freelance writer at work

3 expat freelance writers’ stories

For the first four years of my freelancing career, the only information I found about the careers of others was on “how to make money blogging” websites. Inevitably, they claimed to have a system I could follow (for a price) to make a six figure annual income online. I didn’t have much luck on LinkedIn or Facebook, either. Writers on those platforms were either trying to advertise their own services or complaining about the poor rates they made in the brave new digital writing world.

freelance writers computerAlthough it’s not a resounding blogging success story, my Sihanoukville Journal ranks pretty well. A couple of years ago, I got my first comment from a fellow freelancer who was coming to Sihanoukville and wanted to meet me. Freelancing can be lonely work, so I was more than happy to oblige. More requests and connections followed and now I feel qualified to offer a little informed advice about freelancing from an expat’s perspective.

3 Expat Freelance Writers’ Stories

I think it’s safe to say that planning ahead is a better plan than having no plan, but I am living proof that you can wing your freelance career and survive. It’s just riskier and the learning curve is steeper. I made a pittance per word (1 to 2 cents a word) my first year and spent another 6 months believing $20/500 words was good money.

The first freelancer I had coffee with here was luckier. Because he contacted me directly, I was able to do two very important services for him:

  1. Caution him against getting gigs from bidding sites and
  2. Give him a couple of referrals.

The result was that Brad* avoided making the mistakes I made my first year and got a couple of solid assignments to start his career with.

One day I got an email out of the blue from one of my clients. A fellow freelancer was coming to Sihanoukville and wanted to get together for a chat. Candice’s freelancing career started more or less by accident. I don’t know where the money for travelling came from, but she had been backpacking for years and blogging about her adventures. One day, she decided to try to make some money from her writing, so she contacted some commercial blogs and magazines, using her blog as her portfolio. They were impressed with her work and she got some gigs, but found that travel writing alone wasn’t enough to keep her busy.

freelance writer at work Over the course of our conversation, I asked her how much traffic she got on her blog. “Only about 1,000 per day,” she replied. Apparently, she had learned about “blogging for profit” from websites that claimed to have 10,000 visitors per day and didn’t think she had enough traffic to monetise her blog.

“Okay,” I told her. “My Sihanoukville Journal only gets about 2 to 4 thousand visitors per month. Let’s be generous and say I get 3,000 per month. That’s 36,000 per year. You, on the other hand, get 365,000 visitors a year or roughly 10 times as many as I. I don’t even try to sell anything except hotel bookings on my site, but still make around $200 a year. My commissions are pathetic – often less than a dollar. If you found the right products to sell, you could probably make more money blogging than you make freelancing.”

She thought about this for a minute and realised that she often blogged about products she liked and had a loyal following of other mostly young women who envied her lifestyle. She didn’t want to profit from their loyalty, though. I admired her integrity, but when I pointed out that if they bought the products from another online source, she was doing someone else’s marketing for them. The penny dropped and she decided to start selling the products rather than just advertising them for someone else.

She was amazed when I told her only a fraction of my income came from travel-related writing. “Where does it come from, then?” she asked, her jaw slightly agape. “Well, my steadiest work comes from a home improvement website in Australia. I also get work from a company that sells coffee, an American materials handling equipment supplier and an Australian natural health website.”

“I never thought of that. I know a lot about natural medicines and even blog about them sometimes.”

“There you go, then. That’s another income stream for you.”

So far, I’ve recounted stories (including my own) about freelancers who stumbled into it and somehow muddled through. The fourth story is about someone who planned ahead. Katie’s story is the most interesting to me because she was my editor for a long time. I kind of envied her for having a career and always imagined she would capitalise on her experience and climb the company ladder. Then one day she announced she was quitting her job to start freelancing.

I almost sent Katie an email telling her not to do it, but refrained. She is a smart woman and able to take care of herself. Sure enough, she had lined up some freelance writing gigs in advance and agreed to continue writing for the company she was working for.

We kept in touch and she even got me a couple of new clients. Then one day I got an email from her:

“I’m going to Vietnam and need someone to write some assignments for me while I’m on holidays. Do you have time?”

The month she spent in Vietnam was enough to convince her that she would be better off and happier living overseas than in Australia. Thanks to taking a step-by-step approach and easing into it, she now lives comfortably on Bali and has started a blog I’m sure will do very well because she knows what she has to do to promote it and is a very good writer.

The Freelance Writers Den: Learn More
What’s the moral of the story? In a word, it’s NETWORKING. When I started out, I had no one I trusted to turn to for help and had to get started the hard way. Brad was able to skip the painful stage of finding gigs on content mills and bidding sites because he contacted me directly. I was able to give Candice some useful advice because we got together over coffee. I have benefited enormously by keeping in touch with Katie. She not only gave me valuable referrals, but encouraged me with my writing when she was my editor.

In my case, at least, networking with other writers was mostly accidental. I did, however, Join Freelance Writers Den for a month to see what it was like. I was impressed, but felt it had the most value for America-based writers. That said, Carol Tice does have a lot of practical advice to offer all freelance writers and when you’re in the Den, you can network with other writers on the forum. It may not be quite the same as networking with other freelancers face-to-face, but it beats winging it on your own.

Yes, I get a commission if you follow my links to the Freelance Writers Den and get in the Den or buy one of the products. I don’t get a commission if you ask me questions about expat freelance writing, but enjoy networking and would be happy to hear from you.

*These are real people, but I’ve changed their names because I didn’t ask for their permission to write about them.