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Updated September 2016.
I’m a comedy writer. But like most people pursuing comedy careers, I don’t always make all of my money from comedy. I have, however, made livable money from freelance writing. Sometimes my comedy friends ask me for advice about how to earn money by freelancing. So, instead of sending out a very long email to a friend every couple of months, I thought I’d write a very long blog post instead.
Who the Hell Is This Jerk “Meg,” and Why Should You Listen to Her?
I know both sides of the freelancing game. I’ve been a paid freelance writer since 2006 — I’ve done it as a side gig to a full-time job, and, for a few years, I supported myself entirely through freelance writing. But I’ve also served as editor at a few different online magazines, where I hired, worked with, and fired freelance writers. I don’t know everything, but I know some things.
Why “for Comedians”?
Because I’m a comedy writer, and a lot of my friends are comedians of some sort too. We’re all trying to find ways to make money while still having the time and brain space for our comedy, and I want to help people do that. There are also successes and mistakes I’ve seen specifically from comedians that I’ll address here — but most of what I’m writing about really applies to anyone who wants to freelance write.
A Note About the Phrase “Freelance Writing”
I’m using “freelance writing” here to just mean writing that you’re doing to make money. It’s very possible that you might also get paid to do freelance comedy writing, but that’s not really what this article is about. This is about how to get day-job-style writing gigs.
The Types of Jobs
There are so many places to write for!
You might not be aware of this, but the internet is full of blogs! The blogging market is really saturated, so don’t be surprised when a publication tells you they can give you a $5 honorarium for a 2,000-word article (but you probably shouldn’t take that gig). That said, there are decent-paying blogging jobs out there — especially if you have a niche you know well and are willing to put some real research into your posts.
Other Online Writing
Product reviews! Website copy! “Real” publications that aren’t blogs! There is a lot of stuff out there. This is a very vague description, I know. But I’ll have some information on how to find all of these sorts of jobs in the next section.
It’s much harder to break into print writing than online writing — but print publications pay more (often much more).
These jobs can be difficult to find, but they can pay VERY well. Like, $60+ an hour well.
Where to Find Jobs
Turns out, even when you’re talented, work doesn’t automatically come to you. Here’s how to find some jobs.
There are so many places to find real writing work. One of my favorite resources when I was freelancing full-time was online-writing-jobs.com. This site aggregates freelance writing jobs that were posted all around the internet. You can also search your local Craigslist directly (even though any posts you find there will probably be aggregated into online-writing-jobs), or try other online writing job boards like ProBlogger and Freelance Writing Jobs.
Search for Publications That Match Your Experience
Even if it doesn’t look like a publication is hiring, send a friendly email pitching yourself to the editor — some sites don’t regularly advertise that they’re looking for writers simply because of the deluge of crappy applications they get. If you’re the right fit, they’ll at the very least keep you on file for future work.
Ask Your Old Coworkers
Reach out to former employers and coworkers, and ask if they need any freelance assistance. Most of my well-paying corporate copywriting gigs have come through former day job connections.
Effective networking isn’t about having three minute conversations with as many strangers as possible after an indie improv show (but hey, nice comedy speed dating, bro) — it’s about being generous. Whenever I’m looking for freelance gigs, I always try to share appropriate jobs with people I know who might be a good fit, whether I’m also applying to them or not. It’s a nice human thing to do, and it makes people a) know that you’re also looking for freelance writing work and b) be more likely to think of you when they see jobs as well. Plus, even if someone you know gets a job over you, wouldn’t you rather it was that person than some stranger?
I know, I know — LinkedIn is kind of lame. But people do use it. Not only can you search for jobs on there, but I have been recruited for freelance gigs on there — even freelance comedy gigs.
Talk Yourself Up
Don’t be afraid to talk about your skills and what you’re working on, and tell everyone that you’re trying to do more freelance writing. You never know who knows someone who knows someone. And you need a website. Really, if you’re pursuing a comedy career, you should already have a website. People want to Google you. Don’t disappoint them! (Or, at the very least, disappoint them in another way.)
MediaBistro has job listings, but most of those are for things like full-time advertising sales positions. The more useful tool for freelancing, I’ve found, is a MediaBistro membership — the website keeps a fantastic database of how to pitch to different print publications and higher-end websites, including names and contact information for editors, topics they want to hear and topics they don’t, etc. I recommend getting some published work you can show before you make the investment — a membership is $55 for a year — but if you get even one print pitch picked up, it more than pays for the cost. The first gig I got through a MediaBistro-informed pitch netted me $500 for 250 words and a couple of recipes — and the editor apologized for paying so little!
How to Get the Jobs You Find
Do you ever write something and feel like you need an introductory paragraph for the sake of visual formatting, but feel like you don’t really need it in terms of content?
Yeah. Me too.
Send Not-Shitty Application Emails
Here are a few things I’ve included in my application emails that improved the number of responses I received.
When I was freelancing full-time, I included the word “spunky” in the subject line for most of my pitch emails. For example: “Spunky and Experienced Freelance Writer Available for XYZ Job!” Multiple people who I got interviews with told me that this stood out to them. Jobs posted on Craigslist can get 300+ responses. It helps you a LOT if you can stand out in the subject line.
My cover letter is always a bulleted list with the most important information bolded, so people could easily skim it, but get more information if they wanted to. For example, a bullet point might look like this:
- I have extensive experience writing about butts: For the last four years, I’ve been the senior blogger at buttcatalog.com, the internet’s largest butt-listing site. Before that, I served as Butt Editor at Butt University’s internal butt group.
At the bottom of pitch emails, I include a few samples pertinent to that specific job, and I give a brief explanation of each right in the email. Like this:
- A Snack Called Death: On the history of funeral cookies and the act of literally eating sins (with recipes!)
If You’re Cold-Emailing, Include a Sample and Short Bio
If you’re reaching out to a publication to see if they take submissions, the email should be terse. That said, I do recommend including a short bio and a link to at least one relevant sample. From personal experience as a busy editor, I can tell you that it’s easy to ignore an email from a stranger that says “Do you take submissions?” But if that same email says, “Do you take submissions? I’m an experienced writer whose work has appeared in Atlantic City Sadness Magazine and Amazing Babies Monthly. Here’s a link to a sample of my work,” you’re more likely to catch an editor’s eye. And if they click through and like your writing, you might hear back.
Develop a Niche (or Two or Three)
When I was working as an editor at a personal finance website, the biggest problem I saw with applications was a lack of experience. Not a lack of writing experience — we had some great writers. But so many freelancers try to make money as generalists, writing for as many sites as possible, and doing a so-so job at all of them. If you have areas of specialized expertise, promote the hell out of them. Lots of writers can research, but if you can speak from a place of experience AND construct a coherent sentence, you will be a great candidate.
Feel like you don’t have any areas of expertise? P’shaw. Start by making a list of the jobs you’ve had and areas you know about. It doesn’t matter if you think there might not be a publication for them — you have no idea what might be out there. You can search for publications after you know what you want to search for.
But it’s not enough to just know something — you need to show it. It doesn’t matter if you have tons of knowledge about, say, Eastern European sausage-construction techniques. People want to see proof that you have written about Eastern European sausage-construction. The more work you do in a particular area, the more work you can get in that area.
It’s easiest to develop niches in areas you know and enjoy, but there can be benefits to doing the research required to cover other areas. For example, at the personal finance website, we were ALWAYS looking for good writers who really knew about investing (or could do really, really solid research). If you see multiple job postings looking for writers with a certain area of expertise, it might be something to consider. Know that writing these pieces will feel like work. But it will be work that can fit your schedule.
Make Targeted Resumes
When you have a niche, you want to show it, which is why you should make resumes targeted to each job. It makes you look like a stronger candidate — if I’m hiring a personal finance writer, I’m more likely to hire the one who shows five personal finance writing jobs as opposed to one personal finance job and a variety of other experience. At first, making targeted resumes can take a little bit of work, but then it just becomes plug and play — pasting in the experience that is most relevant to the job you’re applying for.
If you don’t have enough experience yet to do this, don’t worry. Just make a resume that focuses on your writing strengths, even if that means you’re talking about experience writing in college.
Finally, two resume things to NOT do. First, don’t send an acting resume — most people hiring writers won’t know what to do with that. (Because really, how does acting in King Lear show that you can write 500-word articles about the plumbing industry?) Second, even if you are a relatively recent graduate, don’t put your education at the top of your resume. That screams “I have no experience.” Even if you have relatively little work experience, still put what you have above the education section of your resume.
Send the Right Samples
This might be the most important piece of advice I can give anyone: Send samples that are similar to what the publication prints. Again: Send samples that are similar to what the publication prints.
I’ve had the good fortune to be able to hire some comedy-writer friends for non-comedy publications I was working at. And, when I asked for samples, SO many people sent me pilots and spec scripts. That’s fine for me — I like reading everyone’s hilarious work. But my non-comedy bosses had no idea how to process these as samples. All they really wanted to see what that people could form precise and coherent paragraphs that incorporated a bit of research. Ideally about the topic the site covered.
This doesn’t mean you’re screwed if you only have comedy writing samples. Sometimes all you need is a good recommendation from a friend. But if you don’t have that, you might need to write some samples on spec (ie, for free). Don’t think of it as working for nothing — think of it as putting a sweet business suit on your writing skills. It helps you display your professionalness for potential employers.
And I’m not one to tell you to work for free (well, usually — more on that below). But this is a technique that works. It won’t work every time, because nothing works every time. Personally, I’ve had a lot of success with it, especially early in my freelancing career, when I didn’t have many (or any) published clips.
And While You’re at It, Send the Right Pitches
If you’re submitting to a publication that buys one-off articles (as opposed to looking for people to add to their regular stable of bloggers), they’ll probably want you to pitch story ideas. Like everything else, keep your pitches brief, and keep them targeted to that publication. That means reading some of the stories they publish to get a feel for what they want.
Then, unless the publication says otherwise in their submissions section, send a possible title for the article you’re pitching and a brief, one-to-three sentence description that expands on the title. It’s helpful if you make the title something that’s attention-grabbing. Even though the editor might eventually change the title of your piece, showing that you can write a snappy title is an easy way to prove that you’re a good writer and that you put time and care into your work.
So don’t write:
Something about old dick jokes
I’d like to write a story about old dick jokes because I think that’d be funny.
A Long, Hard Look at the History of the Dick Joke
From ancient Roman graffiti to 1703’s Ornatissimus Joculator to 1944’s New Anecdota Americana, humans have always laughed at dick jokes. This piece will look at how the dick joke has changed (or hasn’t changed) over thousands of years, because no matter how prim-and-proper people of the past seem, humans have always laughed at wangs.
The description is also a good place to address any questions an editor might have about a piece before they ask them. That’s why I included the book titles above — it shows that I already did the research, and I know that there is, ahem, fertile ground for this article.
Things to Always Do
These will get you more and more work.
Be Nice and Work Hard
Like in so many other areas, relationships count in freelance writing. I am always happy to recommend people who are pleasant to work with and turn in good work. If you are nice and work hard, good things will come back to you. Maybe not immediately, but they will come back to you.
Listen to Your Editor
In my work as an editor, nothing has been more frustrating than writers who repeatedly fight me on edits. I don’t love all of the edits that I give writers. I even actively think some of them are stupid. But I also know the audience that I’m preparing articles for, and I know what works for them. My job as an editor is to turn the writer’s article into the best thing it can be for the audience in question. The same goes for most editors you’ll work with.
There are times when fighting edits is valid — but use that move sparingly, so you can save it for a time when it really counts. One compromise technique is to ask the editor clarifying questions about the edit. It could be that there is another solution that will make both of you happy.
Things to Maybe Do
These are personal opinions, but they’re suggestions I’d make to a friend. So if you want to be my friend, you can consider these suggestions.
Don’t Read the Comments
Even if comments on an article are written “to” you, most of the time, they’re not really for you. (Except for the occasion when a legitimately nice commenter has found a typo or inaccuracy, or has a well-reasoned argument to consider.) Comments, generally, are for the commenters. And those commenters are not nice. People on the internet can be blazingly cruel because (among other reasons) they can criticize you without ever having to say these things to your face. Look, if you have the sort of thick skin or morbid curiosity that makes you want to scroll through your comments, go ahead. Some of the comments will even be nice, which is always fun! But otherwise, just leave ’em be.
If You’re Writing Something Personal, Do Research on the Site You’re Submitting It To
Some sites will rejigger the title — or other parts — of your personal story in order to make it clickier. If you’re writing about something that already makes you feel vulnerable, these changes can twist your message and really hurt. If you want more information on this, I recommend reading this Slate piece. It’s a good primer on potential pitfalls to be aware of when you’re trying to sell personal essays.
Leave Your House
Most writing is, by its basic nature, lonely work. If you’re a writer working from home, loneliness can grip onto you like a frightened snake, its venom convincing you that everyone you ever considered a “friend” only spent time with you out of pity. Leave your house sometimes. I like to put aside a few dollars from every check I receive for coffee, so I know that I can, at the very least, go work in a coffee shop a few times a week. Lunches or coffees with friends are really great too. Nighttime stuff outside of the house helps as well, but I find that leaving the house during the day, either to work or in-between work sessions, is especially helpful.
Oh, hey. I guess we need to buy food for living and fake blood for our sketches.
How Much Do I Charge?
This is a stupid difficult question to answer. I’ve seen reputable websites pay anywhere from $5 to $500 per article, and many publications won’t tell you what they pay up front.
I usually figure out what to charge by breaking the work down into an hourly rate. Think about how long it takes you to write an article, and what the wage is you want to earn. Some years ago, I landed a gig writing articles for $100 a pop — not bad for the internet. But the articles turned out to require so much research and so many rounds of edits that I ended up only making $10 an hour, which I didn’t feel was worth my time. But quickie 200-word posts that I can bang out in 45 minutes and pay $25 each? That’s much more worthwhile.
If you don’t have a lot of experience, you will have to work for less at the beginning. But, y’know, that applies to any job you’ll ever have.
And if you’ve been doing good work for a publication and they seem satisfied, don’t be afraid to ask for a raise. If publications have the money, they’ll often be happy to pay you to keep you around and happy.
What Do I Put on an Invoice?
Different companies often have different requirements for invoices. The basics are usually:
- Phone number
- Description of services performed
- Amount due/rate: (ie, Rate and time: 30 hours of editing at $25/hour. Total amount due: $750)
Some organizations also require your social security number or an invoice number. You can always ask if you’re not sure. I always just put the information in a Word document and email it over.
How to Manage the Stress of Living Solely From Freelance Money
Getting all of your money from freelance writing can be really, really stressful. Many freelance clients don’t pay regularly, or they do, but it can be up to 90 days between invoicing and receiving payment. I have one client that will pay me anywhere between two weeks and six months after I’ve sent an invoice.
There are a few ways to help mitigate the stress:
- Get one (or more) consistent gigs: This can be a consistent freelance writing job that gives you a set amount of money every month, or working part-time in a non-writing job that helps you maintain some consistency in your income.
- Save when you can: It can be really, REALLY hard to save when you’re…well, when you’re doing pretty much any job that also allows you the flexibility to pursue your comedy career. That’s why you need to save when you can. If you’re able to, put 20% of your money in savings (or (10% to savings and 10% to debt reduction) every time you receive a check.
- Have an emergency fund: It doesn’t need to be huge — $1,000 is a great place to start (although I know, yes, that can be huge depending on your situation — save what you can, and you’ll get there). Put it in a savings account, and don’t touch it. This is the money that keeps you from going into credit card debt if your car breaks down, you need to go to the doctor, or you have to break your lease because your roommate decided that while she’s waiting for her acting career to take off, she’s going to start sheltering several feral cats in order to surround herself with “good feline energy.”
Understand Your Taxes
If you make your money only from freelance work, your checks probably won’t have taxes taken out, which means that you’ll owe money to the government come April 15 (or, if you’re freelancing full-time, you might pay taxes quarterly). If you aren’t prepared for it, paying these taxes really, really sucks. When I was freelancing full-time, I opened an ING savings account just for saving money for taxes, and put 1/4 of every check I received in there. That way, when tax time came around, I was covered.
The flip side to taxes is that, as a freelancer, you can make lots of deductions for things that are related to your work (that goes for your creative work too — this poorly fitting clown suit? Deducted!). If you need a tax preparer in Los Angeles that understands the ins and outs of freelancing and deductions, I recommend Chuck Sloan and Associates — I’ve used them since I moved to LA, and I’ve been very happy with the experience. Oh, and speaking of tax-type things, depending on where you live, you might also need a business license. This varies by city and state, so the best way to find out is doing a search for something like “San Francisco freelancing business license.” Or maybe that’s not the best way. I don’t know.
When You Should Write for Free, and When You Shouldn’t
Overall, I believe that writers shouldn’t write for free. We’re skilled, talented, and hard-working people, and we deserve to be paid for that work. The internet is stuffed to the gills with people trying to scam you out of your skill. Don’t let them.
That said, there are some times when writing for free can be helpful. Writing some samples on spec, as I mentioned earlier, can help you get your career started. I also publish some of my humor writing for free. I do this for two reasons: One, very few websites pay for humor writing, and two, there’s value in being associated with a big name, like McSweeney’s or even The Huffington Post. I’ve even gotten paid work because of pieces I published for free on these higher-profile sites.
You Will Fail, and Then You Won’t
If you have made any effort in your creative career, you know that you fail a lot. You have to. It’s part of the process. You get jealous, angry, and depressed. You curse your brain for not wanting to do anything other than writing/acting/art/whatever and wish that you could shut that part of yourself off and just be like your sister who has kids and a husband and runs ultramarathons and lives in a city that is not New York or LA and seems super happy. You put your head under the covers and become convinced that any person who ever complimented your art was lying to you, and your cat probably hates you too, or at least he likes your roommate better.
But then you keep working. Because you’re dedicated, and you love the thing you do, and you know that failure is part of the process.
The fact that you’re already familiar with failure will make you a great freelancer. You’ll send out dozens of applications and pitches without ever hearing anything. You’ll not get jobs, and then go to the website and discover that they hired some near-illiterate hack instead. But the hack might be working for far below a living wage, and the jobs you never heard back on could have so many reasons for not hiring you that have nothing to do with your talent and work ethic. In fact, you may still hear back from them, just much later than you’d expect. (I’ve been surprised by “We want to hire you!” emails sent MONTHS after I applied.)
A Final Pep Talk
You are a talented, hardworking, and funny person — and you can do this! Doing the work is the biggest part of being successful. So do it!