A friend once introduced me to some people at a party as a poet, and straight away someone loudly responded with that’s not a job! It was early in my poetry career and rather than challenge their expectations I mumbled something about ‘well, it’s mostly teaching and I work for a publisher and do other things’. However, there is a wide world of work out there for writers, whether it’s a full time freelance job or it just supplements your income, and this route certainly wasn’t one I knew about until I started doing it, so I thought I’d impart some of my learnings from the world of freelance writing about the multi-hyphenated career of a jobbing writer.
1. Selling your words
You can do this in the purest sense of the word, by getting your writing accepted to a magazine that pays. You might also sell a book and get an advance, which is the dream for many authors and a big step towards professional writer-hood.
If you have a book, you can sell that too – through bookshops and through your publisher, but also directly, if you’re booked to read at a small gig and have some copies, which are usually available at a discounted rate from the publisher.
You might also get commissioned to write something – for a project, or a magazine, or by an organisation. This has happened to me a couple of times on a local level and it usually has a set fee. It’s a bonus if you write something that you really like while doing it.
Self-publishing is a more and more lucrative line of selling your work, given that you can often find very affordable deals that enable you to reach a wide audience. If you’re skilled at publicity, with a little bit of luck you will find yourself making back your original outlay. Readings, events and selling copies directly are a huge part of this too.
2. Sharing your skills
Many writers make quite a good living by teaching – whether it’s for a university, or workshops in schools, or in the community. A good publication track record will of course see more demand for your teaching and your knowledge, and have organisations approaching you for work. But if you approach a local organisation or library, chances are they’d be happy to give you a go running a workshop if your costs aren’t too high, and you can build a portfolio of experience from there.
If you’re very good at editing other peoples’ work, perhaps there is a role for you as a poetry editor or mentor, paid to help poets prepare manuscripts for publication. Alternatively you might be really good at making websites or a social media genius, in which case you can certainly offer some workshops on this for other writers who are struggling to promote their work.
3. In residence
Writers’ residencies take many forms – one day a week in a school, for example, or a month living and writing in a library, or some programmed events as part of a festival. However they turn up, they are likely to be challenging and they are also likely to generate some new writing. You can often find them advertised on websites such as the National Association of Writers in Education.
4. Making your own opportunities
A lot of people I’ve met over the years – publishers, writers and performers, have applied their creativity to their career as well as their written output. They’ve seen a gap in the market for a particular kind of magazine or publication that doesn’t exist yet, or a workshop in a town where there aren’t many, or they’ve followed a passion and decided to become the poet-in-residence of a particular nature reserve, whisky distillery or other organisation. The key is to show the organisation how they will benefit, from the publicity you’ll generate, the workshops you’ll run or the readings you will do for them. It requires a speculative approach, and I’ve tried to be a poet in residence at so many places who have just never got back to me, but sometimes a conversation in the right place at the right time has led to a huge opportunity!
Listen to this Article