Finances for my SECOND year of freelance writing, plus notes

Last year I wrote about my first year as a full-time freelance writer, in which I earned $22,500. This year — my second year as a full-time freelancer — I earned $17,480.25, which is to say — I earned less money! Despite this, I am hands down better off financially at the start of 2017.

Let’s talk about what was different in 2016:

  1. Both personally and professionally, I got fucked by the election. In my first year writing, I wrote mostly short blog posts and essays for online publications. In my second year, I started to make the jump to longer print magazine features. Print magazines have a finite amount of space to run features each week/month, which means that sometimes in-progress stories get bumped down in the queue, depending on the news cycle. I spent all summer reporting and writing two relatively apolitical features. I was counting on income from these features, but unfortunately, Donald Trump ran for president, coverage of which took priority over both of my stories. The features didn’t end up running until January of 2017, which means I was paid for them in what is now my third year of freelancing. The lesson here is that, as a freelancer, you should budget with the money you already have, not the money you think might come soon. I lived most of the second half of 2016 off credit cards until the money came in. I have been paying this off slowly as the money comes in, at the same time that I also try to accrue some savings. So even though I made less money last year, I feel more secure financially. Partially because:
  2. In 2017, I did work that was on average much higher paid per word. I spent a lot of time waiting for money to come in, but when it finally arrived, it wasn’t hundreds (as in 2015), but thousands. This is really nice! In my first year of writing, my goal was always to write more. In my second year of writing, I would tell a new writer that your main priority in your first year should be building a foundation of good stories that will let you pitch print magazines in the second year. No matter how anti-capitalist you are, you will never be happy or healthy as a writer if you are not moving towards working conditions that exceed mere “scraping by.” Being poor is extremely taxing on your body and brain. Which leads me to my third point:
  3. In 2016 I finally had to learn some journalism skills. In 2015 I coasted on being funny and “good at writing.” This past year, to be able to charge more for my work, I had to learn how to do work that accomplished more. This means: I had to leave my house, had to learn how to do interviews, had to learn practical things about story structure, had to learn to work with fact checkers, had get more serious about rigorously researching pitches I could actually execute well. I am a good writer, but I am not naturally comfortable talking with people. I don’t put a lot of stock in the “pursuit of truths” that hard journalism jerks itself off to, but I had to learn to play ball in this world a little if I wanted to move towards making a middle-class wage. This was a very frustrating learning process, one that involved listening, failure, embarrassment, and careful cultivation of humility. It also meant giving up reading a lot of highly-clickable online stuff in favor of less-fun reading that would help me learn. I’m still not where I want to be — I doubt I will ever be — but I feel like a professional now, even when I’m winging it.
  4. I also drove Lyft for a month in 2016 when money got very tight. In 2015, I was very precious about “writer” meaning “full-time writer.” I presently believe that writer means cobbling together whatever functional lifestyle will preserve your sanity enough to be able to write regularly. This loosening of ideals came mostly from realizing that nearly every other writer has some kind of side hustle, even the successful ones I’ve met. A lot of people teach, do Hollywood script rewrites, edit college essays, or have rich spouses. I don’t judge any of these choices anymore.
  5. It still feels strange to tell people at parties that I am a writer. This is how I earn my money, however little money that is, but the title itself feels sort of gross or fake or self-congratulatory. Part of this, I believe, is disbelief over the fact that I get to do this every day. Two years in, it still feels highly abnormal and like an immense privilege to write for a living.
  6. This impending year will surely be different than the last two, which I think is a fact of the job. At the end of this year, I will turn 26 and get kicked off my parents health insurance. Depending on what becomes of my finances and the Affordable Care Act, I might be pushed into a job. We’ll see what happens. This job involves a lot of fear, but I have become more adept at learning to manage my inability to predict the future. In some ways, being freelance feels more stable than trying to keep a job in an industry where everyone changes jobs every six months anyway. For what it’s worth, I already made more money in the first three months of 2017 than I made in all of last year. I wonder how transparent I’ll want to be if I ever start making enviable money….

If you have questions about freelancing or money, you can reply and I will try to answer them!

Jamie Lauren Keiles

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