Perhaps because screenwriters are responsible for the plot lines, many films and television shows glamorize the lifestyle of a journalist. From Carrie Bradshaw’s infamous sprawling Upper East Side apartment funded by a single article a week to the massive office of a newly-30-year-old magazine editor in ’13 Going on 30′, a wordsmith’s profession is often illustrated as luxurious. But ask any writer you know about how they make ends meet and chances are high they’ll present a laundry list of their countless gigs, that when added together actually make a sustainable income.
Even though many publication staffs continue to shrink and the days of $2/word pieces are few and far between, it is possible to accumulate wealth as you check off magazines from your byline bucket list. But it takes time — and often, a shift in your attitude toward the job description of a “writer.”
I should know — I’ve been working at it for well, nearly my whole life.
I was first mesmerized by the idea of becoming a writer as a 5 year old with a tape recorder, but I quickly understood the hustle required to transform my pipe dream into a profession. As a digital nomadic journalist, my Instagram account will take you around the globe — from Japan to Colombia — to arrive at a comfortable income, I worked and freelance full-time for five years. Before that? I held countless internships, wrote for free to collect bylines and went to every last networking event I was invited to — even the ones where I could barely afford a single cocktail. Today, I would consider myself successful and financially independent, reaping in far more than I ever made while on salary. (And annoyingly, paying plenty of taxes.)
And though my mother might disagree, I’m not that special. Plenty of writers, from journalists and content specialists to ghostwriters and SEO superstars, have a six-figure income produced from their words. While they might not choose to spend it on shoes or pay for an overpriced apartment in a pricey metro area, they are able to support themselves and their families, all from their resilience to pitch, secure, complete, invoice — and repeat.What does it take to earn $100K or more as a freelance writer? Five successful women share their advice. #freelancewriting #writerslife #contentmarketing @LindsayTigar @jennbfranklin @mgtylr Click To Tweet
Here, writers who make $100K or more share their secrets for success:
Emphasize the value of your time.
Depending on the story or project, getting from assignment to payment is a time-consuming process. In addition to securing sources, transcribing interviews, optimizing content for web, sometimes building the piece in the CMS, going through editing rounds and, eventually, seeing the direct deposit come into your inbox, you’ve likely logged upwards of 5 or more hours on a single article.
For Ann Adams*, who brought in $103,000 last year, being strategic about her energy exerted per client proved to be the most impactful on adding zeros to her income. In the past 15 years — nine of which, she was freelance full-time — she’s grown her business from $40,000 to six figures, with around 60 percent coming from content marketing and 40 percent from journalism. (*Pen name.)
To get here, she’s focused on her hourly rate and charging more for clients who delay her progress. This means being unapologetically picky about who she works with. “My goal is to earn $100+ an hour, so if I don’t think an assignment is going to net me that or more, I either negotiate or turn it down. It takes time to get to know a client, so one-off assignments that are low paying — even with a high hourly rate — aren’t worth it,” she explains. “Clients who don’t know what they want and don’t provide clear directions will eat up your time and not pay you for that. If a client is going to require multiple edits, I need to know they’ll pay for that with a higher rate or I’ll be paid a good hourly rate.”
Have an anchor client—and give it time to grow.
For a traditional, 401K-included career, think of the ladder. You have to start entry-level before you can be appointed to a manager, and prove your people-and-deadline wrangling skills to be promoted to executive. Though you might not have a boss when you’re a freelancer, the same metric applies.
Elizabeth Carriage accumulated around $12K a month from her writing business, awarding herself a $6K salary a month, with the rest covering occasional contractors or other business needs. She’s been writing for 15 years, from advertising agencies stateside and abroad and other gigs along the way. And though it has been a long process, she stresses the importance of writing experience for aspiring penners, with five years being the minimum. “This gives you built-in contacts and clients when you go freelance as well as a steady income while you get experience. I couldn’t have gone freelance without having these initial clients — which were mostly contacts from my former jobs,” she shares.
Today, the majority of her clients come from copywriting, corporate writing and royalties from her book, alongside freelance articles and essays or the occasional travel guidebook. To arrive at this lifestyle, she’s relied on a few anchor clients that provide a dependable stream of work, and she’s created a niche for herself, all tactics that have ensured her paychecks. Most of all though? Starting from day one, she’s worked hard to earn the rep and experience.
“You must have inner motivation and drive. You must put your butt in your chair and work hard. You need an accountant. It’s wonderful and freeing, but you also have to have grit to deal with rejection and the ability to keep going even when things aren’t going as smoothly as you’d like. You have to be a boss… of yourself,” she shares.
Don’t discount your network.
…or your possible net worth! Too often, freelancers and solopreneurs — and especially females — aren’t comfortable negotiating rates. Or, asking for what they want, instead of what is offered to them. Writer and editor Jennifer Bradley Franklin estimates her income right over $100K per year, with 60 percent from content writing and 40 percent from editorial assignments. She says the majority of her work comes from corporate clients and connections she’s fostered over the years, none of which she could have sourced without tapping into her network.
Even if you’re hesitant to offer your services, the more you present yourself as a brand and a professional service, the more leads you’ll collect, building your client list and your savings account. “If you’d like to be doing more corporate work, reach out to those in your network who might know someone who needs what you do. Send cold letters of introduction or ask to be introduced by a mutual connection. Don’t wait until your workload runs dry to start networking,” she shares. “Keep in touch with potential clients so you stay at the top of their radar. Even if they don’t need your skills at the moment, they’ll think of you when they do.”
And when they reach out to you with a contract opportunity? Be adamant about your rates and what makes the most sense for your working style. For Franklin, that means asking for a project rate, instead of an hourly one, with corporate clients. “It gives the client piece of mind because they know exactly how much money they’ll be spending, and, it encourages you to work smart. When you price by the hour, you make less money the faster or better you get. Hourly billing means that your financial incentives and that of your client are at odds: You can earn more by being slow, but the client pays more for that inefficiency,” she explains.
Consider ‘freelancing’ as a full-time job.
As I’m about to submit this story, I’m overlooking a pool in Cartagena, Colombia, where I’d definitely rather be sipping on a piña colada than working. Even so, I wouldn’t trade my ability to share stories with the world for anything. So even when I’m traveling, I’m working around 30 hours a week, sometimes more or less, depending on the month. And though my office might changes consistently, I treat my freelancing career like a full-time gig.
I’m not the only one either, as freelance health and wellness writer Marygrace Taylor exercises the same mentality. Last year, she brought in $150K, while in 2016 and 2015, she teetered above the six-figure mark. Her workload comes from freelancing for publications, as well as corporate clients, healthcare writing and books. Sound like a lot to manage? It is, which is why a routine is a must to meet her client demands.
“Keeping a regular schedule helps me be the most productive. It ensures that I do high quality work. Trying to write at night or on the weekends just doesn’t work for me. Of course one of the perks of freelancing is being able to set my own schedule, so sometimes I’ll wrap up early or start a little late or take the a surprise personal day. But usually if I take time off, I plan it in advance, just like I would if I was at an office job,” she shares.
Having this regimented outlook allows her to exceed expectations and never fall short on an assignment — no matter how big or small. “Freelancers have a reputation for not always being the most reliable. I feel like just being someone who can always be counted on puts me at a big advantage. It’s helped me develop long-term relationships with many clients, to the point where I’ve been told that I’m their favorite writer or top choice,” she notes. “The compliments are nice, but more importantly, this means that editors and clients come to me with assignments instead of the other way around. So rather than having to spend valuable time pitching and marketing myself, I almost always have a steady flow of work coming my way.”
Related articles for freelancers getting serious about their business:
- Growing Your Freelance Business Guide (With Advice From 50+ Experts)
- 2018 Freelance Writing Pay Rate Survey Results
- Why You Need to Treat Your Freelancing Like a Business
- Writers Share Tips on Diving Into Full-Time Freelancing
- Retirement Plan Options for Freelancers