Can you make a living as a freelance writer with little experience?
If you have clicked through to read this, you are probably as keen to find a solution to this problem as I was. You have probably already scoured the internet for freelance writing jobs. There are thousands of articles and websites purporting to give you the secret of how to make money online from writing. You may have already considered gig economy platforms. You may also have received emails promising you the secret formula to make your career successful.
You may have found yourself wondering which route do I take?
You are not alone…
As a creative, it is vitally important to keep pushing yourself. To give yourself every opportunity to succeed. My theatre show, screenplay and my next playwriting project are all significant to me. I am unemployable in the traditional sense of the word. I am a 50-year-old ex-rave DJ who spent 18 years playing records for a living. I really don’t enjoy being told what to do and when I have to do it. I am a tough person to hire for a job. I know from experience. Of course, I need to eat and pay the bills. So, what is the answer?
Since December 2018, I have learned that the gig economy has some real benefits. These include flexible hours and of course, regular cash flow. A quick look at my task list software reveals that I have 6 in-depth projects underway. Two of them are actually costing me money. I am sure I am not alone here. The idea of having a regular stream of income that can be slotted in around my more speculative ventures is, therefore, attractive.
Do all gig economy models work?
My first foray into the gig economy was via the Deliveroo/Uber apps. My rationale being; I love cycling and so earning money for riding is going to be great. Of course, I failed to appreciate that 70km of short hops with burgers on your back is just not the same as a 70km blast across the moors. Cycle courier work is fun, to an extent. It’s just not enough fun to warrant the hours and conditions in which you find yourself riding. Also, it leaves you extremely exhausted. This means less leisure riding and less energy for creative writing. For me, cycle courier work was not going to cut it.
Having had a consistent run of reasonable earnings did leave me wanting more. Poets and spoken word performers tend to have sporadic earnings. Many of my colleagues supplement their income with mentoring and workshops. I have no real desire to do this. So I asked myself a simple question;
How can I Use The Gig Economy Model?
A cursory glance around the internet threw up more gig economy opportunities. Freelancer, Fiverr and Upwork were the leading contenders. I can already hear the booing and hissing. I am fully aware that these platforms are not popular among a large section of the creative community. I understand why. My initial exploration of these platforms left me with the following observations:
- They are driving down the hourly rate of creative work
- They are pitching creatives against each other for the benefit of the platform
- They are flooding the market place with low quality work
- They attract clients who have little respect for creatives
- The nature of the platforms devalues the services
I believe all of these things to be true. However, it is also true that these platforms are here, and they are here to stay. If there is a resource which you can use for free, to achieve forward motion, I believe it is worth exploring.
Maybe gig platforms are not for creatives who have already established a reputation and career. Those that have reached a pinnacle and are getting work based on status and word of mouth. These people are in the game already. They have no need to utilise the small benefits a gig platform can bring.
There are a lot of creatives like myself who have not reached that stage. We are stuck in that void in-between. The one where you need a portfolio or showreel to get work, but lack the work to get the portfolio or showreel. It is the age-old paradigm. For this group, I believe these platforms offer a real opportunity for short term development. They have done for me.
Can Upwork, Fiverr and Freelancer work for you?
I would like to clarify something before I continue. I am not suggesting that you can make a sustainable and enjoyable living from these platforms. Each has fundamental issues despite giving me a head start in this game. And what about paid writing courses? There are lots of courses and communities offering to help you make a living as a freelancer. They all provide great tips and some beneficial resources. Most of them have a paid course attached, and I believe that these will have genuine value to a freelancer who is trying to break into the world of commercial writing. At the time of writing, this option was not available to me due to finances. I have not taken any course or subscribed to anything other than Medium. I may well do in the future. When I do, I shall share my experience.
Recently, I joined a webinar which was designed to help freelancers attain regular income. The host of that webinar gave 7 top tips to success. In their pitch, they stated that platforms such as Fiverr and Upwork were “The underworld of writing”. That they are “content mills, to be avoided at all costs”. The disdain in their voice was palpable. I am not saying there is no truth in those words. But as a freelancer, especially if you are starting out, it is essential to have a balanced view. Our host’s intention was to get us signed up on to a course where they would explain exactly how to earn thousands of pounds a month writing. I know this to be possible, so I am not challenging the claims. My cynical self asks if these tutors have this knowledge, why are they spending their time running courses with beginners? Surely they would just write?
The probable answer is that it is more lucrative to make money off of people desperate to earn than it is to write articles. So, is that any different from a platform-based service taking a commission from actual work? Both are exploiting the need for a writer/creative to earn, for their own personal gain. There is nothing wrong with this business model. It is capitalism in a nutshell. However. Our host was adamant that everyone on the webinar should “stop writing for these platforms immediately”. We should then pay money to find out how to replace that income. My issue with this stance is that it sets up a division. It is “us and them” syndrome.
You have to make your own mind up as to where you stand on these issues. My stance is to keep an arm’s length distance from any person or platform, making outlandish claims. Instead, I choose to see what opportunities are available for me to further my earning potential.
The simple truth is; right now, I want to write for money. I want to write to my own schedule. Gig platforms offer me the chance to do this for no outlay. Besides, I love a challenge. I am also extremely stubborn. Telling me I can’t do something, will only make me do it more.
How I have made Gig Platforms Work For Me
The “freelancer” platform didn’t work for me at all. Period. It has worked wonderfully for a friend of mine. I have an experiment to try with Fiverr, which I will cover in a future article. Remember, I just need to earn some cash right now. The real opportunity for me was to be found on Upwork. My friend who has found success on Freelancer has had the opposite experience. The idea with Upwork is relatively simple. People post gigs, freelancers check the gigs out and then bid on them. The project owner can then pick a freelancer, and a business arrangement ensues.
For their part, Upwork provides an easy to use online platform. It has a comprehensive review and feedback system. A freelancer can create a profile, filter their searches to relevant skill sets and post a portfolio of work. A project owner can display a project with a budget and attract bids. Both can review each other.
It is free to sign up for Upwork, who make their income from a reasonably hefty commission. That said, you can start out as a freelancer and start generating a profit, with no financial commitment, immediately. It works too. I have done it myself.
The reason I feel that Upwork can be a positive experience is that you are literally getting paid to build a portfolio.
At the same time, you learn about real-world scenarios that can help you with off-platform pitching. If you are willing to put some time into searching for the viable gigs, you will get paid to write. Simple. It may not be the best work, nor the most glamorous of products, but you are learning and getting paid for it.
At the time of writing, I have been signed up to Upwork for just over a month. Since then, I have worked for around 50 hours and banked $1350.00 after fees. I have work to the value of $2000 in my pipeline for the next two weeks. This is OK money.
What is especially important is that this money has paid my bills, fed me and allowed time for my other projects. A critical point to note is that I have not compromised on what I am willing to earn to take a gig. Nor should you. Work out your hourly rate or day rate and stick to it.
All of the gigs I have accepted have been great. There have been small issues with some of them. One of my clients is a little hard to get hold of. Another changes his mind about what he wants, often after I have already put hours of work into something. He always pays for the revisions. This behaviour is not unusual when dealing with clients of any kind. For the most part, though, it is enjoyable.
As with cycle courier apps, these freelance gig platforms have issues. One of the problems with Upwork is the sheer volume of work added daily. If you are not careful, you can become target fixated, spending hours watching for new jobs. The other is the tone of clients posts. Some of them can be very demeaning.
Five top tips for a positive Upwork experience
- Have an end game in mind
- Perhaps you may want to achieve five positive project reviews with enough supporting data to put up your own website? Maybe you would like to work on a platform for six months and then be in a position to sustain yourself? Personally, I am aiming to have my other projects paying the bills within 12 months. I want to use Upwork to provide an income and base of work while I am touring my play.
- Be your own filter.
- Upwork will provide you with an extensive range of potential work. A HUGE portion of that work is way too low on budget and/or being offered by people who clearly have zero respect for creatives. You can tell this in the tone that they use, the language and of course the money on offer. The simple solution is don’t engage. If a client is offering $5 for a 5000-word article, (yes, they do exist) - simply move on. Don’t let it irritate you. Don’t let it inform your opinion of creative writing. Upwork is not the be-all and end-all of the freelance experience. It is a tool. If you see a gig description that gets to you, let it go. I immediately reject 80 per cent of the jobs that I see on my feed. This is almost always down to budget. The tone of voice tells you a lot too. You get to know the types of client from the way they write. Find the right gigs by rejecting the rubbish.
- Keep your proposals short and sweet
- I spent the first day on Upwork proposing to clients with overly elaborate pitching. I didn’t hear back from any of them. My first gig was won with a simple two-line proposal that I wrote on the bus using the mobile app. I liked the look of the gig and didn’t want to miss it. I wrote a simple hello. Stated why I was interested and suggested we talk. Job done. I earned $135 in four hours. I have used this format for every proposal since. A client can see your profile, portfolio and history. When proposing, you just need to get a conversation started. They will have likely received a lot of proposals. They will appreciate a short pitch, and it will stand out.
- Spend time on your briefing document.
- Most of the clients I have worked with seem to have minimal experience in buying the services they are asking for. This is no surprise. If they were regularly doing so and had an unlimited marketing budget, they would probably be using an agency, right? Be prepared to hold their hand and even upwardly manage them. Make sure you ask lots of questions, get a clear mental picture of what they are after and provide a document with your requirements of them clearly stated. Inexperienced clients will assume that you automatically see their vision or plan. Often your client will have little or no marketing experience and have unrealistic expectations. That is fine. It is part of the process. Get all of these grey areas covered off before you start working, and it shouldn’t cause you too many problems.
- Be firm with your client.
- If they are pushing you too hard or asking you for something which was not agreed, let them know. People will naturally try and get as much out of a freelancer as possible. Be polite but firm. Set your boundaries and stick to the agreed plan. By all means, help out if they need you to be flexible, but do not let the fear of the bad review haunt you! Do the work you have been paid for, or that you are willing to do - and no more.
I have a plan. The gig economy is providing the income I need to make that plan succeed. I believe it can for you too.
I am confident that Upwork will provide me with a regular income for the next 12 months. I do not see it as a permanent way of working for me. It might be in your case. Until you give it a go, you won’t know. It could be just what you need to get you to the next level of your creative journey
Update: After one year on Upwork, my hourly average was £28.00, with total earnings in excess of £20K – that is an average of £1666 per month for 15 hours a week.
You can make a living as a writer. You can do it without a degree-level education and without a portfolio. The answer lays in how you choose to engage with the opportunities. Not only that, writing 8000 words on commercial subjects will definitely improve your writing stamina. I find writing through a block enjoyable now.
Be open. Have fun with it and see where it takes you.