Writing by the Light of the Moon


Your workday is over -- now's the time to get to work. Here's how to earn an extra $1,000-$2,000 every month as a moonlighting freelancer.


If you're not ready to take the plunge into full-time freelancing, moonlighting is an attractive alternative. Moonlighting enables you to write and earn extra income without the financial insecurity of full-time self-employment. But be warned: In addition to its many rewards, moonlighting has its own share of problems and pitfalls.

Moonlighting allows you to "practice" being a freelance writer before you make the decision to leave your day job and pursue freelancing full-time. It's a risk-free way to decide whether freelance writing is the right career for you.

When you moonlight, you get the rewards of full-time freelancing without the risks. Your moonlighting activities bring in extra income, bylines and clips of published articles. Because you're not dependent on freelance writing for economic survival, you can pick and choose your assignments, fret less over rejections, and enjoy the luxury of writing without the unrelenting pressure to earn a living from it.

There are disadvantages, of course. If you already have a full-time job, you may not be free to attend client meetings, do research, or interview subjects during normal business hours. When you come home exhausted from a hard day at the office, and it's a choice between putting in an hour or two at the word processor vs. watching Wheel of Fortune and Jeopardy, TV frequently wins out.

Okay. Let's say you'd still like to try moonlighting. Here are some of the key considerations.


One question that comes to mind as you think about moonlighting is, "Will I get in trouble with my employer if I work on the side?"

The answer depends on your individual situation.

First, discreetly check your employment contract or company policy manual. Don't ask your manager whether it's okay to moonlight. Don't tell the personnel department you're interested in freelancing on the side.

If your contract or employee manual expressly prohibits moonlighting, you could risk being fired by doing so. If your company doesn't forbid moonlighting, but does discourage it, then you have a decision to make: Are you willing to risk moonlighting -- and being discovered if it could result in a reprimand or be harmful to your career?

Analyze the corporate culture of your firm. Perhaps you work at a company where management doesn't care what you do in your spare time, as long as you maintain good performance on the job. If that's the case, go for it.

If you feel your boss would be likely to approve of your moonlighting, then by all means mention it and ask for his or her permission. That way, if someone else in the company objects, you have already cleared it with your immediate superior.

If you feel your boss would disapprove of your moonlighting, but would not take action against you, then go ahead and do it. But don't tell him or her. Again, be discreet.

That brings us to another question: Can you conduct your moonlighting activities discreetly? For instance, you can probably moonlight as a ghostwriter with no one ever being wiser. But if you're writing cover stories for national magazines, sooner or later your moonlighting will be discovered by others in your firm.

There are several other factors that determine whether it's feasible for you to moonlight:


That last question -- can you hold down two jobs -- addresses one of the biggest problems faced by moonlighters. I've heard several clients of mine complain, "I've hired moonlighters, but when they got busy in their regular jobs, they neglected my work and didn't return my phone calls."

When your full-time work interferes with your moonlighting, it's easy to fall behind on your moonlighting projects. But your writing clients will expect you to meet your deadlines the same as their full-time freelancers do.

The best way to make sure you meet your freelance writing deadlines is to not take on too much work.

I recommend that moonlighters handle only one assignment at a time. Also avoid projects with too-tight deadlines. Full-time freelancers may need to take on many rush jobs at once to keep the cash flowing and pay the rent. As a moonlighter, you probably don't have that pressure.

Another special problem, especially for freelancers handling corporate and advertising assignments, is whether to let clients know you are a moonlighter. When you're seeking an assignment, there's no need to highlight the fact that you're moonlighting. If the client wants you to perform services at times that would be inconvenient because of your regular job, suggest that meetings or conferences take place after 5 p.m. or during the lunch hour.

If a client asks whether you're a moonlighter, explain your situation this way: "Yes, in addition to handling writing assignments for numerous clients and publications, I also have a staff job as a senior writer for XYZ Company." Don't use the term moonlighter which has, for some, a negative connotation. And don't apologize. Treat your full-time job (especially if it's a writing job) as a credential that shows you're the best, rather than as a drawback.

Another difficulty for moonlighters is the inability to accept phone calls from your freelance clients during normal business hours. If the calls are infrequent, and your company has no objection, you can make a few phone calls from the office during business hours.

Otherwise, give clients your home telephone number and install a phone answering machine or voice mail to take their calls while you are at work. You can check messages from the office and get back to clients during a break or lunch.

A more difficult stumbling block is not being free during the day to make sales calls, attend editorial conferences, meet with agents and publishers, interview subjects, visit distant locations, or do other writing-related activities that require travel or personal contact.

One solution is to take your vacation time by the day or half-day for these tasks. This is difficult for those with little vacation; easier for people who get three or more weeks per year.

If your employer is flexible about hours, perhaps you can arrange to have some time off during the day, which you make up on evenings or weekends.


You may feel guilty about pursuing freelance writing on a part-time basis. You may feel you're "cheating" your employer by not devoting your exclusive attention to your regular job, or by sneaking out now and then to attend to some freelance writing matters.

Similarly, if you're married or are in a relationship, you may feel you're being selfish when you sit alone to write rather than spend leisure time with your partner. Parents especially feel a strain when their writing and their children compete for attention.

This is an issue you must resolve in your own mind; I can't do it for you. It may help, however, for you to set a schedule and clearly allocate time for writing vs. other pursuits.

Bill Greene, a promotions writer for ABC-TV, moonlights as a suspense novelist. He lives close to the office, so commuting time is minimal. When he gets home, he writes in his study for two hours until dinner is ready, then spends the rest of the time with his family or just relaxing. Having a set schedule and amount of time for moonlighting, and not exceeding that limit, helps separate work from personal life and prevents guilt feelings.

Conflict with your day job may not be as easily resolved. When I moonlighted, I felt terribly guilty about using the company phone (though most other employees made far more personal calls than I did), rushing out of the office at 5 p.m. to get home and write, taking an occasional long lunch to do an interview, and not devoting myself 100% to the company and its business.

I was never able to resolve this guilt. That's why I quit my job and began freelancing fulltime.

You have to do what works for you, and this is something that all employed people, not just moonlighters, must cope with. Moonlighters aren't the only employees who occasionally use the office copier for personal copying, for instance; many do. Is this acceptable? Your behavior must conform to the personal code of ethics that makes you comfortable.


Your personal interests, energy and ambition will dictate the types of writing projects you tackle as a moonlighter. But there are certain assignments that are better "second jobs" than others.

The rule of thumb: The less contact the assignment requires with other people, the better.

The rationale is simple: The responsibilities of a full-time job or raising a family make it difficult for moonlighters to attend to writing-related tasks during everyone else's regular business hours. I discussed ways to minimize this concern earlier, but the best approach is to avoid the situation as often as possible.

If you're a magazine article writer, look to how-to, service, informational, confession, humor, personal observation and other articles that can be written from firsthand knowledge or library research. These articles don't require interviewing subjects, most of whom are available only during daytime hours.

Interviews, profiles, celebrity bios, investigative journalism and other types of articles requiring extensive interviewing, travel and research are difficult to handle when you're a moonlighter tied to a desk job from 9 to 5.

The same goes with books. How-to, reference, humor, popular science, history, children's, business, computer and fiction are easier for the moonlighter to do than biography, current affairs, investigative journalism, expose, social issues, and similar research-intensive books that may require a full-time effort.

If you're freelancing for business and corporate clients, the best projects are ads, brochures, sales letters, direct mail packages, audiovisual scripts and other short-copy assignments. These can be handled primarily by mail and phone, with perhaps only one or two meetings with the client.

On the other hand, annual reports, company newsletters, executive speeches, computer manuals and other lengthier assignments requiring a lot of interviewing, meetings, and back-and-forth contact are more difficult.


The only real difference between a moonlighting writer and a fulltime writer is the number of hours each must devote to other tasks. Once the moonlighter sits down to write, he or she operates in essentially the same manner as the fulltime writer. The rules for dealing with publishers and agents, clients and sources, accountants and tax collectors don't change according to the number of hours you log at the word processor.

If there is a difference, it's that moonlighters need much less work than full-time writers to keep busy -- or pay the bills. Moonlighting novelists may have the luxury of polishing a book longer before turning to its sequel. Article writers may push aside a few lukewarm ideas in favor of topics that truly excite them.

Many moonlighters do no marketing or selling at all and are busy just from the requests that come in "over the transom." Perhaps you get occasional requests to handle moonlighting projects from people who know you are a writer. If you accept such assignments, and inform these people that you are actively seeking more freelance projects, you may get all the work you can handle just from referrals and word of mouth.

If your company deals with printers, ad agencies, graphic arts studios, public relations agencies, trade publications and other such vendors, these vendors could be potential clients for you -- or, if you feel there would be a conflict, you can at least ask them to recommend you for writing assignments to others they know who might need a freelance writer.

If your full-time job dictates you keep your moonlighting activities quiet, make sure a vendor will keep your request for work or referrals confidential. Other traditional methods to generate assignments -- query letters to magazine editors, book proposals to agents and publishers, sales letters to potential corporate clients -- are not subject to public scrutiny and thus are ideal for moonlighters.

Avoid marketing techniques such as print advertising, networking and telephone selling. These make your moonlighting activities extremely visible and may get you into trouble.

And never reply to a blind help-wanted ad in the hopes of getting freelance work from the advertiser. Once I replied to an ad that read "Ad Agency Needs Freelance Writer for Special Assignments." It turned out to be the ad agency that handled all the advertising for the company for whom I worked as advertising manager.



How much extra money can you make as a moonlighter? It depends on how well you are paid and how much you can do.

If you want to write a book, be aware that the average advance for a first nonfiction book or novel ranges from $5,000 to about $7,500. And it can easily take a year of moonlighting to complete the book. So, your earnings for that year would be equal to the advance. Future sales may result in additional income from royalties, but don't count on it: The majority of books don't earn back their advance.

How about article writing? Say you get $600 per article and can moonlight two articles a month. That's an extra $1,200 per month in your pocket. (But article payments can begin as low as $5, depending on where you sell your writing.)

Freelancing for ad agencies, corporations, PR firms and other corporate clients will bring a somewhat higher rate of return. Let's say you write audiovisual scripts and get $3,000 per script. If you do one a month, that translates into earnings of $36,000 a year -- enough to considerably improve your lifestyle.


If moonlighting allows you to "practice" being a freelancer before making the break to full-time writing, when do you make that transition?

There's no ideal time. I'd say do it when you have enough money in the bank to live for one year, have three or four steady clients (magazine editors, corporate clients or book publishers), and feel you could earn enough to live on if you devoted yourself to freelancing full time.

(For more information on becoming a full-time writer, and ten questions to ask yourself before making the jump, see Dana K. Cassell's "When to Quit Your Day Job," in the April 1991 issue of Writer's Digest. Back issues are available for $3 from Back Issue Editor, 1507 Dana Ave., Cincinnati 45207.)

Of course, you might choose to never leave your day job. Just because Tom Clancy quit the insurance business after The Hunt for Red October insured his future does not mean the moonlighter must eventually become the fulltimer. Poet William Carlos Williams never quit being a New Jersey physician, for instance.

People moonlight as writers for all sorts of reasons. Maybe you are looking to sock away some extra income for a child's college education, or find the cash to add a room to your house, or satisfy the itch to see your name in print, or publicize a cause that's important to you, or ... well, any reason is a good enough one.

Once you couple that ambition with the energy it takes to go back to work at your keyboard after you come home from the office, you'll have all that is necessary to be a successful moonlighter.