The question I get the most from my friends is: How do I get paid to write?
I’ve been a writer in some capacity for a long time, it’s only been the last few years that I started to get paid for it.
While I’ve worked in editorial in some capacity for the last decade, I haven’t gotten paid for most of the writing I’ve done. When I first got out of college many moons ago, I wrote for for free (or for very little money) covering local music and restaurants for blogs and weeklies. And for the last 10 years or so I’ve been hard at work learning the craft of fiction. Although I enjoyed it immensely, these things never paid the bills.
I started earning side cash back in 2010 by copyediting an arts magazine and proofing books for self-published authors, and doing one-off copywriting jobs here and there. It felt great to earn some side cash. I was able to put that money toward vacations, new computers, or to use as “get ahead money.”
I spent about $800 for a certification in copyediting (my employer at the time was generous enough to subsidize for half). I made a pact for myself that I would need to find a way to earn that $800 back, I could call it even. It soon paid for itself and I can easily say it was one of the best investments in myself that I’ve made.
And although I officially started freelancing full-time as a writer last year, I got my first real gig as a freelance writer in the fall of 2014 through a content platform called Contently. Contently connects creatives (i.e., writers, designers, motionographers) with brands to create content for their marketing campaigns. I hands-down love Contently. They gave me my first real break as a professional writer and they look out for the talent.
It was at FinCon, a conference for people who create content about money, that I realized that personal writing was blowing up. I mean, I knew there was a slew of personal finance content online, but I didn’t realize how closely the financial industry paid to the money blogger community. I had initially created this blog to assert my frugal ways, to find like-minded folk, and to help others. I was essentially living in a bubble until I attended that conference.
Within my first month with my client I received a bunch of assignments and worked my butt off while maintaining my day job. It turns out I was making nearly the same as one month’s salary at my day job. And that was just from a single client. I quickly saw the earning potential of freelance writing.
So here’s everything I know (thus far) about how to get paid to write when you’ve never been published. I hope that you get something out of what I’ve learned so far.
Step 1. Figure out your niche
This is essential. Figure out what kind of subject matter you want to cover. There are about a billion places you could write for. This will help you narrow it down to writing about things you are better suited and qualified for, and helps better your chances of getting your foot in the door.
For instance, my friend Joel owns a dog walking business, and has spent a lot of years learning about dog behavior. He’d be great for writing on pet sites and dog blogs. Jeff has experience writing reviews on comic sites and is a huge comics nerd. His area of expertise is more along the lines of pop culture and all things nerdy.
You’ll also want to ask yourself these questions:
1. How hot is this market? Are there quite a few outlets that are willing to pay for content?
2. How qualified am I to write about it? The joy of writing is that you don’t necessarily need a fancy degree. You just need to show that you can do the job, and do it well.
3. Do I have any valuable contacts that would make for good primary subjects (interviewees) for pitched articles?
Step 2. Figure out which outlets you want to write for—and whether they pay
It’s best to narrow it down to a handful of outlets that you want to write for. So how do you figure out if a publication pays? Sometimes a site will have a “Write for Us” page where you can get more info or contact someone in their editorial department. They might mention whether they pay their writers. You can also check out Contently’s Rates Database. Some of the freelancer rate charts can be misleading because it depends on a host of factors, such as the niche and how closely connected the publication is to generating revenue for a company.
Another way you can figure it out is if there are clearly advertisements on their page. This can be in the form of banner ads, or more likely, through sponsored posts and affiliate links. Just because they may be generating revenue doesn’t mean they necessarily pay their writers.
You can also look at the roster of contributors. Check out their bios and do a quick Google search to see which other outlets they write for. Do they write for places that pay? Places that probably well pay, or just okay? I’ve been lucky to oftentimes know people who write for certain outlets, and can reach out to them to see how they like writing for a certain publication and if they pay by word or post. A lot of it has to do with network and niche.
Step 3. Create some writing samples
Better yet, post these on an online portfolio or to your blog. A blog can be a money-making vehicle in itself, but it’s a great way to learn about what you’re all about. It can also provide an outlet for making friends and connections, and be a testing grounds of sorts to try out new ideas.
And look beyond the major publications you know and love. Think about places that could pay you to write some marketing copy for a brand. Some sites you can check out:
I can only vouch for Contently, as that’s the only site I’ve landed work through. Sites like Contently and Skyword have free built-in portfolios, so if you don’t have a professional website up yet, you can link your sample work on those platforms.
Even if you’re just starting out, I would steer away from low-paying content mills.
You can also write for company blogs. Check out a company’s site and if they have a blog, they may hire freelancers to contribute. It doesn’t hurt to send an introductory email to their advertising director or head of content.
Step 4. Come up with story ideas
Study the publication. If you don’t already, follow it on social media. Read the articles, figure out what the style, tone, and voice are. Subscribe to the newsletter. You can get an idea for a publication’s vibe and message. You really need to do your homework. There’s nothing worse for an editor who is knee deep in the deluge of story pitches to get a set of pitches that show the writer doesn’t know the publication well. Make sure your pitch doesn’t go in the trash. When you pitch stories, make sure your ideas are a great fit for their content, editorial objectives, and is something you feel comfortable pitching.
I have made the mistake of coming up with what I thought was a super clever idea, then get the assignment, but realized I wasn’t able to really make it work. It really makes you come off as an amateur, and it’s really wasted time. If you’re in doubt, do a bunch of research, think about who you would interview, and draft an outline.
Make sure it’s a right fit for the publication, and that it might offer something slightly different to the publication. If it’s a product blog or trade publication, you might pitch to the director of marketing. If it’s a traditional outlet, you’ll most likely pitch to the managing editor. There’s a ton of articles out there on what makes a good pitch. I found that a solid headline, and a succinct pitch of 2-3 sentences outlining the idea and some of the main points you would cover, work best.
You might feel intimidated to pitch to the managing especially if you’ve never done it before, but having sample work you can show them and letting them know how exactly how you’re qualified to write about a particular topic will help you get your foot in the door.
Step 5. Create sample articles
Imitation is a form of learning. Follow the format and layout of existing articles and write a sample article accordingly. Of course, you can write in your own style, but formatting an article to adhere to existing blog posts shows that you’re paying attention to the details. I once had an English teacher that made us rewrite our essays until we earned an ‘A.’ Do a few round of drafts until you feel as if you’ve nailed it. If a publication offers a style guide, make sure you look it over closely.
How much should you charge?
I say charge as competitively as you can. If you’re off to a strong start, you can use that rate as leverage when you negotiate rates for the next place you write for. Oftentimes established sites have set rates with very little wiggle room. If you’re a newbie, you might feel compelled to charge less. My first client paid a very competitive rate, and that’s helped me set my rates to be fairly competitive. Sometimes articles require a lot less research, are a lower word count, and less work overall. In that case, a lower rate may feel worthwhile to you, especially if you can churn something out quickly.
The bottom line is to charge a rate that you are excited about. If you are just starting out, getting paid $30–$50 for an article might be enough for you to get juiced up and turn in killer work. However, if the rate is too low in your book, you won’t be motivated to turn in quality stuff, and you probably won’t want to stick around for long. Good managing editors know this, and they want to make sure rate feels fair for both parties involved.
What if an outlet doesn’t pay? Should I still write for them?
In the freelancer community, “writing for exposure” is known to be a cardinal sin of sorts. And I can understand why. By writing for free, you’re undermining your talents and in some ways devaluing the field at large. I would say avoid working for free if you can. Sometimes places dangle that proverbial carrot over your head that you write for free now, it could potentially lead to paid work. But if they can get you to work for free, why would they bother to pay you? And if they paid you, would it be sufficient pay? I have heard instances where an internship does lead to a paid position. I’m just saying you can’t always bank on it.
I know some established writers who write a single post for free because it was good exposure and was a great addition to their portfolio. It’s totally a judgment call, and a personal choice. You get experience working with an editorial team. Could it help you expand your network of contacts? Could it get into conferences or conventions that could lead to paid work? Do you get a byline?
Just remember: If you can make your first $50 writing, you can earn your first $100, and so forth.
Happy writing and good luck! 🙂