Want to make a living writing?
Then you need to get serious about it. And that starts with being pragmatic.
Don’t buy into the starving artist archetype that has been endlessly romanticized in our culture since the late 18th century.
The truth is that there’s nothing glamorous in not being able to pay the rent, put food on the table, or keep the lights on.
So what are the financial realities of being a professional writer?
Here are the numbers.
Writing Industry Overview
Since 2011, the number of writers in the United States has increased by 8%, reaching 44,240 writers in 2020.
Interestingly, this means that there were 1,620 fewer writers than in 2019, making it the lowest number of writers since 2015.
It’s probably safe to assume that the Covid-19 pandemic has contributed to this decrease in the number of writers, especially given that it led to mass layoffs by the news media outlets that affected journalists and freelance writers alike.
That same year, the median household income was $67,521 per year, which means that the average author and writer has earned just $401 less than the average household.
However, before we get too excited about this, let’s remember that writer incomes follow a long tail distribution, which means there’s no such thing as a meaningful average. Why?
Because extreme outliers skew the average to such an extent that it becomes meaningless.
For example, if we take a sample of three writers, two flat out broke, and one of them, James Patterson, the “average” writer in that sample, will be a millionaire, despite being completely divorced from reality.
In other words, it’s probably safe to assume that writer incomes follow the Pareto distribution (the 80/20 rule), where around 20% of the writers make about 80% of the money. In contrast, the remaining 80% of the writers share the remaining 20%.
Despite this, the writing industry as a whole is growing, with the employment of writers in the United States projected to increase by 9% between 2020 and 2030 (about as fast as the average for all occupations).
In fact, according to the job outlook for writers, about 15,400 new job openings are projected in the United States each year, so if you want to get your foot in the door, it might be a good time to do it.
Now that we have a better understanding of the writing industry as a whole, let’s take a closer look at published authors.
We don’t have a separate Bureau of Labor Statistics data for authors, so we don’t know what the average author salary is, but it doesn’t matter because the “average” is a meaningless number in long-tail distribution.
However, we do have some data on those extreme outliers that rake in a disproportionate amount of money, so let’s take a look at it, shall we?
Note that the income distribution isn’t normal at the top either, since Stephen King, the last on the list, earned “just” $17 million, which is 5x less than J. K. Rowling.
Read an interview with an author: Richard Meadows Explains How to Become a Published Author
Freelance Writer Salary
A freelance writer is a writer that does client work.
Meaning, people hire them to produce written content, from articles to reports to full-blown books.
But how much do freelance writers make?
They’re typically paid per deliverable (a flat rate for an article) or word ($0.10/word, for example). Some charge an hourly rate, but that’s rare because it’s a more abstract metric.
Freelance writer pay varies wildly, with some writers churning out articles for content mills at $0.01/word and others writing for prestigious publications and commanding $1+ per word.
We don’t have the data on what the average per word rate for freelance writers is. Still, according to our observations, rates for online content such as blog posts typically fall somewhere in the $0.05/word - $0.15/word range, depending on the publication.
It’s worth noting that while freelance writer pay also follows long-tail distribution, the discrepancy between the lowest-earning freelancers and the top-earning freelancers is nowhere near what we see between authors.
Presumably, that’s because top freelance writers are much easier to replace than top authors (good luck replacing J. K. Rowling), which keeps their rates in check.
While that means you won’t be able to make millions upon millions of dollars as a freelance writer, it also means that making a decent living is much more doable.
Read an interview with a freelance writer: How to Become a Freelance Writer With Jessica Walrack
Content Writer Salary
A content writer is a writer who produces content for online publications, whether as a freelancer or as an in-house writer.
Read an interview with a content writer: Ivan Kreimer Reveals How to Become a Freelance Content Writer
SEO Writer Salary
SEO writer produces SEO content designed to rank on the first page of Google’s search results for a specific keyword.
According to Salary.com, the average annual SEO writer salary in the United States is $48,994 per year.
The bottom 10% of SEO writers earn an average of $40,068 per year.
Meanwhile, the top 10% of SEO writers earn an average of $57,600 per year.
A copywriter is a writer that writes copy (text that’s designed to sell).
That includes anything from Facebook ad copy, sales email copy, sales page copy, web copy, etc.
Typically, they charge per project (e.g., a landing page) or hour, but freelance copywriter rates vary wildly depending on the writer, niche, and industry.
Also, if you’re wondering about copywriter rates per word, then know that this metric is rarely used to determine copywriter fees because it doesn’t make sense in this context (no one cares about the word count, what matters is whether that copy converts).
Technical Writer Salary
A technical writer is a writer that specializes in technical subjects such as programming, software engineering, cybersecurity, etc.
Freelance technical writer rates vary depending on the writer, their niche, and the complexity of content (e.g., an article targeted at senior software engineers will cost more than one aimed at the “learn to code” crowd).
According to Salary.com:
- The average annual entry-level technical writer salary is $58,700 per year.
- The average annual intermediate technical writer salary is $70,100 per year.
- The average annual senior technical writer salary is $88,300 per year.
However, the top 10% of senior technical writers earn an average of $105,494 per year.
Read an interview with a technical content producer: Mick Davidson Shares How to Become a Technical Content Producer
Medical Writer Salary
A medical writer is a writer who specializes in health-related topics that can range from mental health to nutrition to managing specific conditions.
Typically, if you want to work as a medical writer, you need relevant education and credentials.
For example, if you want to write about mental health, you might need a bachelor’s and possibly a master’s degree in psychology, at least if you intend to work with serious publications.
A sportswriter is a writer that covers sports. That can mean anything from chess to MMA. How much do sportswriters get paid?
According to Salary.com, the average annual sportswriter salary is $36,657 per year.
The bottom 10% of sportswriters earn an average of $28,252 per year.
Meanwhile, the top 10% of sportswriters earn an average of $46,876 per year.
Read an interview with a sportswriter: Matt Rudnitsky Shows How to Become a Sportswriter & Entrepreneur
A speechwriter is a writer that writes speeches (e.g., a public speech for a political candidate).
According to Salary.com, the average annual speechwriter salary in the United States is $138,114 per year.
The bottom 10% of speechwriters make an average of $90,405 per year.
Meanwhile, the top 10% of speechwriters make an average of $211,876 per year.
Ghostwriters create content under someone else’s name (e.g., they write a celebrity autobiography, the celebrity claims authorship).
Typically, ghostwriting requires signing a Non-Disclosure Agreement (NDA) in which you transfer the copyrights of that work to the client + promise to keep quiet about being the actual author.
Ghostwriting is much more prevalent than one might think because entrepreneurs, celebrities, and politicians rarely have the skills required to produce written content at a professional level.
In fact, when you see an article or a book written by a famous person, it’s probably safe to assume that it wasn’t actually written by them (obviously, there are exceptions!).
According to Salary.com, the average annual ghostwriter salary in the United States is $38,680 per year.
The bottom 10% of ghostwriters earn an average of $24,057 per year.
Meanwhile, the top 10% of ghostwriters earn an average of $62,243 per year.
We have to say that we are skeptical of this data because the salary range doesn’t seem to be accurate.
We assume that Salary.com calculated the averages based on their data, and in no way are we criticizing them, but we suspect that there might be a selection bias in that sample.
And sure, there’s probably a selection bias in all the data we have used in this article.
However, it’s worth noting that ghostwriting is a particularly hush-hush niche, so it seems unlikely that the top ghostwriting agencies would submit data to a website like that.
Moreover, the top ghostwriters are freelancers. They’re presumably not included in this sample at all while making well over six figures a year.
It’s not to say that ghostwriting is necessarily a goldmine, but we believe that it’s more lucrative than the table above suggests.
A journalist is a writer who writes for newspapers, magazines, and news websites.
Typically, journalists cover the news, which can mean anything from local bake sales to geopolitical events.
Usually, one needs at least a bachelor’s degree in a relevant field to work as a journalist at an established media outlet. However, it isn’t always necessary when it comes to independent media.
Salary.com provides data for several types of journalists:
- An entry-level reporter. The average annual salary is $37,783 per year.
- An intermediate reporter. The average annual salary is $44,269 per year.
- Senior reporter. The average annual salary is $55,618 per year.
These jobs differ based on the journalist’s experience, the complexity of the stories assigned to them, and the research required to cover those stories.
The bottom 10% of senior reporters earn an average of $36,187 per year.
Meanwhile, the top 10% of senior reporters earn an average of $86,088 per year.
It’s worth noting that journalism is an increasingly unstable occupation since established media companies are struggling to stay afloat in the digital age.
We would advise against going this route if all you want is to make money writing because it’s much easier to do that by becoming a content writer, an SEO writer, a ghostwriter, etc.
However, if you have always dreamed of becoming an investigative journalist and winning the Pulitzer Prize, then who are we to discourage you? Go for it!
Just keep in mind that it’s going to be an uphill struggle.
Read an interview with a freelance journalist: How To Become a Freelance Journalist With Kyrill Hartog
Content Marketer Salary
In theory, “content marketing” is an umbrella term that includes all types of content. Still, in practice, it primarily refers to written content such as blog posts, email newsletters, and social media updates.
It means that the transition from being a writer to being a content marketer is pretty straightforward.
In fact, you might be able to continue doing more or less the same work but charge more for it by positioning yourself as a content marketer.
For example, instead of presenting yourself as an SEO writer, you could introduce yourself as a content marketer specializing in SEO.
Of course, you can’t just wing it with zero marketing knowledge, but you can quickly get up to speed with the help of various free resources (say, if you want to specialize in SEO, watch Ahrefs’ free course on the subject).
Keep in mind that real money lies in either freelancing or establishing your content marketing agency.
However, you can make well over six figures as a freelancer or an agency owner, provided that you can deliver results to your clients.
Upwork is the most popular freelance marketplace in the world.
In 2020, Upwork had over 145,000 core clients, defined as employers who have spent at least $5,000 on the platform (all-time spend), including some activity in the previous 12 months.
Curiously, freelancers from India, the Philippines, and the United States account for 51.57% of the company’s total freelancer revenue.
It’s interesting because while India and the Philippines are popular outsourcing destinations due to the low cost of living in these countries, the United States is a country that people typically outsource from, not to.
It’s good news if you’re an American who wants to start freelancing on Upwork because it indicates that it’s possible to compete against freelancers from developing countries.
However, we need to warn you that Upwork isn’t exactly looked upon favorably in the freelance writing community because it’s widely considered to be a glorified content mill.
Nevertheless, Upwork success stories exist, such as Danny Marguilles, who made $50,000+ in his first year on the platform as a copywriter, then made $100,000+ in his second year.
However, while it’s possible to make a living on Upwork, we would caution against going that route because it’s easy to fall into the “race to the bottom” trap by competing on price.
How To Beat the Odds of Long-Tail Distribution?
Here is the bad news. You’re almost certainly not the next J. K. Rowling. An annual income of $92 million is probably not in your future. Sorry.
But there’s also good news. You almost certainly can make six figures writing if you put your mind to it.
Don’t let the long-tail distribution of writer incomes discourage you from pursuing your dream of becoming a professional writer.
Here’s how you can put the odds in your favor.
1. Pick a niche
No one wants to hire a writer who writes about everything under the sun, from cat food to celebrity gossip to B2B marketing.
Pick a niche, specialize in it, become an expert. It will make it much easier to get clients.
2. Write 1,000 words per day
Aspiring writers often fail simply because they don’t write enough. Seriously. Write 1,000 words a day for 1,000 days straight. See what happens.
Note that those 1,000 words can include your blog, guest posts, client work, books, even social media updates. And you don’t have to publish everything you write. Just produce 1,000 words per day for 1,000 days straight.
3. Build an excellent portfolio
Your first task is to build a portfolio. That doesn’t necessarily mean paid articles. You can write free guest posts for publications in your niche, then use them as writing samples when pitching clients and applying for jobs. And what if no one accepts your guest posts? Then start your blog. Don’t make excuses!
4. Proactively seek work
Set a daily outreach quota. Say, commit to reaching out to one potential client per day, every day. That can mean sending a cold email, messaging them on LinkedIn, or simply submitting a job application.
Make sure that you personalize each message. Keep it up, and you’ll almost certainly land work sooner or later.
5. Meet deadlines
Writers aren’t exactly known for their punctuality. You can impress clients by simply meeting deadlines. Sounds obvious, but it works!
6. Go the extra mile
Don’t just do the bare minimum. The aim isn’t to simply produce a piece of content and get paid for it.
The goal is to impress the client so that they would want to work with you again. Look for ways to go the extra mile to make each piece of content shine.
7. Ask for testimonials
Get all the social proof you can. Ask for a testimonial from every happy client, no matter how small the job was. Then use those testimonials on your LinkedIn profile, your portfolio website, and in your outreach messages and job applications.
It’s pretty much impossible to overstate the importance of social proof.
8. Learn marketing
Writers enjoy writing. Marketing? Not so much. But the reality is that you need to become proficient at it if you want to make a living as a freelance writer or an author. So get on it.
9. Learn to sell
It doesn’t matter if you want to be a freelance writer or an author. You need to learn how to sell.
10. Build an audience
You want to build an email list of people who enjoy your work. You can do that by publishing free content on your blog, then offering exclusive content to email subscribers. That way, when you launch your book, you’ll have a list of people that might be interested in it.
Also, the bigger your audience, the more leverage you have when negotiating a book deal with traditional publishers.
11. Keep at it!
Once again, commit to writing 1,000 words for 1,000 days straight. That’s less than 3 years.
It’s enough time to build a career as a writer, provided that you stay focused on it. Most people quit. Don’t do that. Press on.
Should You Become a Professional Writer?
The truth is that aspiring writers often like the idea of being a writer, but they don’t want the reality, which is why they don’t put in the work required to get there.
However, if you believe that being a professional writer is what you truly want in life, you should pursue that dream.
But don’t dabble. Don’t be an amateur. Go after it.
It might take a while, but you can make it happen.