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.
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.
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).
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.
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?