So You Want To Be a Freelance Writer

Today we’re interviewing Kelly James Enger of I know that sounds like it’s probably a fitness or personal training site, but it actually isn’t. She’s a freelance writer, and she’s been making a living writing about health issues, fitness, and personal training for the past 17 years. To be able to make a living that long as a freelancer is an accomplishment in and of itself. She has a couple of different businesses: she’s still writing, and she’s an active ghostwriter to sell articles to magazines. She also helps people create freelance writing businesses.

In her interview, we talk about creating a writing career based on what clients want rather than what you are passionate about, but that can intersect in some ways. Kelly was really smart and said that you need to find what people are going to buy articles about, not necessarily just write articles about the things that you like to write articles about, which makes sense. She also gives some really good hints on becoming more efficient in your writing so that you can make more money and take less time.

Jasper: If anybody out there is really wanting to make a living doing writing via online platforms, then this is an interview they’ll want to listen to.

Meredith: Kelly, you make money as a writer, and you’ve been doing that for 17 years. Can you tell me a little bit about your initial transition from being an attorney to being a writer? How did you make that leap?

Kelly: I’ll give you the very short version, which is I started writing again. But instead of writing short fiction, which is what I really love to write and enjoyed writing, I started writing what I thought I could sell. That was nonfiction articles because there are a lot more markets and opportunities for nonfiction than for fiction articles when you’re looking at print magazines. That’s how I broke in.

I sold a couple of articles when I was still working as a lawyer, and quit with those two clips to start my freelancing 17-and-a-half years ago.

Meredith: How did you know it was time to quit? Did you just do the two clips? You got published in two magazines. I know it’s different now than it was 17 years ago because it was harder to get published back then.

Kelly: I think it is different, but actually the answer isn’t going to be what you want to hear. It wasn’t, “Well, I had two clips, and I’m ready to go.” I hated being a lawyer. I knew the fourth day of my career, the fourth day of practice, that I had made a terrible mistake. I remember having this epiphany. It was 7:30 or 8:00 p.m. on August 15, 1991. I remember very clearly thinking, “Oh, what did I get into?” I still stuck it out for five-and-a-half years because I put all this money and time into my education. So with those two clips, I had been thinking about leaving for several years. I thought, “Okay, if I can do this even part-part-part-time, maybe I could do this for a living full-time. It wasn’t so much wanting to be a writer it was not wanting to be a lawyer. That’s the truth, because I was unhappy as a lawyer.

Meredith: That is the story we’ve heard over and over again. I actually avoided law school by working in the federal court before I went to law school and decided that’s not really what I thought it was.

Kelly: Well, better to do that before law school!

Meredith: Exactly. So you write nonfiction. How did you decide what you thought was going to sell, as far as articles?

Kelly: That’s a really good question. I think the takeaway for the listener is I kind of stumbled into pitching and writing articles that I had personal experience with, but the pieces were not limited to my personal experience. The first sale was to Cosmopolitan Magazine, and it was an article on how to survive your last two weeks on the job.

At the time, I had changed jobs four times in five years. Remember, I was a miserable, unhappy lawyer, so I kept changing, going from firm to firm. I had a lot of experience with that two-week notice phenomenon – the two weeks when you’ve given your notice, you’re still there, and you know you don’t want to be there. They know you don’t want to be there. You’re stealing office supplies. That kind of thing.

But the second part of that was I knew that pretty much any reader of Cosmopolitan Magazine is going to face that same scenario. I’ve given notice at my job. What do I do? I don’t want to burn my bridges. How do I comport myself? So I started pitching and writing articles that I (A) had some kind of personal experience with and (B) knew that the readers of the publication would be interested or affected by the topic I was writing about. So that’s how I started initially.

Meredith: If you were in the same position today that you were 17 years ago, would you go about it the same way?

Kelly: That’s a very good question. Quite frankly, I would do a lot of things very similarly because I set specific goals for myself in terms of marketing and promotion and that kind of thing. Today, it would be how many minutes you’re going to spend on social media or how many Tweets you’re going to get out or whatever, but I had very specific goals.

The thing I would do differently would be to look for regular markets and regular clients right from the beginning. It took me about a year and a half to figure out that it’s much easier to write for a market, whether it’s a magazine or a corporation or a nonprofit, whoever your client is, and it’s much easier to do work for regular clients than to constantly get new clients.

It took me about 18 months to clue into that. Once I figured it out, I became much more efficient because I wasn’t spending as much time marketing. I also started making more money because when you are a regular writer for a publication or a client, you can often negotiate more money than if you’re a one-hit-wonder.

Meredith: Would you still recommend people going the “getting articles in print magazines” route, as opposed to the “creating a blog and trying to sell advertising and doing affiliate marketing off the back of the blog” route?

Kelly: No. Number one, it depends on what your strengths are. I have a blog, but the blog is to support other parts of my business. It’s not a blog to make money, per se. My freelance friends who blog, and that’s their primary income, go about it very differently, where they create a blog with a certain kind of content. I’m thinking like “Real Life With Jane,” where she writes movie reviews and covers celebrities and what’s going on in film. Her blog is aimed at capturing that audience so that she can sell advertising and make money off affiliates. But then she also has a column that can be sold as well to markets. So she’s kind of double-dipping there.

But in short, no. I think the challenge of freelancing, when you’re talking about writing today, is there are so many different ways and opportunities to do it now. You really kind of have to say, “Okay. This is what I’m going to do,” and stick with that for a while. Because if you try to do four things simultaneously, you’re probably going to do them all poorly and not be successful.

Meredith: Yes, I think one of the dangers nowadays is that there are so many different things that you can do. I think it really is important to practice, to focus, and choose one thing and follow that to its logical conclusion.

Kelly: Yes. I think the problem is… I shouldn’t say the problem. The opportunity is that it’s the “bright, shiny object” syndrome. I have it, too. I started doing content marketing a year or two ago, when I saw that’s where the money is, and that’s where the market is going. If I hear someone say, “Oh, they’re ghostwriting for pharmaceutical companies,” I’ll be like, “Oh, I should do that. There’s a lot of money there.” Well, no, I don’t really want to do that, but okay. I’ll go back. So you have to have a pretty good sense for what you want to do and what your clients need, but I think it’s also wise to pay attention to what’s going on.

When I realized that a lot of writers I knew were doing more of this content marketing, which is basically writing the content that appears on websites or custom publications, that kind of thing… I mean, it’s a $40 billion industry. I’d actually done some of it in the past, but it made me decide to put more energy into that part of my business, and it’s paying off now. But it’s taken me about a year or 18 months to start making that transition.

Jasper: So in terms of finding jobs to do, I know that quite a few sort of freelance sites have grown up in the last couple of years or so. Are they good places to try to find writing jobs?

Kelly: You know, I don’t want to bash any sites, but I have had much more success going after the markets myself and looking for potential markets. If you think about it, when somebody posts a job on a website looking for writers, 99.99% of the time they’re looking for the cheapest writer they can get –  not a good writer, just somebody who can do it for as little as possible. That’s my concern with job sites like that.

Now, that being said, I actually have found work on sites like Craigslist. There was a woman who posted that she needed a ghostwriter for a book on nutrition. Well, I co-author, and write about nutrition, so I sent her an email. In the subject line of the email, I said, “Co-author of Small Changes, Big Results, replying to your Craigslist Ad,” so that immediately got me out of all those other responses.

The other thing is if you are looking at job sites, look at what the pay is offered. If it says something like, “Great exposure, students welcome, great way to get experience,” I wouldn’t bother with any of those. Now, if they say that they pay, that’s a good sign. If they give their rates, and it’s something reasonable and not $10 for a $600 blog post, that’s different. I remember a writer described it as kind of a fire-sale at Macy’s. You’ve got to dig through a lot of stuff to find that real bargain or find that good client.

Meredith: What advice do you have for people to set their rates?

Kelly: First of all, it depends on three factors: the type of writing you’re doing, your experience, and what your competitors are charging. For example, when I started out years ago, I was copywriting for a local hospital and doing some work for local companies as well. I was charging $35 an hour. At the time, I lived about an hour from Chicago. In the market I was in, which was a local market, they probably weren’t going to use someone from Chicago, so I couldn’t charge Chicago rates.

I was a new writer, but at the same time, an informal poll revealed that people were charging anywhere from $25 to $30 to $50 or $60 for what I was doing. I priced myself at the bottom end of that. As I gained experience, my rates went up.

Now I typically charge about $100 an hour, which is very little for consulting, but it’s a lot for editing and ghostwriting. When they hear $100 an hour, they think, “Well, that’s too much.” But if I say, “I can ghostwrite a book proposal for $5,000,” and they agree to that, what I’m thinking is, “Okay, it shouldn’t take me more than 50 hours worth of work.” But I don’t always say that to the client, because the bottom line is if I can do it for 30 hours, and I make $166 an hour or whatever, the client doesn’t need to know that. The bottom line is it’s the work product that I’m being paid for. I’m not being paid per hour.

Favorite book: Writer’s Market

Want to get a free audiobook version of the book recommended by this week’s guest?  Click here to download it.



Kelly James EngerGuest –  Kelly James Enger –

I’ve been a freelancer for nearly two decades. I “escaped from the law” on January 1, 1997, leaving behind a legal career to become a fulltime freelance journalist/ghostwriter/author/speaker/content provide/you-name-it. Since then I’ve published more than 900 articles in 50+ national magazines including Family Circle, Health, Parents, Redbook, Self, Runner’s World, Continental, and Woman’s Day. I’ve authored more than 12 books and have ghostwritten/coauthored 12 more. I specialize in health, wellness, nutrition, and fitness subjects (I’m an ACE-certified personal trainer as well), and balance a busy work schedule with my most rewarding job of being a mom to two awesome kids.

I write everything from blog posts to articles to content marketing pieces to books, and am a motivational speaker as well. About a decade ago, I named my business BodyWise Consulting to reflect the fact that I’m passionate about providing practical, inspiring information (whether through the spoken or written word) to help people achieve their health and fitness goals.

Finally, over the years, I’ve developed a reputation as a freelancing expert, and have written books about successful freelancing.
They include:
Six-Figure Freelancing: The Writer’s Guide to Making More Money, Second Edition;
Goodbye Byline, Hello Big Bucks: Make Money Ghostwriting Books, Articles, Blogs and More, Second Edition; and
Dollars and Deadlines: Make Money Writing Articles for Print and Online Markets, Second Edition.

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