Starving Writer No More

by Peter Bowerman

The PR firm had hired me to work on this 12-page brochure for the big local telecommunications giant. Nine one-hour interviews which I then transformed into the same number of one-pagers along with an intro piece. The fee? $6,000. Hours? Probably about 50-55 or so spread out over a total of 2-3 weeks. You do the math.

The brochure was an "audition" piece of sorts for the PR firm. If it went well, they'd get the contract to produce a six-page monthly newsletter for at least the next year. Well... it went well. The client loved me though she wasn't quite sure what the PR firm was doing to earn their hefty add-on fee. So, once the project was done, she called up the PR folks and said, in essence, "We've decided we're going to produce this in-house. But, we want your writer."

What could they do? So, I got the deal, and for the next year, I was the writer for this six-pager, the main communications vehicle for this division. After paying the PR firm 10% as a "finder's fee" (only fair), my monthly income from this single account was $4000. Time invested in writing the piece, on average? 30-35 hours. Again, you do the numbers.

This is the field of commercial writing. Are deals like this common? Not everyday occurrences, but hardly rare. Have you dreamed of becoming a full-time writer but never took it too seriously because after all, the words "starving" and "writer" are pretty much joined at the hip? Well, start taking it seriously.

What would you say if I told you that commercial writing, if pursued with reasonable diligence by an even moderately talented and minimally creative individual could generate self-sufficiency inside of six months? That's what this field is all about. Becoming a well-respected, well-compensated, fulfilled writer. A person who, when asked what you do, can proudly respond "I'm a writer." Talk about a conversation piece. You watch.

In the last decade, two huge trends have sculpted the corporate American landscape: downsizing and outsourcing. The creative and corporate communications departments of today's companies are running leaner and meaner, but the work still needs to get done. Can you see the writing on the wall? It spells lucrative and steadily growing opportunities for freelancers.

The sheer volume and variety of work outsourced by not only industry giants like UPS, the Coca-Cola Company, BellSouth, IBM and MCI but companies of all sizes is mind-boggling. Marketing brochures, ad copy, newsletters, video scripts, direct mail campaigns, speeches, web copy, and much much more. Corporations outsource for good reason: They pay for what they need, when they need it. No salaries, vacations, or benefits. And given the wide variety of writing projects, a stable of talented freelancers, each with different strengths, ensures the best writer for the job.

How Good An Opportunity?
To underscore the need for good writers in corporate America, here's a quote (more on my website: from a manager (and writing buyer) with a huge telecommunications firm in Atlanta: "Most people would assume that a company of our size would do the bulk of our writing in-house, and they'd be wrong. It's amazing how much writing we outsource. When I first arrived, I asked one of the marketing managers why we didn't do some of it ourselves?' He replied, 'I don't know but we just don't.' And my last company, also huge, was a prolific outsourcer as well. My writing needs these days are pretty steady, and I pay anywhere from $65-85/hour, depending on experience."

Could You Get Used to This?
Recently, I had a very juicy two-week stretch of work. Keep in mind that this is right smack dab in the middle of my book promotion/marketing campaign. I was able to get all the work done and keep the marketing machine in motion. Here's a quick summary: I'd just finished an eight-page brochure for a medical software firm (very non-technical, by the way) for $2,000. They called me up to do one additional section for the brochure. Five hours at $85/hr = $425. Then my credit card client (for a luxury auto manufacturer) called me to write the fall issue of their consumer newsletter. A four page newsletter which tallied 18 hours ($1,530).

While that project was going on, the same folks called again with a rework of a rack brochure (seven hours = $595). The one of my solo graphic designers called me with a brochure project for the state department of equal opportunity. Ten hours: $850 for starters. An internal communications firm (employee communications programs) and a regular client calls me up to do the second of three 800 word articles for their client, a huge global staffing giant. $800. And that's quickly followed up by two sales sheets for their new Internet site. All they need is 8-10 pieces of blurb copy written, pointing out different features of the site. Five hours each ($850).

And at the tail end of this great run, this last company has me bid on two big brochures, each of which will run $2,300-2,700, and both to be done within the next six weeks.

It's Not Unusual
That's over $5,000 in a bit over two weeks. Minimal running around, comfortable work, almost completely by phone, fax, and e-mail, and with plenty of time left over to have a life. And I've got another $5,000 worth of work lined for next month and a half (not counting anything else that comes in between now and then).

OK, it's not always this easy or rosy and you'll have your share of $500 weeks, too. In the beginning, with prospecting and marketing, you'll be working a lot harder for a lot less. But, develop the right work habits early and you'll be surprised at how soon you'll be having weeks like the above -- and fairly often at that. And by the way, most of the work is done within a few weeks or less, you're generally paid in 30 days, sometimes receive a third to half up-front, and chasing your money is the exception, not the rule.

A Nice Life
Good money, flexible hours, stimulating work. Go to bed when you want, get up when you want (most of the time), wear what you want, take vacations when you want, shower and shave when you want. Sure, getting established takes some effort, but it's not nearly as difficult as you'd think, and depending on your present situation, you could be halfway there right now.

What's your industry background or work experience? High-tech? Retail? Finance? Healthcare? Advertising? Wherever you come from, approach them first. I promise you, they have tons of things that need to be written and someone who knows the ropes, the territory and the language dramatically simplifies their life from the get-go.

How Good Do You Have To Be?
Here's the good news: many fields, i.e., financial services, healthcare, high-tech, real estate and others, don't demand, expect, or in some cases, even want brilliant prose. Instead they look for clear, concise, readable copy.

What About a Portfolio?
In the beginning, you may not have much to show a prospective client. Start with any projects you may have done in any of your jobs: a marketing manual, press release, newsletter, sales sheet, speech, article. If the job-related pickins are lean, try doing some pro bono work for a charity or start-up firm, or team up with a graphic designer in the same boat, and approach those same type entities together. And the best part? Theoretically, all this can be done while you're employed elsewhere.

Who Will Hire You?
Your clients will either be end-users (EUs) such as corporations, or middlemen (MM): graphic design firms, marketing companies, PR firms, advertising agencies, event production companies, etc. Approach EUs through their corporate communications department, marketing or sales. MMs generally have EUs as clients and you'd contact the Creative Director, Assistant CD, Marketing Director, Production Manager or Account Executive. For both EUs and MMs, make the first contact by phone and try to get in to meet them as soon as possible. Your likelihood of being hired rises dramatically once you meet a client face-to-face, so push for meetings at every opportunity.

How Much Can You Make?
Rates for corporate freelancers range from $50-100+/hour. I started out at $50, and am now billing at $90-100/hour. $50/hour will phase no one except you and in most markets, anything lower will have clients wondering how good you really are. This past year, I had one large "household name" account, for whom I wrote a six-page internal newsletter each month: about one week's worth of work that put $4,000 in my pocket monthly. They were my biggest but I had plenty of others. Which brings up a good point: Why not spend a few weeks a month making a full-time income and give yourself the time to pursue your real writing passion?

If you have even an inkling of intelligence along with minimal ability and drive, you can sleepwalk your way to $30,000 a year. If you're halfway decent and reasonably aggressive about getting the word out, you should top $50,000. And once you get a good reputation, and the referrals start coming in, who knows? There are a pretty healthy number of writers in this business grossing $100,000 a year. And the overhead for this business one of the lowest around. After a computer, we're talking paper, diskettes, toner, pens, pads.

How Long Will It Take? I started out with absolutely no contacts, no industry experience and no professional writing background and I was self-sufficient (i.e., full-time, no moonlighting, paying all my bills) in four months. If you just want a part-time income, it's even faster.


Career-Changer? Perhaps, you're simply looking to take a completely new direction with your life. You've always felt you're a good writer and now you want to put that skill to work. Great. That's my story.

At-Home Mom? Maybe you're at-home mother looking for a flexible, lucrative business on the side that meshes nicely with motherhood. Just a running start by leveraging your past career experience and seek writing projects in your former field.

Journalist? Might you be a journalist or news reporter who loves the business of writing, but longs to make more money and have more freedom than you currently enjoy?

A Staff Writer? Are you currently collecting a steady paycheck as a staff writer for a large company but looking to make the transition to self-employment?

New College Grad? Or perhaps you're a recent college graduate, not sure you want to work for a corporation, but wouldn't mind working with one.

I'll leave you with this. Bob Bly, author of Secrets of a Freelance Writer (and 20+ other titles) and a 20-year veteran freelance commercial writer, says of this field: "I know of no other arena of writing so lucrative, yet so easy to get started in." Whatever your goals or your circumstances, this field offers a lucrative and growing opportunity for those with even moderate talent and drive. Go for it!

The Well-Fed Writer Peter Bowerman is the author of The Well-Fed Writer: Financial Self-Sufficiency as a Freelance Writer in Six Months or Less, a Writer's Digest Book Club Selection for Summer, 2000. He has been a freelance commercial writer and columnist in Atlanta, Georgia since 1993. His clients include Coca-Cola, MCI, BellSouth, IBM, UPS, Holiday Inn, GTE, American Express, Mercedes-Benz, The Discovery Channel, Junior Achievement and many others. He has published nearly 200 columns and articles and leads seminars on writing. Visit his website at

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