The Most Important Thing I’ve Learned About Successful Freelancing

Here’s what helped me earn a six-figure income as a writer

When I swapped my full-time office job for part-time freelance writing in 2014, I had a simple goal: earn a couple hundred bucks a month to offset the diaper and baby food expenses I’d incurred as a stay-at-home mom. As my kids got older and my free time increased, I slowly built a portfolio of writing samples I could use to sell other ideas to higher-paying publications. My income increased a little each year, and in 2019, I hit a financial milestone, earning a six-figure income for the first time in my life.

I’m just as surprised as you are, and the frustrating truth is, I didn’t have a step-by-step formula. My record year was ultimately born out of desperation (and a little bit of trial and error). My financial responsibilities had ballooned beyond baby gear, and I felt growing pressure to pay off debt and save for my kids’ future. But my husband’s income was fixed, and our budget was as pared down as it could be (OK, except for my DoorDash habit). The only realistic solution was for me, the freelancer, to find a way to make more money.

I learned how to work smarter as I went. At first, I just pitched more article ideas to publications that paid more. The problem was, those opportunities were few and far between. I soon realized I was losing money spending pursuing hard-to-get work.

Here’s where the shift happened: I decided to use that time to take on lower-paying assignments from publications I respected and already had a relationship with. For a year, I said “yes” to pretty much everything, and I did the work as well and as efficiently as I could. As a result, and those publications kept sending me assignments. During the most successful month of my career, I wrote close to $20,000 worth of articles.

I realize I’m extremely lucky and privileged. There are so many variables that contribute to success in freelancing, from how aggressively you market yourself to whether you have childcare to what’s happening in the media world at any given moment. But if I had to share one approach for earning more as a writer, it would be this: Instead of fixating on per-word or per-article pay, focus on your estimated hourly rate based on how much overall time you put into an assignment.

For example, let’s say Publication A pays $1 per word, but also requires lots of intensive reporting and edits. In the end, you’d spend probably 40 hours on a $1200 article, which breaks down to $30 per hour.

On the flip side, consider lesser-paying articles that don’t take as much time. Imagine Publication B pays $150 per article, but because you don’t have to interview anyone and your editor does the heavy lifting, you only spend about an hour on it. That’s five times more than the other byline –– and because you’re expending less mental energy on each story, you can do even more work.

Of course, everyone’s goals are different, so it’s important to do a cost-benefit analysis. You might net a little less writing for Publication A, but it could be worth it if growing your platform is your end goal (or if you’re fundamentally against listicles). And while your earning potential could be higher with lots of work from Publication B (or a combination of A and B), you might not have literary agents lined up at your door.

For me, the best approach was striking the right balance; my 2019 and 2020 work turned out to be probably 25% Publication A and 75% Publication B. This year, I’m taking it easier. Our credit cards are finally paid down, we have a bit of money in a savings account, and maintaining my well-being feels a lot more like success than endless work does.

Next year, my goal might change. I might never duplicate my six-figure income again, and I don’t feel like I have to. But if there’s one thing I’ve learned, it’s that a little intention can go a long way. Pinpoint your goal, stay in your lane, and most importantly, don’t let another person’s version of success get you off track.

Writer-mom hybrid. Health & psychology stories in NYT, WaPo, Allure, Real Simple, & more.

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