Please Welcome Katie Rose Guest Pryal, a reviewer here at Underground Book Reviews and a successful freelance writer! She will be talking (with style, of course) about the ups and downs of making a living as a writer in her new column, "Pryal Style." Stay tuned for more stories, tips and tricks!
But the course taught me so much more than the genre of the freelance story pitch.
As I worked to make a career as a freelance writer, I was coming to learn that you can’t actually feed your family on the bagels that online venues pay for your pieces. Slate pays $100. Chronicle of Higher Ed. pays $300. The Atlantic pays $100. This info is crowd-sourced and public. Check it out: whopays.scratchmag.net. Like I said. Bagels.
But one component of the course I took consisted of interviews with freelance writers talking about how they actually made a living. The interviewees simply listed where their money came from each month. Their lists weren't sexy, but they were real, and they made me feel so much better about my chances of actually making it. The interviewees also provided really practical tips about how to make your money work as a freelance writer, when pay might be downright unpredictable.
So I’m here to tell you that you can make a living as a writer, but you (might) have to let go of some notions of what “making a living as a writer” means.
Now, I know my audience here at UBR: we’re independent and small-press writers who know how to hustle. That means we already have a serious competitive advantage. Making the money work as a full-time freelance writer is 90% hustle and 10% luck. And that 10% luck? You can hustle to get your hands on that, too.
Let’s start with that quote from Curtis Sittenfeld up there. What’s she saying? How do we think about writers in our society? How do we think about freelance writers?
The point she’s trying to make is that a freelance writer is a certain thing in people’s minds, something that isn’t worth the awe that, say, a novelist garners, certainly not the awe that a novelist who went to Iowa for her MFA and wrote Prep garners. Sittenfeld is saying that freelance writers are a known commodity, a commodity that isn’t as fancy as a novelist.
Here’s the thing: We’re all freelance writers. I just sold my first novel to a publisher. The chances of my novel becoming a best seller are low—we all know those odds. But I’m a novelist. Right? So that changes everything, right? I’m not a freelance writer any more, right?
Wrong. False. Incorrect.
I’m always going to be a freelance writer, with multiple income streams from writing, whether I publish one novel or ten. And to think otherwise is to shoot my money in the foot.
First, I will continue to publish articles in magazines. Second, I will continue to work on my textbooks—prior to selling my novel, I’d self-published one textbook and conventionally published four others. Textbooks are hit-or-miss as far as income streams go, but I’ve had one hit so far, and textbooks are one of the ways I make my freelance income. Third, I will continue to do editing work—because, as we all know, rewriting is writing. I do developmental editing projects for pay (not very often, but they’re satisfying and keep my brain sharp). And here’s the kicker--all of this work that I do is writing.
I am a novelist. I am a freelance writer. I’m an editor. These identities are not mutually exclusive. In fact, the opposite is true. They are symbiotic.
So what about you?
We all have different talents that we can share with the world. The first step is figuring out what yours are—and what yours are not. For example, I am a terrible, horrible, no good and very bad copyeditor. My copyediting skills are literally the worst. When I do developmental editing, in my proposals, I specifically state that the services I will be providing do not include copyediting. But copyediting might be your jam. (If that is the case, you should email me by the way because I have a textbook I need to introduce you to.) Start networking. Get copyediting gigs.
Say you are excellent at assessing websites. Like, you go to a website and in five seconds you can tell not only why it is terrible but how it could be better. The fonts make your eyes bleed. The words are a mess. You have some sort of mastery of web design and content that is a gift. Guess what? You are a freelance writer who specializes in web content—did you know that? Now you do. Go take some of that hustle I described earlier in this column and figure out how freelance web content writers get work.
Go make a living as a writer.
And here’s where the unexpected enters this crazy plan I’m suggesting: That writing you do for websites? That editing you do, sharpening their language to better meet the needs of their audiences? That writing on a deadline, even when you don’t want to, because if you don’t write you won’t get paid? All that freelance writing that you will be doing?
If you can make web content that you are paid to write glisten, imagine what you can do with your fiction. Freelance writing isn’t sexy, but it can pay the bills. And it's going to make you a better novelist, too.
Katie Rose Guest Pryal is an author and freelance writer who covers health, higher education, motherhood, and careers, though not necessarily together. She’s active on Twitter (@krgpryal) and her blog (http://katieroseguestpryal.com).