Why Freelance Writers Earn More by Tracking 2 Key Things

Business ChartsBy Nicole Dieker

What’s the last thing you do before you end your freelance writing work week?

If you’re like most of us, you’re probably eager to get up from your laptop and do something else — anything else! — for a change.

Instead, it’s worthwhile to do a tiny bit of math before you go.

So stay where you are and tally up two numbers:

  • Money earned this week

  • Pieces written this week

For money earned, calculate everything you were able to bill this week. Don’t worry about whether the client has paid you yet — that’s not important for this calculation. If you completed a $50 blog post, add $50 to your tally even if you won’t get paid until next month.

Adding up pieces written is pretty straightforward. Count each individual assignment as a “piece,” whether it’s a 1,500-word long-form essay or a 200-word content mill article.

Got it? Now we’re going to use those two numbers to grow your writing income.

Track the trends

My goal as a freelance writer is to do two things, every week:

  • Bring the amount of money I earn UP
  • Bring the number of pieces I write DOWN

It should be pretty obvious why I want to increase my income. But why do I want to decrease the number of pieces I write?

Not because I want to do less work, but because I want to do better work.

When I write fewer, better-paying pieces, I get to spend more time on those pieces. I’m also more likely to be working with clients and editors who value my worth.

About a year ago, I was earning $500–$750 a week for anywhere between 25 and 50 individual pieces. I was literally writing 5,000 words per day.

This April, I was able to bill nearly $1,000 for 19 pieces, or about 3,000 words per day. Every week my income fluctuates slightly (my most recent billing as of this writing was $877), but I have been able to show a significant upward trend.

Use the stats to grow your income

Once you start tracking income versus pieces, you’ll notice a few things.

First, you’ll notice just how hard you work for those dang content mills, and how much easier it is when you have higher-value clients.

Second, you’ll be able to pick out which clients are the true keepers, and which ones you want to use as stepping-stones for better opportunities.

These numbers will also give you the most important metric re: growing your writing income: they’ll tell you when it’s time to hustle.

Here’s the secret: the time to hustle for clients isn’t the week when you’re writing 50 content mill pieces for $500. By then, you’re in crisis mode, and you just need to get the job done.

The time to hustle for bigger and better clients is when you’re earning $1,000 for 19 pieces.

Or, if you prefer, the very first week your income starts to drop from its highest point. If you try to bring in one new client or job every time your income dips — even just a little — you’ll set yourself up for continued, sustainable income growth.

How do I hustle for new work? I check the writing job boards for good-paying gigs. I send out pitches to online publications with which I have established relationships. I send out cold pitches to new publications that I know pay well. I also remind my social media followers and my network about my Hire Me page — you’d be surprised at how well that tactic works!

By the end of summer, I hope to only be writing 12-15 pieces per week while billing around $1,000. We’ll see if I can use my own advice to make it happen.

What numbers help you grow your freelance writing income? Tell us in the comments below.

Nicole Dieker is a freelance copywriter and essayist. She writes regularly for The Billfold on the intersection of freelance writing and personal finance. You can hire her, follow her weekly income tracking, or read her published essays at her Tumblr.

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41 comments on “Why Freelance Writers Earn More by Tracking 2 Key Things
  1. Sabita says:

    Awesome post Nicole 🙂

    I am a freak when it comes to calculating my earnings and I had been doing it on weekly basis for quite sometime. Working with content mill clients made me track earnings on daily basis. woah!
    The calculation makes you feel great as a writer and it certainly has been an eye opener – one of the reasons why I chose to leave a low paying and high workload gig.

  2. Erika says:

    I get a kick out of tracking my pie chart every month when I do my billing, which charts what percentage of income has come from which clients. When one client starts to get too “big” in the pie I think of ways to increase revenue from other clients.

    That way my overall revenue increases as well as becomes more balanced so I’m not so dependent on one client.

  3. Very inspirational, Nicole. Many people feel paralyzed when it comes to contacting new clients and pitching your skills to them, but you laid out a pretty straight forward method and various good sources.

    Do you write about any subject under the sun? I noticed that many of us are picky about the things we write about (in other words, we only like to write about our passion.) Unfortunately, sometimes this makes finding work a little more difficult, in my opinion.

    • Carol Tice says:

      It’s not that we’re sticking to our passion, Elvis — often, we’re sticking to the topics that pay best. I can tell you business finance and insurance topics are not my passion. 😉 But I’ve made a crap-ton writing about them.

      • This is probably my biggest hurdle at the moment, stepping out of my comfort zone. I spent years writing titles for Demand Studios and would only touch tech titles. I suppose that client got me a little spoiled. But i”m working on getting rid of those habits slowly.

        Thanks!
        Elvis Michael recently posted…Two Case Studies On Using Reddit To Generate LeadsMy Profile

        • Carol Tice says:

          I’m doubting you were ‘spoiled’ at the rates Demand pays, Elvis…but it’s easy to become lazy about marketing, writing for mills. That’s the habit to acquire that really changes your earnings.

    • I do write about anything under the sun. Personal finance seems to come up often, as do frugal living topics. But it’s very interesting to see what clients want me to write for them!
      Nicole Dieker recently posted…John Allison finally drew me as a Scary Go Round…My Profile

  4. Michele says:

    Thanks for sharing! I just recently lost my job. I am looking for gigs as I prepare to get freelancing. This article was helpful so I can see what I need to do to write less and make more.

  5. Amel says:

    If I understood what you are saying above, you are currently writing about 3,000 words per day. If you are writing 5 days per week, that’s about 15,000 words…and if you are billing $1,000 for 15,000 words, that works out to about 7 cents per word.

    If you increase the amount you charge per word, you could write less for the same amount of pay (or more).

    Let’s say, for example, you changed your workload so that you were only writing 3,000 words per week instead of 3,000 words per day.

    This is the length of 1 to 4 articles in a typical print publication (depending on the word count of each article).

    You could still earn $1,000 per week by writing for markets that paid about 35 cents per word.

    And if you earned 50 cents per word, you could increase your weekly earnings to $1,500 or simply write less (say 2,000 words instead of 3,000) and still earn the $1,000.

    I haven’t done a formal poll, but I would imagine that most writers who write for high-paying markets do not write much more than 2,000 to 3,000 words per week, if that. That’s because articles in this category require more time for research, interviews, and other non-writing tasks. A writer may only write a couple of articles per month, but the earnings are still high.

    It is amazing that you are able to write 3,000 to 5,000 words per day. I would love to be that productive. But do you ever feel that the amount of time you spend on writing each day takes you away from the ability to seek out higher-paying gigs? Also, do you consider the per-word rate when deciding to accept a particular assignment?

    In the article I’ve linked to below, I discuss a formula that is similar to yours, but I focus more on the need to target publications with specific rates of pay. I have another formula that I use as well for times when you must come up with a quote for a project on your own, without much guidance or input from the client…but this is something I will discuss in a future post.
    Amel recently posted…About Markets for Writers – How Much Do You Want to Earn?My Profile

  6. Allen Taylor says:

    I just did this and realized that I actually earn more per hour than I thought. It’s also useful, as you say, in seeing where I can fill my time in seeking higher paying gigs – especially now that my largest client has decided to scale back production a bit. He’s still my highest paying customer – by the gig and by the hour – so he’s not going anywhere, but the exercise has motivated to go out and seek other comparable clients so that my hourly wage and my monthly income both go up at a nearly-the-same rate.
    Allen Taylor recently posted…Who Can (And Can’t) Be An Indie PublisherMy Profile

  7. Nicole -thanks for this simple, yet actionable piece. I think this is a useful metric and a good motivational tool. Especially, when extra time equals opportunity to seek more assignments (at a higher rate).

    This really helps to actually see that one is making progress.

    Are there other metrics that you find useful?

    If I keep getting advice like this I’m bound to have a successful freelance writer career.
    Stephen Quinn recently posted…“All In” for a Freelance WriterMy Profile

    • Carol Tice says:

      Stephen, I personally love calculating annual customer value. What did I earn for the year with each client? That can often spotlight who’s really worth keeping.

      • I hadn’t thought about annual customer value, but I really like that metric. Another one I often track is “How long did I work today? Was I able to complete everything within eight hours, or did I add on a third shift in the evening?”

  8. I’m slowly re-entering the world of freelance writing (I have to build up some slow money to afford the childcare that I’ll need to work again and market for better work) so this tip hit me close to home. Really looking forward to tracking this! Thanks for sharing.

    Also, thank you for introducing me to The Billfold, a website I will now visit everyday at least once for the rest of my lives.
    Jessie Haynes recently posted…NAR Reports Only 12 Percent of Agents Have Their Own BlogsMy Profile

  9. Jane says:

    Numbers might not be very comfortable to look at. But not looking at the stats and not doing calculations will damage any business. In this case, businesses (be it freelancing or ANY kind of business) need to look at stats and track them.

    This is how we can do more of what works and eliminate dead weight. Well said Nicole!
    Jane recently posted…How to promote your blog? Things to do BEFORE you promote your blogMy Profile

  10. This past week I wrote the epic historical piece that every writer remembers. The first one I was paid for! Now I’m going to start a spreadsheet tracking the details that you suggested. Thanks for the timely post!
    James Bradrick recently posted…276 Girls – A Call to ActionMy Profile

  11. Hi Nicole, this is great advice – wish I had heeded it when I started out. Would have saved me wasted time and effort big time.

    That said, I find word count too cumbersome and time-consuming to keep track of, and decided to just monitor “(time spent) writing” vs. “(time spent) promoting” – and found this to be surprisingly effective, especially when I promote with a deadline :-]

    • Carol Tice says:

      I think that’s another interesting metric to track! I’m kind of a data whore myself, so I do a lot of analysis of my clients, and their annual revenue they represent, time spent on them, and so on.

  12. Again, more practical advice that can really change any writers earning potential like that!

    I actually have thought about these two numbers a lot, even when I first started trying to make a small dent in this industry. I am actually a very organized individual and so not only do I check the monthly numbers, but I also check the weekly, and of course, the yearly numbers.

    Keeping an eye on these things really help me to stay focused. And when the numbers are looking positive it becomes a motivating system as well.
    William Ballard recently posted…Freelance Writers: Learn How to Double Your Earning Potential Within the Next 30 MinutesMy Profile

    • Thank you! I agree — having money goals and tracking your results is super motivational!
      Nicole Dieker recently posted…Elisabets: Choice Horses and Wrap Party – The Yearbook OfficeMy Profile

    • Carol Tice says:

      As this post comes out, William, I’m sitting here writing one piece that pays $2,000, that I reported and wrote in about a week. (Just filed it, yay!)

      A few years back, I was probably writing 17 blog posts in a week to make perhaps $1,200 in all.

      Fewer, better-paying assignments are always easier to execute, require less admin time, and end up raising your hourly rate. I think these are 2 great metrics to keep an eye on!

      Having to write 3000 words a day is still a pretty onerous workload, so I’m hoping to hear good news from Nicole as she continues to up her project fees and cut the number of assignments she has to do to hit her earning targets.

  13. Nisha says:

    Wow Nicole, what a great post! This is exactly what I’m trying to do, but I look at the monthly numbers than weekly. It’s a simple thing, but it keeps you on the right track.

  14. Wow, I’m with Naomi–this approach certainly brings a strong light to bear on what is (or isn’t) happening every week. I do this on a monthly basis, but I think breaking the exercise down into weekly increments would be an even bigger motivator–you’ve still got time to ‘up your game,’ so to speak.

    Thx for the nudge, Nicole!

  15. Allen Taylor says:

    Good post, Nicole. But I’m curious why you would focus on number of pieces and not number of words. I think word count is important if you write a lot of longer pieces and you’re not earning an adequate wage for the length. You might end up making more aggregate income writing longer pieces, but if you earn more per word on shorter pieces, then maybe your efforts should be in seeking out more shorter pieces to write.
    Allen Taylor recently posted…Prediction: When Self-Published E-books Will Be Top DogMy Profile

  16. Naomi says:

    This really put things into perspective. Definitely some points to consider in the future, I rarely sit down and do the sums. I focus so much on writing high quality pitches and don’t dedicate enough time to a strategy. I think it’s time to reduce the number of pieces I write. Thanks for this post Nicole.
    Naomi recently posted…Welcome to my blogMy Profile

    • Thanks, Naomi! Reducing the number of pieces you write is a smart strategy if you’re able to keep your income constant or grow it. Reducing just for the sake of reducing only makes sense if you have a solid plan to market yourself during the “spare time.” 🙂 I’m guessing that’s your plan, though — we’re all pretty savvy about our own incomes.

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