When I quit my day job two years ago to jump into the perilous pool of freelance writing, my co-workers gave me retirement cards. Little did they know how many 50- and 60-hour weeks I would spend at the keyboard, searching for markets and taking on-spec assignments. I had no idea, either, which explains why I was so excited at the prospect of making a living as a writer.

That first year I learned a hard lesson about on-spec writing; two articles for two different publishers–one print, one online– never saw the light of day, even after they were accepted, and I never received a penny on either one. There were days when I decided I could make more money on lottery and sweepstakes websites than as a writer, and spent several afternoons clicking on animated trees and punching monkeys.

These experiences taught me there is no big payoff without lots of hard work, so I sharpened my queries and became a market search maven. Solid assignments began trickling in, and so did the paychecks. One market I found in has resulted in seven assignments within the last year.

When Woman’s Day still didn’t pound on my door for a feature, I took “unglamorous” assignments writing newsletters, press releases, website content and advertorial to pay the bills. While it’s not the same as Reader’s Digest, I still felt great about thousands of people reading my words.

Today, I mix freelance assignments with local publicity clients for a balanced income, and will file taxes this year as a small business. From those first scary, lean years as a freelancer, I learned two things: always work with a paying contract, and have at least ten different recipes for beans, the staple of the struggling writer’s diet.

Elizabeth Bartlett is a freelance writer in Eureka Springs, Ark. Her articles have been published in Vibrant Life, American Profile, Meetings South, Ozarks Mountaineer, Inscriptions, and several local and regional newspapers. She also writes a weekly column about the lighter side of life and the Internet in her local paper, the Eureka Springs Times-Echo.