Is there money in freelance writing in South Africa?

One of my least favourite sentences in the English language is “There’s no money in that.”

When I was finishing high school and my friends and I started applying for university, I heard this phrase a lot.

Several of my friends were discouraged from pursuing their dream degrees by their parents or teachers, who would use that phrase: there’s no money in that. Being a humanities kid at heart, I pursued a degree in the social sciences and was also often told there’s no money in that, usually by strangers who can’t resist offering an unsolicited opinion.

To be honest, I never thought I’d become a writer because I believed I’d never make a living from it, but here I am.

I hate this phrase not just because money shouldn’t be the most important thing when it comes to choosing a career, but because you can’t always look at someone’s career and assume that they will or won’t make a lot of money. You can make a decent living in most industries, and whether you do depends on a range of different factors.

This is especially true when it comes to freelance writing in a country like South Africa.

I am often asked whether you can make a lot of money through freelancing in South Africa. And obviously, the answer is it depends. The money you make is determined by a lot of factors. Some factors are out of your control – unfortunately, discrimination is an issue in freelancing as it is in many other types of work, and freelancing is pretty hard if you are ill, a stay-at-home parent, etc.

But some factors are in your control.

One of the most important pieces of advice I can give to South African freelance writers is to LOOK AT OVERSEAS MARKETS. There is no reason for you to pitch South African, and only South African, magazines and publications. You can pitch your ideas to US publications and get paid in dollars. While some publications prefer writers from their base country for banking or tax purposes, most don’t mind international writers. So don’t impose an imaginary cage on yourself – you’re perfectly able to write for an overseas market, so do it. Nearly all my regular clients are in the US.

Personally, I’m sad to say that I don’t bother pitching stories to South African publications. Of the few South African publications I’ve written for, nearly all have paid me late, and a few haven’t paid me at all. Some publications definitely pay well and on time, but judging from the experiences of my acquaintances in the industry, these are few and far between. That’s not to say overseas publications are angels when it comes to payment, but it’s more common here. What’s more, South African publications seldom pay as much as those in the US and Europe.

This culture of late-payment, poor-payment, and non-payment is often what people mean when they say there’s no money in freelance writing in South Africa. But the way these publications treat their writers doesn’t need to dictate your financial situation. There’s money elsewhere, so look for it.

Mindset is also incredibly important when it comes to freelancing, no matter where you are in the world. The most successful freelancers are people who are:

  • Persistent and resilient. Rejection is a part of freelancing, so bouncing back is crucial. This is hard, but it’s important. So often, people who want to freelance ask me for advice on pitching – and give up after being rejected a handful of times. I get that it’s discouraging, but I promise you that persistence pays off.
  • Willing to learn. Many people seek resources on freelance writing but few are willing to actively learn. Are you simply watching videos and reading posts about freelancing, or are you putting those concepts into practice, taking notes, challenging yourself, asking questions, and more? Are you expecting the information to be served to you, or are you ready to dig for it and process it yourself?
  • Ready to challenge their mindset. In school, university, and traditional workplaces, we’re pretty passive. We receive assignments, we’re told what to do, we’re given deadlines, and then we do them. This is totally not the case in freelance writing, where you’re forced to make your own assignments and decide how, when, and with whom you want to do them. This mental shift is harder than some people expect, and most people are happier slipping into an unsatisfying and underpaying 9-to-5 than chasing freelancing.
  • Hardworking. This goes without saying, but you do need to work hard. Don’t strain your mental health and don’t compromise your sleep. But be aware that you’ll have to sacrifice Netflix binges, nights out, and some of your vacation time to do it. It’s possible to balance your work with the rest of your life, but sometimes, sacrifices are necessary.
  • Hungry. Inevitably, the freelancers employ and work alongside do better if they know they need to write. Those who have parents to pay their rent and bills are a lot more slack, save for a few exceptions. Why is this? It’s about consequences. I’m not romanticizing poverty or saying it’s a prerequisite for success, but the consequences of your work need to be important to you. People driven by long-term motivations (whether it’s a need to pay rent, a yearning for financial independence, or a passion for storytelling) will always do better than those who have a casual interest in freelance writing.

And, of course, none of these qualities are inherent to certain people. They are skills and they grow with practice. So if you feel like you don’t have all these characteristics, work on them.

I am aware that sometimes people ask is there money in that as a way to politely ask how much money I earn. To be honest, I feel pretty horrified when people ask if I pay my own rent because I’ve been paying my own rent for years and I never want to be mistaken for someone who comes from a middle-class background. That said, I believe it’s important to talk about money, even if it’s seen as impolite.

The thing is that ‘a decent salary’ differs from person to person. In my Anthropology class back in 2015, one of my classmates said that she thinks we’d all earn R20 000 per month as a starting salary once we finish our degrees. When we all gasped, she said, “I know it’s low, but it’s just a starting salary!” I, a chap who grew up on Ricoffy and Morvite, thought R20 000 was an extraordinary amount of money to earn at any point in your life. That experience reminded me that money is so subjective.

But ultimately, I can afford to live in a nice little home on my own in Cape Town and I occasionally shop at Woolworths – that’s pretty fucking luxurious to me. I don’t have generational wealth, but that aside, I know my salary is better than most of my friends around my age – including those who actually have degrees. I’m lucky because I don’t have any children besides my cats, and I know flesh children would certainly take a strain on my budget. So yes, I do have a decent income for right now.

So, is there money in freelance writing in South Africa? Yes, there is. But you have to be creative in your approach and willing to put in the work.