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Beyond Your Blog: Freelancing, Getting Paid to Write, and Writing for Free

Many of you are growing as writers and seek opportunities beyond your blog. To continue this conversation, let’s talk about freelancing and getting paid to write, and the flip side of this: writing for free and exposure.

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Many of you are growing as writers and seek opportunities beyond your blog. To continue this conversation, let’s talk about freelancing and getting paid to write, and the flip side of this: writing for free and exposure. We’ve rounded up four working writers who offer different perspectives on the business of writing:

  • Julie Schwietert Collazo, a bilingual writer/editor who has written for publications such as National Geographic Traveler and Scientific American, blogs at Cuaderno Inedito.
  • Caitlin Kelly, a National Magazine Award winner and frequent contributor to the New York Times, blogs at Broadside.
  • Kristen Hansen Brakeman, a writer who has contributed to the Washington Post and the New York TimesMotherlode, blogs at KristenBrakeman.com.
  • Deborah Lee Luskin, an award-winning novelist and radio commentator, blogs at Live to Write — Write to Live: a collaborative blog for the New Hampshire Writers’ Network.


Give us a breakdown of your typical day.

Julie: There’s never really a “typical” day, which is one of the reasons why I love being a writer. I have several assignments I’m working on simultaneously, and each demands a different set of skills or has different requirements. One might involve conducting a phone interview; another may involve extensive reading for research purposes. Ultimately, it involves spending a lot of time at the computer.

I get to exercise control over the shape and form of my days. I have two children, and I appreciate having a job that allows me to do what I love (write) and be a parent who is fully involved in their lives and with them all the time.

Caitlin: Every day is different. I start by reading the New York Times. I listen to BBC World News or two great WNYC radio shows, The Brian Lehrer Show and The Leonard Lopate Show, from which I get story ideas and learn about the world.

I start work by 10:00 am — I’m not a morning person! If I’m working on a story, and usually several at once, I’m seeking sources, conducting interviews, writing, reading, or revising the pieces and answering questions from my editors.

Setting boundaries between work and the rest of my life allows me to come back to it refreshed and recharged.

— Caitlin Kelly

Like most working writers, I spend a lot of time marketing my skills to new clients and checking in with former ones to see if they can use me again. I research story ideas to gather enough detail to pitch them. I pitch ideas to editors and check in on earlier pitches. I also work on longer-term projects, like ideas for nonfiction books, fellowships, and travel.

I end my workday by 4:00 or 5:00 pm and turn off the computer. Setting boundaries between work and the rest of my life allows me to come back to it refreshed and recharged.

Kristen: Oh no, here’s where the truth comes out. If I’m lucky, I’ll have showered and restored order to my house by 10:00 am and then, if I can find nothing else I “need” to do, I’ll sit down at the computer and start writing. I work on essays or on a script I’ve been rewriting for years — one that I probably should’ve let die a peaceful death — and I take time-outs to check Facebook and Twitter and read the headlines. These breaks help me stay current, and doing self-promotion on social media is work.

Deborah: I get to my desk by 8:00 am, and I start with NAMS: I narrate the state of my mind onto the page, followed by affirmations. Then I meditate, at which point my mind is clear and still for a Single Task, which these days means working on my novel, Ellen: The Autobiography of Jane Austen by Ellen Wasserman.

I work on my novel till lunch. Ideally, after lunch I go on a walk, then return to my desk to write radio commentaries, editorials, or other paying work. In reality, I often run errands, attend meetings, and do chores.

Right now, I’m in that sweet spot where I’m finishing a novel, and I often return to it in the afternoons.


How do you divide your time between paid and unpaid writing?

Julie: This “balance,” such as it is, shifts, but generally the unpaid writing takes a back seat. I have lots of blog post drafts and they’re about topics that interest me and that I think are important, but I have to give priority to editors and publishers who are paying for work to be delivered on deadline.

Caitlin: It’s all one big messy pile of work: some paid, some for my own use. I write a blog post or two in the middle of a workday as a break; I always have at least three or four revised, copy-edited, and ready to publish.

I don’t really do any “personal writing.” I focus on earning income — I live near New York City and our costs, and taxes, are high. I don’t have “passion projects” either. I find a way to fund something that intrigues me, or I set it aside until I can. The only unpaid work I do is my volunteer work for the Writers Emergency Assistance Fund, and my book proposals.

I have to give priority to editors and publishers who are paying for work to be delivered on deadline.

— Julie Schwietert Collazo

Kristen: I’ve only been paid for a handful of articles, and because I work freelance at an actual paying job and have a supportive husband who also works, I have the luxury of writing without the pressure of immediately needing to make money.

I divide my time by spending a week or two on long-term projects, like polishing my screenplay or book, and then spend the next week on writing essays or blog posts. I’m hopeful that this approach will eventually pay off in buckets of gold.

Deborah: Writing fiction comes first, even though it doesn’t pay — yet. I do my pen-for-hire work in the afternoon.

When I was more concerned with income than I am now, I was lucky and found freelancing jobs through networking. It helped that I had three salable skills: good writing ability, research skills, and medical knowledge. I did a lot of technical writing for major medical centers that was both interesting and lucrative. Now, jobs come to me, and I only take those that both interest me and pay well.


What’s your take on writing for free?

Julie: I’m not an advocate of writing for free. Most outlets who want writers to write for free (I’m looking at you, Huffington Post) have money to provide some form of remuneration for the service they’re seeking, and they’re making money off of the writing they’re not paying for.

The write-for-free model establishes a precedent that isn’t encouraging for those of us who want to write and get paid (namely, that both publishers and readers start getting accustomed to not having to pay for work). It ultimately devalues words — literally.

Caitlin: A few thoughts:

  1. If your work is truly excellent, people will pay you for it. If it’s not market-ready, do everything necessary to improve it.
  2. If you give your skills away, do so for a cause you believe in, not just some cheap-o profit-making enterprise.
  3. Giving your skills away to a for-profit enterprise devalues the notion of skill. And if you keep doing it, what effect is that having on your self-confidence — and your bank balance?
  4. If someone is unwilling to pay you for your work — even $25 as a token fee — what value, really, do they see in it? If they’re running any sort of business, they’re already paying cash for their electricity, groceries, and venti skim lattes. In the real economy, we use money.

I blog for free because I’m passionate about writing…and because it ultimately builds an audience for when my next novel comes out.

— Deborah Lee Luskin

Kristen: Writing for free is one of the many evils in today’s world. There was a piece in the New York Times by Tim Kreider, where he made the case that writers should insist on getting paid. It made sense for established writers, but wasn’t practical advice for unknowns in today’s internet-dominated world.  As I said in my piece in the Huffington Post, “Why I Write for Free,” literary agents and publishers want you to have a huge internet following before they’re willing to take a chance on you. If you’re not a celebrity or well-known, you have to build an audience, and often the only way to do this is to write for free.

Deborah: I’m a great believer in “Do what you love and the money will follow.” I’m a novelist, and my first novel won both critical acclaim and an award. I hope my next novel will earn money. Currently, I earn money by writing nonfiction and taking on private clients for developmental editing. I used to teach, but I’ve decided I’d rather have time to write than money. In a world where income is our default measure of success, this can be difficult.

That said, I blog for free because I’m passionate about writing; because it connects me to a community of writers; and because it ultimately builds an audience for when my next novel comes out. I also write for nonprofits I support, which beats baking brownies for bake sales: fewer calories, larger audience, and best of all — it keeps me at my desk.


What’s one piece of advice for writers thinking about “writing for exposure”?

Julie: If you get in the habit of “writing for exposure” early, then you’ll find ways to justify writing for exposure regularly. Write on your own blog if you want to write and develop your “brand” or identity for yourself…rather than someone else.

Caitlin: Don’t ever assume that “exposure” will bring you more work, more paid work, or greater respect for your skills when you ask for money next time.

Ask them: exposure to whom, how many of them, and for how long? Is this really your best audience or target market?

What value will this unpaid “exposure” bring you right now? Not in some gauzy, indefinite future. This week. What do you really hope this “exposure” will accomplish?

I’d say do it rarely and only for clearly defined strategic reasons — like getting your name, work, and ideas before a very large audience of specific clients or thought leaders you can’t reach any other way. (Really? Are you sure?)

Writers can’t be hermits anymore, waiting for someone to discover them.

— Kristen Hansen Brakeman

Kristen: It might be one of those things you have to do. Writers can’t be hermits anymore, waiting for someone to discover them. Sometimes I write things that are a little more straight just so I can get them published in mainstream news outlets. They’re not always my favorite pieces, but agents and publishers want to see those big credits. Even writing guest posts on smaller blogs can build your audience.

Deborah: I once met a writer who aimed to receive one hundred rejections in a year. In the process, he received eight acceptances.

Digital and self-publishing have made it so easy to publish that I think a lot of good writing never happens: new writers are impatient to see something in print and what goes out isn’t really finished. I think writing for peers is the first step, and then letters to the editor, guest posts, and newsletters are a good way to move forward. It’s important to distinguish between being published and being read.


Freelance writing resources

Recommendations on the business of writing, from our roundtable of writers:


About Julie Schwietert Collazo

julieJulie is a bilingual writer/editor who has written for a variety of publications, including National Geographic Traveler, DISCOVER, Scientific American, MS., and others. She is the author of Pope Francis in His Own Words and is the author of the forthcoming Moon Guide to New York State. Follow Julie on Twitter at @collazoprojects.

About Caitlin Kelly

caitlinCaitlin frequently writes for the New York Times, and has also written for Ladies Home JournalCosmopolitanMarie ClaireSmithsonian, and more. Winner of a Canadian National Magazine Award, she’s a former reporter for the Globe and MailMontreal Gazette, and New York Daily News. Follow Caitlin on Twitter at @CaitlinKellyNYC.

About Kristen Hansen Brakeman

kristenKristen Hansen Brakeman has had essays in the Huffington Post, the New York Times Motherlode, the Washington Post, Working Mother magazine, and LA Parent, among others. She works behind-the-scenes on TV variety shows like the Screen Actors Guild Awards, Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and Comedy Central Roasts. Follow Kristen on Twitter at @SandwichGenMom or on Facebook.

About Deborah Lee Luskin

Deborah Lee Luskin is a commentator for Vermont Public Radio and the award-winning novelist of Into the Wilderness. She a writer by vocation and a Vermonter by choice. Learn more at deborahleeluskin.com. Follow Deborah on Facebook.

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  1. This was one of the MOST helpful posts I’ve come across. I would love to see more like this – really learning from other writers is what the blogosphere is all about. Thank you!

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  2. This is an excellent article and I’ve learned so much towards my journey of being a writer. When you find something that you are passionate about, the hard work never stops! Thanks for this post 🙂

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  3. Freelance writing is my ultimate goal, thank you for these links and the information from the Authors who were interviewed.

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  4. Wonderful post. A must read for anyone new to writing, the internet, and social media. I am retiring soon and have spent many hours exploring ways to earn money (not make money as passive income) through internet sites. While paying freelance opportunities exist, breaking in will take hard work. Most internet and social media writers should expect to have another source of income. I found that many profitable web sites or blogs make money by encouraging writers and artists to contribute free or low cost content to those web sites. It seems to have become the norm. With the emphasis on earning passive income through ad placement, the click-through has become more important than the content. This is an excerpt from a featured article on a web site designed for women bloggers: “This year I’ve edited (or wrote) 10 resumes, 3 books, 7 Theses, and 2 Dissertations.” The writer’s first recommendation on making money from blogging is to join an ad network.

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    1. You could consider writing on your own blog as “writing for free,” sure. As a full-time editor, I dedicate any free writing time I have — which is not much — to my own blog. I’m asked to contribute to publications, some paid and some not, and I ultimately pass; I do like the idea (as Julie says in the post) of reserving my own creative time to my own projects.

      I think it’s different for everyone; I think we all can design a specific routine/create our own rules/boundaries that makes sense for us.

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  5. In the days when newspapers were newspapers and the internet had not been invented, many writers, including novelists, got their start at newspapers. The advice I heard way back then was, “Never write for free.” Even to the youngest part-time high school students, the advice was, “Always expect to be paid, even if you’re paid in pennies.”

    The newspaper term for freelancers was “stringers.” They were usually paid by the word or the column inch. Many aspiring young reporters got their start covering high school sports, or the town council, or whatever, for their home-town weekly. Stringers were paid poorly, but nearly every newspaper paid its stringers, even the youngest. It was a matter of honor for both the editor and the stringer. Newspapers didn’t expect people to work for free in those days.

    Now is a different time. The world is filled with writers and editors who work for free. I have no advice to offer. I think it’s a winner-take-all world, and I think that in the field of writing, only the most talented will be able to write for money.

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  6. Dr Johnson said “no man but a fool ever wrote except for money.” I’d agree but substitute “reward” for “money” . If you want to draw public attention to some cause or campaign you can write articles about it without worrying about getting a cash payment. If you want to publicise some group or society, perhaps just in your local press you might find it worthwhile to send reports of their activities without being paid. You get your reward in extra interest and extra members wanting to join.

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  7. Cheri, reading through the additional comments since I first read this, I have one thing to add to aspiring writers. You need a good editor. I’m currently editing someone’s work who has paid for work before and been dissatisfied. Amateur writers will NEVER proof their work correctly, professionals don’t always get it right, and that will let your work down, however good it is. I read some self-publishing authors’ blogs and they all pay for editing and stress how important it is.

    I would suggest a post on editing might be helpful too.

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  8. Just to clarify for Mr Ed and anyone else who’s wondering: I taught for nearly 30 years. For sixteen of them, I also managed a medical office. I’m also a mother of three, a part-time farmer, and an elected official. I’ve only been calling myself a novelist since Into the Wilderness was published four years ago. Regardless, throughout all the different jobs I’ve held, I’ve been writing and publishing, mostly non-fiction for pay. It’s only now that I’m concentrating almost exclusively on writing novels.

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  9. A counter-example to Julie’s response to “What’s your take on writing for free?”:

    Steve Gibson, a “writer” of computer software, gives away all of his projects (including the revolutionary, soon-to-be-released SQRL) for FREE — except for one: His ‘bread-and-butter’ product SpinRite. Of course, it helps that SpinRite is a unique product that offers a function duplicated by no other software. But all of his other free projects serve as ‘marketing’ to build good will as well as exposure for his money-maker.

    Now, exchange writing software for writing in the more conventional sense, and consider that longer works, such as novels, should in themselves be ‘unique products’ that offer something not duplicated elsewhere, and you have a kind of ‘Freemium’ model where smaller, lesser works lead paying customers to the larger, more profitable works.

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  10. It is very interesting to read how writers truly feel about writing, I appreciated the honesty and the several “implied” advises I got from them. I have always considered writers to belong to those “untouchable categories” but after reading this I felt like I started to understand how they consider the “art of writing”.

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  11. This was amazing, thank you for posting. Also thank you so much to all the writers who contributed to this and gave their time.

    I really appreciate the resources provided as well, look forward to improving.

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  12. My hat tip to people who earn their money exclusively as freelance writers. It has become very tough, especially with the plethora of some personal blogs or bloggers who just write away.

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  13. It’s hard to get to way exactly what you want to say, and get others to pay you for it. Ever heard the line, “We give you the words”? That’s hucksterism!

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  14. I have tried picking up free lance writing gigs before but I didn’t give it 100% effort. I love writing on my blog but the thought of creating content for someone else when I can barely keep up on my own blog has been tough.

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  15. Interesting perspectives and thanks to each for sharing! Money, I feel, inevitably changes the ball game a bit, in most circumstances. For example, when I used to do video editing as a fun hobby, I despised it once it was turned into a profitable business. Something I once loved so much turned into just an over-demanding job, and I soon quit video editing altogether. To avoid being miserable in any job or in life, I think it’s critical to maintaining and evolving your passion and love in all you do.

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