How to Make a Living as a Writer

http://www.freelancewritinggigs.com/2010/09/how-to-make-a-living-as-a-writer/
You want to make a living writing.
Here’s how I do it.  It may not be a good way for you to do it.  Then again, it might be advice that transforms you from a feast/famine disaster into a consistent earner.
I wake up and work.  I work until I earn a predetermined sum.  Then, I can decide to work on speculative projects, engage in marketing or watch re-runs of old sitcoms and marvel at how many technical schools buy ad time on afternoon broadcast television.
I thought some of you might find my approach interesting.
So, here it is, my system for making a living as a writer.

Get a Number Part One: How much money do you need to make per month?  Do the math and get the number.  Don’t forget to consider taxes.  Don’t use a budget that’s hopelessly optimistic or stupidly inflated, either.  You want THE number.

Get a Number Part Two: How much money do you want to make per month?  Most of us would prefer to have an income that exceeds our current needs.  Assuming you have some desire for upward mobility or increased stability and security, you feel that way, too.  Come up with a goal number.  Leave the billionaire daydreams behind for now, though.  Think in terms of what would really satisfy you.

Some Simple Math Part One: Add your need number and your goal number together.  Now, divide by two.  Let’s say you need to clear $5,000 per month and the idea of making $10,000 really resonates with you.  $5,000 + $10,000 / 2 = $7,500.  We’ll call this your target number.  It’s more than you need, but less than you want.

Some Simple Math Part Two: Take your target number and divide it by 22.  That’s the approximate number of working days in a month.  If we use the hypothetical target number above, that would equate to roughly $340.  That means one would need to make $340 every working day to hit the target number.  We’ll call this your daily number.
Hit Your Daily Number…  Every Day: Wake up in the morning and start working.  Keep working until you hit your daily number.  Once you hit the number, feel free to do more or to focus you remaining time on marketing efforts or other endeavors that will make it easier to hit that daily number in the future.  If you do earn more than your number, resist the urge to apply the difference to the next day’s mark.  You want to create a habit of hitting your daily number every day.

Don’t Apply Overages: So, you had a day that exceeded your daily number.  Congratulations.  Don’t start carrying over that “surplus” and applying it to future days.  Every day is new.  You wake up zero and you don’t stop until you hit your daily number.

Don’t Count Pre-Payment: You landed a gig that supplied you with $1,000 up front.  That’s great.  However, it does NOT wipe out your daily number.  It doesn’t touch your earnings requirement at all, because you haven’t done the work yet.  Think in terms of the actual value of the work you’re doing every day, not in terms of how much you’ve been paid already or how much you may earn at completion.  Writers have a nasty tendency to mellow out for a few days after they collect a nice payment.  That’s understandable, but it throws things out of whack in the long run.  You must train yourself to hit your daily number every day (or as close to it as humanly possible).

Do Correct Deficiencies: You called it a day even though you fell $100 short of your daily number.  It’s okay.  It’s going to happen.  Life is like that.  This system forgets overages and starts new every day.  That’s because it’s always nice to end a cycle with more money than you planned to earn.  The system is less forgiving of deficiencies.  If you fall short, distribute the deficiency over the course of the next three working days.  In the hypothetical case of being $100 short on a $340 daily number, that would mean you’ll need to generate $377 per day for the next three days.  Make the adjustment every time you fall short.

Don’t Count Potential Income: Don’t count chickens that may or may not decide to lay eggs.  If you’re spending time on a personal project that you believe COULD be eventually be worth $X, so be it.  Feel free to dive right into it AFTER you hit your daily number with activity that WILL put money in the bank.

In Case of Massive Failure. You missed your mark by $100 one day.  The next day, you missed it by $80.  The following day, you were $100 short again.  Then, you completely screwed up and had a day that fell $200 short.  Now, the amount you need to earn in order to cover the deficiencies is huge.  You’re screwed.
That can happen.  If it does, revisit the amount of money you’ll need to make per day to hit your goal number for the month.  If the resulting figure is reasonable, proceed using it as your daily objective.  If the number isn’t reasonable–and that can happen if you have several bad days–do the same thing with your need number.
If that isn’t reasonable…  Well, you’re going to have a short month unless you managed to put together a few overage days (remember, we don’t count any daily surpluses) earlier in the month.  If you never exceeded your daily goal and you’re not going to hit your need number, it’s time for some serious reflection about what you’re doing and how you’re doing it.
You may need to find ways to tighten your budget.  You may even need to consider making your living in some other way.  If you can’t consistently meet your needs with your earnings, you’re either going to be living on the street or in deeper debt.  Neither option is particularly wise or attractive.

Why This System Works
  • It forces you to realistically assess the amount of work you’ll need to do.
  • It breaks down income generation into manageable, easy-to-understand chunks.
  • It prevents you from inadvertently resting on your laurels during good times and it doesn’t let you off the hook when things are tough.
  • It encourages you to earn more than what you need to squeak through life (both by establishing a daily target in excess of expenses and by refusing to allow you to get soft just because you had a few days with overages).
  • It gives you a legitimate shot at your “dream” number because you don’t use daily surpluses to relieve the daily “pressure” to hit your mark.
  • It helps you to train yourself to be a consistent earner and eliminates the dreaded feast and famine cycle.

Challenges to Working the System

Sometimes, you might not have enough work lined up.  The solution?  Find it fast.  Then do it.  Some days, you may need to resort to unattractive millwork or other low-paying efforts to hit your mark.  You might think that sucks.  Maybe it does.  Nonetheless, it’s necessary.  It insures that you’ll earn what you need to earn and won’t leave you short of money if you spend time on pursuing new opportunities that don’t come to fruition.
You’ll need to figure out how to determine the value of the work you do.  In some cases, that’s easy.  If an article pays $50, you know that you can put $50 toward your number upon its completion.
In other cases, it’s tough.  Bigger projects require research time and other elements.  You’ll need to estimate the total amount of time necessary to complete those projects and then estimate the equivalent hourly earnings associated with them.  That way, if you put in two hours on a larger project, you’ll know how much it’s “worth” when computing your daily earnings.
It’s hardcore.  It’s unforgiving and it’s relentless.  I guess that makes it a little like life, huh?
What about Moving Up?

If you’re spending chunks of light days churning out cheap stuff to hit your mark, how are you ever going to escape the rut?  How are you going to move up the ladder to better paying jobs?
Basically, you’re going to pursue those better opportunities and you’re going to market yourself after you earn your daily bread.  That might make for some long nights in the beginning.  However, it’s going to produce a series of days that allow you to pay all of your bills, too.
If you’re moving up the pay ladder, you can expect things to get easier as time passes because those efforts will pay off.  Eventually, those tough days of grinding will begin to disappear.
I know some people wills say one is better off doing more self-promotion, gig hunting and marketing on the front-end in order to make it easier to hit the daily number in the future.  That can be true.  Unfortunately, those efforts don’t always pay off quickly, if at all–and you still need to eat until they do.  By setting a daily objective that you WILL meet every day, you eliminate the risk of freelance famine.  In time, you’ll even build up enough of a cushion that you’ll be able to cut yourself a little slack now and then, if you’d like.

So, FWJ amigos…  Opinions?  Insults?  Accolades?  How do you do it?  Discuss.

Comments

  1. Excellent. Thank you, Carson. This has to be the most practical and comprehensive pieces I’ve ever read on the subject. Great stuff.
    Steph.

  2. A $1000 job? Every 3 days? Seriously? Somebody pays writers that much for 3 days work?… I’ve had only one writing job that paid $300+ per article – that was for a brand name almost everyone knows and the articles were highly creative and technical – I actually had to invent stuff and describe how I did it. Took well over few weeks for each article. Maybe I’m just not that lucky. Do you often land a $1000 job?
    Slava´s last blog post ..The Bastei Bridge – Connecting to Nature in Germany

    • @Slava – I do not have much experience selling articles. I have certainly not had much luck earning via blogging. I can say, however, that there are many forms of writing that pay well above $1,000 per job. Be patient, but if you are finding article writing is just not lucrative enough, try another market.

      Good luck!

      • I think Jeremy doesn’t KNOW where any of those $1000 job are or he WOULD tell you specifics!!!!!!! Jeremy, cowboy up and tell us specifically where you’ve landed a $1000 job and with what company!

  3. Best article I’ve read here so far. This take working as a professional writer away from the employee entitlement mentality to business owner mindset. It’s all about the numbers and getting real about what it takes.

    Following you on Twitter.
    Georjina´s last blog post ..Late as usual BUT – Absolutely the Best Solo Freelancers Conference

  4. The simplest techniques are almost always the most effective. Nicely done Carson! I tend to work against a weekly minimum rather than a daily one, but I can see the appeal of the daily number.

    Recently, I have started setting minimum “community involvement” goals each week also. You can call it networking it you want, but I prefer to think of it as finding ways to give some starter help to other businesses and organizations.

  5. This post just helped me figure out how I’m going to make it through this month. /Thank you/.

  6. I think this article should be renamed to How to Make a Living as an Accountant.

    • Accountant says:

      @Nikita, As an accountant, I take exception to that. What he’s describing is just common sense, being responsible for yourself, and a good work ethic. Accounting is much more boring.

  7. I’ve used a similar budgeting method for several years successfully. It works well, for me, to do my budget about two weeks ahead of time. So, around Oct. 15th, I’ll be working on November’s budget. This allows me to plan for holidays, birthdays, and other “unexpected” expenses and adjust my workload accordingly.
    Sandi Valentine´s last blog post ..Writing From Home for a Full Time Income

  8. Great tips! I like having something to work towards, and this method will keep me motivated to keep writing, since there’s no room to slack off.

    I did the calculations and it looks like a pretty reasonable goal.
    Christina Crowe ( @CashCampfire )´s last blog post ..Past the Basics- 6 Expert Web Content Tips

  9. This article appears to be aimed at very beginning freelancers who are doing small projects that generate small sums. In reality, I think the only way you really make a good living as a freelancer is to expand your thinking, develop your skills, and find or develop better opportunities. As I said, I know some people here are doing $50 projects, but most of the freelancers I know who are sustaining careers are doing multi-thousand dollar projects that aren’t finish in one day, and they don’t gauge their work on daily billable income.

    But I really doubt many freelancers are averaging $7,500 a month over the course of the year is their business plan is to wake up, work until they make $340, and then quit.

    I have to admit I didn’t like this approach because it seems to be thinking in terms of creating ceilings instead of opportunities. I doubt many people who think in the way this article advises them to will ever make a good living as a writer.

    • Joe, if you’re a beginning freelancer doing small jobs and living in the US this article must be really depressive because it would mean that you have to calculate based on $5-$7/entry posts. Welcome to the real world for most beginners.

      As network manager and having worked with many freelancers over the last years, I can tell you thought that for many $3500-$4500 a monthly target is. At beginner rates that still converts to 20-30 pieces/day.

  10. Carson,

    This method works 100% of the time. This is the method I have been using for years and it is simple math. For many people, the difficult part comes in when you start getting down on yourself because you missed the mark a few days and now you have to realize you need to bust your hump to make it up. Such is the freelance life. It is not like a job where no matter how much work you get done that day, you will still get a paycheck and the work will still be there the next morning.

    All I know is that it works and the numbers don’t lie. Thanks for the post!
    Sal´s last blog post ..Open Thread- Where do you work best

  11. Excellent article. I mean, really good stuff. Not only does it affirm that there is still a living to be made as a freelance writer (even seasoned professionals have doubts sometimes, admittedly or not), but you even give a formula for possible success! Very inspirational, and realistically possible. Good job!

  12. Okay, this may be just because I’m 17, but how in the world does a freelance writer make 340$ a day? I can’t even fathom making that much off of writing in a day, and I’m considering writing as a career possibility.
    I believe that I connect with Joe’s attitude a tad more, and going by that attitude, I can’t imagine getting 7 50$ writing deals in a day, doing them all, and getting paid for each one that day. That seems like a LOT more traffic than what a starting writer would ever have… and I think a starting writer needs a “How to make a living” blog far more then an accomplished writer does, seeing as the difference would be a writer with solid, daily traffic, versus one who’s struggling to get noticed and sell…
    Still, if I do end up writing, and get anywhere with it, I think this post is particularly helpful…

  13. “or watch re-runs of old sitcoms and marvel at how many technical schools buy ad time on afternoon broadcast television.” ahahahah hilarious!

    wooooohhh! what a thorough post! five stars! encouraging, but with both feet on the ground

    peace and love, everyone!
    Nuno Moreiras´s last blog post ..Day 2. Roncesvalles. Those four long kilometers.

  14. I really value your advice but it seems like the freelance writing market is extremely competitive and its hard to find good paying jobs. Any suggestions on where to look?

  15. Hi all, this is not my blog, but I thought I would respond to a few of the comments.

    @Timothy – $350 a day is not as difficult as you might imagine. High traffic blogs will pay $100-200 per post, but it is increasingly difficult to break into those arenas. In my opinion, the easiest way for young writers to make decent money is to study copywriting. Brochures and news releases for local businesses are a good way to get started, but you have to sell the work directly.

    @Acacia (wonderful name, btw) – Think local. Think very local. Most new writers loathe selling, so they spend all of their time looking at posted positions online. The truth is, you might have more luck and recurring work from your neighborhood pizza parlor that needs new “specials” menus every month.

    I hope that helps. I have only been writing on contract since March, and directly approaching local businesses is what has worked for me. (Writing is also not my “core” business, though, so take my advice for what it is.)

  16. Am I the only person that does not find any value in this article at all? It is a jumble of advice on juggling numbers. It has nothing to do with developing a freelance writing career.

  17. Geez. I gather people don’t like doing corporate gigs. With corporate (including nonprofit) gigs, one can earn that $340 in 4 or 5 hours – or less – booked in chunks of several days or weeks at a time.

    I occasionally write blog posts as labors of love. I wouldn’t bother trying to make a living out of $100-$200 articles, let alone researched articles or those requiring sources. White papers, case studies, and grant proposals pay five to ten times that much.
    Barbara Saunders´s last blog post ..3 Principles for Reclaiming Work – A Labor Day Manifesto

  18. What do you suggest for a newbie? It sounds like great advice if you have become pro. I’m slowly intergrating into working from home doing VA and some article writting. But to be honest I’m hardly making enough to pay for the simple things such as bread and milk. OY’ hopefully I can make it to the level I can finacially support my family.

  19. This is a great system and I use a similar one myself. Having a daily target number helps to keep you on track. As a freelancer it is so easy to get caught up with the non paying part of your job, like commenting on blog posts to build links to your website (see what I did here!) Also, one way to account for some of the money is to look for passive streams of income. Try becoming an affiliate or write a book you can sell on your website.

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