Yes, You CAN Make a Living as a Writer

Posted February 12, 2021 by Joe K.
There I was... more than fifteen years into my career, on the edge of accepting a position as a director at a promising technology startup, and absolutely miserable. Instead of considering altering parts of my lifestyle and changing careers, I worked until I literally couldn’t get out of bed and commute to the office.

It wasn’t the first time my health had imploded because of long hours doing a job I couldn’t find any joy in. Don’t get me wrong. I loved the people. The pay was great. But I grew frustrated over my lack of autonomy. I spent too much time arguing with people over whether a problem should be tackled and how to solve it. All I wanted to do was be left alone to solve problems.

Fortunately, this systemic breakdown was enough to make me listen.

I had the luxury of taking time off while mulling over the questions running through my mind. Did I want a less stressful position doing the same thing? Did I want a complete change? How much income did I need to bring into our household to make enough of an impact? Was I willing to make changes in my lifestyle necessary to support a drop in income?

It finally occurred to me that with a few fiction novels under my belt and a strong background in technology's inner workings, I had the makings of a technology writer.

When I decided to become a freelance writer, I thought I would make a fraction of my income and put a strain on my marriage by not pulling enough weight. I was wrong. Granted, I do make less than I did at my corporate job, but I made double my projected income in my first year as a writer. This is incredible, considering I kicked off my business amid a global pandemic. And I'm on track to reach 80% of my previous corporate income this year.

Given the right attitude, a healthy amount of self-discipline, and solid skillsets, you can make a living as a writer, too.

Skills In High Demand

Search engine optimization is one of the factors that makes or breaks a company's visibility. Companies need to release relevant content written in a human voice on a regular cadence to appear consistently at the top of a search page.

Online content can also drive a large portion of a company’s sales. One of my clients sees 80% of their engaged opportunities land on one of their long-form content pieces through organic search in the first step of their sales journey.

For-profit companies are constantly searching for people who can tell a good story and have enough background in their product to help sell it. 

This doesn’t mean you have to be an expert on their specific product, but you have to know about their industry. For example, my technology and video gaming background landed me a golf simulator client because I understand the mechanics that go into ball and club tracking and the graphics necessary to create a realistic environment. I have never set foot on a golf course, although I’m always learning from the PGA Professionals.

One of the most surprising things I found during my search for initial clients was how desperately companies need someone they can trust in front of executives and public personalities. If you have experience interviewing people on podcasts or for articles and are comfortable interacting with famous people, you'll have the edge over your competition.

Finally, don’t be afraid to leverage grammatical tools and other technology to help you write cleaner, faster. Many companies don’t want to bother proofreading your work, so plan on handing over content that is as ready to go live as possible. This also means investing in a Chicago Manual of Style and the latest Associated Press guidelines.

Choosing a Path

Technical Writer

If you’re at all technical, technical writing is a good option. The technical writer hiring managers I know are looking for skilled writers who can concisely get their point across over someone with a certification. Note that beginners, even those with a technical writing certificate from a respected institution, may start at the lower end of the salary range of $44K-$72K per year.

Content Writer

Content writers in the corporate world produce blog articles, ghostwrite for executives, create email campaigns, and any other copy that supports marketing. This could encompass writing scripts for videos and storyboards to help internal or external creative teams develop video content or copywriting product descriptions. In the United States, content writers average $40K-$77K per year.

Copywriter

Copywriters are more specialized content creators who focus on product descriptions, web copy, and material to sell specific products. The national average salary is $58K compared to content writers' $51K.

Public Relations

Public relations specialists will want to get a certification at a respected institution. They bring in an average of $61K per year, although more technical writers who specialize in topics and have an admirable network will easily pull in six figures.

The More Nuanced Differences Between Roles

Each of these professions requires a different writing style: 
  • Technical writers must be able to clearly and concisely explain how to use or fix a product. 
  • Content writers must vary the tone they're using to fit the person they're ghostwriting for, follow company style guidelines, and be comfortable cranking out articles over 1,100 words. 
  • Copywriters need to understand their consumers' psychology and appeal to them in as few words as possible. 
  • Public relationship specialists must be strong writers, but their most valuable asset is their network and ability to get their clients featured in publications with high impressions and lead rates.

Freelancing

Freelancers across any of the categories above charge upwards of 10-50% more per hour than a full-time employee would to cover taxes and their healthcare insurance expenses. Companies still hire them because they can contract a low number of hours per week to supplement a specific need. 

I work as a freelancer. Some of my clients use me for all of their content and copywriting needs, while others need a single article written per week. I've found I can raise my rates much easier as a freelancer to keep pace with my skillset, demand, and experience. I also enjoy having the ability to pick and choose what kind of work I take and what kind of companies I work with. I have friends who only work with non-profits, and I choose to split my time between entrepreneurs and technology startups. 

The downside to freelancing is income fluctuation because clients will change their marketing strategy and budget, potentially making you obsolete. You’re also running your own freelance business—which means getting the correct business licenses, paying local and federal taxes, and experiencing the joys of invoicing delinquent clients—while sourcing new work while keeping existing clients happy.

I think it’s worth it, but if you’d rather not be responsible for every aspect of running a business in addition to a full-time job, there’s always the option to work for an agency or directly for a business.

What About Non-Fiction Writers?

Writers can and do get paid to write fiction and publish books, but the odds of making a living doing these things are low. The average salary for full-time literary writers was $20,300 in 2017 and dropping. You will need to master the English language and have a veritable Ph.D. in self-promotion.

Getting Started

A Foot in the Door: Freelancing

When I decided to go from a career in information technology to writing full-time, I reached out to my network of acquaintances and friends in marketing in the technology industry. I didn’t ask for work. I asked for advice. Because they knew me and my work ethic, they were willing to take a risk on my skills as a writer, but only as a contractor. I got started freelancing because while people would hesitate to hire me full-time with zero experience, an open-ended hourly contract was a no brainer. They could immediately cut ties if I did a terrible job or put me on more projects if I did well.

Ramping Up While Working Full Time

If you’ve never written professionally before, I recommend taking a few continuing education courses through your local community college. It’s a great way to reacquaint yourself with writing and receive feedback in a supportive environment. Certifications can also help you gain credibility as a writer without practical experience.

You’ll need a portfolio of work you’re proud to show to prospective employers before you start applying to jobs. If you’ve written published articles, collect them into a portfolio. If you haven’t been published but are confident in your writing ability, begin submitting articles to trade newsletters, blogs, news outlets, and try freelance websites like Upwork to get a few projects under your belt.

Remember to always ask for feedback and testimonials when you work with a client. They will go a long way when you either decide to build a business or apply for new positions. Once you accumulate a respectable portfolio and glowing testimonials, you’re ready to kick off a lucrative career writing.
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