Monday, October 29, 2007

Making a Living Writing Online: Can it Be Done?

Over at Writing for the Web, I saw a question about whether or not it's actually possible to make a living writing online. I've seen this question in several freelance writing forums as well.

To answer: Yes, it can be done.

I make a living purely by writing for web-based clients. I do content articles, but that's only a small facet of my business. I also do print-quality articles for online journals, online landing pages and catalog copy, reports and ebooks, proofreading and editing, and even the odd resume-writing gig or radio script. I do this full-time. I rarely work over eight hours a day. I don't have any special advantages such as a trust fund or a supporting spouse. I'm not a millionaire, but I definitely make enough to cover the bills and have some fun. And I hardly ever pick up the phone.

Be willing to go low to get samples. Most clients have choices. When you're a beginner without samples or a track record, you're unlikely to earn lucrative work right away. Many established writers will tell you never, ever to work for free, use job bidding sites, or accept low rates. I advocate doing what works for you when you're starting out. Many beginning writers do free work for nonprofits, groups and religious organizations they belong to, or their present employers to get their start. I used Elance as a training ground, picking up diverse client projects and learning the ropes while getting paid--even if it wasn't always market rates. You shouldn't have to do this for long, but when you're a beginner, the samples are sometimes more important than the paycheck. Once you have a portfolio--and it doesn't have to be a huge one; three or four pieces is fine--you stand a much better chance of landing high-paying work.

Build a website. When you're planning to work primarily for online clients, it's absolutely essential to have a website. It doesn't have to be perfect, but it should look reasonably professional and show off your best samples. I customized a template to build my site. At some point I may hire a pro designer for an overhaul.

Don't let all those low bidders freak you out. On one writers' forum, I saw a post from someone who dismissed the field of web writing entirely because of all those content writers out there who offer dirt-cheap prices. But brick-and-mortar companies have Internet connections, too. Those dirt-cheap writers could be working for your local design shop just as easily as for affiliate marketers and SEO's.

So why don't offline writers go out of business entirely? Because the freelance writing market isn't driven by low prices alone, even though it sometimes looks that way. There are plenty of potential clients out there who know that you get one type of writing for dirt cheap, and you get an entirely different type for professional rates. Do good work and avoid markets that are geared toward the lowest bidder, and you'll definitely be able to compete.

Don't quit your day job. It can take a while to build up a thriving online business, and in the meantime you'll need to have at least enough savings to pay your bills for a year. I was covering my bills with writing income just a few months after quitting my day job, but I had already moonlighted for several years by that time. It's definitely smart to test the waters while holding on to your steady paycheck, at least for a year or two.

It's not a myth: you really can make a living writing online. Like any startup business, however, it takes time to build a solid base. You'll also be on your own for health insurance, retirement, and all those other extras you usually get through your job. The great thing about web writing is its flexibility--you don't have to be home to answer the office phone, and it's completely compatible with a full-time job. Test the waters first after hours, and make the leap when you have the savings and experience to improve your chances.

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