Listicles, Copy, Content, and Essays: How a Freelance Writer Makes a Living

January 2014 stats:
Total earnings: $3,300.91
Completed pieces (all types): 150
Essays published: 3
Novellas rejected: 1

I’ve been a full-time freelance writer for just over a year. I track everything. I post my freelance income to my Tumblr every week, and am always taking notes on who’s hiring and who’s paying.

In January, for example, I got one new client and two new sub-client relationships that pay through an existing client. I got each of these new jobs the old-fashioned way: by having a current client recommend me. These are the jobs that aren’t advertised. This brings my number of current client relationships up to six.

My two biggest clients buy the rights to my words whether or not my name is attached, which is a decent strategy for making money but — as I worry, night after night — a poor long-term career strategy. I have no idea what the long-term career strategy is for this type of job. I suspect it has something to do with eventually becoming Heather Havrilesky, or Lev Grossman, or Ta-Nehisi Coates. Eventually becoming Nicole Dieker.

This series is about what I have to do before that happens — or, equally likely, what I’m going to do if that never happens.

To start the series, let’s look at four types of assignments I get paid to write: listicles, copy, essays, and content. Three of these types come to me directly from clients. The fourth type I have to pitch. (Guess which one falls into that category.)

They all roughly pay about the same, interestingly enough. I’ll get the same amount of money for writing this piece as I would if I had written “10 Things You Didn’t Know About Batman.” (If you’re wishing you were reading “10 Things You Didn’t Know About Batman” right now instead of “how a freelance writer gets paid,” I am sorry. Also, I don’t think I actually know 10 things about Batman that you don’t already know.)

Listicles are my favorite type of article to write. Please let me tell you the best, funniest, or most shocking of everything. I never get a byline on these, so don’t try to look me up. Are listicles polluting the internet with their vapid, snack-sized distraction entertainment? Maybe — but people still want to read them, and they pay well. (And trust me, I spend just as much time distracting myself with list-shaped brain snacks as you do.)

Copy is my catch-all term for anything to do with advertising. Can I describe this product in 150 words, including a call to action for the consumer? Absolutely. Am I going to get a byline? Nope — I’m not selling myself, after all. (I mean, technically, I am. And get your minds out of the gutter.)

Now that I’ve admitted that I write brain snacks and calls to action, I should throw in something that sounds ambitious and noble, like “but what I really want to do is write essays and novels.” This is both true and much more complicated than that. There are a couple of pieces here that I have to break out and examine.

First, as I mentioned earlier, I post my freelance income to my Tumblr every week. Since we measure what matters, it should be clear that what I really want to do is earn money. Like most of us here on the ‘Fold (can I call it the ‘Fold?), if I don’t earn money, everything falls apart.

Now that I’ve got the defensive posturing aside: well, sure. Of course I “really” want to write essays and columns and novels, but the truth is that I am already doing that. (This is the part where I would add “and I’ve been published in this place and that place,” but you can easily look that stuff up on your own.)

I’m doing the work, making the pitches, and building the clips. It’s just that you can’t build a career on three published essays a month. It doesn’t pay the rent.

So, like many writers before me, I pad out the rest with listicles, copy, ghostwriting, and — here it comes — content.

Okay. (Deep breath.) Yes, I have earned a gob of cash writing how-to and topic articles for the usual suspects. It’s frustrating that they don’t give you a byline; why shouldn’t I get credit for knowing how to French braid hair or how to plunge a toilet? People have this assumption that content writers don’t actually know what they’re writing about, but trust me — I know plenty about braiding hair, and I would like some recognition for that.

Do I still want to be doing content, in a year? The short answer is NO. The longer answer? Honestly, it depends on the type of content. (Let’s just say that some content writing is better than others, in every sense of the word.)

It also depends on a realistic assessment of the types of jobs I can find, and whether I’m willing to go all-in on the idea that I can write more and more essays and novels and columns and eventually “become Nicole Dieker.” (I want to believe in this — the idea that if I just trust myself and be the best Nicole I can be, wonderful things will happen. I want to give myself over to this so badly. But then I remember that statistic that says that even with every job filled at once, 60 percent of the unemployed will still be out of work simply because there aren’t enough jobs. It doesn’t feel like there’s enough room in the world for me to be the best Nicole I can be.)

So … that was January. Next time, I’ll recap February’s income. I’ll also write about how I pitch and how long it takes to get from “pitch” to “paid.” (Spoiler alert: longer than it takes frozen meat to go bad.) Until then, we can talk questions and advice in the comments. I am so interested to know how other people do this, and to share what I’ve learned.

Nicole Dieker is a freelance writer and ghostwriter, and is the only member of the band Hello, The Future!

Support The Billfold

The Billfold continues to exist thanks to support from our readers. Help us continue to do our work by making a monthly pledge on Patreon or a one-time-only contribution through PayPal.