Writing for a living can be challenging, but also incredibly rewarding. This article explores the portfolio approach to writing for a living; allowing you to develop a realistic and balanced approach to your freelance writing career.
If you are keen to earn money from your writing efforts, it pays to adopt an imaginative, open-minded approach.
After 15 years living hand-to-mouth as a full-time writer Elizabeth McGregor has landed a staggering £1 million contract for her latest novel, The Ice Child.
'£1 million contract for author Elizabeth', Julia Gough, The Writer's Forum, Oct/Nov 2001
To be a successful freelance author, earning your entire living from writing, requires careful planning and an open-mind. As most of us are never going to land a million pound deal, and don't relish the idea of living 'hand-to-mouth' for years, it is worth taking the time to get this right. Earning a decent living as a writer is not easy - it requires flexibility, persistence and self-belief. As Elizabeth McGregor explains:
I was a full-time writer but living very much hand-to-mouth and I could paper the house with the rejection slips I had. I know how people feel who are trying to break in and you really do have to stick with it. You need a skin like a rhinoceros and keep on keeping on - eventually miracles happen and it could be just around the corner.
In a January 2002 article, Time for Change (Writing Magazine) Peter Kinsley noted:
...61 percent of members of the Society of Authors earn less than £10,000 pa, 46 percent earn less than £5000, and 75 percent earn less than £20,000 which is under the average wage of £20,919.
One of the greatest problems faced by freelancers is maintaining a steady income - there tends to be periods of both feast and famine: 'feast' when the income from a big project finally comes in, 'famine' when you are working on something new. Many markets pay very little - especially local and small circulation publications, typical 'start-up' markets for new authors - so when you first start out writing it is often very much a labour of love. You can improve cash flow by increasing your speed and your flow of ideas. No waiting for the muse to strike when you are trying to earn a living from your writing; you will achieve best results if you treat writing just like any other job - stick to office hours and don't be distracted by friends who call round for coffee, that horrible pile of washing up in the sink, or even a tetchy letter from the bank! When you are writing, you are working, and everything else can be dealt with in your lunch break or after office hours, just as it would be if you were going out to work.
You can also help to even out your income by adopting a 'portfolio' approach to your writing. Essentially this means planning a range of small, medium and long-term projects that between them help to produce a fairly regular, year-round income:
Small projects - can provide a baseline weekly income that covers essentials. These are 'bread and butter' projects, and might include things like a regular news or nature column for the local newspaper or a star sign column, depending on your interests. Local radio stations also often use short pieces, such as talks or local stories (although be prepared for the fact that you will probably be asked to record your own piece). Other quickies include 'letters to editors' and 'viewpoint' pieces, as well as contributions to the 'tips and hints' or 'recipe' sections of magazines - many of these pay an enticing small fee for relatively little work.
Medium term projects - include one-off features, interviews and personal experience stories, radio short stories, magazine fiction and short radio drama. They might also include writing educational material, advertising blurb for local companies, or company reports, in-house newsletters or even manuals. Some authors also work in schools, universities or colleges as 'resident or visiting writer'.
Long-term projects - are those that take 6 months or more to complete. They might include novels, non-fiction books, a major piece of radio or television drama, or larger advertising or educational projects. Some of the suggestions in this list might have surprised you, but they illustrate the importance of flexibility and an imaginative approach. Don't dismiss advertising and educational work, which is often comparatively well-paid and surprisingly interesting, unless you are confident that you can earn the money you need from other sources.
A Professional Approach
Be prepared to adopt a businesslike approach to your writing. Your presentation of work should be spot on - remember that headed paper and business cards are an expression of your professional approach and the writing service you can offer clients. Take time to get these small details just right as they can make all the difference to the client's lasting impression of your writing service. Also be prepared to be imaginative in your approach to sales. Many companies have PR or educational departments that make regular use of freelance authors - help to ensure that you are at the top of the list by sending them top quality, well-designed advertising literature that they will want to keep on their desk:
Quality is an expression of service and approach. It doesn't necessarily mean the most expensive brochure or application letter - it is the one that catches the eye and the imagination that will stay on my desk. If a writer has the vision to produce material of this sort, I imagine they also have the vision to bring originality to the projects I give them.