The Changing World of a Freelance Writer

The Changing World of a Freelance Writer

Dorothea Helms, Guest Blogger

Picture it … 1994. I drove my Geo Metro to the downtown Toronto Reference Library to conduct research for an article I was writing about the evolution of downtowns across North America. I read through what seemed like miles of microfiche reels and spent several dollars making photocopies of pertinent documents.

I live in Sunderland, Ontario, so that process took the better part of a day. The following day, I drove to Oshawa to interview people who agreed to be quoted in the piece. During the next couple of days, I wrote the article, saved it onto a diskette and drove to Oshawa again to deliver it in person. (That was before I got a fax machine.)

To research that same article today, I’d hop online, read through websites while still in my jammies and eating Miss Vickie’s original chips, email people for quotes, write the piece and email it to the editor. That’s one way that freelance writing nowadays is a lot easier than it was 26 years ago.

It is also possible to take writing courses and workshops online to advance your craft. It’s not as much fun as in-person gatherings, but it is convenient. Writers can market services online, conduct surveys, even attend distant in-person writing events virtually. And yes, today we have Zoom, but remember that people SEE you during those sessions. I can look like the bride of Frankenstein when I wake up, so check in the mirror before you choose to open your video option.

As the cliché goes, there’s good news, and there’s bad news. Google and other search engines are breeding grounds for excellent information and for “facts” that are about as reliable as me answering the question “How much do you weigh?” And speaking of the Internet, with so many writers providing blogs, the amount of reading material online makes the necessity to pay for writing less necessary. Why do writers do it? They want to reach out to readers and see their names and words in print. It is their prerogative, and for some writers, blogging is a form of marketing.

Earning a living is not shameful

The idea that somehow a byline is payment is one of the basic reasons why so many publications have received writing for free or hardly any money for decades … that, and the pervasive attitude that writing for money is “selling out.”

What a handy misconception for the higher-ups in for-profit publishing who are too cheap to do a proper business plan that covers the cost of doing business—namely, writing. Having said that, the virtual reality of the Internet has contributed to the death of a lot of print publications. I have lost clients for this reason and had to add other sources of income. When I participated in an entrepreneurship program in 1994, I learned that having “multiple sources of income” is one pathway to success.

On average, writers in Canada are paid pitifully, and statistics have validated this. In 2006, the Professional Writers of Canada conducted a survey showing how earnings for freelancers in Canada went DOWN between 1995 and 2005—from $26,500 to $24,035 (https://bit.ly/3iyhv6S). In 2018, a Writers’ Union of Canada survey reported that incomes from writing dropped 78 percent from 2014, from $12,879 to $9,380 per year (https://bit.ly/32DKzVE).

Other sources vary. These quoted figures are average, so imagine what writers on the lower part of the scale are making.

Price for profit and stick with it

In the face of all of that, until I semi-retired a couple years ago, I pulled in revenues of six-digit figures yearly. Here are a few practices that can help you succeed.

  • Learn about business and how to price to make money—and remember that you are worth it!
  • Say NO to for-profit publications that pay nothing or little.
  • Claim everything you can legitimately on your income tax forms.
  • Expand the scope of the services you offer. Perhaps you can edit or teach.
  • Keep an open mind to accepting writing jobs in the business, advertising and public relations fields.
  • Advance your craft through professional workshops and courses.
  • Respect word counts and deadlines. Editors prefer to work with reliable writers.
  • Pay attention to rejections, but not too much. Usually, ideas and pieces are rejected because of timing or poor fits for upcoming editorial calendars—something you’d have to have ESP to predict.
  • Persevere in the face of naysayers.
  • Help other writers when you can.

If writing is more of a calling than a career for you, remember that you can earn money using your gift without shame. Things change, and we can adapt to thrive during all conditions. There are many ways to make money writing. I encourage you to be curious, ask questions and think outside the book. N

From a college creative writing course to a freelance writer earning six-digit figures yearly, Dorothea Helms has come a long way, baby. Now semi-retired, she is still in demand for her writing/editing services and teaching. Her work has appeared in dozens of publications including Chatelaine, CBC.ca/Parenting, The Globe and Mail, Canadian Architecture & Design magazine, LICHEN Arts & Letters Preview, Stitches the Journal of Medical Humour, and Homemakers, to name a few. Yes, four of those publications are no longer in existence, but Dorothea accepts no responsibility for their demise. Wherever Dorothea goes, humour follows.

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8 thoughts on “The Changing World of a Freelance Writer

  1. Thanks for this post. We need to be reminded that we shouldn’t be ashamed of a desire to earn some money! Dorothea is inspirational and her courses helped me a great deal.

  2. Dorthea is a long-time friend. I took one of her courses and enjoyed her expertise and personality. I loved reading her advise in writescape. Thanks for posting.

    1. Lynda, you were and still are a big part of my success as a freelancer. You were a wonderful trainer when I took the entrepreneurship program in 1994. You are also one of the nicest, kindest people I know.

  3. LOVE THIS POST. Sitting here this morning, I plan on spending upwards of 8 hours writing today. I do this every day, 6 days a week. I have a large repertoire of finished works and I send out pieces on a regular basis (short stories, poems, magazine pieces…). Most mornings I rush through coffe and breakfast so I can ‘get to work’. Over the past few weeks, I’ve found I’d rather be stranded on a desert island with no chance of survival than to come to this chair. But this morning, I opened your post and right there, on the page, was a glimmer of hope. The words “Pay attention to rejections, but not too much. Usually, ideas and pieces are rejected because of timing or poor fits for upcoming editorial calendars—something you’d have to have ESP to predict.” BOOM! That said it all. I was well aware of this fact long before today, of course, but sometimes we just need a little boost to the old ego, a little kick to the old ‘seat of the pants’ to get us back to the chair. Thanks so much, Dorothea.

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