Whenever I get asked what I do for a living, the answer of being a writer evokes two main responses. Either I get a polite nod, which means they consider my answer somewhat above “bank robber” but below “actually employed” or I get an eager look from somebody who wants to know how to become a writer. This is usually followed by a
request to read something, often a poem.
Being a writer is a form of gainful employment. Would-be writers generally ask me questions about writing. I am almost never asked questions about the business of writing.
The business of writing separates the sheep from the goats. A writer who sees her writing as a business can actually make money in the field, even pretty decent money. A writer who sees her work as her passion, her creative outlet, or her hobby generally does not make money.
Writers who want to support themselves writing need to stop thinking and talking about writing and focus on the business.
How to Sell Your Work
If you want to earn a living as a writer, you have to sell what you’ve written. One way to do this is to get a job at a corporation as a writer. You may not realize it, but most large corporations (and many smaller businesses) have full-time writers on staff. You may wind up writing manuals or reports or brochures or web content, but you can write for a living.
Just about any organization that puts words on paper, whether in shareholder newsletters, annual reports, product manuals, ads, strategic plans, and so on has a need for writers.
Freelance writers can also write for businesses but instead of being on staff, they work from their own office. Some companies contract writers to do writing work on-site for specific durations or projects.
Landing freelance assignments from businesses can be pretty lucrative work but you have to know what you’re doing. Businesses tend to be sort of humorless about deadlines and quality of work. A freelancer working for businesses needs to maintain regular office hours, answer the phone professionally (don’t let your toddler grab the
phone before you), and have all of the equipment businesses expect. This means you need e-mail, business phone, and fax line. It doesn’t hurt to have a website, even if it’s just basically a business card online.
To start looking for work at businesses you should first try to network. Referrals are a great way to get jobs, but you need to start telling people about your services. It’s easy to start with folks you know. From there, expand into people whose contact information you can get.
You can prepare a simple mailing with a letter introducing yourself and your services and contact information. Send it out to businesses in the fields you’d like to work for. Mention any special expertise, training, or background you have.
As an example, let’s assume you have written a newsletter for a dentist in your town; you can contact other dentists or physicians and tell them about your writing expertise in this “specialty.” With the Internet, you don’t need to be local anymore. If you can get permission from the dentist, send out some copies as samples to show off your
work (called “clips”).
What if you’re just starting out and don’t have a specialty? It’s easy to get one. Just start writing. Contribute material to local newsletters, the local paper, and websites in your field. Notice I said “contribute.” You increase your odds of getting published if you give this stuff away. That’s good business sense because you need published clips.
Want to write about financial services? Start by writing anything and everything you can on the subject for free, save up the clips, and then prepare a letter and mailing with your best work to attract business clients.
Writing for business can be done for a flat rate or by the hour. A flat rate works well if you know the exact scope of what you’re doing. Since many businesses can make changes on the fly, even changing the direction or scope of the project, an hourly rate is often used instead.
Where else can you sell your writing? Magazines, newspapers, and websites are all hungry for content. But don’t just throw something at a magazine and wonder why they don’t publish it.
Always analyze the publication before you submit or suggest anything. For instance, you wouldn’t want to submit an article on “World’s Worst Airline Disasters” to an in-flight magazine. If you can’t get a handle on the magazine or newspaper, look at the other articles and the advertisers. If you see a magazine with lots and lots of cigarette ads,
you won’t get far with a piece on the dangers of smoking.
The better you can fit your offering to the publication, the more likely you are to make a sale. For instance, one of the first articles I sold was a story about how and where teachers could change careers. I sold it to a free newspaper published by a local employment agency. It sold not because it was some great literary masterpiece but it was
a great fit. The newspaper was actively seeking people who wanted to get a new job. What better story than one aimed at disgruntled teachers seeking a new line of work?
What Doesn’t Sell?
You’ll notice I have not mentioned writing fiction, poetry, or plays. J. K. Rowling notwithstanding, you can’t make money writing those things. This is not to say no one makes money in those fields. Of course that’s not true. The hard truth of the matter is theartistic forms of writing, including fiction, are highly competitive fields that have very
high barriers to entry for unknown writers. There aren’t many publishers actively seeking new and unpublished writers. Your odds are better playing the lottery.
If your dream is to write a novel, that’s great. But don’t call it a business, at least not until you’ve sold your novel. I don’t discourage such activities, but it is not the same thing as having a real business.
You can make a living as a writer. Actually, the Internet has opened up so many new business opportunities for all kinds of entrepreneurs, but no one is better poised to take advantage of some of these opportunities than a savvy and adventurous business-minded writer. This means that a writer today can write something and sell it directly to his or he reader and not bother with the whole traditional publication ordeal.
Again, this works best for nonfiction. In fact, the online world is always looking for lots of practical how-to content. How do you fight a speeding ticket? Improve your credit score? Get the best deal on a time-share in Florida? Today, a business-minded writer can prepare a book, publish it (either electronically or using a cost-efficient digital printer) and sell it directly to people who are interested in that particular subject.
In fact, there may never have been brighter times for an ardent, business-minded writer willing to make a living from non-fiction.
Meanwhile, if you want to write poetry, a great drama, or an award-winning novel, those are wonderful ambitions. They are laudable, and you may even get rich and famous. But the real business of writing belongs to those who translate the existing opportunity into action.
About the Author
Ready to take plunge into Internet writing? Don’t dive in till you check out
http://www.workingonlinewriter.com , about the only site by a writer for writers about the
Internet. This article was written by Jo Ann LeQuang, whose own freelance writing
business can be visited at http://www.LeQMedical.com .