I didn’t expect this one to be such a long article (5,000+ words, so you better really want to know about this to read it!). So, in late December, I got some email questions from the blog’s readers, asking me what to do if they want to get paid to write.
I was thinking if I could also write about it in the blog, for everyone to read. So, I did.
This is my elaborate reply to those emails. Do you want to get paid to write? This is what I can sum up from my experience.
Build Your Writing Muscle + Mentality
1. Stick to a habit of writing practice.
If you’d like to get paid to write, understand that you need to let go of writing solely as art. It has now also become a job, an occupation, a commitment. We are not allowed to use bad mood (or for writers maybe ‘good mood’) or writer’s block as an excuse not to write. Not wanting to write is not an excuse not to write. If you’d like to get paid to write, start by building a muscle and mentality for it; to start approaching writing the way you would approach any job: with an amount of determination, dedication, commitment, and passion.
With that being said, commit yourself to a block of time every single day, to do your writing practice. Writing practice is not journaling, although journaling is better than not writing at all. What I meant by writing practice here is having at least 15 minutes a day to improve your writing skills. Do you have any difficulties when it comes to writing non-fiction? Do you think you’re weak in grammar? Do you think you need to know more about how to describe a place?
Then set up a time to practice writing (not reading!) about it, improving your skills every single day. Is there a certain kind of writing job you’d like to have? Do you want to write an e-book? A culinary review? A magazine article? Viral content on user-generated content websites? Then start writing about them. Make them a part of your writing practice.
2. Read & learn more about what you
want to can write.
I have more than 30+ books about writing on my Kindle, and probably around 50+ more in my computer; or lying around on the shelf next to my working desk. When I find an article I love on the Internet, I bookmark and save it and read it again, and again, trying to find out what makes this article so captivating. I study the way the writer structure the whole piece, and try to emulate it; only to find out how it might work.
At this point in time, when attention-span is getting shorter, writing short for the Internet could be something you’d like to learn more about. On the other hand, there are still great long essays and in-depth articles out there on the web, so writing long for the Internet could also be something you’re interested in. No matter what it is you’re interested in, learn more, and read more.
Do not limit yourself to learning only about what you want to write. Whenever you can, also learn more about the things you can write. If you want to get paid to write, having the ability to write an article, an e-book, a novel, an essay, a sales page, a short story, a wedding vow, and a 7-minute YouTube video script would give you a better competitive advantage than a writer who can only write a short story.
- Can you get paid only for writing a short story? Of course, you can.
- Can you get more job opportunities if you can write an article, an e-book, an essay, a sales page, a short story, a wedding vow, and a 7-minute YouTube video script? Of course, you can.
So do we really have to learn about what we can write instead of just learning about what we want to write? I would say that the answer is really up to you.
However, when I first started out, I did not limit myself to a certain kind of writing. I wanted to learn and experience many kinds of writing, as much as possible. Later on in life, when we’ve made a name for ourselves, we might finally have the luxury to say that we only want to choose a certain kind of writing or accept a certain writing job. When first starting out, though, I’d like to keep myself open.
Moreover, how do I know what I really want if I haven’t had the chance to see what’s available out there, right?
If you’re thinking about getting paid to write because you’d like to have the freedom of working from anywhere in the world, find out the recent trends for content creation on the Internet, and hone your skills to respond to that. Check out some sites like Trendwatching, Mashable (Creative), or CoSchedule blog for some sparks of inspiration about what kind of writing jobs might be needed, and how we can prepare ourselves for a writing job that might not yet exist (but soon, will).
3. Get a (healthy) reality check.
How do you know if you have written something good, or something bad?
From my previous experience, getting feedback from families and friends IS NOT the right way to go. Either they’d tell the things they thought you’d like to hear; or on the contrary, tell something that hurt your feelings, friends or families are just not the right people to give honest and objective feedback (I still love my friends and families, though!).
The first time I learned about writing short stories, I joined a local writer’s group called Kemudian.com, where we could publish our work and get stars, comments, and feedback from other writers.
From this group, I learned that writing ‘beautifully’ is not enough. When you’re writing a short story, readers are craving for plots, for action, for something that would propel the story forward. I got all this feedback and try to improve myself based on some comments or loopholes other writers found in my story. Joining a writer’s group gives me the opportunity of being vulnerable, by sending out my unfinished work to the world: to be judged.
For me, it was really a good exercise to expose my writings to be judged. When you get paid to write and get commissioned works, like it or not, you’ll receive judgments (in many forms) from your clients on the work you’ve done. And trust me, they are not always kind. Thus, if you want to get paid to write, you need to have thick skin to not take critics personally, and just get yourself used to it.
This is why joining a writer’s group is something I would recommend. However, please bear in mind these 2 things before joining any writer’s group:
1) DO NOT TAKE CRITICISM PERSONALLY. Just because your writing is bad, doesn’t mean you’re a bad writer. If your writing is bad, find ways to improve it. If someone said your character is weak, find some ideas on how to make it stronger. If someone said your first paragraph is boring, find some resources on how to make an attention-grabbing first paragraph. Criticism is not an attack on you as a person, nor as a writer. Learn how to see critics objectively. Learn how to separate your work from yourself, or else you’ll be doomed for many heartaches along the way.
2) ONLY TAKE CONSTRUCTIVE CRITICISM AND IGNORE THE HATERS. Some people criticized because they care, while some others are being critical simply because they do not care. Learn to know the difference. Ignore hate comments, and concentrate only on constructive criticism directly related to your work. Protect your energy from negative vibes.
How to find a writer’s group for you?
- Find a group by searching it online, if possible, find a specific group for the kind of writings you’d like to submit (poetry group, short story, etc.)
- Ask other fellow writers for any recommendation of an existing writer’s group in your area
- If there is none, create one. You can gather 3-4 writers, the exchange works via email, and give comments and feedback once a week.
4. Trust yourself and be a confident writer.
This could be the hardest thing to do. How do you tell people how to trust? I don’t really know how a non (or less) confident writer could build confidence. I think it’s something you need to work on personally.
If you’re not confident about your writings or about yourself as a writer, try to ask yourself when, or in which situation these doubts started to bubble up. Was it something someone told you many years ago when you were a teenager? Was it that time when your parents told you that being a writer could not sustain you? Was it that time when you submitted your work to a magazine and got rejected?
The thing is, to get paid to write, you need to offer your skills to those who would pay you to do the things you love: to write. How would you get someone to work with you and pay you to write if you do not believe in yourself? If you do not believe that you can do it? If you do not believe that you are good enough to get paid for what you wrote?
Read some of these articles from one of my favorite writers, James Altucher about building confidence.
Build Your Name + Portfolio
1. Show your work.
This is also the title of a book by Austin Kleon that happens to be one of my favorite non-fiction books of all time. And if you haven’t read it, I would strongly suggest you get it and start reading.
To build your name and portfolio as a writer, this is what you need to do: showcase your write-ups, as frequently as you can. Either posting articles on your personal blog, writing for user-generated content websites, a thoughtful Facebook note, a witty Twitter update, a thought-provoking LinkedIn post, an informative Instagram caption… whatever that may be, show your work!
If your friend is consistently posting a love poem every Friday evening for a year, you would think of that friend as ‘the love poet’. So, share and show your work, frequently, consistently, and confidently! Showing your work is also a way for you to get feedback, but most of all, it’s a way for you to just show up to work and to stop trying to be perfect.
If you do not show your work, nobody would know about it. If you keep your work only for yourself, nobody would get a chance to see it. To get paid to write, you need to show your work.
2. Build your portfolio.
The next thing you would need is a portfolio. Think of it as a catalog for your potential clients. Samples of write-ups in your blog, articles you’ve published in user-generated content websites, or viral reviews you’ve made somewhere else on the Internet… all these could be included in your portfolio.
However, most clients would ask whether you’ve been working with some other clients before; or not. Basically, they would want to know if you’ve gotten paid to write before. If you haven’t, they would think: 1) you’re not good enough, nobody wants to work with you; 2) you’re new and inexperienced.
So another good way to build a portfolio is by offering your services pro bono (or for a very friendly price) to a client.
Would you like to have a portfolio on writing about restaurants and culinary? Shoot out an email to as many restaurants as you can, and offer them a pro bono service to be included in your portfolio later on. Either it’s writing an article about their restaurants for a magazine, improving the copy of their website, editing some of their promotion materials… do some works related to the services you’ll be offering your future clients.
Take up 2-3 restaurants that received your offer, start working, and build your portfolio. Do not forget to state clearly that you would need this project to be included in your portfolio, and that the restaurant’s name or logo would be appearing as a client of yours on your website (if any) or in your promotion materials. Make sure they agree on this.
Another way to build your portfolio is to contact non-profit organizations in your area and ask them whether they need a hand for any writing-related project. Building your portfolio while doing good and volunteering your skills would be meaningful work!
Keep your work samples in one folder, and if possible, upload it online to a document-sharing app. The next time a client asks about your previous works, you can send them an email with links to your work samples!
Even if it’s an unpaid work, you are building your portfolio here, so make sure that you’re doing really good work! You’ll be using these works as samples of how good you are. It’s your showcase. And these non-paying (or low-paying) clients are your first few clients! Make sure they appreciate your work (and craving for more!).
If your pro bono client is happy with your work, ask for a testimonial. Ask for permission to use the testimonial in your website, or in any other promotional materials you have.
3. Take part in relevant communities & networking events.
If you’d like to write novels, attend networking events where you can meet with other novel writers, novel readers, and novel publishers. If you’d like to write for fashion brands, join their communities, attend their events, get to know the people in the industry, get to know the agencies they are working with. Surround yourself with these people: with your future competitors, future clients, future middlemen, future assistants, future consumers.
Once you’re there, what should you do?
Absorb as much knowledge as you can, find out any information or contacts you would need, get to know the latest trend and updates in the industry. Those who listen learn more than those who talk. Use this opportunity to learn the industry dynamics.
But, above all, be a good listener, and be helpful.
I would also like to say be entertaining, but not all of us are blessed with the skill to entertain others. So, be a good listener. It is entertaining to have a good listener in the crowd. Find out ways how you can help others. Does someone need to get in touch with someone you know? Get them introduced. Does someone need advice on where to go this weekend? Does someone need to know where the restroom is?
Be helpful. You’ll never know when these random faces and names would come to your assistance, but they would, someday. Someday, they would.
4. Find a mentor and be their ‘intern’.
I learned everything I need to know about writing business letters and documents from my ex-boss. He is my mentor when it comes to business writing.
As a former investigative journalist turned a communications consultant, he would sit with me for hours, correcting my grammar, style, structure, as well as a selection of words. He would ask me about my thinking process, about why I choose to write a certain thing following a certain flow, about what will happen if this paragraph is erased, about why the writing is not as witty as it should be.
From writing a pitch email to a full-fleshed proposal, from a report’s summary to a press release, I learned through him: by reading what he wrote, by listening to what he said, by improving through his criticisms, by exposing myself to voluntarily writing more documents. Only by doing this, I get more opportunities to be mentored: thus more opportunities to accelerate my growth!
At the time I was working there a few years ago, my boss’ professional fee would be something around US$1,200-1,700, per hour. When I volunteered myself to write more business documents, I got more time to be mentored, and I did not have to pay anything (on the contrary, he paid me my salary!).
They say you are the average of the 5 people you’re closest to. If you want to get paid to write, make sure that one of those people is your mentor.
How to find a mentor if you’re not working for one?
Find a writer you respect, someone you would want to ‘intern with’. Try to get in touch with the writer, either by attending events where he/she speaks, commenting on his/her blog posts, or writing an email complimenting his/her writings. Try to do this for some time, probably 1-2 months, before asking for any opportunity to be mentored. It is necessary to build a relationship and get the ‘potential mentor’ to notice you, and get warm to you. It is very opportunistic if the very first time you contact him/her is only when you’d like to get mentored.
If you have quite a decent amount of money you can spend to pay your mentor, feel free to ask his/her rate to become your writing mentor. I do believe in a healthy exchange of energy. Paying your mentor would not only show how much you respect his/her time and credibility, it would also make you feel more serious and committed in doing this mentorship.
If you do not have the money to pay a mentor (or if your mentor’s fee is just way too high than what you can afford to offer), offer your time and skills. Tell your mentor about some of your work experience and skills, and offer your help in assisting him/her in any writing projects he/she might have at the moment.
By working under their guidance and supervision, you can actually learn faster. You’re not only learning about the craft of writing itself, but you will also learn about how to approach writing as a daily job. Most of the time, if you perform well enough, your mentor could also be the one recommending you to take job offers he/she couldn’t handle.
5. Go out and teach what you know.
Knowledge is multiplied when shared. So, if you have time, go out and teach what you know about writing. I love teaching; because the more I teach, the more I know about what I didn’t know before. Teaching is another way of learning, of improving ourselves, of transferring our mind into someone else’s mind. It’s an interesting process. As you teach, you’ll learn a few skills you’ll need to deal with a client: empathy, patience, persuasion skills, and energy management.
How do you put yourself in the shoes of someone who doesn’t even know how to start writing? How can you explain things step by step, slowly, in a way that can be easily digested and understood? How would you keep them excited about learning more, about knowing more, about keep learning instead of giving up? How is it possible for you to stay positive and supportive after trying to explain the same thing over and over again, something you would deem ‘so easy’ but turn out to be ‘really difficult’ for others?
Thinking about taking a course in handling difficult clients? Try teaching a bunch of elementary school students.
Find Work + Keep It
1. Decide on your starting price.
You’ll need to set-up a fee for your write-ups because it’s time for you to get a job and get paid for it. How much? It depends on how you value your work, but to get close to being objective, ask some of your ‘free clients‘:”If you have the budget and could pay me for what I did, how much money would you feel comfortable to spend on it?”
Then build your fee based on the answer.
When you’ve built your portfolio and have had some satisfied clients, you could always raise your fee accordingly.
2. Browse for jobs and commissioned works.
Now that you want to get paid to write, start looking for jobs and commissioned works. How? There are 2 ways to do this.
First, you can find many sites offering writing jobs online, only by typing the keyword on search engines. Although it’s quite comfortable to find commissioned work this way, the downside is this: you are competing with many writers. Some with many stars and reviews, and have worked for 50+ online clients before. If you’re just starting out, you might feel a bit overwhelmed by this. However, try signing up for this service to find a potential client in your area who might need your writing service.
The second way is more traditional, but I actually prefer this one. There’s a reason why you go to community or networking events and build relationships with those in your line of work. There’s a reason why you need to be a good listener and be helpful to them. Now, it’s time to tell them that you have ‘just finished a project’ and have the capacity to take up some writing jobs. Do they know anyone who might need help in writing a copy, a blog post, an article, an e-book?
I found this to be more effective than fishing jobs online, at least based on my experience. This is also one of the reasons why Build Your Name + Portfolio is in Step 2, something you should be doing before even trying to find commissioned works.
The thing is this: if you have built your name and portfolio well, the chance is you would have had some offers to do commissioned work already!
3. Accept the job!
I don’t really like to write about that. It’s not my kind of thing. It’s not paying as much as I hope it would. It’s a boring job. It’s not as prestigious. It’s just a small project. If you’re thinking this way and about to turn down an offer on a writing job, ask yourself this question: at this stage, can I afford to turn down this offer?
Now that writing is a job, or a source of decent income, or something that will put some food on the dining table, would you have the luxury to only receive commissioned works you like? Or would you do the commissioned works you have the capacity and capability to do?
There is no right or wrong answer to this. It’s a choice, and you are free to decide for yourself.
My background is as a communications consultant. I worked mostly with big brands and corporations before, so it would only natural that when I quit my consulting job and started offering my service as a writer, I got a big chunk of commissioned works related to writing business documents.
Would I choose to work on something else?
Of course. Give me scripts for wedding videos, human-interest articles, personal essays or e-book writing, even popular reports.
Do I accept the ‘business document’ job?
Because I know I have the capacity and the capability of doing it. Because I can get a decent income from this work while traveling. Because I want to help them to get this work done. Because I want to keep practicing and sharpening my skills in writing business documents. Because it’s a job and I’m grateful for getting it.
How long would I keep doing this? As long as necessary. As long as I am not cramped with 100+ requests to write a wedding video script; to the point that I cannot take any offers for writing business documents. As long as I still want to have some traveling funds in my savings account.
The truth is this: no matter how passionate you are about what you do, when it becomes a job, at one point or another, you’ll just have to deal with things you’re not so comfortable with. I think this is where we got it wrong when it comes to the term do what you love, and we imagine this perfect day when we can only do the things we want to do. But what about seeing it this way: it is exactly because you REALLY LOVE what you do, you CAN put up with some uncomfortable things along the way, and DO IT anyway.
If you love it that much, you won’t just quit when things get hard.
4. Get to know your middlemen (or women).
Some of my commissioned works came not from the client directly, but from the client’s agents, partners, or even the client’s friends. Most of the works came in through referrals. It was someone-suggesting-me-to-someone-else situation. I found this to be the most convenient way of getting commissioned work.
If you want to get paid to write, get to know your middlemen. These are the people who can actually hand over some works to you. They might not be the client, but they have access to your potential clients. And they may need your service.
For instance, agencies (communication, advertising, content production) could be your middlemen if you’re thinking about writing for big brands. So get to know them. When you bump into any writing-related information they would find interesting, inform them about it.
Is there a new trend in website copywriting? Is there a new project about writing a novel via Twitter? Is there a groundbreaking formula to write sales pages that convert? Share this information with them. Let them start seeing you as an expert, as someone who is always updated to the latest trend, as someone who cares, as someone they would call whenever they have job opportunities.
How do you know who are your middlemen? By joining related communities and attending networking events. That’s why we need to do this as we’re building our name and portfolio.
5. Reach out + collaborate.
When you want to get paid to write, you can’t just write and be happy with that. You also need to sell your services.
Like it or not, you need to market yourself, promote your services, and close the deal with a client for a commissioned work.
I think most of us writers (including myself) are not that comfortable with selling. Most probably because we’ve been exposed to ‘hard selling’: the pushy, make-you-feel-guilty-and-annoyed type of thing. When we’re thinking about selling, we’re thinking about THAT kind of selling.
But let’s put it this way. You’re out there about to buy a new laptop. With so many options available, you really don’t know which one to buy. There are so many options with the budget you have and many different specs. Which one to choose?
How many of you would feel grateful to have a helpful, informative, and genuine salesperson trying to help you find the best laptop for you? How many of you would appreciate it when he said, “Oh, you want to use it for designing stuff? This is the best for design works because it has this and that and that… and it is actually voted the friendliest laptop for designers in this magazine…”
How many of you would appreciate THAT instead of a salesperson who just shrugs; and without listening to what you really need in a laptop, insists on offering you laptop A: the most expensive in the store?
If you’re a helpful, informative, and genuine salesperson, would you still feel bad about selling?
Or if we change the word selling into ‘helping’, would you be more comfortable in offering your services? If, instead of thinking what-can-I-sell-today, we think how-I-can-help-out-today, would you see selling in a better light?
When you’re about to reach out to a client offering your services, ask yourself first: what is the one thing I know I can really help him with?
Send this email. It is actually a sales email.
If you’re still not comfortable with this (or if at some point you want to reach more new clients), collaborate. Find a friend or a colleague who is really good in selling. Someone you’d like to talk to all day. Someone who is really good with people. Then, collaborate with him. Ask him if he would sell your services and get a commission for every deal being made.
We’re always stronger together, aren’t we?
6. Your ideal job and where to find them.
So, you’ve always wanted to write food-related articles for food-related clients?
Now that you’ve had enough commissioned works to sustain yourself, and you have made a name for yourself out there, start offering your specific service for a specific client during the weekends (or when you’re not busy working on other commissioned works).
Create an offer on some writing services you can do for restaurants; or for those who want to make recipe books, or to improve the copy of a restaurant’s websites. Show off your portfolio in this subject. Offer a competitive starting price or a discount to get more of your ‘ideal clients’ at this stage. Test the waters. See if you can get enough work from this niche alone in 3-6 months.
The day you get more ideal jobs than you could handle is the day when you can turn down jobs you do not really like; or the day when you can hand over those jobs to someone else. Maybe it’s time for you to branch out and hire other writers to work for you!
The idea here is to get paid to pursue your ideal job. If you have the luxury of starting out with enough savings; so you could exclusively pursue your ideal job, then you’re lucky! If you don’t, like most of us might be, work on other writing jobs while pursuing your ideal jobs.
7. Strive to be a kind person.
More than striving to be a good writer, strive to be a good person. Be kind. This is how you’ll keep the job. Always give more than you can take, always be a helping hand whenever you can, always hand in your best work, always show up in your best mood possible.
This is the thing: when someone gives you commissioned works, they don’t necessarily hire your services. They hire you. YOU are the reason why they give this job to you, and not to someone else. To be honest, we are not that unique. There are many people out there who can write business documents or wedding video scripts. There are many writers out there who can do what we do. A client chooses you because they want to work with you: as a writer, and as a person.
In reality, the more clients you work with, the more hard times you would probably experience. Maybe the clients are not satisfied with your work, maybe they are not treating you well, maybe the two of you are just not a match-made-in-heaven for this project, maybe they find someone who can perform the same work for a better price, maybe you’re feeling stuck working on this project and you wanted to drop it off…
Whatever it might be, when you have a hard time making decisions, when you have to turn down a deal, to send THAT scary email, to make THAT uncomfortable phone call, ask yourself: “If I am kind, what would I do in this situation?”
And just know: that in the long run, being kind wins over being right.