How I Made 6 Figures as a Freelance Writer in 2011

If you’re like me, shortly after 2011 ended you wondered: “How much did I earn from freelance writing this year?”

Last year I did a marketing analysis…and this year I wanted to take it a step further and do an income analysis.

Not because I dream of being inundated by people who’d like to sell me products and services because they think I’m rolling in dough (ha! three kids…college tuition…). No.

It’s because looking at where your writing income is coming from is a very important exercise.

You learn a lot about how to improve your business for the next year. I want you to do this math for your writing business, too, as it will help you make better use of your time and earn more in 2012.

I had a goal of cracking six figures because I had narrowly missed that level in 2010, and that pissed me off. I’m very self-competitive that way.

A quick glance at the reports in my handy Freshbooks invoicing system tells me this year I made it. Still a few small tinkerings to do to make sure every gig is included and everything’s in the right column, but as a rough estimate, I’m there.

Just to be clear, I’m talking about what I earned from freelance writing — not including income from my work here helping other writers earn more. (My net freelance income was also a bit smaller than my gross as I did some subcontracting to other writers.)

If you’re wanting to mention to me that the economy kept right on sucking in 2011…yes, I noticed. Still, the freelance-writing market is so large that if you really go after it, you can still find plenty of business and earn well.

How’d I do it? Freshbooks has this great feature where I can instantly view revenue by client, so I have a ready breakdown for you.

Here’s a description of each major client I had in 2011, roughly what percentage of my income came from each client, and how I found them.

Client type % of income Type How I found
1. Business magazine website 23% Blog posts + a few online features Interviewed publisher; then asked if they hired freelancers
2. Financial services co #1 15% In-depth feature articles Heard of project through grapevine; reached out to editor on Twitter
3. State government agency 14% Annual report writing Saw me on LinkedIn
4. Financial services website 7% Articles Saw me on Linkedin
5. Major media co. website 6% Interview-based blog posts Ad in Gorkana alerts
6. Business book publisher 6% Book chapters Saw my magazine blog
7. Financial services co #2 5% Blog posts Referral
8. Business portal 5% Short how-to articles and reported features Had worked with the editor before – and stayed in touch
9. Small business blog 4% Blog posts, social-media consulting, and a special report Saw my magazine blog
10. Software-services co. 3% Articles Saw my Top 10 Blogs win
11. Local hospital 3% Recruiting package Referral
12. 2 small-biz blogs 3% Blog posts & social media consulting Saw my magazine blog
13. Fortune 500 co. 2% Articles for e-newsletter for business customers Found me on a Google search for ‘Seattle freelance writer’
14. Major publisher’s small-biz website 2% Blog posts Saw my magazine blog
15. Misc. 1-off/small projects 5% Articles for trade pubs, small-business blogging Various, including responding to a FT job ad on LinkedIn
TOTALS: 15 major clients 95% of total

Takeaways:

  • Social media is increasingly important. Without my LinkedIn and Twitter activity and working on my writer website SEO, I would have been out about one-third of my entire income.
  • Keep marketing. Even though I have a stable of great clients, you can’t ever get complacent and stop marketing. As I look down this list, more than half of this work came from new clients.
  • Ongoing contracts help create steady income. You want to target magazines and businesses that are big enough to send you a steady stream of work, rather than one-off projects. That really cuts down your marketing time, there’s less feast-or-famine cycle, and it gives you the peace of mind of starting each month with a good chunk of your revenue already booked.
  • Keep growing your network. You can never know enough editors and writers. I got a couple of key referrals that led to interesting, lucrative projects.
  • Blog in a high-profile place… I was surprised to see how many clients came from the visibility I get from one of my big blogging gigs. Any time you get a chance to write for a high-traffic website where you think prospects visit, you want to do it. Better yet, target this type of client as a goal for 2012. More than one-third of my clients called me after seeing my other work online.
  • But don’t blog too much. In 2010, I had more blogging work and earned less. Blogging isn’t the highest-paying form of writing out there, even if you’re getting $100 or so a post, which is my goal. Blogging is good for visibility and I find it fun (obviously!), but save some room for articles, white papers or other better-paying writing assignments.
  • Think recession-proof industries. I was also surprised to see how much of my income was focused in financial-services firms. Between them and hospital — another recession-proof area — that’s close to one-third of my total income.
  • Keep stretching. This was a year of breakthroughs for me. I did my first government contract, taking a leap into a writing type and client type I hadn’t done before. I also took on a chunk of a business book, writing 3,000-word chapters that each required piles of research. You have to be willing to take some risks and learn new things to move into new, high-paid areas and keep your income growing.
  • There’s lots of good business-writing gigs in articles and blogs. As my chart shows, you don’t have to know how to write longform direct-mail letters or ad copy to earn well as a commercial freelance writer. All my corporate work was articles and blog posts this year, plus an annual-report project.
  • It doesn’t take a lot of clients to earn a good living. I made three-quarters of my income off about six clients. If you target quality prospects, you don’t need a huge client list to earn well.
  • One-off projects suck. I think one of the reasons I earned more this year is I concentrated closely on driving more business through fewer large clients, rather than doing more small accounts. Each client takes administrative time, so fewer is better. I made a decision about mid-year to drop several small-business clients because I felt it was too inefficient to earn that way, and I think that instinct was dead on. As soon as I cleared those few small accounts out, I got huge new projects from better-quality clients.
  • Watch your fees. If your clients pay you via PayPal, you are paying as much as 3% in fees. I saw roughly $9,000 of payments come through on PayPal, but I paid almost nothing in fees, as Freshbooks offers a special deal where I only pay $.50 a transaction. I estimate that saved several hundred dollars of income that might otherwise have been sucked away in transaction fees.

I’m not expecting to earn as much from freelancing in 2012, as I’ll be concentrating more on writing my own ebooks, teaching, and creating useful content and live events for members of Freelance Writers Den. But it’s good to know that if I need to, I can earn a good living just from freelance writing.

 

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