In January 2016 I became a full-time freelance writer. I can now admit I didn’t have a clue what I was letting myself in for.
Just to be clear: I love what I do. But ‘being a writer’ involves a lot less writing and a lot more admin and juggling of revenue streams than I’d bargained for. Those revenues include royalties from book sales, talks, selling books directly at those talks (I buy the books myself and then sell them on if there isn’t an official bookseller present), consultancy work and special one-off projects. (Like the time I got to collaborate on a room at The Color Factory in New York!)
And then there’s the writing itself. Since I’ve been freelance, I’ve tried to keep a book project on a gentle simmer while keeping myself going with a mixture of commercial writing, editorial reviews, essays, news stories and, here and there, the odd longread. (Longreads, incidentally, are something I often struggle to pitch for.)
If you’re a freelance writer, or, frankly, if you’re a freelance anything, you’ll probably recognise this somewhat scrappy and scattergun workload.
Keeping track of all this takes up a much larger proportion of my time than I ever would have guessed.
This is where an iron-clad form of organisation comes in.
Out of curiosity, I recently canvassed some other freelancers to see how they kept track of their work. A couple suggested accounting or time-tracking apps, including Toggl and FreshBooks, but quite a few said they didn’t have a system at all. This horrifies me on many levels, the most potent being the one I’ll talk about in the final paragraphs.
Anyway, my own method — my beloved spreadsheet — got going the moment I started freelancing and I have been honing it ever since. I filled out some sample rows and took a screenshot so you can see it in action (below). It’s not elegant, but I find it essential.
How and Why it Works
Most obviously, it helps me prioritise deadlines and remember pieces that I’ve been commissioned to write, the wordcount (the Words column), and the agreed payment. I added a formula so the per-word (P/W) rate fills automatically when I fill out the Words and Payment expected columns. I use this to help determine whether I should accept a commission, ask for more money, or turn it down. I think about this as valuing my time in much the same way as I would assess an annual salary as a full-time employee.
The Ref column is mostly for accounting purposes. I use a three- or four-letter chunk then a number as my invoice reference so I can find them easily should I need to come tax time.
Invc’d is the date I submitted the invoice. This allows me to keep track of late payments and if/when I should start charging late-payment fees. The latter strategy is a pretty recent development for me. Unfortunately, some firms were taking so very long — regularly over four months in one case — that I added “payment within 30 days” as a condition on my invoice. Now I send friendly reminders after 20 days and start reading the riot act after 30.
For what it’s worth, I’ve got mixed feelings about charging fees for late payments, but if you are thinking about it, I found this advice useful.
The Type column helps me categorise my income — books, journalism, talks and so on — over the year. If I see that “commercial writing” or “journalism” are only making up 1% and 2% of my income respectively, then I might reconsider how I’m allocating my time, think about steps I can take to beef up that portion of my income, or whether the following year this might be something I jettison altogether. (I’ll cover this more fully in a future article. Brace yourselves: there is a colour-coded pie chart involved.)
The Payment Expected and column is pretty self-explanatory; the VAT one relates to tax I have to both charge and pay on goods and services. I added a formula so that the VAT fills automatically and both of these columns are added up in the dark grey Total row for each month. There are annual total rows too.
Having a monthly total is more motivating than strictly useful, but it does help me plan financially. So, for example, I try to ensure that no lumpy outgoings — annual car insurance — are scheduled for August because this tends to be a lean month.
Payment received is also pretty straightforward. But I do have a secret sauce bit of conditional formatting so that outstanding payment cells turn scarlet, as you can see in the sample spreadsheet above.
Once I’ve filed and invoiced for a piece of work, I put a zero in this cell which turns it red. When I get paid and I fill the cell in with the amount, the cell goes back to clear (or dark grey if it’s in the monthly or annual Total row). This way, I can see at a glance which payments are outstanding and, by checking the date in the correspending Invc’d column, when they’re due.
This is key to why I keep this spreadsheet up and running even if it’s a little fiddly. Without it, I wouldn’t get paid for roughly one in every ten pieces of work that I do, because that’s how often an invoice gets mislaid, or gummed up in accounts-payable purgatory, or isn’t assigned to someone’s work-list for approval, or whatever else it may be.
This is an astonishingly high attrition rate if you, like me, tend to do a lot of smaller pieces of work with multiple companies and either can’t justify an automated invoicing service, or haven’t found one that works for you. And if you don’t have a way of keeping track of payments, it may be months before you realise a payment has gone astray. You may never realise.
Unfathomable as it may seem, even large, global corporations can’t keep track of their payments and need a little nudge now and again.
I say this more in pity than in anger: perhaps they don’t have a spreadsheet as great as mine.