Making a Living as a Writer: Choosing an Income Stream to Focus On

In Part 3 of this series, I talked about brainstorming a big list of the skills that you have that are related to writing and words. And another list of who you know (or can get to know) that might pay you to use those skills.

I thought this week I’d give an example of one possible income stream for a writer and how I got into it. Besides sharing my own experience and approach, I’ll offer some tips about how to get into it if you have NO experience in it. I’m hoping this will be useful and that you’ll see how you can apply this kind of process to other skills as well.

One of the ways I’ve earned income over the past few years has been copyediting. Copyediting is like proofreading on steroids. It involves checking for consistency, cross-checking for accuracy, checking for logic, making sure the work conforms to a certain style (AP, Chicago, or the publisher’s own style sheet, usually), etc.

You may have no interest in nor the necessary skill set for copyediting, but that’s ok! I think this general process applies more widely.

It was several years ago and my income had dropped sharply one year. (I think that was thanks to the hundreds of hours I devoted to a drum corps adventure–which I’ll never regret but which definitely led to, “Ack! I’ve got to earn some money!”) So I made my list of skills, which included grammar, punctuation, and spelling. And I thought, “Hey, maybe I could do some freelance copyediting.”

I knew I had the skills, because I had done copyediting before–right out of college in two different editorial positions at magazines, and more recently, as a part-time copyeditor at the Star Tribune, a major daily paper, for 10 years. I knew the copyediting symbols, had familiarity with both AP and Chicago style, and, most importantly, had the base skills (the grammar, etc.) That was SUPER important because although I had copyediting credibility due to jobs I’d held, real boots-on-the-ground copyediting was not a large part of any of my prior jobs. My title at the Trib was copyeditor, though, so even though copyediting was only a minor part of my duties, I knew my resume would work.

What I didn’t have was a huge amount of confidence. Did companies have you copyedit in Word? On hard copies? How much familiarity with certain style sheets did I need? How fast did I have to be? Would I discover I really DIDN’T have what it takes to be a copyeditor?

I tried to stuff those fears, and I moved on to the second part of my brainstorming: Who will pay me to use these skills? Huh. Nobody I knew at the time. I couldn’t think of anything. The idea of just going out and saying, “Hey, I’m a copyeditor. Want to hire me?” was pretty daunting.

So, I wasn’t feeling super confident about this. But then I realized that I had worked for many publishers, especially in the educational market, over the 10 years prior to that. So I sent out some emails that said basically:

It’s the start of a new year, and I’m touching base with my freelance clients. I was just looking at the holiday postcard that [you] sent out, and I wanted to update you on the various kinds of freelance work I love to do.

Then I listed those freelance skills I had to offer, including:

* freelance copyediting and proofreading (I was an English teacher, a magazine editor–for CENTRAL FLORIDA MAGAZINE and WOMEN’S SPORTS & FITNESS, and then a copyeditor for the Minneapolis Star Tribune for ten years. I have excellent editing and proofing skills.)

I sent out probably 10 or so emails like that, and, slowly, copyediting assignments came my way. All I did was send out those initial emails. So I haven’t pursued it as a huge income stream or anything, but it’s brought in several thousand dollars most years for the past few years. If I wanted to expand it, I could. I see listings for copyeditors regularly, including this one that was in my email this morning from a packager who works with publishers.


Also, a couple of years ago at a local networking event for Minnesota publishers, I met two editors from a Minnesota press that basically helps authors self-publish. It offers all sorts of editing services to authors, and mentor Lisa and I have just signed on to be one of the editing teams that bids on authors’ projects there. Lisa is doing developmental and content editing, and I’m jumping in with copyediting. We’re only on our first project, so we’ll see how that goes!

My point is, there are people who will pay for these skills I have. It’s just a matter of my approaching them and selling myself!

Here are some things I’ve learned over the past few years.

  • Most of my worries were for nothing. Every company does things its own way, and the editors/project managers explain the process to freelancers.
  • I’m never quite sure what to expect from a project until I accept it and dive in. Little by little, as I do more projects for different companies–and individuals–I’m learning what fits best into my wheelhouse.
  • If I don’t understand something, I just need to ask!
  • It’s good to have a network of other people who do similar work, so that I can run general questions by them first, and not feel foolish asking an editor something that turns out to be pretty basic. (We also have MFR clients who use us as their network when they don’t have one.)
  • Projects rarely run on schedule, so I try to be clear up front about my availability, even beyond the “finish date” the editor gives.
  • I wouldn’t want to copyedit full time, but I like doing it now and then. It satisfies the grammar Nazi in my soul.

If you think you have the basic skills for copyediting, here are a few things you need to know or tips to get started:

So, if you have the skills and an interest in copyediting, maybe that will be part of the way you earn a living as a writer. If not, what other skills do you have that you can apply this process to? Follow these steps:

  1. Identify your skills.
  2. Figure out who needs those skills.
  3. Figure out who can afford to pay you for those skills. (Sadly, the answers to who needs the skills and who can pay for them sometimes have little overlap–your job is to FIND that overlap and get work in that part of the market.)
  4. Jump in! Most areas of writing and editing just require you to start. You might feel unready. You might not know what to expect. That’s OK. The only way to figure out if it’s right for you is to get in there and give it a go. Just like we encourage kids to try different sports, musical activities, hobbies, etc., to find the ones they are both good at and like, you have to do the same thing with income streams as a freelance writer.

OK, I hope this was helpful. Would love to hear in the Comments what skill you’re going to try to earn money from in the next six months:>)

The series so far:

Part 1: How I Define Making a Living as a Writer
Part 2: Identifying My Ideal Writing Life

Part 3: Shifting the Seesaw
Part 4: Choosing an Income Stream to Focus On


About Laura Purdie Salas

children's writer, poet, reader, visiting author, speaker/teacher, mentor, copyeditor, freelance writer
This entry was posted in Making a Living and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

9 Responses to Making a Living as a Writer: Choosing an Income Stream to Focus On

  1. As a member of PEN (Professional Editors Network), I rub shoulders with other writers, copy editors, etc. AND the organization has free or low-cost meetings on relevant topics. You don’t have to live in the Twin Cities to be a member. Most meetings are taped and made available.

  2. Great post! I’d say a familiarity with AP (Associated Press) style is also helpful.And it’s good to know how to use “Tracking” and “Compare documents” on Word. Almost all of the editing I do is on-screen these days.

    • True. I personally had more AP experience, but I haven’t worked with many ed pubs who use it. But still, a good resource. Same for PEN and using Tracking on Word. I’ve been utterly gobsmacked that most of the copyediting I’ve done has been either on hard copy (seriously!) or on pdfs, with very little in Word. But this all must just be my particular narrow band of clients. Just goes to show how different the various assignments are. I’m going to add your resources to the post. Thanks so much!

  3. Helpful & timely information–thanks, Laura!

  4. Sara Matson says:

    Thanks for a very helpful post–not only for sharing the idea and process of identifying skills and finding someone who needs them, but also for sharing your own experience. It helps so much to see how someone else did it. It helps, too, to know I’m not the only one with a lack of confidence sometimes! 🙂

  5. Lara says:

    Hi Laura,
    My mom, Rebecca Kai Dotlich, pointed me in your direction to check out this series. I’ve been doing some freelance writing (educational publishers) and editing (content and developmental) for the past six years or so, but due to our current financial situation I’m trying to get more work. I sometimes feel like a Jill of all trades and master of none. I know that isn’t true, but my confidence is lacking now that I feel the pressure. Anyway, thanks for this series. I hope you keep it up!

    • Hi Lara, Your mom is amazing. And I think you are the one that passed along a contact for some work-for-hire fiction through your mom to me a couple of years ago, which resulted in one book published and another draft under consideration right now. Thank you!

      Boy, I hear you on “I sometimes feel like a Jill of all trades and master of none.” That’s one pitfall of being a freelancer. You have to do SO many different things to earn a living that it can really feel like you never get to master one particular thing–especially the thing you really love. One plus I have found, though, is that with every new kind of writing I try, or every new client I take on, each successful project builds my confidence. I can now totally own the fact that I am really good with words. If I know what a client wants, I can usually deliver–and exceed expectations. (Though I still get brief attacks of insecurity while working on that first project for a new client or using a new skill!) While that confidence doesn’t necessarily spill over into the trade book writing I want to do–the manuscripts themselves, I mean–I have found it helps me with my negotiations, business dealings, and marketing. So at least that’s a plus.

      I just sent you a Facebook message, btw, about a company. Check for it in your Other box, since we aren’t FB Friends. And do you subscribe to ? A good source for education-related freelance work.

      Hope more work comes your way soon!

  6. Pingback: Making a Living: How to Develop a Brand New Income Stream | Mentors for Rent

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