The two reasons why some freelance writers make a great living but most do not
Freelance writing can be a hard way to make a living. But a small group of freelance writers are able to charge a premium for their services and have clients beating a path to their door. Here’s how they do it (and how others can join their ranks).
Freelance writing can be a hard way to make a living. On the one hand, the Internet has opened an insatiable appetite for content. On the other hand, most of that insatiable appetite is serviced by content mills that pay peanuts (or even just the shells of peanuts).
But a small group of freelance writers are able to charge a premium for their services and have clients beating a path to their door. While the median freelancer earns around $20,000 a year, these writers’ easily top six-figures.
How do they do it? Read on.
1. Writers get paid when they know how to write persuasively
What separates the content for which writers are paid well from content that pays $0.08 per word? Impact.
A client is usually willing to pay big bucks for a writing assignment when that piece of writing has to produce a certain outcome. It may not be direct sales copy that tries to get people to buy something, but it’s still meant to influence a reader’s behavior.
For example, a writer tasked with writing a professional continuing education program has to create content that helps professionals understand, retain, and apply new knowledge.
If you write grants, you have to persuade the granting entity to part with its money to fund your project.
Or if you’re asked to create a signup page and a lead magnet, you’re trying to persuade people to exchange their information for a freebie they deem valuable.
In contrast, content that doesn’t pay (or pays a pittance) may have entertainment value that keeps a reader on a particular website for a bit longer, but it’s not designed to produce measurable impact. It’s just there for volume and variety, even if the writing is of high quality.
Impactful content by definition has to be persuasive. It must convince a reader that a particular action is the right thing to do.
Copywriters learn to write persuasively for impact – that’s their gig.
But the majority of freelance writers do not.
Sure, many write well, and produce readable and enjoyable stuff. But it doesn’t move the needle. And if it doesn’t move the needle, it doesn’t earn the moolah. On the other hand, if you’re writing grants that are routinely funded, you’re going to be golden, too.
The good news is that writing persuasively is more science than art. There are rules, and there’s data about what works.
Evoking curiosity helps. Finding the emotional triggers of your audience helps, too. Structuring your argument so that the reader is left with no choice but to agree with your conclusion is essential.
One time-honored structure to make your writing more persuasive is the PAS formula:
problem -> agitate -> solution.
Here’s how it works:
Problem. Identify your audience’s pain point with specificity.
Agitate. Amplify the discomfort of your audience, while also building trust by showing them that you know exactly how their pain feels. This is also the place to build credibility by including facts, metrics or statistics to support their perception of pain while showing them that you’re an expert on this topic.
Solution. Offer a solution to the problem that will deliver your audience from its pain. Support your solution with credibility enhancers, such as an explanation for why the solution works and proof that it works in the form of testimonials.
There are countless variations on the theme of this formula, and there are other formulas that may be a better fit for what you have to achieve with your writing. But applying the lens of this formula to your writing projects will remind you that you must move your reader through a narrative arc that causes them to shift towards seeing your solution as the right one.
2. Writers get paid more when they have additional expertise
Most highly paid freelance writers came to be freelance writers via some other occupation (or three). In their former lives, they were management consultants, or lawyers, or doctors, or marketing executives. By bringing their expertise to how they write, especially if they write for the industry they know best, they’re able to speak the industry’s language and be more persuasive.
They know their audience, and they know what creates credibility and trust in their spheres.
That’s why PhDs or MDs can command $125/hour (or more) for medical writing. Or JDs can charge $150/hour when they write marketing materials for other lawyers.
But what if you majored in English and have no desire to go back to school and get a medical degree or an MBA just so you get paid better as a writer?
You don’t have to. You can still become a go-to expert for a particular industry by studying it deeply and writing about it.
For example, I know a woman who’s thriving as a freelance writer for the pet industry.
She didn’t go back to school, and she didn’t take expensive courses. But what she did do is dedicate the time and effort to learn as much as she could about the various players in that sector, how pet owners think about their buying decisions, what pain points the industry is solving, and so on.
Once she combined her knowledge of the pet industry with her ability to write persuasively, she quickly rose to the top. Clients find HER – not the other way around.
Researching an industry is work, but there are plenty of free resources to get you started, some of which Stanford Graduate Business School compiled here.
So what should you concentrate on – persuasiveness or expertise?
You have to concentrate on both. You have to be able to deliver results for your clients, which takes persuasiveness. And you have to know your clients’ needs and rationale for making certain decisions, which takes expertise.
But here’s the good news. If you work on both at the same time, you’ll create fantastic marketing content for yourself. This content will be the solid foundation on which you can build a thriving and lucrative freelance writing business.
Next week, I’ll discuss the acquisition of expertise in more detail, including the different ways in which it can catapult you ahead of your peers in getting in front of decision makers.