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Beyond Your Blog: Freelancing, Getting Paid to Write, and Writing for Free

Many of you are growing as writers and seek opportunities beyond your blog. To continue this conversation, let’s talk about freelancing and getting paid to write, and the flip side of this: writing for free and exposure.

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Many of you are growing as writers and seek opportunities beyond your blog. To continue this conversation, let’s talk about freelancing and getting paid to write, and the flip side of this: writing for free and exposure. We’ve rounded up four working writers who offer different perspectives on the business of writing:

  • Julie Schwietert Collazo, a bilingual writer/editor who has written for publications such as National Geographic Traveler and Scientific American, blogs at Cuaderno Inedito.
  • Caitlin Kelly, a National Magazine Award winner and frequent contributor to the New York Times, blogs at Broadside.
  • Kristen Hansen Brakeman, a writer who has contributed to the Washington Post and the New York TimesMotherlode, blogs at KristenBrakeman.com.
  • Deborah Lee Luskin, an award-winning novelist and radio commentator, blogs at Live to Write — Write to Live: a collaborative blog for the New Hampshire Writers’ Network.


Give us a breakdown of your typical day.

Julie: There’s never really a “typical” day, which is one of the reasons why I love being a writer. I have several assignments I’m working on simultaneously, and each demands a different set of skills or has different requirements. One might involve conducting a phone interview; another may involve extensive reading for research purposes. Ultimately, it involves spending a lot of time at the computer.

I get to exercise control over the shape and form of my days. I have two children, and I appreciate having a job that allows me to do what I love (write) and be a parent who is fully involved in their lives and with them all the time.

Caitlin: Every day is different. I start by reading the New York Times. I listen to BBC World News or two great WNYC radio shows, The Brian Lehrer Show and The Leonard Lopate Show, from which I get story ideas and learn about the world.

I start work by 10:00 am — I’m not a morning person! If I’m working on a story, and usually several at once, I’m seeking sources, conducting interviews, writing, reading, or revising the pieces and answering questions from my editors.

Setting boundaries between work and the rest of my life allows me to come back to it refreshed and recharged.

– Caitlin Kelly

Like most working writers, I spend a lot of time marketing my skills to new clients and checking in with former ones to see if they can use me again. I research story ideas to gather enough detail to pitch them. I pitch ideas to editors and check in on earlier pitches. I also work on longer-term projects, like ideas for nonfiction books, fellowships, and travel.

I end my workday by 4:00 or 5:00 pm and turn off the computer. Setting boundaries between work and the rest of my life allows me to come back to it refreshed and recharged.

Kristen: Oh no, here’s where the truth comes out. If I’m lucky, I’ll have showered and restored order to my house by 10:00 am and then, if I can find nothing else I “need” to do, I’ll sit down at the computer and start writing. I work on essays or on a script I’ve been rewriting for years — one that I probably should’ve let die a peaceful death — and I take time-outs to check Facebook and Twitter and read the headlines. These breaks help me stay current, and doing self-promotion on social media is work.

Deborah: I get to my desk by 8:00 am, and I start with NAMS: I narrate the state of my mind onto the page, followed by affirmations. Then I meditate, at which point my mind is clear and still for a Single Task, which these days means working on my novel, Ellen: The Autobiography of Jane Austen by Ellen Wasserman.

I work on my novel till lunch. Ideally, after lunch I go on a walk, then return to my desk to write radio commentaries, editorials, or other paying work. In reality, I often run errands, attend meetings, and do chores.

Right now, I’m in that sweet spot where I’m finishing a novel, and I often return to it in the afternoons.


How do you divide your time between paid and unpaid writing?

Julie: This “balance,” such as it is, shifts, but generally the unpaid writing takes a back seat. I have lots of blog post drafts and they’re about topics that interest me and that I think are important, but I have to give priority to editors and publishers who are paying for work to be delivered on deadline.

Caitlin: It’s all one big messy pile of work: some paid, some for my own use. I write a blog post or two in the middle of a workday as a break; I always have at least three or four revised, copy-edited, and ready to publish.

I don’t really do any “personal writing.” I focus on earning income — I live near New York City and our costs, and taxes, are high. I don’t have “passion projects” either. I find a way to fund something that intrigues me, or I set it aside until I can. The only unpaid work I do is my volunteer work for the Writers Emergency Assistance Fund, and my book proposals.

I have to give priority to editors and publishers who are paying for work to be delivered on deadline.

– Julie Schwietert Collazo

Kristen: I’ve only been paid for a handful of articles, and because I work freelance at an actual paying job and have a supportive husband who also works, I have the luxury of writing without the pressure of immediately needing to make money.

I divide my time by spending a week or two on long-term projects, like polishing my screenplay or book, and then spend the next week on writing essays or blog posts. I’m hopeful that this approach will eventually pay off in buckets of gold.

Deborah: Writing fiction comes first, even though it doesn’t pay — yet. I do my pen-for-hire work in the afternoon.

When I was more concerned with income than I am now, I was lucky and found freelancing jobs through networking. It helped that I had three salable skills: good writing ability, research skills, and medical knowledge. I did a lot of technical writing for major medical centers that was both interesting and lucrative. Now, jobs come to me, and I only take those that both interest me and pay well.


What’s your take on writing for free?

Julie: I’m not an advocate of writing for free. Most outlets who want writers to write for free (I’m looking at you, Huffington Post) have money to provide some form of remuneration for the service they’re seeking, and they’re making money off of the writing they’re not paying for.

The write-for-free model establishes a precedent that isn’t encouraging for those of us who want to write and get paid (namely, that both publishers and readers start getting accustomed to not having to pay for work). It ultimately devalues words — literally.

Caitlin: A few thoughts:

  1. If your work is truly excellent, people will pay you for it. If it’s not market-ready, do everything necessary to improve it.
  2. If you give your skills away, do so for a cause you believe in, not just some cheap-o profit-making enterprise.
  3. Giving your skills away to a for-profit enterprise devalues the notion of skill. And if you keep doing it, what effect is that having on your self-confidence — and your bank balance?
  4. If someone is unwilling to pay you for your work — even $25 as a token fee — what value, really, do they see in it? If they’re running any sort of business, they’re already paying cash for their electricity, groceries, and venti skim lattes. In the real economy, we use money.

I blog for free because I’m passionate about writing…and because it ultimately builds an audience for when my next novel comes out.

– Deborah Lee Luskin

Kristen: Writing for free is one of the many evils in today’s world. There was a piece in the New York Times by Tim Kreider, where he made the case that writers should insist on getting paid. It made sense for established writers, but wasn’t practical advice for unknowns in today’s internet-dominated world.  As I said in my piece in the Huffington Post, “Why I Write for Free,” literary agents and publishers want you to have a huge internet following before they’re willing to take a chance on you. If you’re not a celebrity or well-known, you have to build an audience, and often the only way to do this is to write for free.

Deborah: I’m a great believer in “Do what you love and the money will follow.” I’m a novelist, and my first novel won both critical acclaim and an award. I hope my next novel will earn money. Currently, I earn money by writing nonfiction and taking on private clients for developmental editing. I used to teach, but I’ve decided I’d rather have time to write than money. In a world where income is our default measure of success, this can be difficult.

That said, I blog for free because I’m passionate about writing; because it connects me to a community of writers; and because it ultimately builds an audience for when my next novel comes out. I also write for nonprofits I support, which beats baking brownies for bake sales: fewer calories, larger audience, and best of all — it keeps me at my desk.


What’s one piece of advice for writers thinking about “writing for exposure”?

Julie: If you get in the habit of “writing for exposure” early, then you’ll find ways to justify writing for exposure regularly. Write on your own blog if you want to write and develop your “brand” or identity for yourself…rather than someone else.

Caitlin: Don’t ever assume that “exposure” will bring you more work, more paid work, or greater respect for your skills when you ask for money next time.

Ask them: exposure to whom, how many of them, and for how long? Is this really your best audience or target market?

What value will this unpaid “exposure” bring you right now? Not in some gauzy, indefinite future. This week. What do you really hope this “exposure” will accomplish?

I’d say do it rarely and only for clearly defined strategic reasons — like getting your name, work, and ideas before a very large audience of specific clients or thought leaders you can’t reach any other way. (Really? Are you sure?)

Writers can’t be hermits anymore, waiting for someone to discover them.

– Kristen Hansen Brakeman

Kristen: It might be one of those things you have to do. Writers can’t be hermits anymore, waiting for someone to discover them. Sometimes I write things that are a little more straight just so I can get them published in mainstream news outlets. They’re not always my favorite pieces, but agents and publishers want to see those big credits. Even writing guest posts on smaller blogs can build your audience.

Deborah: I once met a writer who aimed to receive one hundred rejections in a year. In the process, he received eight acceptances.

Digital and self-publishing have made it so easy to publish that I think a lot of good writing never happens: new writers are impatient to see something in print and what goes out isn’t really finished. I think writing for peers is the first step, and then letters to the editor, guest posts, and newsletters are a good way to move forward. It’s important to distinguish between being published and being read.


Freelance writing resources

Recommendations on the business of writing, from our roundtable of writers:


About Julie Schwietert Collazo

julieJulie is a bilingual writer/editor who has written for a variety of publications, including National Geographic Traveler, DISCOVER, Scientific American, MS., and others. She is the author of Pope Francis in His Own Words and is the author of the forthcoming Moon Guide to New York State. Follow Julie on Twitter at @collazoprojects.

About Caitlin Kelly

caitlinCaitlin frequently writes for the New York Times, and has also written for Ladies Home JournalCosmopolitanMarie ClaireSmithsonian, and more. Winner of a Canadian National Magazine Award, she’s a former reporter for the Globe and MailMontreal Gazette, and New York Daily News. Follow Caitlin on Twitter at @CaitlinKellyNYC.

About Kristen Hansen Brakeman

kristenKristen Hansen Brakeman has had essays in the Huffington Post, the New York Times Motherlode, the Washington Post, Working Mother magazine, and LA Parent, among others. She works behind-the-scenes on TV variety shows like the Screen Actors Guild Awards, Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and Comedy Central Roasts. Follow Kristen on Twitter at @SandwichGenMom or on Facebook.

About Deborah Lee Luskin

Deborah Lee Luskin is a commentator for Vermont Public Radio and the award-winning novelist of Into the Wilderness. She a writer by vocation and a Vermonter by choice. Learn more at deborahleeluskin.com. Follow Deborah on Facebook.

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  1. Great tips and encouraging pointers. Illuminating points. Most importantly each writer looks fulfilled, happy and content in their photos at the end (you can’t fake these things) I think this says the most about writing. Life affirming!

    Liked by 2 people

  2. I’m with Kristen. I think writing for free is a necessary “evil,” especially for more inexperienced writers. I write full-time and I get paid for it, but I also spend a lot of time on my blog and occasionally writing free guest posts. I think it can be worthwhile, but you definitely have to be strategic about it. Don’t just write for anyone, and don’t just jump at the first unpaid request. Know who you’re writing for and how many readers you could potentially reach. Your payoff is the exposure and potential boost to your own blog and brand. There is worth in that.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Writing for free can be done in such a way that it benefits you in the end and that is possible when you have a Blog yourself that you would like to promote, meaning you can write for other bloggs as well which will mean Great SEO for your blog at the end of the day. Which means ultimately you have to investigate the blog that you are writing for as this could also destroy the value of your blog if you are just writing for any blog.

      Writing by itself is a very good way of expressing one’s feelings in such a way that most of the time it allows one to ultimately find oneself, which is why most writers are so content with what they do. This is as a result ofr expressing their thoughts in writing, which has a theraupetic benefit.

      Paid writing is also a very good way of earning income especially if you enjoy what you do, and can organize your time properly which is very important, because if you can’t you will end up messing up the balance in your life and you won’t enjoy it anymore.

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  3. Awesome article. Freelance writing has been on my mind for a long time now. It’s time to get things settled and start work along these lines. Thanks for the motivation!

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  4. That is a good post. I’ve read some of Caitlin’s before. I have to confess to getting pretty racked off with every blog writer under the sun thinking they can earn money from their mediocre meanderings.

    I tend to start work early too, my dog gets walked just after six and then I ease into writing by reading blogs while doing breakfast for my boys. After that I start on the serious writing ie something that earns me money by whatever means.

    I think it is important to balance your writing, and take time for something that you enjoy. So while I might have to do annual accounts for half the day, it’s nice to break off and enjoy blogging.

    But please people, writing a blog doesn’t mean you will earn money from it. I’m professionally qualified and have 30 years of experience in writing. You are all up against some serious competition out there. It’s dog eat dog in writing/journalism/publishing. Believe me.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. I am new to writing. I have opinions and enjoy expressing them and love the idea of writing as a career if I could ever be that good!

    This article really helped me get an insight into life as a writer. Thanks!

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    1. I think the most important thing that you have mentioned is to balance your writing. You had a lot of useful information as well thanks for sharing.

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  6. Lots of us aspiring writers still have good-paying, full time jobs. I think if you fall into this category, writing on one or two sites for free (contributing) can land you lots of exposure as a writer and help to build up a networking platform. That can be priceless while you build a following and collect clips, testimonials, etc., for putting together a professional, freelance writer’s website. I’ve had 3-books published in the past and a few, paid writing gigs, but sometimes still write for free. Beginners need to start somewhere. I think the trick is knowing when to crossover and demand payment. Once you can prove to an editor that people follow you and respect what you write it will be easier to get paying jobs.

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  7. This post was probably one of the most useful that I’ve read in quite some time (and I read a LOT of posts!) Thank you so much for sharing your tricks of the trade. As a new writer, I’m always questioning, “Am I doing this right?”, “How do I find the correct balance between writing, marketing myself, my personal life, etc.?” and so on. You ladies have helped me tremendously!

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  8. Being someone who balances between photography and writing, with a side of poetry hoping to market some day this is an awesome post! Dang, Have I got even more thinking to do now. :D

    Liked by 1 person

      1. She’s published one novel in her thirty year career. Not what I was expecting from someone described as a novelist. She does short stories, but most of her writing seems to be public radio stuff. Am I missing something? I was only looking at her website admittedly does not list everything she’s ever done.

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      2. I don’t know her entire background. Although your thoughts raise a discussion about who is or isn’t [insert a label here]. Do you have to have published X amount of X to be considered X?

        Readers seem to enjoy this post — if we do a future installment, I can query people with varying backgrounds and more published novels under their belts — to offer that perspective.

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      3. I guess I want to know the question behind the question, Mr Ed. Is one part about all women (though no one would have said anything on a panel of all men)?
        Is another part non-fiction versus fiction? I’d love to know why this might be an issue for you. I think there is a LOT more non-fiction possibilities in writing than writing novels. I’ve yet to sell a novel but I am a paid writer of non-fiction.
        OR
        Is it about their abilities? Then I might be curious as to when you think a writer is a writer. I know personally I had to start considering myself a photographer because I take about 7500 images for our business a month, sometimes more. I am paid for this. Professional means getting paid for what you do, in my opinion, though there are seasoned writers and newbies.

        So I am curious about the reason for the question . . .

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  9. The ideas of freelancing and entrepreneurship have always intrigued me in a society where we are conditioned to punch in and punch out for pay. This article has enhanced my knowledge of what serious writers are doing with their time and skills. I am not new to blogging, but I have recently started a blog with the new-found passion I have for life at this time. Thank you for bringing focus to the possibilities and realities of writing.

    Like

  10. I just don’t know if I want to promote myself in the public’s eye that way. One has to compromise what they say and how they are edited…. I would love to have a publishing company where I might have the freedom to do what I want… again… I love it here for right now..

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  11. This is a lot to absorb, quite honestly. I will be re-reading these thoughts for awhile. But I thank you for this fascinating compilation of suggestions from worthy writers. It shakes up some of my own little pet ideas, which is good, as none of them have gotten me very far. Unless you consider the fact that I still write for the love of it. That’s something.

    Like