Finances for my first year of freelance writing (+ a few notes)

I earned $22,500 in my first year as a full-time freelance writer living in New York City. I think people — myself included — are inclined to reflect on life milestones in terms of definites and superlatives, but as I’ve struggled to figure out how to accurately portray what it’s like to start out in this career, the more I’ve become skeptical towards words like success and failure. The year was a success in that it was definitely not a failure. Or, to put it another way, I will continue to freelance write as my primary source of income for the foreseeable future. This said, I’ve learned that the foreseeable future is worth very little.

Let’s talk numbers. A livable pretax wage for a single adult in New York City is $29,736, but the federal poverty line for a single adult is $11,880. By this account, I am either poor or not poor — hard to say. I earned an average of $1875/month, which did cover my $1700/month in expenses. I am lucky to have started my first freelance year in the middle of a tax year. When I walked out of my $55,000/year advertising job in May of 2015, I had already paid enough in taxes to cover all the taxes I would owe on my first year of income from writing. I ended up getting a $200 tax refund. This is all to say, I survived! If survival is the metric of success, then this year barely eked by as a raving success.

In actuality, though, average monthly income doesn’t really give a good picture of what it was like to meet my expenses this year. Some months I made no money (because projects took long and payment was slow), and in other months I made more than twice my expenses. Here’s is some financial data for the whole year:

Some of this math doesn’t work out exactly because some months I got money that wasn’t direct compensation for writing itself. In August, for example, an editor I was working with left her job, so I got kill fees for all the work I had in-progress for her publication. From September through November I was on a contract for another publication. I got $500/month as a contributor fee just for appearing on the masthead, as long as I turned in another piece of writing, for which I also got paid. These kinds of windfalls were the result of a) luck and b) me getting better at advocating for myself. As the year progressed, other writers told me to ask for things I didn’t know I could be asking for. Now I ask for contracts (always!!), guaranteed kill fees (25%), expense budgets (all costs related to article), and MORE MONEY PER WORD.

The only reason, financially speaking, that I will continue to freelance write is because I have been very successful at increasing the amount I am paid per word. I began in my first month making an average of 11 cents per word. I ended the entire year overall with a 45 cent per word average.

Beginning year two, I’ve already booked all of my work for the entire summer, all of it for at least 50 cents per word, and most of it for $2 per word. If all goes as planned, I’ll earn the equivalent of my first year’s income in the first three months of my second year. If there’s anything I’ve learned from my first year, though, it’s that things never workout as planned. Other key, mostly non-fiscal lessons I’ve learned:

  • Cultivate relationships with editors before publications. Publications fold, or go downhill, but editors move around and will continue to offer you work wherever they go. To put it another way, publications die at a faster rate than editors.
  • Prioritize fair money over the perceived status of a publication, but prioritize quality editing and good readership over money when at all possible. In the case of some print magazines, sometimes you can have it all: good pay, good editing, prestige, the right audience for your work. In most cases, you can’t have it all. All of my published work is an advertisement for the service I offer. Lately my priorities have been, in this order: surviving financially ($), then good editors and readers, then maximizing income ($$$), then ego bullshit and status. Most writing nowadays appears as an autonomous object in a feed anyway. I try to write for publications that will offer me the best resources to make my work great. Prestige is a shifting pile of sand. Quality, considerably less so. In my experience, people notice good writing wherever it appears, so I try to put it wherever I think I will get good editing. As soon I had any options for where to put my work, I started thinking in terms of “What can this publication do for me?” and not the other way around. I can’t be sure, but I believe producing a very high quality product has raised my prices more than prestige or aggressively trying to know “the right people.”
  • Do not waste time trading in validation. After about four months of doing this job full time, I realized that validation is a limitless pool, and however much I was getting, there would always be someone who seemed to be getting more. Making secret enemies out of other writers and trying to “beat” them by some abstract metric was motivating for about a month, and then became wildly distracting. Writing isn’t a competition. The only way I’ve been able to figure out if I am “winning” is if I’m generally happy with my quality of life, and generally happy with the work I’m putting out. Neither of these things have anything to do with praise or other people’s work, and neither is a finite resource. I get more out of the endeavor, satisfaction-wise, when I just work hard and mind my own business. I am beginning to think that, beyond survival, personal satisfaction is the only knowable metric of success. In a lot of senses, this is really just an extension of survival.
  • Social climbing and writing both take a lot of time and energy. Most people do not have the resources to be good at both. Both are acceptable choices, but I have learned to be careful not to accidentally opt-out of being a good writer by opt-ing in to being too much of a socialite. Well-connected but untalented people are only fooling other well-connected but untalented people. Generally, I think, people who share your priorities will validate your priorities, and the two sets of priorities don’t convert easily between each other well. I’ve found that one good professional relationship based on genuine mutual respect is worth a million Instagram photos with “friends” at networking events. I try to only go to events I genuinely want to go to, and I have learned not to stay longer than one hour at anything that could possibly be construed as a networking event. At this point, I believe scarcity is more valuable professionally than making yourself widely available.

I don’t know what I’ll believe a year from now, or if anyone else should believe any of this. This is just a summary of the big ideas I’ve learned about writing (the career). The lessons I’ve learned about writing (the technical activity) are strangely harder to articulate.

I don’t have too many regrets about the past year. I wish I would have started this job with at least $10,000 in savings. I started with $4,000 and it was gone very quickly. I routinely rack up $2,000 in credit card debt and then pay it off. I had to borrow $500 from my Mom to make rent, which I’ll have to pay back soon. If I had more of a cushion of cash, I wouldn’t always be playing catchup. Always thinking about money is very emotionally taxing. I could be freer if I had two or three months of expenses in the bank. I would like to end this calendar year with $10k in savings.

I wish I would have been less sacred about only writing. I probably should have taken a part-time job for those first few months, but I had all these romantic notions about what it meant to be a writer. I don’t really have those as much anymore.

In the second year, I want to be better at work/life balance. I have found I get more focused work done during the work day when I spend some time at night authentically off the clock. I also want to indulge my anxiety less, now that I have one year of data that shows how things usually workout okay. I’m very grateful to have a family that has been cheering on this wild scheme, despite the financial odds. They are not writers which is probably why they have a lot of faith in this being a viable career for me in the long term. I imagine it would be very hard for me to take a risk like this without them offering assurance that a) I won’t fail and b) I won’t starve if I do.

Every day I wake up and feel very grateful to be able to pay my bills doing something I find spiritually satisfying. My mental health is extremely temperamental and I have a very low tolerance for discomfort, so I don’t think I’d fare too well if I had to go back to an office job. It sucks that labor under capitalism gives us very few options about how to structure our time, and I am very glad that chance circumstance and privilege somehow converged with talent and stubbornness to let me do a thing I mostly love.