Learn how to double your income from freelance writing!
business of freelancing

How I built up to full time freelance writing (and hit $100K in my first year)

By March 17, 2021 14 Comments

After a false start in 2014 where I tried to go full time as a freelance writer, I became a “proper” full time freelancer in January 2017. And in the November of 2017 I hit $100K worth of commissioned work. But how I built up to full time freelance writing is a story in itself. Because for years I had freelanced part time and wasn’t even sure that I could make a living from my words.

How I built up to full time freelancing (and hit $100K in the first year)

In 2016, I started to get serious about freelance writing.

I was being published fairly regularly in some high-profile magazines and newspapers, and I could feel momentum growing.

I had two small kids and my partner was happy to take a year off work so that I could focus on freelance writing and become the bread winner for the year.

It was going to be an experiment, albeit one that felt like it carried a lot of weight and pressure.

I knew I wanted to go full time by the beginning of 2017, and figured I needed at least a two or three month run up to hit the new year at full speed.

Because I had never earned more than about $2000 (tops) a month from my writing and if I was going to be the sole income earner in our family, I needed to earn at least $6000 a month. Ideally more.

In September 2016, I took stock of what I was currently doing and what I wanted to achieve the following year:

I had finished my PhD by this stage and had given notice at my social work job.

I was really only working a couple of days a week (spread over the entire week) because I had two kids at home with me 24/7.

Research work

I was doing a fair bit of work for universities and charities.

It was really interesting work, but it didn’t pay so well compared to my other writing work.

I’m talking about $40/hour.

The work was a mix of white papers, literature reviews, case studies and research projects.

In the September, I had three projects on the go, with new referrals coming in most months.

This was because I had focused my LinkedIn profile to emphasise my PhD and research skills.

My profile is very different these days.

Feature writing

I had good relationships with four or so editors and was regularly writing for them.

They weren’t always coming to me with commissions but they almost always replied to my pitches (even if it was a no).

Content marketing

I started thinking about diversifying my income and started thinking that I needed to have one speciality or niche.

But at that stage I wanted to focus on health, business and food writing. Not exactly a perfect blend of niches!

I decided that I would pursue each of those individual niches by signing up with content marketing agencies.

These weren’t content mills – you know the ones that pay you $25 to produce 1,500 words but legit organisations that pay good money for great content.

Financial buffer

There’s a real lag with freelance writing – from the time you have an idea and pitch a story (or send a letter of introduction) to the time you get paid can be months and months.

I knew that in order to be financially stable as I built up to full time freelance writing I needed to have a financial buffer.

This was 3 – 6 months worth of savings that I could draw on in case I didn’t hit my monthly income target.

And every fortnight I’d transfer a certain amount of money from the buffer and put it into another account as if I was getting paid.

This helped me feel like I was really running a ‘proper’ business rather than managing dribs and drabs of money as it came in.

What I was doing was okay, but it wasn’t enough to build a full time freelance writing business

When I looked at the work I was doing, I was happy, but financially it wasn’t anywhere near enough to sustain me or my family.

I needed to be strategic.

With my research work, although it didn’t pay as well as freelancing, it was fairly regular hours as well as having the added benefit of superannuation (pension contributions).

I also knew that there was a lot of this type of work around and lots of content managers at different organisations were impressed by academic work.

So I decided to continue with the research work, but to limit it to five or so hours a week.

I felt that was enough to  keep my foot in the door for any future potential academic work.

But it also left enough hours to focus on higher-paying work.

Implementing a new strategy for full time freelance writing

While I had great relationships with the four editors I was working regularly with, from September onwards, three of them finished up at their jobs.

Needless to say, I panicked. I was still pretty green and didn’t realise that editor turnover is a fairly regular occurrence.

In fact, since I started freelancing, nearly every editor I’ve worked with has moved on.

Sometimes they have recommended me to the editor taking their place – but this often the new editor brings their own stable of freelance writers with them.

And lots of editors I used to write for have moved into roles or organisations where they don’t directly commission freelance writers.

It can be tough breaking into a publication and developing a strong relationship with an editor, only to have them leave and your work with the publication dries up.

I knew I need to make the most of my time and my relationships, so I decided to focus on making multiple connections within one publication/business/organisation.

That meant I got to know the publication or brand intimately and even though I might be writing for different editors, I’d still be writing for the same masthead.

I worked on implementing that in November/December.

I asked one of my initial editors if she would mind introducing me to the editor of another division, which she did, and I now write for both.

And even better, this helped me develop one of my niches – food writing.

Be top of mind

The other thing I did to grow my business for 2017 was to proactively follow up each time I filed a story.

Once a story had been accepted for publication, I would email the editor.

I’d ask if they were looking for more pitches or whether they had any stories they needed to assign to a freelancer.

More often than not, they would come back to me with, “I need someone to write a story about X, would you be interested?”

Would the editor have offered me that article if I hadn’t followed up?

It’s hard to say, but it’s something that has worked incredibly well for me in the years since I’ve implemented it.

And if the editor says they are open to more pitches, I always have one or two ready to go.

Actively looking for opportunities

I also kept my eyes open for opportunities either on LinkedIn or Twitter.

I was actively searching for individuals, businesses or publications who were looking for writers.

Doing this meant that my start to 2017 was really strong, despite losing three of my four regular editors.

Then in the early months of 2017 I developed more systematic strategies (that I teach in my course Write Earn Thrive) to approach and land high-paying clients.

I realised in those early months before I built up to full time freelance writing I had been far too passive.

I needed to take control and actively pursue the kind of work that would support my family.

And it worked.

In the November of 2017 I hit $100K worth of commissioned work.

And every year since then I’ve hit $100K or more.

 

Are you trying to build up your freelancing business? What steps have you taken so far?

14 Comments

  • Allison Tait says:

    Great post Lindy – excellent strategies! Best of luck in 2017!

  • Elizabeth says:

    Really helpful article. Thank you

  • Vivienne says:

    A great post Lindy! Very relevant, thoughtful and honest. Thank you.

  • Collette says:

    Great post Lindy, and only yesterday I was feeling a little overwhelmed thinking I need to start from scratch again as so many editors I have built relationships have moved on. I’ll try some of your tips and see if that makes a difference. Thanks for sharing.

    • Lindy Alexander says:

      Thanks so much for your comment Collette. I can really understand that feeling of overwhelm at starting to build up relationships again with new editors – it can be exhausting, and it takes time. Let me know how you go with these strategies.

  • Thank you. The post was recommended reading for a Freelance Writing subject I have started at Notre Dame. Very helpful to read about your decision to focus on an organisation and its personnel rather than casting your net too wide. Makes sense. WIll be interested to read how well you get on with the strategy

    • lindyalexander says:

      Hi Richard, thanks for your comment. I should probably update this post – it’s nearly 2 years old – thanks for the prompt 🙂

  • Thank you for this post! I stumbled upon it today and it resonated with me a lot. I’m still in the content marketing agencies phase and making half what I’d need to sustain myself but I will get there. I’d humbly say that one of the key in progressing has been focusing on what one is passionate about and writing about comes out easily that is also marketable. For me it is coffee and solo traveling (I’m food/travel writer as well).

    I’m going to try your tips of course, thank you again!

    • lindyalexander says:

      Hi Gianluca, thanks for your comment. I agree that it makes such a difference when you’re passionate about the topics you’re writing on (and your two ‘pet’ topics sound fantastic!)

  • Sandy Summons says:

    Hi Lindy
    I’m wondering if you can tell me more about the content marketing agencies that you signed up to – you mention they weren’t the content mills. How did you find them and know they were reputable. Would you recommend any of them?
    Thanks
    Sandy

    • lindyalexander says:

      Hi Sandy,
      This question has just been asked in the Write Earn Thrive community, so I’m about to jump across and answer it in more detail there. But it is a bit of trial and error – I usually would look at which agencies were producing custom content (e.g. magazines for brands) and approach them first.

Leave a Reply

There’s never been a better time to be a freelancer. But how do you make the leap from writing as a hobby to full time freelancing? The Freelancer’s Year has all the tips and tricks you need to be a successful freelance writer.