As the web continues to expand, writers are in high demand. Working as a freelance writer can be an exciting career path, but there are some pretty big potholes in the road ahead. To help you navigate the ups and downs, Nerd For A Living presents “Blogger Boot Camp”, a series of posts from Rob Lammle, a seven-year veteran freelance writer for sites like Mental Floss Magazine and Mashable.com. Rob will give you a glimpse into the life of a freelancer to see if you have what it takes to become a successful content creating machine.
The Working Blogger: A Lesson in Tough Love
If Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket has taught me anything, it’s that excrement can be stacked as high as 5’9” tall. But it’s also taught me that Boot Camp is where they separate the wheat from the chaff… the cream from the milk… the Kirks from the Red Shirts. And we’re going to start this series of posts with a little bit of Gunnery Sergeant-style tough love to make sure that you’re ready for what lies ahead. Because you may think that writing for the web is all free stuff, cool interviews, and viral fame. There is some of that, but there’s a lot more that will make even the most desperate English major say forget it and just stay at their crummy customer service job.
Let’s just get it over with by tearing off the Band-Aid: Writing for the web should not be your household’s primary source of income. At least not right away. If you have a spouse/partner/trust fund that can support you, has good health insurance, and doesn’t mind rarely ever spending any time with you, then by all means, start your writing career tomorrow.
But until you’ve worked at this for a while, you might not make enough in a month to pay your water bill, let alone your rent and other expenses. Some weeks you might not even make enough to buy lunch at McDonald’s. I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but you’ll probably need to keep that sales rep job, that dentist’s office receptionist gig, or continue mowing lawns for your uncle’s landscaping business, and work on your burgeoning writing career in your spare time.
Blogging for the Little Dollars
Because the unfortunate truth is, most sites that are willing to give a newbie writer a shot are run by one or two people who are barely making enough in ad sales to cover the web hosting bill. You might get lucky and find a site that’s able to pay $1 per post, or $5 to $10 for a review/feature, but the fact is, many sites today simply can’t afford to pay you anything. In order to get to the (still not very) big money game, you’ll need to have a few bylines before most paying sites will give you a second glance.
So even though the four most hated words as a creative are “work for the exposure”, that might be what you’ll have to do until you have a portfolio built up. This isn’t to say that your hard work won’t pay off eventually, but at first, you’re going to have to really hustle for every dollar earned.
No Sleep ‘Til Publication
Speaking of hustling, for a full-time freelancer, you’re looking at 12 to 16-hour days. Sometimes those hours will be spread out, especially if you have to watch a show that’s on late at night and then write a review/synopsis for publication in the morning. If you don’t have too many outstanding features, you’ll be able to cut down your weekend work to three or fours hours per day. If it’s a slow week, you might even be able to take Sunday off.
If part-time feature writer is more your speed, you’re probably looking at 3 to 4 hours nearly every night. You’ll also probably want to start brown-bagging it, because your day job lunch hour will now be spent researching, writing, or looking for new story ideas to pitch. If you’ve been disciplined through the week, you might be able to take the weekend off, or you might be spending your entire Saturday working at Starbucks if a deadline dictates.
Blogger Bonus Round
If you’re still crazy enough to consider this career path, then I have some good news for you: There are some upsides.
If you pursue a gig at an entertainment site, chances are you’ll get some really cool stuff, because publishers will throw things at you, as long as you give them a little press. Novels, DVDs, coffee table books, graphic novels, comics, apps, video games, mp3s, concerts, and movie and TV screenings are yours for the taking if you write a review.
In addition, if you live in L.A., New York City, or Chicago, you might have the opportunity to meet and interview well-known people from whichever industry you cover. If you live in Toad Suck, Arkansas, well… there’s always email. But let me tell you, I’ve interviewed the creator of Animaniacs and one of the creators of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles via email, and it’s still pretty cool.
You might have the opportunity to go to some cool places. Though you’ll probably have to cover your own airfare and hotel expenses, you can usually get into fan conventions for free if you’re approved for a press pass. And this is where your potential for interviewing cool people becomes even better. I recently had an offer to fly to Albuquerque, New Mexico, all-expenses paid, to spend a weekend doing fun stuff in Walter White’s hometown. (Sadly, I had to turn it down due to a scheduling conflict.)
Blogging is a Team Sport
Probably the best perk is you will expand your social and employment network to include some really great people. Writers all know what it’s like in the trenches, so they’re usually there to pat one another on the back, and reach out a helping hand if you need it. They’ll retweet your latest articles. They’ll send you job postings (if they don’t apply for the gig themselves). They’ll recommend you when their editor is looking to add to the writer’s stable. And they’ll generally make all of this misery just a little less miserable.
So while you’re unlikely to become rich, and you won’t have a lot of free time, but you might get some cool stuff, meet famous people, and gain some good friends that you can always turn to when the grind gets you down.
If you’re still interested in an exciting, not always fulfilling career as a freelance writer, then come back for the next installment where I’ll give you some tips on how to get your first gig. Spoiler Alert: It’s not fun, but the payoff can be pretty sweet.