If you’re an entrepreneurial type of student, or just one of those that are desperate for a little cash (much more common) then freelance writing might be right up your alley. Post-secondary students are notorious for loving flexibility. Our days are not “normal” by almost any measure, and the pace of life during certain parts of the school year versus others can make working “normal” jobs extremely stressful and inefficient. If you have some passion for a certain topic, and fairly rudimentary post-secondary writing skills, then freelance writing could be the ticket. I have personally had some moderate success with this side gig, and it can take many forms. Ideally, you can catch on with a publication that will pay you and give you public credit for your work, but there is also a lot of demand for “ghost writing” where you write for other people and get no formal recognition (other than a nice deposit in your paypal account). Regardless of what sort of avenue you decide to take, one of the best things about freelance writing is that you get to work when you feel motivated and passionate, even if that is at two o’clock in the morning for 25 random minutes.
Show Me The Money
So how do you get into this whole freelance writing thing and what is the pay like? If you Google “freelance writing”, or “how much money do freelance writers make” you will likely be bombarded with stories about people who have made hundreds of thousands of dollars and will teach you how to do the same thing for only $29.99 (why someone who makes that much money freelance writing would teach someone else to do it and kill their competitive niche for such a small fee is never really answered mysteriously). In my limited experience the freelance writing positions at those lofty levels are few and far between. There is substantial demand for “second tier” writing positions all over the internet however (and probably for print publications as well, I’m just not as familiar with them).
Getting Your Name Out There
There are a variety of ways to make yourself known and gain experience as a freelance writer. Just like in most industries, people are understandably averse to hiring someone without experience or a writing “portfolio” (which is just a fancy of way of saying, “show me some of the cool stuff you have done”). What many people will recommend is making up a quick portfolio for yourself on freelance writing sites such Elance and Odesk. While there are probably people who have had success using this strategy, I don’t recommend it at all, and I can tell you of several instances that I know of personally where great writers ended up pounding out 500-1000 word articles for $5 apiece for extended periods of time. Not how I want to spend my Saturday afternoon thank you very much. When you put out your resume on these sites and they pay level you are looking for you should be aware that you are competing against thousands of other writers, many of whom speak English fairly well but are from developing countries and will advertise for much lower rates than what you are willing to work for. No one wins in this race to the bottom except for people looking for ultra-cheap writing work.
The strategy that I personally have had success with, and I believe one that is easily scalable is to simply start your own blog or website and let that be your portfolio. That process is actually much more intimidating than it sounds. If you’re like me and are technologically challenged, then you can find a partner who is familiar and gifted at the website side of things (Thanks JB!) or you could simply go on Odesk or Fiverr and find someone willing to set you up a basic site for very cheap. Once you have the barebones of a basic site setup, adding your articles and fine-tuning the look of everything is just a matter of how much you want to pay people for their time. At $3 an hour or so on Odesk you can get some pretty decent work done for peanuts (by North American standards).
Don’t get caught up in how many people are viewing your site, or measuring your statistics, or even making money off of your site. That might be a side benefit you’ll see 6-12 months down the road, but if your purpose is to simply build a low-maintenance online portfolio for yourself, then just get 30-40 posts up, and then keep a regular posting schedule. I know this seems like a lot of work considering you are going to make $0 for it (actually more like -$10 after you pay for your server account), but the juice is worth the squeeze, and this is the only sure-fire way to build freelance credibility (other than actually having a journalism degree) that I am aware of. As long as you pick a topic that you are truly interested in, 30-40 posts really isn’t that much work.
Building a Network
Once you have your own little showcase of a website to show off, you can go about making connections within that niche. Comment on other peoples’ sites, offer to write something for them, get on semi-related forums and offer your services as a staff writer, ghost writer, or casual contributor and see what bites come up. You can also go back to the Odesk’s and Elance’s of the world and advertise yourself as an experienced blogger and writer with proof of your legitimacy (as long as your writing is actually good of course). I have found that gaining authority in a specific niche and then expanding outward from there is a great way to slowly build readers and contacts in various fields. Some people like to do this by offering a free eBook on their site, and that can definitely be a valuable marketing tool (and another project where outsourcing some of the work can go a long way to keeping your sanity).
The more I see and do in this world the more I am consistently amazed by the degree to which the cliché, “It’s not what you know, it’s who you know,” is absolutely dominant. Remember to keep making connections, answering emails, and networking with other writers and website owners all over the web. The line between print and web platforms is blurring more and more every day and I believe that soon online readership will be a key demographic for book publishers looking for assured sales. This opportunity amongst others can be the end result of freelance writing and proving authority. Freelance writing is not what I would call “easy” money, but considering you never have to commute, and the absolute freedom you have within the field, it is definitely money that is worth pursuing for many post-secondary students out there.