The Well-Fed Writer: Financial Self-Sufficiency as a Freelance Writer in Six Months or Less
"STARVING" AND "WRITER" AREN'T MARRIED When was the last time you did something for a living that really and truly lit you up? Where work felt like play, where you looked forward to getting out of bed in the morning, and it kept you consistently stimulated, as busy as you wanted to be, along with lots of freedom, creative fulfillment, comfortable working conditions, and all the while earning you a handsome income to boot - $50K, 75K, even 100K or more! -- along with the time to enjoy it. Have you ever had such an experience? Can you even imagine it? If you have been there but aren't now, don't you think a lot about how to find it again?
Have you dreamed of becoming a freelance writer but never took it too seriously because after all, the words "starving" and "writer" are pretty much joined at the hip? What would you say if I told you that there's an arena of freelance writing, that if pursued with reasonable diligence by an even moderately talented and minimally creative individual could generate all the above-described goodies in only about a year or two? That's what The Well-Fed Writer is all about. Becoming a well-respected, well-compensated, well-fulfilled freelance writer. Someone, who when asked what they do, can respond proudly, "I'm a writer." Talk about a conversation piece. You watch.
HOW DOES THIS SOUND? Picture this: On a Friday morning client phone call, you pick up a job writing a video script. Several hours later, a couriered package of background material shows up at your door. In a follow-up call, you get some questions answered by the client, and spend a few hours on Sunday night reviewing the material. Monday morning, you meet them at their offices 10 minutes away. You work on the project at home, on your deck, under that great shady tree, phone by your side, tall glass of lemonade nearby. By Wednesday morning, between the client call, background reading, the Monday meeting, and crafting a first draft, you have 16 hours into the project (16 x $75 = $1200). You fax them your draft Wednesday morning, which you won't get back till Friday.
In the meantime, you put in six hours on some edits for an event presentation scripting project that's been on-going for two weeks now. (6 x $65 [long-term client gets a break] = $390). After turning the edits around late Wednesday, you get a call from a new client who's been hiring you recently to edit their hi-tech brochures. They e-mail you the file, you take the night off, and start working on it Thursday morning. It takes you four hours @ $75/hr. = $300. You e-mail it back, and bill them immediately.
In the early afternoon, you get a call from a relatively new regular client asking about your availability for a brochure project the next week. Probably 12-15 hours worth of work. You set up a meeting for Monday afternoon. Later that same afternoon, one of your regular clients calls, needing a few headlines for a store display. She says, "My brain is fried. I can't think anymore. Just come up with a few lines. Don't spend a lot of time on it." You've done 30+ projects like these, so it's a breeze. You charge them your 2-hour minimum -- $130 (another long-term client), grab your microcassette recorder, head to the gym, knocking out half of it on the way over. That night, sitting outside at your favorite outdoor neighborhood eatery with a clipboard, you get the rest done, having put in a total of maybe an hour of time. You get home, take 10 minutes to type them up and fax them on.
That's just a hair over $2000 by Thursday night, for under 30 hours of work, minimal running around, comfortable work, almost completely by phone, fax, and e-mail, and with plenty of time left over to have a life. And you've got about $1000 worth of work lined for next week to boot. OK, it's not always this easy or rosy and you'll have your share of $500 weeks, too. And this is no get-rich-quick thing. In the beginning, you'll be working a lot harder for a lot less, and in any given week, there's a lot of other work to do -- prospecting, marketing and paperwork (though less than you'd imagine). But, develop the right work habits early and you'll be surprised at how soon you'll be having weeks like the above - and fairly often at that. I was having weeks like this late in my first year.
COULD YOU GET USED TO THIS? The life of a freelance commercial writer. Good money, flexible hours, stimulating work. Go to bed when you want, get up when you want (the occasional client meeting notwithstanding), wear what you want, take vacations when you want, shower and shave when you want (guys, that's a beautiful thing…). Got a lot of outside interests? Or would you if you had more time of your own? You'll have the time to pursue them if that's where your priorities lie. Your priorities, not your boss's. And your income is up to you. Want a raise? Work a little harder, make a few more phone calls, put in a few more hours. Sound too good to be true? Sound hard to get started in? Sure, you'll have to work hard to get established, but it's not nearly so difficult as you'd think, and as we discussed earlier, depending on your present situation, you could be halfway there right now.
WHAT'S YOUR LIFE LIKE? Have you taken a "quality audit" of your life lately? Are you like most people? Get up early, dress up in the suit, drive 30 minutes (if you're lucky) through glacial rush hour traffic, work in some climate-controlled windowless cubicle in a high rise all day, deal with office politics, eat unhealthy food on the run, sit in endless boring meetings using words like "re-purpose", "actionable", and "value-added", get stressed out, be nice to people you think are morons, leave the office late, maybe get in a rushed workout, get home by 8:30-9:00, wolf down some dinner, fall asleep in front of the TV, have weird dreams because you went to bed on a full stomach (does that happen to you, too?), collapse on Friday night, run errands and do wash on Saturday, look forward to your 1-2 weeks of vacation every year, and 40 more years of that. OK, so not everyone's life looks like that, but more than just a few are living in that rut.
THE GOOD LIFE Granted, not everyone lives a life like that, but more than just a few do. My life is very different, and at some point early in my fourth year, I started realizing how good I actually had it. I'd be out and about and people would ask me how things were. I'd reply, "Everything is wonderful actually." Of course, they'd do a double take, since they couldn't remember the last time someone said that. Most people don't even want to hear about it. But, you know what? If I can do it, you can do it. Get used to hearing that mantra throughout this book.
PICTURE YOURSELF IN THE PICTURE So, what's the first step? Well, it's the thing that most people have the hardest time with: imagining it. That's right. They can't picture themselves in the setting. Oh sure, they'd really like to have a lifestyle like that, and if they're blowing the candles out on their birthday cake and the thought crossed their mind, they'd certainly wish for it, but they don't see it as a real possibility for them. It's some out-of-reach thing that other people get to do, but not them. After all, a job is a job. It's not supposed to be fulfilling. That would be almost un-American, right?
I remember many years back, reading a comment from Robert Allen, the Nothing Down real estate guru. He was talking about why most people won't ever be wealthy. It wasn't that they weren't smart enough or capable of making it happen. Many millionaires never even finished high school. Just about anyone is capable. But where it breaks down, according to him, is that most people just can't imagine themselves being wealthy. It's just not a picture they can conjure up for their lives. And boy, they sure have a lot of company. A whole bunch of other people who will also never get very far towards realizing their fondest dreams.
So, imagining that you can make it real for your life is Step One. For some of you who've owned other businesses, this may not be that much of a stretch. For others, who've only worked for others, and are very used to that steady paycheck, the routine, the commute, the office, the cubicle, the office politics (I know how attached you are to that…) day after week after month after year, and essentially having someone taking care of you, it could be tougher.
Yet, the fact that you're reading this tells me that you're motivated to make a change in your life. Here's the good news. If you can get the mental side of this equation handled, you're halfway there. Not that it's going to be a breeze. Not true. No 'get rich quick' schemes here. But at least you won't be subconsciously sabotaging yourself because you can't quite picture yourself in the role.
HOW DID I GET STARTED? I'd love to tell you some wonderfully heart-warming story about how I knew I wanted to be a freelance commercial writer from the time I was crawling. How I rewrote the endings to Dr. Suess at age five, walked around the house at age 8, coming up with new jingles for Mrs. Paul's Fishsticks and Durkee canned onion rings. Or that I revamped the Boy Scout manual at 12 and at 17, submitted suggested revisions of my high school history book to Prentice-Hall. Alas, not so. I did take one journalism course in both high school and college and at 15, did write a column covering little league baseball for three local newspapers in my little tri-town community on the North Shore of Massachusetts. That's it. Impressive, huh?
From Zero Experience… I'd never been a writer before I started this business. I had no industry background and no advertising agency experience. I was a Russian Studies major in college. I had no contacts in the industry, no client list. Nada. Zippo. Zilch. Given all that, while my success certainly says something about me, it says just as much about the accessibility of the opportunity. In my case, I just found that in any job I'd held over the years, I gravitated to the few writing tasks that did crop up -- an occasional letter or little brochure -- and typically got good feedback from those around me. Do we have anything in common there?
All in all, there was very little in my past to refer to. Just that I'd decided that this was the next step in my life journey that I wanted to take, and I had a sense that I was a good enough writer and a good enough marketer to be successful. So, if you're thinking about this field and have no formal experience or writing background, rest assured, it's no hindrance. And as you'll also undoubtedly be delighted to discover along the way here, I'm not a super disciplined, aggressive, or technically-savvy guy and yet, I've done quite well.
BENNIES OF SELF-EMPLOYMENT It's almost heresy these days to suggest that someone under the age of 65 could take time to really enjoy life -- everyday, in simple ways -- and that's awfully sad. OK, I'm exaggerating a little, but not much and you know it. In this ultra high-performance, waste-no-time, keep-moving, always-be-producing world of ours, there's this not-so-subtle mindset continuously operating that frowns on you if you're not crankin' 16 hours a day. While few of the people doing the crankin' seem very happy about it, they nonetheless want you to be just as buried.
I read a wonderful Spanish proverb in a collection of stories on Spain, in the Traveler's Tales series. Each story dropped you into a strange and wonderful world, where you could truly see, hear, smell, taste, and feel a different reality. A place where people lived -- and more importantly, thought -- very differently than we do. I walked away from the book -- and from any foreign travel I've done as well -- appreciating the fact that the way we do things in this country isn't the only way, the right way or the best way. Just a way. The line went: "Que bonito es no hacer nada, y luego descansar." Translation: "How beautiful it is do nothing, and then rest afterward". I love it. Of course, say it to most Americans, and their eyes will glaze over. They don't get it at all. It's a sentiment that's totally, completely, absolutely incompatible with our work ethic in this country.
OUR "BUSYNESS" CULTURE Being busy has become a badge of honor in our culture. And not just busy, but moving at Mach 4 with your hair on fire from sunup to way past sundown. Not having enough time to do basic life stuff, not to mention personal time for fun, has in some twisted way, become a welcome point of commiseration for many. And even though they're unhappy living like that, they'll actually feel superior to those who aren't nearly so overbooked, concluding that they're not really "players." For many people, it's important to be viewed as a 'hard-charger' by their peers.
A SUCCESSFUL "SLACKER" With a career as a freelance commercial writer (FLCW), you can craft a healthy income and a lifestyle that when compared to our crazy societal paradigm, may at times, look somewhat "slack" or "lazy." That's probably the most wonderful thing about the business and can be one of the most challenging to deal with, if you happen to be -- as psychologists would put it -- "other-directed." If you've played that game long enough and you're over it, here's a great way to start crafting a life like you've imagined. But it's funny, when you have a light week, and you're at the gym or at a movie matinee in the middle of the day, it's sometimes difficult to not start feeling like a slug. Old programming dies hard. Can you tell I'm not a Type A personality? Never have been and you know what? Don't let anyone tell you that success will only come to those who are.
If you are a Type A, no problem. You can be just as much of a workaholic in this business as any. The only difference is that because you're paid in direct proportion to your efforts, you'll probably make more money and have less hassles than you would trying it in corporate America. You probably know plenty of people who are making $50K out there and in return for being paid such a 'princely' sum, their company pretty much expects more or less constant donations of blood, sweat and tears to the cause. Might you be one?
Remember the scenario I described at the beginning of the chapter? $2000+ for a relatively light week (30 hrs.) by society's standards. And I'll have even lighter weeks, like writing one medium brochure and a few headlining projects, which might net me $1200. 50 of those even lighter weeks means about 60K a year, and with enough time to do everything else you might want to do.
HOW MUCH IS ENOUGH? OK, so 60K isn't all the money in the world, but would you be happy with it, especially with the time to really enjoy life? You want to work harder and make more -- say 100K? You can absolutely do it in this business -- and probably working a lot less than you would in other businesses. It's your choice, and that's the key. No one is limiting your income…but you. I happen to like that arrangement and if you try it for a few years, I'm sure you'll agree with me.
And no, you probably won't have a lifestyle like this right out of the gate. But hey, bust your rear just as hard for someone else for three years, and where will you be? More money and less time to enjoy it? And even if that isn't the case, the more relevant issue is: Are you doing what really turns you on? Might writing be the thing that would? If so, you can't put a price tag on that. It only took me about 4 months to become self-sufficient and awfully close to the point I'm at now by the end of year two.
By self-sufficiency, I mean paying my bills, doing it full-time (i.e. no moonlighting as waiter, telemarketer, or aluminum siding salesman), and accepting no large cash infusions from anyone. When you get to the point where you've created such a lifestyle, which you then proceed to describe to your friends, while you're likely to catch some grief about being lazy, I promise you their overwhelming sentiment will be jealousy. Their idea of paradise is having a day to themselves to catch up on stuff. Meanwhile, your idea of paradise is a weekend cruise.
SIMPLE, REPEATABLE SYSTEMS I've written this book as a realistic guide to approaching this business. And here's what I mean by "realistic": Given that we're all human beings, and as such, have a rather substantial lazy, slug-like, always-looking-for-the-easy-way-out streak in us, I didn't want to write a book that would make becoming a freelance commercial writer seem akin to climbing Mt. Everest. Because if I did, you'd finish the book -- maybe -- and it would become just another one of those things you checked out but never did anything about. And let me say this about my profession. As businesses go, this business is a lot easier than most to get off the ground. A 20-year veteran freelance commercial writer says, "I know of no other area of writing that is so lucrative yet so easy to get started in." And like any undertaking, you can approach it with varying degrees of intensity and consequently, achieve varying degrees of success.
However, with an emphasis on simple, repeatable systems, I believe I've created a strategy for operating this business that achieves the best of both worlds -- potential for healthy success without killing yourself to get there -- and in many ways, epitomizes the concept, "Work smarter, not harder." Bottom line, you can work this business as hard as you want to (Type A's can be just as slammed here as in any profession) and I'll show you how to do that, if that's what you want. If however, you're like me and prefer to have a life and make a solid living, I can show you how to do that, too
. IT'S CLOSER THAN YOU THINK Some might ask, "Why did you choose to write this book after less than four years at it? Wouldn't most people put a decade or two in before writing a how-to book?" Well, I suppose some would. But I wanted to do it now for one simple reason: To show people that one can achieve a healthy measure of success in this business in a reasonably short period of time. And we're talking less than four years here. Way less.
Have you ever gone to a how-to seminar, where the speaker has been doing whatever they're talking about for 15-20 years? How intimidating can that be? If you're brand new to something, and you're confronted with an double-decade expert, you might just feel like it's going to take you forever to reach even a fraction of the success that they've had. No wonder they're successful, you say, they've been at it for most of their lives. I want you to feel like this is an accessible and "within-reach" opportunity, because it is. I'm living proof that you don't need tons of related experience to make it happen.
In that regard, you may be that much ahead of the game. If you're coming from a specific field -- such as healthcare, financial services, real estate, retail, hi-tech -- and don't mind the idea of writing about that field, that's a huge plus. That's how many people get their start. They may eventually transition into writing for other fields, but why not establish a solid business base writing about what you already know and using years of established contacts? You can always move into other arenas down the road. Nothing is forever.
WHAT'S YOUR STORY? OK, so why are you considering this direction? Perhaps, you're simply looking to change careers, take a completely new direction with your life. You've always felt you're a good writer and now you want to put that skill to work. Great. That's my story.
An In-house Writer? Perhaps you're currently collecting a steady paycheck as a staff writer for a large company but looking to make the transition to self-employment. While you may have an advantage over the "never-written-for-money" masses in terms of grasping the rhythm, pace, and discipline of the craft, you're still looking for a roadmap to self-sufficiency. This can get you there.
Journalist? Might you be a journalist or news reporter who loves the business of writing but longs to make more money and have more freedom than you currently enjoy? A former journalist turned business owner shared these thoughts with me:
"Professional journalists get a lot of practice at making ideas easy to understand. However, because of low pay and often terrible working conditions, most want to make a career change within a few years of graduating. With their experience at expressing ideas in a clear, concise, logical manner, they are very well positioned to escape the shackles of poverty and earn $50-$85+ an hour in the freelance commercial writing market…[where] there is a huge demand for good, solid, coherent writing skills."
Restless Mom? Maybe you're a stay-at-home mom who would love to have a flexible, lucrative business on the side that meshes nicely with motherhood. If you were in advertising, marketing, or PR in your last life, this can be a perfect fit. Or perhaps, as previously discussed, you can leverage your past career experience -- healthcare, financial services, real estate, hi-tech, telecommunications, retail -- and seek writing projects in your former field. Given your familiarity with the field and your established contact network, you can make your life dramatically easier out of the gate.
New College Grad? Or perhaps you're a recent college graduate, looking for a solid career opportunity. Having little professional experience will make it a little tougher, but if you're smart, hardworking and you follow this game plan, there's nothing to say you couldn't pull it off.
IT'S ABOUT BUSINESS-BUILDING What are we going to cover along the way? While we'll spend one chapter near the end delving into the stylistic side of writing -- how to actually write certain kinds of projects -- the main focus of this book is not on how to write, but how to build a freelance commercial writing business from nothing other than your vision. I'm making a certain assumption here and that is that you wouldn't be reading this book unless you felt that you were a pretty decent writer already (but rest assured, you do not have to be a great writer to make it), but that you just need some guidance into parlaying that ability into a lucrative profession. Since there are plenty of books and courses around on improving your writing style and ability, I'll let them pick up the slack in those arenas.
I'll be sharing with you my reflections and experiences in building a successful business. These aren't the right answers or only answers, just some things that have worked for me. Take on what works for you and don't use what doesn't. But know that this is one very solid trail to follow if you want to build a business of your own. Do I do everything I suggest in this book religiously? No. If I did, would I make a lot more money than I currently am? Absolutely. If you followed these guidelines to the letter, would you earn a healthier living than I am? I'd bet on it.
So, what else can I tell you before we get into it? I hope you enjoy the journey and take some real value away with you. Subscribing to the idea that learning not only can but must be fun, I've tried to make it light and readable. And if you actually use this book to launch a new career for yourself, well, that would be just about the coolest thing I could possibly imagine.
OK, time to get into the nitty-gritty: What exactly does a FLCW do? And what -- besides the fabulous lifestyle I've just described, in case that wasn't enough -- are the reasons why this is a solid career direction? And yes, what are the downsides of this business? There are a few, but nothing too serious. With these questions rolling around in our minds, let's move on to our next chapter…
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