfectly balanced and REAL. I have been freelancing for just over a year and find that the pitching and the introductions I have to do with editors and others to get them to hire me is fun, but I know that my personality lends itself to that. The bottom line for me is that no one is going to come looking for me (yet), so I have to be finding them. So far, it\’s working.

    • Jay Lickus says:

      Alexis, what a great article. I have been blogging (professionally, or should I say seriously) for over 15 months and have been looking for someone’s honest and unadulterated overview of what this stuff is really all about. You have lifted me to a new level. I recently build a business plan around my blog and have given myself 6 months to turn this “hobby” into a lucrative profession and now I know how to do it and I know I will be able to get it acomplished. Unfortunately, there have been many times I wanted to stop writing but my blog won’t let me. Is that right? Don’t stop writing !! Thanks, Jay

    • I really appreciate this post Alexis, especially when you discussed your history with freelance writing. I think all too often bloggers imply all of their income comes from writing. But most people I’ve met that work online make money in a handful of ways (sometimes upwards of 10 different income streams).
      I appreciate the transparency and the advice!

    • Thomas James says:

      Agree with this. Not all who asked you to write on anything under the sun is to be paid off. For example, if you are writing something for your sweet someone – you are not to ask him/her for the payment right? But if you are into the professional deal with online clients, it’s another story. We must be vigilant and keen.

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