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business of freelancing

How to become a six-figure freelance writer

By January 8, 2020 19 Comments

Over the past three years, I’ve invoiced for over $100K each year. And in 2018 and 2019, I worked 3 – 4 days a week. I’m not saying this to boast, but as an antidote to all the industry doom and gloom about how hard it is to make a living as writer. So if you want to make $100K (or more) a year from your writing or even if you just want to boost your income, here are my secrets to being a six-figure freelance writer.

The secrets to being a six-figure freelance writer

I want to start this post by saying that I’ve found lots of the commentary around being a six-figure freelance writer pretty unappealing.

There’s a tendency to conflate earning more with being happier and I simply don’t think that’s true.

Just because you earn $1/word instead of 25c/word doesn’t automatically you happier, a better writer or ‘worth’ more.

There’s also an idea that if you earn six figures you’re suddenly living and working the fabled 4 hour work week, whereas for me, nothing could be further from the truth.

I’ve never worked harder or more hours in my life than I have in the past three years, especially in 2017 when I first went full time.

And when I went full time I wasn’t sure that I could earn good money and still write interesting stories.

Part of me thought I’d have to stick to boring white papers and mind numbing corporate copy to bring in the bucks, but nothing could be further from the truth.

In 2019, about half my income was from corporate work (which thankfully was not mind numbing at all), but the other half was from editorial features, mostly travel writing.

I also think some people believe (and I know I’m kind of perpetuating this myth by my headline) that there is only one way to earning more money as a freelance writer.

But there isn’t just one way to hit $100K a year from your writing.

There are many.

Here’s how to work your way up to making six figures as a freelance writer

Limit your distractions

This might not be what you were expecting to read, but it’s a huge issue.

Your ability to focus and concentrate is key to earning good money as a freelancer.

You may be charging in any number of ways – by the word, the hour or project – but the most important factor is how you use your time.

Every week I get emails from you guys saying that you feel bad that you’re not as productive as me or don’t write as many articles as me each month, but let me tell you, I’m a procrastinator with the best of them.

In fact, you should check out my Instagram feed for examples of my procrasti-baking.

But I’ve found that if you want to earn good money, you need to shut off the distractions and knuckle down.

This might be turning off social media for a bit, using the pomodoro technique, working out of a co-working space, making sure you take lots of breaks – whatever it is that makes you more productive, do it.

It’s easy to think of distractions in terms of ‘things’ – social media, the desk that needs tidying before we can work, or the course we need to do before we pitch – but people can be distractions too.

I get lots of invitations to attend networking events, lunches, dinners, launches, but I say no to most of them.

Not because I don’t want to go (although it’s true, sometimes I don’t), but because I can’t afford the time away from my business.

It’s a delicate balancing act though.

Sometimes you go to coffee or a lunch and you strike up a great conversation or make a super connection and it’s worth it.

But for me, especially as I’m an ambivert, I tend to like to catch up with people I already know, so these types of events aren’t always the best use of my time.

It’s easy to get flattered when you start getting invited to these kinds of things, but you need to ask yourself, do I really need to go? How could this time be used better?

Find regular clients by putting relationships first

Okay, before you spit out your coffee, let me just say, I get it.

If it was as easy as that, then you’d all be doing it.

I know it’s not easy to find (great) regular (high-paying) clients or editors.

But when you think about your goals (more on that later), you need to view each one of your interactions with your editors and clients as a step in the path of building a long-lasting relationship.

I know lots of people say you can’t earn six figures without having retainer clients.

Until the last few months of 2019, I didn’t have one regular client or editor.

By that I mean, each month I started my income spreadsheet at $0.

There was no guaranteed income coming in.

Nada.

Yes, I had editors and clients who would come to me with work, but this was a formalised arrangement.

It was just as and when they needed me.

Some months they had work for me and others, they didn’t.

But despite this, I still earned good money.

Why?

Because pitching takes time.

Sending out letters of introduction takes time.

So if you have editors and clients who come to you with articles or content they want written, you have saved yourself so much time (and money).

I’ve had months where nothing I’ve pitched has been commissioned, but where I’ve still managed to exceed my income target.

Why?

Because I slowly and painstaking built relationships that has resulted in working coming to me.

So rather than just trying to get a yes to a pitch, think about how you can grow your relationship with editors.

And ask yourself how you can be the most help to those companies you’re writing for or want to write for.

Set goals (but concentrate on your habits)

There’s two main things that I see writers getting wrong all the time with their goal setting:

  1. They focus on a goal they want to reach but not on the systems that will get them there
  2.  They focus on things that are out of their control.

Most of us (me included) have a goal that might go something like, I want to write for X publication by the end of the year

or

I want to have three anchor corporate clients that I’m regularly writing for.

And for most of us, that’s as far as we get.

That’s the end point, the ambition.

But to get there you need to focus on what’s within your control.

And that’s the systems and habits that you have.

James Clear, the author of the (wonderful) book Atomic Habits says:

You do not rise to the level of your goals; you fall to the level of your systems.

So perhaps your goal is to make $75K or $100K by the end of the year.

What systems and habits do you have that are going to get you there?

Be okay with rejection

Rejection is a normal part of freelancing.

Maybe when we work in ‘regular’ jobs we don’t rub up against rejection anywhere near as much as we do when we freelance, but rejection is a good thing.

Hear me out.

When we get rejected (or let’s face it, we’re also going to get silence to our pitches and LOIs), we are getting feedback.

Perhaps the story you pitched didn’t hit the mark, it wasn’t right for the readership or you just didn’t convince the editor you were the right person to write it.

Perhaps your LOI was directed to the wrong person, maybe they’re a small business and can’t afford to pay a freelance writer or maybe an organisation can’t see the value of regular content (fools!)

But for me, rejection is part of being a freelance writer.

You can be afraid of rejection, but are you going to let it hold you back?

Look at it like you’re getting feedback.

And even though it sounds harsh to say, if you can’t handle feedback, then you may not be suited to being a freelance writer.

Because let me tell you, I’ve had some harsh rejections and feedback in my time.

And I’m not someone who is particularly robust – in fact, I’m a bit of a sook when it comes to rejection.

But I love being a writer, and so I’ve learnt to accept (and sometimes welcome) rejection and feedback.

Actively market yourself

There are so many ways that you can ‘put yourself out there’.

You need to find ways that feel right and comfortable for you.

Pitching is one way that six-figure freelance writers market themselves, so is regularly sending out LOIs.

Connecting with people on LinkedIn, commenting on Twitter posts, sending an editor an article or research you think they’d be interested in – these are all ways of showing your value.

But ultimately, you have to think of yourself as a small business, a micro-business if you will.

If you want your writing to be more than a hobby or a side hustle, you need to be seen and heard, so that you are top of mind for editors and clients.

Have topics you feel very comfortable writing about

Notice how I didn’t say you need a niche?

That’s because I believe, somewhat controversially I know, that freelance writers don’t need a niche.

So what can you do if you’re a generalist like me and don’t have a niche?

Well, it’s all about how you position yourself to editors and clients.

You want to become their go-to writer.

And you do that by positioning yourself as an expert in that area.

I write about most things including travel, sustainability, human resources, finance, parenting, mental health, adolescence, food and lifestyle.

But when I pitch a new editor a particular story, I make sure I back it up with clips that demonstrate my writing chops in that area.

I used to do loads of content for a health insurance company. Did they care that I mostly wrote about travel and food?

Not at all, because I brought my social work background to the fore and highlighted all the skills that gave me and brought to my content writing.

You just have to help your clients and editors focus on the skills and experience that you want them to see that you have.

Enjoy the hustle

I haven’t met one six-figure freelance writer who doesn’t enjoy the hustle.

That’s not to say that they don’t get sick of rejection, tired of silence, annoyed with clients who don’t pay when they say they will or exhausted from pitching – they do.

But they love the chase, the creativity and the challenge of being responsible for bringing in their own income.

Say no to work that doesn’t feed you

I don’t mean this in the literal sense, but freelancers who are earning good money are able to say no to work that isn’t a good fit.

Whether it’s saying no because they’re too busy or the rate is too low, six-figure freelancers say no to work and feel confident that there will be more, better-paying work just around the corner.

Yes, this is a mindset thing and I do believe that how you think about your work and the confidence you have in your abilities to ‘make it’ as a writer have a huge impact on your bank balance.

But it’s scary saying no.

It’s hard dropping clients.

I get that.

But how are you going to create the space you need to earn more money?

What are you going to do this year that is different from what you did last year?

Because you can’t keep doing the same thing and expecting different results.

What do you think? Have I forgotten anything that you think is crucial to being a 6-figure freelance writer?

19 Comments

  • Brett says:

    Thank you very much for these candid insights to your freelancing life, Lindy. This is a top notch resource I will refer to for the year ahead. A very motivating post. Thanks again.

  • Eryn says:

    I love James Clear’s book. Habit forming is one of the things I’ve been focusing on in relation to my writing in 2019/20.

    Eryn.

    • lindyalexander says:

      Oh, that’s so good Eryn. I’d love to hear how you’re going with it. I’ve read it but am yet to implement!

  • Jacqueline says:

    This has been a very inspiring post for me, Lindy. I think my biggest problem is distractions, both with social media and people. I started freelancing fulltime in September and it’s true to say that I’ve mostly got the silent treatment or rejection. It has been a bit deflating I must admit, but I enjoy writing and want to keep earning my living doing the thing I enjoy. On a positive note, I had had one success, a magazine article which I delivered early. I am yet to get feedback, but this at least gave me the confidence that my pitches can hit the mark. Thank you for this resource!

    • lindyalexander says:

      Hi Jacqueline, thanks so much for your comment and congratulations on going full time as a freelance writer. It can be utterly deflating to get silence and rejection, but hold onto your success with your pitch and the magazine article. Good luck for 2020 and let us know how you go.

  • Thanks Lindy! Another post with a lot of points resonating. I’m also a terrible procrastinator but I found going to a co-working space last year helped a lot – if nothing else than just getting me into the mindset of ‘going to work’. I’m going to spend some time reflecting on your ‘systems and habit’ question, I think that could be the key for me this year.

    • lindyalexander says:

      Totally agree with you about the co-working space Charlotte. With mine, even if I wanted to procrastinate, I can’t really. Once I’ve made a cup of tea and had a chat to people, there’s nothing else to do except work! James Clear’s book is really great – I’d totally recommend it if you’re thinking about developing goal busting habits and systems.

  • Loren says:

    I truly cherish your posts Lindy! You’re so generous and transparent with your knowledge and I appreciate it so much!

  • Scared, terrified and not quite feeling good enough. Yet I know I have to get with it. Made a list of things to accomplish this year so I can proceed to get beyond working for little or no money. I am editor for my club’s website and don’t get paid, other than praises. Which doesn’t pay for internet connections!

    • lindyalexander says:

      Praise is nice, but not when you’re trying to survive! It’s totally normal to feel those emotions you mentioned Mary, but I tend to think that it’s scarier and more terrifying if we don’t try. Editing your club’s website has probably given you all kinds of valuable skills that you can leverage now into paid work. Let us know how you go.

  • Andra Magda says:

    Hello, Lindy,

    I’m Andra, from Transylvania.

    I think on the “getting comfortable with rejection” part of things, one can aim to do the 100 rejections in a year experiment.

    They say the more you get rejected, the more work you’ll get as a result. Does this make sense?

    • lindyalexander says:

      Hi Andra, thanks for your comment. Yes, I’ve heard about the 100 rejection challenge and think it’s a great one. I don’t know if it means you’ll get more work, but I think it definitely helps getting over the fear of rejection and gets you pitching lots.

  • Thank you for this great article. I agree that building relationships can be painstaking but so incredibly worth it. I worked on building a relationship and pursuing one client for almost three years before they finally brought me in for a long-term assignment. It was absolutely worth the wait and the nagging I did. lol I can’t say enough about cultivating relationships and practicing patience. This article was a great reminder of what I need to keep doing, because it’s working. Thanks!

    • lindyalexander says:

      Hi Alicia, that’s a super impressive results – well done. Just goes to show what a little patience (okay, a lot!) and persistence can achieve. Thanks so much for sharing.

  • Great post! Very inspiring. Just followed you on Twitter and IG!. Thanks 🙂

  • CJ Johnson says:

    Hi Lindy! Thanks for this write-up. I love every piece of advice. Especially about “enjoying the hustle”. I struggled with burn out last year as a freelance writer but working this year to say NO to work that doesn’t feel in alignment with my profesh and income goals and enjoying the art of writing again for clients. Love your posts 🙂

    • lindyalexander says:

      Thanks so much CJ. I’m so sorry to hear that you experienced burn out last year. It sounds like you’ve really got things under control this year. Thanks for your comment.

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