I sat down to write this as a general guide to help people better understand their opportunities as freelance writers, but as I sit and watch the world react to yet another round of extra-judicial killings of Black people, I realized why exactly some of us might miss out on the fact that these opportunities exist.
Our time, and our emotions, are stolen, leaving us endlessly focused on topics that impact our very existence and as a result, with reduced emotional room to explore and understand the opportunities out there for us. I hope that this resource will help you get some of that time back, and give you more chances to explore all of your career options as a writer.
What if I told you there was a hidden world of opportunity in freelance writing?
What if I told you that world generally paid better and was less dramatic than what you already know?
What if I told you that just about anybody can step into it?
The Writing Career Conundrum
Huffington Post, Buzzfeed, and their ilk aside, most words you read…somebody was probably paid to write them.
I want you to try a little exercise for the rest of the day…I want you to make note of everything you read — recipes, product inserts, instruction manuals at your job, posters at the doctor’s office, text books, billboards, donation request letters, and even product descriptions on Amazon. All of these are a little peek into the world of paid writing.
That world might seem huge at first, but it’s really only the beginning. Businesses, hospitals, museums, lawn maintenance companies, and herbal supplement startups all talk to their customers and to each other and they generally do it with writing. While a lot of their writing is done in-house by employed writers, a huge portion of it can, should, or could be done by freelancers.
I know because that’s how I make a living.
When I first started working as a freelance writer, people would ask who I worked for and I could never name a company they’d heard of — my clients don’t exist to most of the world, but they, their business challenges, and yes, their money, are as real as anybody else’s.
Your Career and This List
I don’t want to talk too much about my writing work though, because this resource is about the multiple opportunities you have as a writer, and really, yours might look nothing like mine. This is why I want to cover a few of the opportunities you have to assemble your writing career.
Quick note…I say “assemble” because I’m going to be honest with you. A few types of writing simply don’t offer the opportunity to build a livable income across a lifetime. (Unpopular opinion, but I toss most, but not all, pure blogging into that category.) I know of a freelance poet who writes for gossip blogs on the side. I know of authors who use high-paying direct response writing to work part-time and give themselves the mental and emotional space to write their books without worry. Me? I write exclusively for businesses that sell to other businesses. Some people write only on social justice and are happy with a part-time income. Being a freelance writer means figuring out what works for you, and this guide is a good place to start, so let’s go!
If you see anything you’d like to add, or that needs more input, just leave it in the comments. This is a community knowledge-sharing resource that’s constantly being updated, so check back often and chime in…the more voices here, the better!
This is the type of writing most people think when they hear “freelance writer”. Unfortunately, in the world of new media, it’s become largely dominated by low and unpaid assignments and by platforms that aren’t backed by anything other than some venture capital (as opposed to a proven revenue model), facts that get a little obscured by bylines and exposure.
That doesn’t mean there isn’t opportunity here, but building a full-time sustainable income, especially focusing on one subject, might be challenging.
Primary contact person: Editors, assistant editors
Earning potential: Low to moderate
Examples: The Root, New York Times, Forbes, Ebony
This category is very broad, and that’s because basically anybody, from individuals to global corporations, can have a blog. Any of those could mean a chance at paid writing, but you’ll probably do best with platforms that have strong, time-tested revenue models (i.e. their revenue comes from the sale of a product or service vs. advertising or investor money.)
Bloggers generally have a specific skill in informal, brief, communication and those skills can translate to a lot of different areas. Keep your eyes open for websites in fields that you have education and interest in. (Interested in helping Black businesses with their blogs? Check out this series on opportunities for writers.)
Primary contact person: Site owners, CEOs, marketing directors and executives, content marketing agencies, general marketing agencies, anyone with “demand generation” in their title
Earning potential: Low to high, depending on who you’re writing for. Payment can range from $10 to hundreds per post.
Examples: Pretty much any site that has a link that says “blog”.
These days, it’s probably best to focus more on content marketing resources than pure blogging tips. Blogs today (the ones that have the resources to pay writers at least) are generally integrated into larger efforts and you need to at least understand where your work falls in within the bigger picture. My personal favorites are Copyblogger, and Skyword’s Content Standard.
This is where you’ll find the 6- and 7-figure writers making their homes. (Yes, writers do earn that much and they aren’t even the most educated or formally skilled out there.)
Sales letters, landing pages, email campaigns, mail campaigns, webinars…businesses make heavy use of these techniques, and if you can get good at them and prove your results, you’ll be in high demand. There’s an art to sales writing, both in the writing itself and understanding your goals, but anybody can learn it with some practice.
Primary contacts: Business owners, startup founders, marketing executives/directors, VP/director of demand generation, business development personnel
Earning potential: Moderate to very high depending on the size of the client you’re working with and type of writing you do (direct response is the highest-paying)
Naturally, there are a LOT of resources in this field and it can be hard to sort through them, so my suggestion is to start free and cheap. Don’t go investing thousands, hundreds, (or even tens) of dollars until you take advantage of some of the less expensive options out there. This post on sales collateral is a great overview of what types of content we’re talking as well as best practcies. Also, here are four simple and free posts to get you going. When you’re ready to invest more? AWAI’s 6-figure Copywriter program is very good, but this post alone offers one of the best tips I’ve found that you can start to practice right now.
This growing field is full of people busy trying to connect with customers and move product, but most either aren’t strong writers or just don’t have the time to focus on putting together great site copy. If you’re willing to learn how to create product descriptions and copy that helps to move business? That’s where you make your money.
Primary Contacts: Any shop owner on Etsy, eBay, or Amazon. Also, anyone using e-commerce solutions like Shopify or really selling anything online period. (I see particular opportunity for invested professionals the help Black e-commerce platforms better connect with their customers.)
Earning Potential: This is where it gets tricky, because most shop owners don’t have a ton to invest upfront. You can probably find a way to make a bit more by focusing on established sellers with poor product descriptions and web copy, but might need to cut your teeth on projects that don’t pay as much.
Examples: You’ll find some great examples here, but pay attention not only to what pulls you in to buy, but also what leaves you asking questions about a product you’re considering.
From what I’ve seen, this is where the most reliable money in writing is.
Businesses in every industry are trying to connect with people online, and anyone who’s comfortable relating to online audiences can adapt their skills to business needs — all it takes is a willingness to understand an industry and business needs. Also, if you’ve ever had a job in retail, fast food, customer service, telemarketing…anything really, you’ve already got insight into more than you probably realize.
Writing here includes case studies, whitepapers, blogs, news articles, website copy, newsletters, reports, and internal communications. Print copy includes conference materials, brochures, flyers, and sales writing.
Primary contact person: CEOs, marketing directors, content marketing directors, marketing agencies
Earning potential: Moderate to high — Businesses that sell to other businesses (B2B) will generally pay more than businesses that sell to consumers (B2C).
The Agora Companies list of direct response newsletters
This seems to be a writing niche that Black people already have a pretty strong foothold in, but it could be stronger, since this is a massive niche…According to the National Center for Charitable Statistics, “In 2013, public charities reported over $1.74 trillion in total revenues and $1.63 trillion in total expenses.”
If you check bidding sites, there’s a steady stream of requests for both grant and non-profit writing, so building expertise, a reputation, and a full-time income here looks probable (I see reports of people making $75-$100/hr), especially if you can prove results and specialize in a niche. Skill-wise, according to Auntee Rik, it requires research + following instructions as well as “upgraded scholarship essay skills.”
On the non-profit side, if you haven’t already been subscribing to and learning how to mimic the fundraising letters you get in the mail asking for donations, get on that. Your success will be heavily rooted in results and this will be a required skill.
Side note: Experienced, successful grant writers looking to build new income streams likely have potential here in building their own courses, blog presences, e-books, and educational platforms too.
Primary contact: Non-profit organizations, for-profit businesses seeking government grants, individuals including artists, health professionals, and researchers.
Earning potential: Moderate
American Grant Writers Association, 5 Steps to Lucrative Gigs Writing for Nonprofits (Make a Living Writing), AWAI’s Copywriting for Nonprofits course (I can’t personally endorse this one, but their stuff is generally helpful.)
Ghostwriting is essentially serving as the voice of someone else. It can be done for books, blogs, speeches, even social media. You don’t get the glory of a byline, but the pay is usually better.
Gaining a reputation is tricky since most clients don’t want people to know you exist, but there are many opportunities, especially in an age where so many executives and online personalities want to build thought leadership presences.
Primary contact: Marketing directors, individuals
Earning potential: Moderate to high
Examples: Books, songs, and social media presences
You’ll find a lot of potential in this writing niche, especially if you have a technical, medical, or scientific background.
While technical writing used to be mostly about hefty print manuals, technical writers are now creating blogs, whitepapers, and are even involved with more serious social media presences. Pharmaceutical and manufacturing industries have a particular need here, and anyone familiar with coding/programming languages and strong communication skills will likely find opportunity.
Who hires: Software publishers, scientific institutions, engineering companies, editorial consultancies (more info here)
Earning potential: Moderate to high
Examples: End-user documentation, product manuals, reviews and reports, and more from Udemy.
Honorable Mention: Product description/ Product copywriting, Web copy, Real Estate copywriting, Business plan creation, Legal writing, Speech writing, Instructional design, Curriculum writing (These will be updated and fleshed out over time.)
Don’t just wander back out into the world of freelance writing on your own though — your next step should be downloading your Freelance Foundations Workbook so you can start building the framework of your writing career…and if you’re looking for more support? Sign up start receiving the BlackFreelance Warmup Newsletter. Remember that freelancing is a marathon and we all need support.