Annals of Freelance Writing: It’s Now Easy to Sell a Story But Where Has All the Money Gone?

Avery Comarow, a veteran editor, took exception to a recent post about a Washingtonian editor angrily reacting to a freelance writer who had complained to the magazine’s publisher about her treatment:

“I handled freelance writers at a science mag and would have reached for the phone to apologize 30 seconds after hearing from above that I’d let a writer fall through the cracks–not because I wanted to get my boss off my back but because there’s no goddamn excuse for treating writers like that. I’ve BEEN a freelance, been treated that way, and fumed helplessly because I knew I wasn’t going to get satisfaction from story editors puffed up with their own busy tinpot importance.”

In a subsequent post, I added some background on how I dealt with freelance writers while editing the Washingtonian, pointing out that we got many queries from freelancers every day and, while we tried to treat writers decently, it sometimes didn’t go well and writers had to wait and wait to find out if their story would be published.

This sometimes high-handed treatment of writers by editors was in journalism’s pre-digital era, before broadband and Google and iPhones changed everything about 15 years ago. Now freelance writers can find lots of places that can and will publish their stories—space is unlimited on the web.

But how much will you get paid for your story? Print paid in dollars, digital sites in pennies, if at all.

In the golden age of print, before broadband, the Washingtonian paid freelance writers $1 a word minimum, often up to $2 a word. Routine was buying a 3,500 word story and paying $4,000 to $5,000. When we accepted and held a piece, we often paid part or all of the agreed on fee. So while there was more editor-writer conflict back then, the rewards were much greater.

There were many staff writing jobs back in print’s good years and experienced staff writers usually were paid in the $75,000  to $100,000 a year range. Good freelancers could earn $5,000 for a month’s reporting and writing.

So looking back at freelance writing:

When print was king: It wasn’t always easy to sell a story but the pay could be very good.

After the digital revolution: Very easy to get published, very hard to make real money.








  1. You’re absolutely right. I write humor and personal essays. The most I’ve ever been paid for one was $850, by the New York Times. But mostly, payment is in the $100 – $250 range. Or worse. Thankfully, I don’t have to rely on the money that comes in from my writing to make a living. If I did, I’d be living on a grate.

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