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Why Freelance Magazine Article Writing Is Not a Paying Profession

Too many websites say there’s big money in freelancing articles. Too many sites lie. If  good money did exist these website operators would be writing the articles themselves, instead of trying to sell a system to somebody else. These sites profit on misery, sell false hope, and discredit our eager if unprofitable profession.

Kristen Pope recently wrote an article entitled “34 Travel Magazines and Websites That Pay Freelance Writers. (external link)” It honestly lays out the wages that travel writing brings. If a periodical states what they pay at all, it’s revealed that most titles pay less than a few hundred dollars for an article. This is not enough to sustain a writer over the course of a year.

Travel writing is the most expensive kind of writing. Without an expense account (you’re not writing for National Geographic), the writer pays for all meals, hotels, rental cars, camping equipment, photography supplies and so on. Sites often have to be visited twice. It does not matter if you were going to visit a place anyway, you still have to pay those expenses. I know, having written seven travel-type pieces.

Let’s say you’ve lucked out and managed to land six articles over the period of a year, each paying a thousand dollars. To get this kind of response you’d have to send out at least 60 query letters, assuming a normal rejection rate of 90%. Those carefully crafted query letters would take at least a full month to write, assuming you could send out two a day for thirty days.

Writing pays when you are on staff with a magazine or if you are one of a stable of writers that editors go to when they need a story written up. There was a time (internal link), however, when I thought freelancing might make a going wage.

Ten years ago I sold three articles for over two thousand dollars apiece. But each of those pieces took over a month to write, and one took two months. Soliciting more work at that rate proved unfruitful and those works constituted my income for that year. Since then, the wage floor has collapsed (internal link) and articles now bring in from twenty-five to a thousand dollars.

You can not hope to live on this income, especially when half your time will be spent sending out queries, not actually writing articles. Any travel writing will cost you even more. Then why write? Because you have to. Because you can. Because you want to. Because it makes you happy.

I’m told the secret in non-fiction writing is to have several book titles in print, with each of those books needing revisions every few years. In other words, you have a rotation of well selling books that you can keep updating and profiting from. That’s just not the case with magazine articles.

We live one query at a time. Unless, of course, your articles catch the eye of an editor and they put you in their stable. Or, if a book publisher likes your body of work and decides to accept your book proposal based partly on this demonstrated ability to write. These are the intangibles to magazine writing. Resume building if you like.

Supplemental income is really what magazine writing is all about. We still have to have a day job or other income to subsidize us. My backup is internet writing, blogging for trial lawyers and writing product descriptions for a catalog company. We are like actors working as a waiter in a Hollywood restaurant, hoping to get noticed, attending as many casting calls as possible, always living in hope. Just don’t live in false hope.

Keep at your craft and work on it as hard as you can. Keep making those sentences bend and twist until they produce what you want them to say. Keep sending out query letters and avoid people selling a system. They only enlarge their pocket books at our expense. Work on what you control, your writing, and consider everything else a distraction. Good luck.

By thomasfarley01

Business writer and graphic arts gadfly.

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