Freelance Writing: An Interview About Inspiration, Obstacles and Advice

09/10/2013 12:59 pm ET Updated Nov 10, 2013

As an author I am routinely interviewed by freelance writers while I promote my work. Over the years I have developed a curiosity into their world of writing. I began my career as an academic and my first publications were scholarly articles followed quickly by books. I earn my living as a book author and somehow skipped the road of freelance writing that so many writers take. As such, I am intrigued about how freelance writers publish their work and make a living doing so, if they do.

Over the last three years I have been repeatedly interviewed by a writer, Michelle Arana, for author columns in the two publications she regularly contributes to. In my experience interviews with writers, reporters and radio show hosts can vary greatly. You can have engaging chats with people about your work, which any author is grateful for, or you can have stale conversations where you're just filling in a script. Over the years Michelle has stood out to me because of her genuine interest in writing, the publishing process and the lives of authors. So I asked her if I could turn the tables and interview her about what it is like to be a freelance writer.

Like many, writing has been a lifelong passion for Michelle. She has been writing since she was twelve years old, even publishing some poems at that young age. The letters she would write friends in between classes in grade and high school became the basis for the advice column she began in her early twenties, her first professional writing gig (as an adult). The way she got her start is remarkable and demonstrates how anyone with something to say, a go-for-it attitude and a willingness to work hard can turn their writing dreams into reality.

At the end of 2007 Michelle and some friends were facing some hard times and, she felt, mistreatment in her community. So, with a desire to take action she marched into her local newspaper office and had an impromptu meeting with the editor. This is what followed:

At the end of our meeting (probably because I came totally un-prepared), he advised me to send him some samples and to create a website and he would think about putting a column in the paper. When I got home that day, I immediately started working on a website and started an email address for my Ask Mikey project. I emailed everyone I knew to try and quick start my project and get the word out. A few weeks later, I received my first inquiry. Then a few weeks later, I received another inquiry, and another, and then everything just sort of took off once I got the word out. Every time I received an inquiry and sent out a response, I would send it to the editor. I also sent him the link to my website once I completed it. Five months later, the editor agreed to print my column once a month. Four years later, I now write two columns a month for my Ask Mikey project. Writing this column is what later led me to be able to write for West Valley Magazine and even

Michelle has been publishing her work since 2008 and currently writes four columns between two media outlets. I asked Michelle what drives her to write and she said, "I want to help people cope with life issues through the power of the written word. Writing also allows me to reach more people in all parts of the world thanks to the popularity of the Internet. I write because I want to help people and be there for people whether I know them or not. And, I write because I have a natural drive to write.

Knowing how tough it can be to earn a living as a writer I asked Michelle about this. It turns out, she gives most of her writing away for free, just to have the platform and learning experience. One of the media outlets she writes for does pay her but only minimally for the web traffic she generates. As a result, she has a full time job outside of her regular writing commitments (and is finishing a graduate degree at this time).

Michelle's story isn't uncommon. I did some research on what freelance writers earn and there is a wealth of conflicting and seemingly misleading data. There are websites that claim high salaries but when you look further you see the stats are misleading because they include copywriters (people who write advertising copy), editors, designers and many others in the publishing industry. Somehow all of these people are lumped into the category "freelance writing." Here is some reliable info, which is quite vague: freelance writers may be paid by the hour, by the project (a flat rate) or in some cases annually. Typically, the longer one writes, the more one earns. Many people use social media and referrals to get work.

With the work and pay so uncertain, why do people pursue this path? One survey of 1,204 freelancers in 37 professions found that the majority of freelance writers are happier since beginning this career than they were prior, and would not go back to their earlier jobs even if the pay was better. This is confirmed by Michelle who barely earns any money for her considerable efforts. She says that she loves choosing the topics she gets to write about, helping people through her work and learning about the publishing industry. Herein we can see that tenacity pays off. Michelle, like many freelancers, is also an aspiring novelist. She writes her author column for in order to learn about the publishing industry and make connections. As a result of my interviews with her, I asked to read her novel-in-progress. I think it's terrific and hope to help her when she is ready to publish it.

And notwithstanding her low pay, Michelle is building up a readership. Despite our different career trajectories within the broader world of "writing" Michelle's advice to other aspiring writers resonates with me deeply:

My advice would be to write about what you are most passionate about and what comes natural for you to write about. The readers will come as long as you are persistent and passionate. If you try and force yourself to write about topics you are not passionate about, the reader will see right through your words and you will lose your credibility and readership.

Patricia Leavy's latest books are Fiction as Research Practice: Short Stories, Novellas and Novels (Left Coast Press) and the novel, American Circumstance (Sense Publishers).

Check-out Michelle Arana's author column for here: