How I’m failing at freelance writing

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It often occurs to me that I lead a double life. On the one hand, I have the job I’ve always dreamed about: I can honestly tell people that I am a writer living in Paris. On the other hand, I make little or sometimes even no money per month. It’s a career I’m only able to have thanks to being in a two-income household, and living in a country with socialized healthcare and low-cost, government-sponsored daycare and benefits for parents.

Of course, the mythic status of being a writer in Paris usually goes hand in hand with poverty. My heroes, including Henry Miller, Hemingway, and George Orwell, were often in pretty dire circumstances before they made it big. Others, who remain mainly as mentions in memoirs by those I’ve just named, never made it big.

I wouldn’t have minded living that life, if I’d been prepared for it. But when I started freelancing full-time in 2013, there was a world that spread out alluringly before me: The Internet, with its seemingly endless prospects for a writer, whether it’s pitching stories to respected (and seemingly well-paying) publications, or taking on ghostwriting or copywriting gigs.

“You’ll be making at least five figures in about three years,” a good friend and fellow freelancer told me when I started.

She’s not the only one I heard something like that from. Just about any freelancing-related blog you read, any website you consult, will tell you that many, or even most, people make a comfortable living in our profession. Some are even wildly successful at it.

“You just have to work hard and know how to manage your time” seems to be one of the biggest “rules”. But I do both and am still not living the high life of a successful freelancer.

Another “rule” is “You have to find regular clients, at least to start with.” That one makes sense. But as much sense as it makes, it’s not as easy as it seems.

In my three years as a full-time freelance writer, I’ve answered countless job ads and calls for submissions, pitched to numerous websites and other publications, contacted potential clients, and even cold called companies and websites to find regular work. It has yielded positive results, on occasion. But still I find myself in a situation of instability.

For one thing, even regular clients can be unpredictable. Maybe their company goes under, or they decide to go into other work and no longer need your services. Finding regular clients to replace them isn’t easy, especially in a job market saturated with other freelance writers. Some of them are better or more qualified than you, or have more publishing credits. Some are pretty much the same as you. Some are worse.

Many come from developing countries where a dollar goes a lot farther than it will for you (especially if you’re a writer in Paris, where the dollar isn’t as strong as the euro).

There are no standard rates in freelancing, at least nothing the average client knows and expects. So they see an experienced, talented writer asking a reasonable, or even lower-than-reasonable rate for a job, and then they see someone else offering to do the job at a price that seems much more interesting. If you’ve ever tried to find work on sites like Upwork, you’ll know what I’m talking about. It’s not uncommon for a client to offer $5 for someone to ghostwrite an entire novel for them — and someone will take the job. Often, even clients who give you a byline either can’t or won’t pay decent rates.

So, work for respectable, established clients only, you might be thinking. But many well-known websites and print publications that get tons of traffic/readers and ad revenue also pay very little. Many established businesses and wealthy clients aren’t much better. They’re wealthy for a reason; they know when they can get away with not spending too much money.

Reading all this, you may think freelancers today are bound to fail. Luckily, that’s not the case. I know freelancers who’ve actually flourished. But no matter how close I am to them (and some I genuinely consider friends), they’re rarely forthcoming with advice. They’re not being mean, and maybe if I really pressed them for answers, they’d share more. But this is a business where even articles boldly bearing titles like “How to Be a Successful Freelance Writer” never really give you more than vague advice. And I understand; with the job market being what it is for us, of course people would try to protect their hard-earned secrets and successes.

I realize, too, that there are probably ways to play the system, strategies I could find, that I just don’t know about or am for some reason unable to do.

Saddest of all, even as I write this, I realize that while I’m not the most successful freelancer out there, I’m also not the least successful. I have had and do have regular clients, I have some decent writing credits, I have gotten some impressive paychecks.

Like many of my colleagues, I think I may fall victim to the allure of our job: the assumption that if you’re doing this and getting any kind of work, it must be paying well. On my old blog on Open Salon (RIP), I once posted a piece about ghostwriting. Many of the comments from fellow writers showed they thought I must be making bank at my job. I rushed to clarify that no, that wasn’t the case. I don’t want to perpetuate the myth. At the same time, did I lay everything out on the table? Did I tell them the average amount I make per ghostwriting job, for example? Nope. I didn’t want to risk a potential client coming upon the post — because after all, that impression of success can be helpful. It makes me wonder how many of us aren’t that financially successful at all, but can’t afford not to seem so.

Why do I keep freelancing? Because I love what I do, and don’t want to give up on this dream. But at times like this, when I look at the next few weeks and see almost nothing on my work calendar, when I look through the online job boards, the random gigs, the calls for submissions, the enthusiastic “Write for us!” offers you find on some sites, and find nothing for me (or nothing that pays enough), when I reach out to clients and contacts and find that no one currently needs me to write anything for them, I feel as cold as the rainy Paris night outside my window.

I’m writing this to show other freelancers who aren’t making a living at what they do, that they’re not alone.

And to be honest, I’m also wondering if maybe someone out there will be so fed up with my bitching that they’ll throw out a few tips and ideas. Again, I’m not a novice; I’ve been freelancing to some degree for the last ten years or so. I do have both regular and one-time/occasional clients, and have had some decent jobs, bylines, and paychecks. I manage my time well, am motivated, and always turn in assignments on or well before deadline. I’m negotiable when it comes to my rates, and tend to lowball, rather than charge higher fees, even if I think I could get away with it. So none of that seems to be the issue.

If you’re a successful freelance writer and can think of what I might be doing wrong, or something else I could do to make things right, care to break the silence and share?

is a writer & worrier. She lives in Paris with an eccentric Frenchman, a clever toddler, & a charming cat. Besides them, she loves books, travel, & cookies.

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