So you’re toying with the idea of going full-time? Chances are you’ve been writing for a while, probably had some success and maybe even have had some work published. Great! Now, not to be a downer but I’m going to let you in on a little secret: it’s not nearly as hard as it is scary. Financially scary. Ego-threatening scary. After all, if you do try and you fail in spite of your efforts, what does that say about you? And putting yourself out there in front of all those people? Terrifying. I know it’s intimidating and petrifying. I’ve done it.
The good news is that, even if you’re scared, you can do it anyway. You should do it anyway! You’ll fail. Hell, I hope you fail! One hundred percent guaranteed if you try new things you’ll fail somewhere…but you’ll learn from it and hopefully you’ll never stop. Try, fail/succeed, learn. Rinse and repeat.
While there are as many stories of ‘how I became a writer’ as there are writers, there are a few common steps that almost all freelancers complete. The first of these is to develop a plan and your plan will differ depending on your writing experience and accumulation of clips. Not that everything will go according to your plan either way, but you’ll have created a tool to gauge your progress.
New Writers: If you haven’t written since high school, start writing now. There is a good chance you’re rusty (sorry) and if you’re going to sell your skills they need to be on point. If you intend to write digital and blog content as part of your paid work, this is a great excuse to start a blog or begin pitching guest posts to blogs that accept submissions. Whether you decide to focus on paying or ‘exposure’ gigs to gain your first clips is up to you.
Now For The Plan
There is one major difference between writers who work on their own projects, lucrative or not, and those who work as full-time freelancers; it’s what author Michelle Goodman refers to as bread and butter work. This is the work that pays the bills and not all of it is as creative and fulfilling as you might have dreamed it would be. Granted, within financial limitations, you’ll be able to choose what you work on by applying and marketing yourself for work you enjoy but, especially starting out, you may find yourself working corporate summaries and getting paid per piece, or some other droning task. That’s okay. The idea is to grow and intentionally cultivate your freelancing career, but we’ll get to that.
Psst…here’s the super-secret plan:
1. Begin building clips.
There are places other than content mills and your own blog for you to sell and publish your writing… and there lots of different ways to get your first clips: your local grocery may have a rack of free local magazines (mine does), stop in and ask about writing for a small local paper (or send an email), hit a news stand and pick up copies of publications you could pitch articles to, get a copy of Writer’s Market and find publications open to new writers, pitch your guest post ideas to blogs that accept submissions, offer your services to a local non-profit.
Remember that you’re building a career that will grow and change. Your mission is to direct that growth toward your goals. If you want to write in a specific niche, begin by pitching to small blogs and publications, then use those clips to work ‘up the ladder’ of publications you’ve found and dreamed about seeing your name in. If you want to write sales copy, again, start small and build. Decide how you want to spend your working hours (editing, proofreading, writing sales letters, researching, interviewing) and pursue more of that type of work. Yes, it’s simple but it works.
You may find yourself needing more work than one-and-done jobs can provide. If you can support yourself writing nothing but pitched articles, hell yeah – get it! I haven’t tried it. It’s part of what I do but I also have publications that I contribute to regularly. Yes, I even have some corporate work. And my assignments and clients change. It’s part of the job but I’ve streamlined my marketing process for finding work, I apply (primarily) for work that I have an interest in, and I also write guest posts and print articles. In addition to my paid work, I also have two blogs of my own, an Etsy shop, and another venture in the works. It’s the diversity that drew me to freelancing and that means constant professional development, as well. Practice writing in different styles. Study types of writing. Learn WordPress.
2. Determine how much you need to make per week/month/year.
This is the fun part (sarcasm) for anyone who sucks with money. Like I do. What works for me is to gauge my income weekly. I know how much I have to make and I usually know how much work I’ll have and when I’ll be paid. Having some cushion can help and I know that’s easier said than done but living check to check can easily turn into having to go back to ‘work’. Or eviction. Or your electricity being disconnected.
The trick is to constantly have money coming in from various sources…again, easier said than done but as simple as diversifying your client list and throwing your hat into a lot of rings. And keep marketing. Even when you’re busy. If you know you have a project coming to an end, you can decide between marketing to fill that gap early enough that there won’t be a gap or taking some time in between projects.
I’m not gonna lie, it takes a lot of trust: in yourself, your abilities, and in the universe to provide (if you’re into that kind of thing). But today the flexibility of my schedule allowed me to snuggle in bed with my son and watch The Magic School Bus after only a few hours work. Yes, I’m bragging. Not all days are like today…some days I’m on a deadline or I get sucked into designing aspects of the website and spend hours with my laptop. I have to responsibly manage my own time, which ebbs and flows.
Sometimes I’m swamped and at times I hear crickets, but I don’t drag myself to a monotonous job each day, praying for Friday, and cursing Sunday as Monday looms over me like forced slavery. Sorry that’s a bit extreme, but there are so many people today that are miserable from the drudgery. Freelancing breathes. If you can learn to go with it and manage your time and money, you’ll do fine.
One more pitfall to watch out for: Getting paid doesn’t mean you’re rich. I learned this one the hard way…and repeatedly. I’d get paid and be like, “Oooh, I’ve got money!” and I would buy things I wouldn’t normally and spend money I knew I shouldn’t have. Don’t be like me. Nowadays I’ve taken to pre-paying my rent. As a single mom there is no more secure a feeling as knowing my family home is financially sound.
Now write out your bills and create a budget to determine how much you need to make. Take into account that you will be required to pay a portion of your gross earnings in taxes. These are paid quarterly but there isn’t enough room in this post to cover all applicable tax laws. For answers about taxes, check out this Ultimate Guide from The Freelancers Union.
3. Give yourself a deadline (goal date sounds more positive) to meet this income minimum.
There are a number of ways to do this. You could save enough money to buy yourself the time off from your employer to meet your goal. You could continue working your regular 9-5 while marketing yourself and earning writing work. You could even work part time to supplement your income while working toward your income minimum.
Personally, I got myself fired. Yup, on purpose. Then I left with my vacation pay, severance pay, 401K, and I cashed out my company stocks. I pre-paid my rent and took a much-needed break. I budgeted how long the money would last before I’d have to return to work and made that my deadline to replace the income I would have earned had I taken back my 9-5. I also knew that if I could land even some regular work, I could supplement my income as-needed by returning to boss-land part time.
4. Save as much money as possible (I pre-paid my rent) during the first three steps.
Start setting money aside, but don’t stop there. Reduce your bills! Cut services, change providers, coupon, do what you gotta do to keep working at your business. Keep your internet, though.
While many would advise you to pack away as much green as possible, I think this stops many would-be freelancers from making the leap. Too much of a cushion can make it easy to not work, too. Give yourself enough time to succeed but not so much that you confuse it with a vacation, unless you really need a vacation. I did.
5. Once you have landed enough work to meet your expenses, take a deep breath and celebrate!
Celebrate the mini-wins too, but delving into the great-unknown of freelancing can be nerve wracking and meeting your goal means you officially make enough to pay your bills. That, my friend, makes you a full-time, professional freelance writer.
6. Maintain and build your workload by marketing yourself to reflect the skills and tasks you want to do repeatedly.
You didn’t think you were done, did you? In freelancing, you’re never done. To me, that’s half of its charm. There’s always something new. This is where you begin to manage clients, upgrade your workload and direct your career to the skills you wish to master. This is when you set more and new career goals and dream publications…and then work toward achieving them. You’re not going to get every job you apply for, even the ones you’d love to have. But you can recognize what you’d like to be doing in these gigs and then work at making yourself the perfect future candidate for the job.
In the beginning, it can be necessary to take anything that keeps the lights on. Eventually you will pass this point and have enough work lined up that you can begin tailoring your workload to meet your long term career goals. Don’t forget this step.
Obviously, it will probably take someone with no writing credits or published work longer to achieve their income goal than a writer who is already selling articles to blogs and magazines, but what will determine your ultimate success will be your determination and tenacity. Write and keep writing. Send more queries. Create a professional website that showcases your work. Learn about the marketing tools you’re using: queries, letters of introduction, your portfolio and resume. Bookmark quality job boards and streamline your application process with a template email. Create your own WordPress blog, even if it’s only for the experience. Don’t be afraid to take courses and attend workshops that will sharpen your skills or teach you an entirely new type of writing. Invest in your skills, they’re what pay the bills.
A Word of Caution
Freelancing can be a solitary and sedentary pursuit. For some, the lure of full-time writer as a job title is enough to make them want to give it a go…but be warned: you will find yourself sitting alone at a computer for hours. That’s part of the job description. Be honest with yourself about your strengths and weaknesses. Can you spend hours upon hours alone? Will you be able to stay on task and meet deadlines without supervision? Will you be able to sit for the majority of your day?
As much as I’d like to assure you that you can lunch with friends and so forth, by the time you get yourself ready, drive to lunch, visit, order, and eat, half of your day will be gone. I’m not trying to be dreary or bury your dreams; writing is (generally) solitary, sedentary work. If you’re going to pursue it as your profession, take that into account.
Can I Get a Hell-Yeah!?!
Okay, all you professional freelancers out there reading this…how did you delve into full-time? What was your biggest surprise (positive or negative) about full-time freelancing? I can’t wait to hear some war stories!