Before we look at developing article ideas and pitching them to editors, we should talk money.
I have been a freelance writer for almost two decades. People often ask me if one can make a living freelancing for newspapers and magazines. So what do I say when people ask me, “Can I earn a living as a freelance writer?”
I know some writers who make a healthy living freelancing for newspapers and magazines. And I know others who could not afford to continue as freelancers. You can say that about all sorts of people who run their own businesses. Some are successful; some are not. If you are the primary breadwinner of a family and want to own a house and car and take elaborate vacations each year, you might find it difficult to make what you define as “a living” freelancing, especially in the getting-started phase. However, that is the case with any small business. It takes time to get the business off the ground.
If, on the other hand, you live a frugal life, freelancing for newspapers and magazines beats a job that has you saying, “Would you like fries with that?”
Financially successful writers take a business-like approach to freelancing. They develop numerous article ideas, pitch the right ideas to the right editors at the right publications, and follow up. They control the amount of time they spend conducting interviews, research and writing, and they invoice for their services. If payment does not arrive promptly, they follow up.
But even the most successful freelancers hit a financial ceiling—the limit to how much they can earn freelancing for periodicals (newspapers and magazines). Say, for instance, you write 50 articles in a year. That’s one a week (with two weeks off for good behaviour). I actually wrote 100 articles one year, so 50 is manageable, even if it does not seem like it initially. (You get faster—and better—with experience.)
Articles can range in length from 200 words to 2,500 words, although you can write the occasional longer feature. Let’s take an average length of 1,000 words.
Now we do the math:
50 articles times 1,000 words equals 50,000 words
But how much can you earn per word?
Community papers pay anywhere from zero to 10 or 15 cents per word. Most large urban daily newspapers pay anywhere from 35 to 60 cents per word. Occasionally they pay more for special supplements or glossy magazines they publish. And they sometimes pay more if they want a particular writer to cover a particular topic, but that’s more of an exception than the rule.
Industry trade magazines pay 25 to 60 cents per word; some high-end trades pay a dollar per word. Glossy consumer magazines you find on newsstands pay 50 cents to one dollar per word. A few have cracked the one-dollar barrier, paying $1.50 or $2 per word. That, too, is the exception, not the rule.
So let’s say you average 75 cents per word. Let’s do the math:
50,000 words times 75-cents per word equals $37,500
If you average $1 per word, here’s what you would earn:
50,000 words times $1 per word equals $50,000
Of course, if you write more articles or longer articles, or earn more per word, then your gross incomes goes up. Fewer articles, shorter articles, or earning less per word puts a dent in your income. Also, from your annual gross income, you deduct taxes, pension-plan contributions, and business expenses.
Does that add up to a living to you? Will it let you pay for rent, food, clothing, and entertainment? If so, you can make a living as a freelancer.
The fact is, many writers earn more; many more earn less. Those who earn more write more articles and longer articles and/or they write only for one dollar-plus per word publications. Some writers who earn more combine periodical work with higher-paying corporate writing gigs. Or they are strictly corporate writers.
Where you fit into the spectrum will depend on how many articles you can write each year, the average length of the articles, the per-word rate of pay, and if you choose to also write for the corporate market.