10 tips to make a living as a freelancer

A little over a year ago, I moved back from Oakland to Sacramento, where I grew up, to be with my girlfriend. When I left the Bay Area, I worried I’d be turning my back on my writing career. After all, in my time there, I wrote for places like the San Francisco Chronicle and Sports On Earth. I was never able to consistently make a living at writing in the Bay Area, but it always seemed to offer the allure of being possible at some point down the road.

A few days after my move, I began working in a coffee shop in Sacramento. I also began to pick up freelance writing gigs: a baseball history website; an alt-weekly that I’d freelanced for years before; and Sporting News. Frustrated about my coffee shop job, which was never a great fit, I also posted a resume online and secured a couple of copywriting clients: a plumber with multiple websites not related to plumbing (because few people really want their day jobs) and a Bay Area publishing concern.

In late September, I had an epiphany: I had enough freelance work to quit the coffeehouse. I had set an hourly rate for copywriting work that would allow me to eventually write full-time. But I didn’t think that things would come together as quickly as they did. With some trepidation, I handed in my two weeks’ notice and worked my last evening of coffee on October 18.

Six months to the day, I regard my decision to quit coffee and write and edit full-time as the best move of my professional life. I’m 32 and wasted years in day jobs: sales, food service, manual labor, call centers, you name it, all the while avoiding trying to make a living as a writer. For anyone who might be in the same position that I was, here are 10 tips on how to make a living as a freelance writer and editor:

1. Ask for work. I got to where I am now because, after years of not doing it enough, I started putting myself out there more. I contacted editors I wanted to write for, sending emails and making cold calls. I posted my resume online. Even after I had clients and places to write for, I still kept asking for work. I pitched stories and projects I could do. In time, editors and clients began coming to me with assignments. But six months in, I’m still seized with conviction that if I’m going to make a living as a writer, it’s on me.

2. Be realistic about what you need to charge. The last time I tried freelance writing full-time a few years ago, I charged $15 an hour and ran out of money aggressively fast. This time, I got an idea of what others charge for copywriting. I wrote out a monthly budget of my expenses. Figuring on 1,000 hours of freelance work per year and that I would need to set aside 30 percent of my gross for taxes, I set a rate that was competitive and would allow me to meet expenses.

I’ve tinkered with this model over the past six months as I’ve begun to accept more journalistic work, where the pay is often by the piece or per word and typically less than copywriting. But I’m always clear about how much I need to gross in a month so as to not have to get another office or coffee job.

3. Know what to set aside for taxes. Many freelance and contract workers get popped the first time they file taxes. Some years ago, I took a contract job, put aside no money, and eventually had to go on a payment plan with the IRS. This time, I was cautious. Months after starting with the assumption I’d lose 30 percent of my gross to taxes, I used Google and a worksheet from my tax guy to determine I’d be fine setting aside 25 percent.

It’s important to know how to roughly calculate taxes for two reasons: 1) Freelance workers who earn at least $10,000 in a year have to make quarterly estimated tax payments, with penalties at tax time for not having paid enough through the course of the year; 2) The amount you pay in taxes goes up when you earn more.

4. Be realistic about how much time you can spend on stories. Before I made a living as a writer (or had a girlfriend), I had no problem spending inordinate amounts of time on stories. I still do this sometimes. My recent Sacramento News & Review cover piece, for instance, took me two weeks longer than I thought it would. I lost money on that story because I knew it was worth it. Generally, I’m careful about my time and aim to hit the number of billable hours that I need each week. I also am careful to generally not take on unpaid work, though there are exceptions (such as this post.)

5. Be versatile. My passion’s baseball history. If money were no object, I’d spend all my time digging through online archives, talking to former ballplayers, and writing stories, both mainstream and esoteric about baseball. Alas, money is an object. I’ve found that making a living as a writer requires a willingness to tackle a variety of subjects: local government, outdoor recreation, automobiles, and much, much more. I’m fortunate that a good chunk of my living comes from writing about my passion. Maybe in time, all of it will come this way. Until then, I’ll write about as many things as I have to.

6. Keep regular hours where possible. Some freelancers feel like they always have to be available. I say that’s nonsense. Any copywriting client worth your time will figure out a way to call you during normal business hours. Journalistic work is sometimes harder to fit into these hours. That said, I try not to work too many evenings and am generally careful to take at least one weekend day off per week. After all, I live with my girlfriend who works normal hours. My work isn’t so important to regularly sacrifice time with her. I also worry about burning out if I work too much.

7. Keep your pipeline filled at least a week or two out. A list sitting next to my keyboard as I write this tells me that over the next two weeks, I have five stories to write for one publication, two stories for another, and 7.5 hours of copywriting work that my client prepaid me for. Generally, at least once a week, I create a list like this. When it doesn’t have the target number of billable hours that I need, I call my clients and editors and ask for more work.

8. Know how to market yourself. This is definitely a work in progress for me. I just set up a showcase page for some of my best baseball clippings. My LinkedIn profile needs some work. My girlfriend sweetly had business cards made for me in December, though I still haven’t gotten in the habit of keeping a few on me at all times.

Marketing is perhaps my greatest challenge as a writer. I like to think I do a lot of good, original work, but it’s a challenge sometimes conveying the value I can offer a client or editor. I think a lot of writers struggle with this. That said, I know my value and how to sell myself as a writer well enough to have gotten this far. I’ll get better.

9. Keep meticulous records. Being a freelancer means I typically get paid 10-15 times a month and am continually setting money aside for taxes and having opportunities to deduct business expenses. I’d go crazy if I tried to remember everything come tax time. Thus, I keep a spreadsheet where I log all of my earnings, deductions, and money I’ve put aside for taxes, among other things. Some freelancers opt for software that automatically does this, though I’m apprehensive about this.

10. Don’t let anyone tell you you can’t do this. This is last and probably most important. I put off going freelance for years because I worried it would be too difficult, too fraught with the potential for me to lose all of my money and have to be bailed out by my parents. To be sure, freelance work is tenuous and stressful at times. But, with a bit of planning and sober realism, it’s very doable. In fact, all things considered, it’s probably easier than keeping a crappy day job.

4 thoughts on “10 tips to make a living as a freelancer”

  1. I’ve often thought about leaving my teaching gig to write full time about baseball, other sports, and anything I could get a lead on. I’d love to write a book – – preferably baseball – – but we will have to start with the freelance work first!

    Great list!

  2. Graham,

    Any advice on where to put my resume out there? I’ve tried to typical sites (Monster, Indeed, etc.), but I haven’t been hesitant to use subscription based sites for putting my resume out there.

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