Back in the day, most freelance writers made the bulk of their
income, which was often quite modest, writing books for
mainstream publishing houses and articles for magazines and
Today this is still the province of “traditional” freelance
writers, though many of the books are now ebooks and the articles
are just as likely to appear online as in print.
But the problem with these conventional and popular writing
assignments — book, articles, columns, essays, stories, poetry,
plays, scripts — is that it is all done “on spec.”
For instance, if you want to write articles for magazines such as
Cosmopolitan, Popular Science, or Modern Bride, here are the
>> First, you sit around and try to dream up ideas for articles
you think these magazines might publish.
No one has asked you to do this. You aren’t paid for
brainstorming. With rare exception, it’s done totally on spec.
>> Second, you research and read the magazines you might write
for — including the name of the right editor to approach — to
better understand what they publish. Again, on your dime. No pay.
>> Third, you write a “query letter” to the editor describing the
article you want to write for her and why her readers would be
interested. And you guessed it — you are not getting paid to
write that letter.
Although some writers disagree, the best practice is to offer a
given article to only one magazine at a time. So you wait weeks
for them to respond.
Many times, it’s a rejection. Or you may not hear at all and have
to follow up to get an answer. Sometimes you never get one.
>> Fourth, if an editor is interested, there is often no
commitment stronger than “I’ll take a look at the article; send
Sometimes, you do get a contract. But read it carefully. Most
allow the editor to reject your article … even though you think
that by giving you the go-ahead, she “ordered” it.
>> Fifth, you research and write the article.
The editor does not provide you with the research materials. You
have to dig it up on your dime.
The editor will probably want you to interview 3 to 5 people for
the article. Again, you have to find them, reach out to them,
conduct the interview, and work the material into your story.
>> After all this effort, the editor still may decide to turn the
piece down, in which case you get paid either nothing or a small
kill fee. So it’s close to a total loss.
With all this speculation, it’s a lot of risk to earn a wage that
in most instances is modest at best, and often — when measured on
a per hour basis — not much more than you would get asking
people, “Do you want fries with that?”
The whole time, you are sitting out there, all alone in your home
office, creating ideas and words that no “client” — which is what
the editor really is — much cares whether you deliver or not.
Now compare that with freelance copywriting where:
1–The client comes up with the idea for the project; e.g. a white
paper on central alarm systems for warehouses.
2–The client calls you and asks you to write a white paper on
central alarm systems for warehouses.
3–You get a contract and a retainer for half the fee up front.
4–The client has commissioned the piece and wants it on or before
the date in the contract.
5–The client provides you with a lot of source material on
central alarm systems for warehouses.
6–If you need to get more information, the client arranges for
one or more of their subject matter experts to cooperate with you
and be interviewed.
The interview subject is provided for you. And told they must
work with you. Unlike with a magazine article, where many people
you might want to interview can be difficult or refuse to
7–You write the white paper, submit it, make any edits requested,
and get paid for the balance of the project.
Speculative time and effort on this copywriting project: zero.
Which means you get paid for all the thought, work, and effort
you put into it.
The fee? Typically 2 to 5 times or more what you’d get paid to
write a magazine article of similar length and difficulty.
I have often said that copywriting is at least 4 times more
lucrative than freelance magazine writing — because you make
twice as much money in less than half the time.
Which scenario — magazine writing or copywriting — sounds better
Full disclosure: They are not mutually exclusive. I do both. You
But over 90% of my freelance writing is copywriting, and less
than 10% is writing articles for magazines and newspapers or
books for publishers — because I like the respect and pay I get as
a copywriter. And none of the latter is on spec.