Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Do You Really Want to Be a Freelance Writer?


 Every few months or so, I receive an email from someone newly arrived to Paris (usually a mother with young kids) wanting to meet to discuss how to launch a career as a freelance writer.  While I am always happy to talk about such matters, more often than not, our conversations aren't really about how to start a freelance career. Instead, we wind up talking about the reality of being a freelance writer and whether it’s a career she truly wants to pursue.

I figure we can all save time if I posted here five essential questions you should ask yourself before taking on a freelance writing career.  That way, you can think about these issues on your own and determine whether you want to go forward.  If you still want to talk after reading this, email me!

1. Are you looking for a career or a job?  Consider whether you’re interested in having a career as a writer or simply would like to use writing as a means to earn a little extra cash (emphasis on the little).  If you’re an expat mom, I can see why the latter option appears tempting.  Freelance writing offers you a flexible schedule, you can work from home, and you don’t have to speak a foreign language to do it.  But to be honest, there are more efficient ways to make money.  Writing is often hard, time-consuming work and you rarely get paid the amount your time and effort is truly worth, especially at the beginning of your career.  It can be done as “just a job” but I wouldn’t bother with it if making money were my only motivation (which brings me to my next question….).

2. Is writing your passion?  Most writers don’t start a writing career because it’s convenient, and they certainly don’t do it for the money.  We write because it is a compulsion.  I cannot imagine a day passing without writing, even if it’s just longhand notes in my journal.  I can’t walk down the street without turning everything I see into a story.  To embark on a writing career, I think you must have that compulsion. There’s a lot of annoying crap to slog through as a writer and often you’ll have nothing but your urge to write to pull you through.

3. Can you handle rejection, criticism, ridicule or being ignored?   Rocky Balboa should be the role model of every freelance writer.  Rocky or the Energizer Bunny.  ‘Cause as a freelancer you’re going to face some kind of “negative” feedback (or no feedback) on a regular basis.  Even if makes you feel as if you’ve been hit by a truck, there’s nothing to do but pick yourself up, brush yourself off and keep slugging away.  You must have confidence in your writing ability and know how to keep perspective.  It’s not personal.

4. Can you afford to be a freelance writer?  Unless you get extremely lucky and find a regular gig straight off the bat, the money will come in waves.  You’ll probably have to suffer some very thin periods, particularly at the beginning.  For print magazine work, many magazines don’t pay until publication. This means that you won’t see a dime for your work until the article is published, which could be several months after you’ve written it.  Payment goes much faster in the online world.  Nonetheless, you constantly have to keep the wheel turning to keep money flowing.

5. Are you ready to run a business?  If you really want to make a career out of freelance writing, better start thinking of yourself as a small business owner right. now.  Because that’s what you are.  As a freelancer, you’re responsible for finding clients, maintain clients, marketing yourself, handling the accounting, researching ideas, selling ideas, interviewing experts, keeping abreast of current trends…and, oh yeah, writing. 

I’m not trying to turn anyone off of freelance writing – personally, I love it, warts and all.  But it’s not a career to stumble into.

Freelancers with additional opinions,feel free to chime in!


  1. Brava! Well said. While I try to encourage anyone who is serious about pursuing their passion, I do sometimes get irritated by those who approach me with an attitude of, "It can't be that hard to write and sell an article."

    Found your blog through tweet (we share a passion for Paris, it would seem). Glad I found you.

  2. Hi Leah - oh yes, I get that too. I'm not really referring to the moms who ask me about writing, but the people who say things to me like: why don't you write an article for the New Yorker? Or - Why don't you write a book and then go on Oprah? Arrgh!

    Thanks for commenting!

  3. Wow...I was turned onto your blog by your more recent post about finding a balance, but this post is excellent, too! Methinks I shall subscribe. I'm only a complete know-nothing when it comes to all this, and I'm (ever-so-tentatively) taking my first steps in the direction of's hoping I can learn a thing or two from following your blog!

  4. Hi WIAWN- Welcome! Glad you're finding the blog useful. Freelancing is hard work, but offers many rewards to those who stick with it. Good luck!

  5. Are freelance writers subject to small-business taxes? If so, is that a quarterly or end of the year type of payment? I am trying to get a grip on the accounting part of freelance writing, but I can't seem to find any definitive information anywhere!

  6. Hi Lindsey -

    I believe that freelancer writers in the U.S. must pay quarterly estimated taxes. Being an expat, my situation is a bit different. Here's a link to info you may find useful:

    Good luck!

  7. Hi Barbara,
    I wrote to you the other day asking for advice on working at a freelance writer living in Paris, and I'm loving your blog: It's refreshing to read something heartfelt, informative and really well put together.
    Many thanks for giving me some good ideas!
    Best Wishes,
    Gemma Boyd

  8. Hi Gemma -

    I'm happy to help! Good luck to you!



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