Saturday, February 12, 2011

The secret to making a living as a writer abroad

A lot of people want to know: can you really make a living as a writer abroad?

It sounds so glamorous, after all.

Well, last week, writer Alexis Grant challenged the myth that it’s possible to make a living as a travel writer. It’s about time someone did this. For instance, the travel website Matador pays $25 for stories, but that will barely buy you lunch in Switzerland. And I’ve pitched enough higher-paying publications to know that a reply is so rare that I cheer even when I get a rejection. Of course, if you’re a writer abroad, it doesn’t necessarily mean that you’re a travel writer. In fact, I hope for your sake, you’re not.

Next month, I’m teaching a course on how to make a living as a writer abroad. But here’s a secret—there is no secret. It's not easy to make a living as a writer, abroad or at home.

Most writers can’t just write novels, can’t just write travel articles, can’t just blog. In most cases, if you want to do those things and make a living wage, you must do all of those things. And more.

For instance, in the last five years, I have done copywriting, blogging, journalism, essay writing, PR writing, translating (bad English into good), radio writing, memoir writing, novel writing, teaching, and more. Sometimes I do all of these things at once, at other times, I concentrate more on just one or two of them. Over on the Urban Muse, you can see which kinds of writing were the most profitable for one writer last year.

But let’s hear from you. If you make a living as a writer abroad, what’s your secret?


  1. Well I don't know if I'd call it a living yet (luckily there is another earner in my family), but I specialise in journalism for companies and turning Denglish into real, sparkling English. I have three solid clients who send me work, but I'm constantly looking for new ones.

    I'm also getting ever closer to my goal of finding a publisher for my novel, I'm hoping that will become my main revenue stream.

  2. I agree that a great way to find work as a writer abroad is to fix bad English into good.

    And congrats on your novel getting close to finding a publisher, that's great.

  3. Thanks for the mention! And for adding your two cents... This kind of practical advice is exactly what the aspiring (travel) writer needs.

  4. I too have been pursuing clients who need bad English turned into good. Heaven knows there are LOTS of instances of poor English out there. A couple days ago I got initial interest from an Italian travel website that seriously needs help and realizes it, but as soon as I gave the gentleman my prices he said thanks, but he could get software that would correct his English for about a third of what I was quoting.

    As for magazines, I'm learning that CH is just too small a market to pay a living wage. I'm doing a feature for Swiss News. They expect photos included for free, but that's usually how I make about half my income. But you can't blame them; they're a tiny publication (12,000 circ.)

    I think I'll eventually abandon attempts to place stories in Europe and just pitch American publications. Meanwhile, thank goodness I've got a steady client in Hawai'i, and a vacation home business ( and most of all, thank goodness I've got my sweet wife, who is our chief bread-winner right now.

    My question to the Swiss anglophone freelance community: What do you think about a bunch of us meeting and organizing to demand -- as a group -- higher fees?

  5. Bill, I agree, the photos for free thing is a challenge at many pubs these days, but with stock photo sites that charge pennies it's hard to compete.

    True, you cannot just freelance write for Swiss pubs and make a living. There aren't enough of them. And I have also been turned down by several companies and publications based on my rates but it's ok, there's no point in wasting time with people who won't pay you what you're worth because then you can't pursue those who will.

    I agree fees should be higher for freelance writers everywhere, not just in CH. I'm all there with you--it's just that there will always be those willing to write for less than they're worth. Or wait, there's that old saying, you get what you pay for...

  6. Well, I'm not a writer living abroad, but a full-time writer living at home. I used to do more travel writing - using the fee from magazines (usually about $2000 in Canada) to pay for my plane ticket and expenses. But when babies came along that was no longer feasible. So I reluctantly stay closer to home and have managed somehow to make a decent living as a writer - but like you, I've had to combine journalism with PR and corporate writing and teaching and whatever else I can think of. It was harder at the beginning to find enough work, but it's been three years now and I find that I have enough contacts that I can usually call one or the other if I need work and it will come through. My best advice is to get as many contacts as you can and get out of the house!

  7. I agree that contacts are important. That's why I think networking should be considered part of a writer's work. If you just sit at home, it's hard to get very far.

  8. When I first started writing travel articles I was living abroad in Athens, Greece and typing on a portable Brother. Every story I wrote and sent out was published and a lot of them were in newspapers in Canada, with good pay too. (this was in the '80's) I continued publishing (print) after that and after I came back to Canada I started teaching travel writing then other writing courses, for the school board. I also was spending 6 mons a year in Greece researching and writing a novel as well as travel writing. In the last years I write on-line mostly, occasionally for a print pub. but the pay is not nearly what it used to be in the beginning. A lot of on-line sites pay minimal and even some print pub. only want to give you a pittance. I edit/pub my own on-line travel 'zine and pay a modest stipend. Check it out at I also continue to teach writing, do editing, reading critiques and I just finished my novel. Up until last month I was writing several stories a week for the Vancouver Guide (Planet Eye/iStopOvermagazine) and getting paid but that's not happening any longer.

  9. The problem is the advent of free content. Newspapers like the NYT that has been free online is now starting to charge for content (if you read more than 15 articles per month). People will pay for content if they feel they need it. The key is to write stories that people would be willing to buy and then find your niche publication. It's all in the perception of value.

  10. Heck, I have had a difficult time earning enough money to pad my "Belgian chocolate coffers" by selling articles in America, let alone in foreign lands. More and more, I am getting rejections indicating a "recent change to assign only within."

    Great to hear from others. Thanks Chantal.

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