One of the keys aspects of being a successful freelance writer is diversifying. While that may sound like spreading yourself thin, in fact it’s the opposite. Diversifying means that if one part of your business (like writing for a particular client or magazine) takes a dive, it’s only going to cause a small ripple. But diversification is much more than how many clients you have or the type of writing you do – it’s a whole way of looking at your business, guaranteeing (as much as you can) that you’re not going to be a freelance flash in the pan.
How to be a successful freelance writer – how five freelance writers make money by diversifying their business
There’s no doubt that diversifying is a delicate balance. You don’t want so many different income streams that you feel like you’re multitasking to the max, but you also don’t want all your eggs in one basket.
I spoke to five different freelance writers working throughout the world who all diversify their business in different ways.
Why it’s important for freelance writers to have diverse income streams
Gabi Logan, who runs the amazing Travel Magazine Database (affiliate link) and Dream of Travel Writing says there’s a simple answer to why freelancers need to diversify when it comes to getting paid.
“Diverse income streams never feel important until you’ve gotten screwed and you’re in real trouble business-wise and you’re worried you might have to go back and get an in-house job,” she says.
When you’re on a good wicket with a client or editor it’s pretty easy to become complacent, or even content with what you’ve got and not keep up with the regular marketing that you need to be doing regardless of whether you’re up to your eyeballs in work or struggling to find clients.
“What would happen if this [your great, regular client] went away tomorrow?” asks Gabi. “How long would it take you to recover and realistically replace this income?”
Rachel Smith who runs the oh-so-valuable job board and blog Rachel’s List says gone are the days when freelance writers could just write for one or two magazines and make a living (“Believe me, I did when I started freelancing!” she says)
“I’m famous for saying on the Rachel’s List blog that you need your finger in a lot of pies, and that’s never been more essential,” she says.
“Why? Because if an editor moves on or a client suddenly runs out of budget, you have other income streams still on the go, and you can work on plugging the gaps. If you only have one client or one editor who gives you all your work, I’d consider that very shaky ground indeed. Particularly in the ultra competitive and fast-paced climate we’re all working in. It’s always good to have a mixture of bread and butter clients, larger clients and a retainer if you can manage it, so your cash flow is steady.”
But diversifying is not only relevant if you have one or two main anchor clients and you lose them – Gabi says there’s another very important reason for diversifying your business.
“When you’re just doing the same type of writing with the same type of clients, you aren’t growing or being challenged as you are when you’re learning new skills, and this is a well-documented necessity for career satisfaction in any arena,” Gabi says.
“All of the freelance writers who have been at it for decades have changed the focus of the type of clients and type of work they’re doing regularly, usually on two- or three-year cycles. This is usually because they have several options in the mix they are trying out/working on at any given time, allowing them to easily transition their mix and include new, exciting things to explore in measured doses.”
Rachel agrees saying, “Diversifying staves off boredom!”
Halona Black, a freelance ghostwriter, editor and copywriter currently based in South East Asia says she sees freelance writers come into the profession with an employee mindset. “They believe if they continue to work really hard in one area, then their business will prosper,” she says.
“The truth is that profitable businesses have their hands in many pots at once. The trick is growing your freelance writing business to a point where you feel like you have great clients who happily pay your fees and you know where to get more great clients so that you minimise dry spells. Once you have that, then you can expand into other streams of income.”
Gabi, Halona and Rachel’s words certainly ring true for me – I’m someone who thrives on new things – whether it be a new type of writing, pitching to new editors or brainstorming potential new clients I could write for. But before you diversify, you also need to consolidate and make sure that you are on steady ground.
The value of having multiple specialisations
“I know there’s a move towards having a niche, and there are undoubtedly lots of advantages to saying you have a particular specialisation,” says South Africa-based freelance writer and coach Rebecca L. Weber. “But if you are going to have a niche, then it may be useful to have more than one, and know that your area of specialisation and your interests can change over time.”
I really like what Rebecca says here, and it’s a refreshing shift from the “what’s your niche?” and “how do I find my niche?” conversation that I see dominating so many freelance writing forums.
What can you add to your skill set?
Rebecca had one client who asked her if she could also do infographics. “It’s not something I ever would have thought of offering or proposing,” she says, “but I loved it! I became this client’s go-to freelancer for infographics.”
Rebecca’s takeaway? “If a client or editor asks you to do something that you haven’t done before, take the opportunity and say yes.”
How these freelancers make their money
There are so many different ways to make money writing.
Like I used to, Rebecca coaches freelance writers.
As lots of you know, I have a couple of affiliate relationships with businesses and for products that I really believe in.
I don’t make much money from these affiliates, and I would be recommending them anyway, but it has been worth signing up to their affiliate programs.
I make a small percentage of my income from coaching writers and an even smaller percentage from my research work. The majority of my income comes from writing – features for newsstand publications and features for corporate organisations.
I asked the writers below to share their income streams and what percentage each stream makes up of their overall income.
Gabi has put her freelance writing on hold to work on her business, Dream of Travel Writing. At the moment, her income streams look like this:
One-on-one coaching: 55%
Subscription information products: 29%
Running retreats: 15%
Book sales: 1%
When Gabi was a “well-paid full-time freelance writer” her income looked more like this:
Magazine client #1 (group of four magazines): 30%
Magazine client #2 (group of three magazines): 20%
Blog client: 30%
Blog and newsletter client: 5%
Social media client: 8%
One-off article work: 7%
Lori De Milto
Lori makes most of her income from her freelance writing (she’s a freelance medical writer and that’s a high-paying specialty).
Medical writing: 88%
Online course: 10%
Lori also runs a fantastic course that helps freelance writers finds the freelance clients they deserve, and she is hoping to increase the percentage of income from her course in the next few years.
Rachel writes a lot for print (a mix of consumer and trade press), so that still makes up a decent percentage of her income.
Print publications: 30%
Digital agencies and online outlets: 30%
SEO work: 5 – 10%
Copywriting/Wordpress tweaks/Social content: ~30%
“All the pieces of my ‘pie’ fluctuate from year to year,” Rachel says.
Rachel runs Rachel’s List as well, which is a separate side hustle to her freelance work. “Rachel’s List is in growth mode really, which means we plough most of the income it generates back into the business,” she says.
The bulk of Halona’s freelance writing is content marketing materials for healthcare, business, tech, and higher education service providers. She mostly writes blog posts, white papers and ebooks.
Freelance writing and business book ghostwriting: 85%
Advice, self-help, how-to book coaching for entrepreneurs: 10%
Halona says she is paying more attention to her coaching, online course development, and speaking as income streams in 2019 because “I don’t always want to have to be writing in order to create income for myself. I expect that within the next three to five years my income from teaching online will make up about 60 per cent of my income, and freelance writing will be about 30 to 40 per cent.”
Those figures above from the four different freelance writers really proves to me that it doesn’t matter how you diversify your freelance business, just that you do it.
Why passive income might not be the best way to diversify your income
Ultimately, what freelance writers need, says Lori, is multiple clients in a growing, stable specialty. “If you have this, keep up with what’s happening in your specialty, and do good marketing, you’ll be able to succeed and weather the inevitable loss of some clients and changes in the marketplace,” she says.
Lori says that despite promises of “gurus” selling the idea of passive income, and making it seem easy to make lots of money selling books, online courses, and information products, it’s not that straightforward.
Lori diversifies her income through her books and online course. “It’s been a lot of fun,” she says. “But writing books, developing courses, and marketing are much different than being a freelance writer. These things are all a lot of work. They take different skills than being a freelance writer, including marketing and technical skills.”
Lori advises writers not to start developing books, courses, and/or information products to diversify your income unless you’re passionate about what you’re doing. “Even if you are passionate, be aware of the time, effort, and money you’ll need to commit to this,” she says.
In the end, I love what Rachel has to say on diversification, and think it’s a good place to end this (mammoth!) post:
“If you’re not diversifying and creating a range of income streams for yourself, you should be,” she says.
“It’s the best way I know to survive and thrive as a freelancer. This does entail – very often – getting out of your comfort zone as you often have to learn new skills and take on projects that might scare you, but as one of our members said recently, amazing things can happen when you’re out of your comfort zone. And it can really help you create a more regular, predictable income, which is what we all want as freelancers.”
How do you diversify your freelance writing business? Did you get any new ideas from the freelancers featured here?
Hi Lindy, Thanks for the article. Most of my work comes from medical writing, and I also do English to Chinese medical translation and interpreting. Totally agree with diversifying service offerings.
Hi Amanda, thanks for your comment – what a skilled person you are. I imagine you are in high demand!
I had a good gig doing freelance feature articles for a major newspaper. Then my editor left and was replaced by a guy who had worked with my wife and hated her because she had called him out over a few things. My work disappeared overnight.
I really feel for you Steve – that’s so rough. Sometimes you never see those things coming either.
Great article as always Lindy. Thank you foe your generous sharing.
My husband is a photographer and I’m a journalist. While we are trying to ensure a bigger chunk of our time goes into freelance journalism and travel writing, our main income is with PR clients, who increasingly value our media background and ability to provide editorial photos, editorial-style articles, pitch story angles and arrange journalist famils. Increasingly, freelancers must diversify, learn the numbers, get across sales and marketing and, if needs be, supplement their income (a local paper family run has also put food on our table more than once).
Hi Ellen, thanks so much for your comment and insight into how you’ve diversified your business. It sounds like you’ve been so clever in the way you work with PR clients, and I imagine that for many clients having a husband-wife journo/photographer team is a dream come true!
I wish I could say we were clever, Lindy. However, it has all come about through trial and error rather than design and strategy. You’re right though – it is a huge advantage having a writer/photographer team. There is a lot of doom and gloom about the industry at the moment, but our experience shows that we are all pioneers and can help shape a future based on sound values and ethics.
Sometimes trial and error is the smartest path! Well done to you both – it’s wonderful and encouraging to hear such a great success story.
This is a great article, Lindy! Most of my work is in freelance medical writing, but I’m looking to expand more into copyediting in 2019. Part of me would also like to get into coaching as well. I definitely agree about diversifying your business–it opens you up to new opportunities for earning extra income and learning new skills!
Thanks so much JoAnna, yes, diversification is essential. Copyediting and coaching sound like great ways to add more strings to your bow in the coming year.
I specialize in the nonprofit niche but have learned to offer the client whatever kind of content or copy they need. I also make some money as a speaker. http://www.nonprofitcopywriter.com/freelance-content-writing.html