Every now and then, I’m invited to speak to a group of writers. I prepare my notes and deliver my little speech about inspiration and style and the proper use of the semi-colon, and then someone asks the big question, the one I suspect is the real thing I’ve been invited to talk about: “Can you make any money at this?”
I have been a freelance writer for 25 years. Except for a three-and-a-half year interruption to edit a magazine, my full-time job during most of those years was to sit at the keyboard and pound. My other full-time job was to raise three children, so it was necessary for the keyboard pounding to have a direct relationship with putting dollars in the bank and Spaghettios on the table. I found out that yes, you can make money at this—and most years I’ve made more freelancing than most of my employed friends—but not if you sit around waiting for your muse to arrive and not if you have a prima donna complex about only writing the Great American Novel and nothing else.
In the beginning, I freelanced in bits and drabs at nights and on weekends while I worked a day job in hospital public relations. When I launched myself into full-time freelancing, I sent around a letter to every hospital marketer, public relations vice president, and corporate anything I had ever met at a meeting. In my letter (I couldn’t afford to print up anything fancier), I offered to write darn near anything for them, from annual reports to brochures, from newsletter articles to company-wide magazines. I charged an hourly rate and promised to write fast and take problems off their desk. These dear folks saved my little freelancer tush.
While I built up a reputation as a magazine writer, while I worked at cracking the national magazine market, while I hunted for an agent and pitched book proposals, my commercial clients kept me in diapers and Diet Coke and covered the house payments. No, it’s not sexy to write 500 words on “I am Joe’s colon” and even less appetizing to rhapsodize ecstatic over the new building project on the medical office wing. But there is honor in cranking out this kind of work. These stories mean a great deal to the people whose lives they touch. Reporting and writing them teaches unforgettable lessons about accuracy, fairness, and treading lightly through political mine fields—lessons any reporter in the field should value. If I strain a metaphor and call writing fiction an Olympic competition, then you don’t get there without hitting the treadmill and the weight room—and writing-for-hire builds up just the kinds of fundamental skills, exercising reporting, organization, and writing muscles a polished professional needs.
I owe my writing-for-hire clients many debts. They cured me of ego (ever been edited by committee and a CEO?), taught me how to work the phones like Dustin Hoffman in “All the President’s Men,” forced me to set up an office and establish the discipline of daily work, and turned me into a “just do it” kind of writer who can sit down and crank it out, regardless of mood, level of inspiration, or willingness to face that dang blank monitor once again.
Far from seeing writing-for-hire as a shame-based client base, I think it’s the clear and possibly only path to survival for a freelancer. Mix it up. Write for clients. Write for local magazines. Write for national magazines. Write for newspapers. Write fiction. Write plays. Write, write, write. Each kind of writing you master will inform and enlighten the rest of your writing.
I came to view freelancers who take the time and have the forethought to develop a strong commercial base of work for themselves as the Wise Ones, the ones who conduct themselves like pros, the ones who understand the business, the ones who can deliver the goods, the ones who write like angels.
They do not sit around waiting for their muse to show up. They go get her.