I’m in my fifth year as a full-time freelance writer, which means I’ve been freelancing longer than I’ve had any other job.
I’ve learned a lot since I started freelancing — how to pitch, how to negotiate, when to look for a new client — but my biggest lessons have been the large-scale ones. How to grow your income by tracking it. How to build relationships. The discovery that freelancing isn’t a solo gig; it’s a team sport.
So — because we’re all on the same team — I want to share my lessons learned with you.
Here are my five biggest takeaways, in five years of freelancing.
1. Track what you want to improve
If you’ve been following The Write Life for a while, you’ve probably seen me share my monthly income roundups as well as my future income goals. I’ve been tracking my freelance earnings here for over two years now — and although I know that information is beneficial to TWL readers, I’m actually tracking my income because it’s beneficial to me.
Knowing exactly how much money I’ll earn this month — as well as the money I’m projected to earn over the next few months — lets me know whether I’m earning enough money or whether I need to hustle for more work. (I track my expenses along with my income, and I want to make sure I earn enough to both meet my expenses and save for the future.)
It also lets me know whether my freelance career is growing.
Am I earning more money this month than I was six months ago? Am I getting higher rates for my work, or am I doing larger amounts of work at the same pay rate? Is it time to negotiate a raise or look for a new client?
“What gets measured gets managed” is a cliché, but it works. Tracking my earnings lets me manage both today’s money and tomorrow’s growth. Time-blocking my day helps me manage the hours I work and ensure I hit my deadlines.
Paying attention to the way I do my work helps me work better — which also helps me build my career.
2. You can earn a living on low-wage work — but figure out how to move up
You’ll often see freelancers arguing that “no one can earn a living” on the low pay rates given out by some publications and content sites. This isn’t necessarily true. I began my freelance career working for Crowdsource (now OneSpace) writing 600-word articles for around $11 each.
I wrote every $11 article I could. Five or six a day, Monday through Friday. Crowdsource had a leaderboard, and by the end of my tenure with them I was the fourth highest Crowdsource earner of all time.
You can earn a living on low-wage work, if you are able to write quickly and complete a large number of assignments.
But as you’re getting all of that work done, figure out how to move into higher-paying gigs. I set the goal of sending out one pitch per day. I didn’t meet the goal every day, but I met it enough times to get the higher-paying clients that helped me build my network — which is what helped me build my career to the point that clients started reaching out to me.
3. Everything changes when people start reaching out to you
Here’s how you know you’ve made it as a freelancer: people start asking you to write for them.
When that first started happening, I couldn’t believe it; clients were emailing me, offering to give me work? I didn’t have to pitch them or convince them that I was the best person for the job?
When clients reach out to you, they’re often offering you a job that isn’t advertised. These are the gigs that don’t make it to the freelance job boards because these clients don’t want to review dozens of pitches; they want to reach out to someone they know can get the job done. They’re also generally offering higher pay rates than what you might get from a pitched gig — and because they’re the ones reaching out to you, you’re the one with the power to negotiate. They want you. All you have to do is agree on the terms.
4. Get a CPA who understands freelancers
I’d advise all freelancers to get a CPA, but if you’re at the level where clients are reaching out to you with $10,000+ gigs, you absolutely need one. More importantly, you need a CPA who understands what freelance writers do.
My first CPA wasn’t a good fit for me — he didn’t understand what I did or how quickly I was increasing my earnings, which meant that he kept advising me to pay lower estimated taxes than I actually owed. I found a second CPA who was ready to talk to me not only about my taxes, but also about business licenses and other financial concerns.
Freelancing is not a solo career. You need good people on your team, and a CPA that understands freelancers is one of them. As for the rest of your team, well… that brings me to my final lesson.
5. Relationships are so important
“It’s all about who you know” is as much of a cliché as “what gets measured gets managed,” but it’s true.
Building relationships helps you build your career.
A good relationship with an editor means getting that email that ends with “please pitch us again soon — I’d love to see more of your work!” A good relationship with a client means landing recurring gigs, or being the first in line to claim a new project. It also means your editor or your client may recommend you to someone else, who will send you an email offering you a high-paying job.
Building relationships with other freelancers is also important. They know who’s paying well and who’s hard to work with. When their editor asks if they know anybody who might like an extra gig, they can recommend you — and if your work dries up, they’re the best people to ask for help.
So make your professional interactions good ones. Act like you’re on a team working towards a mutual goal, whether you’re recommending a friend to an editor or asking a client to consider a higher pay rate. Keep that team mentality going in your personal online presence as well; you don’t want to be known as the freelancer who complains about clients on Twitter.
Because the stronger your relationships are, the stronger your career becomes.
I’ve grown a lot as a freelancer over the past five years, and I look forward to seeing where my career goes in the next five years. I’d like to think these lessons will serve me well no matter what happens next — and I hope they serve you well too.
What have you learned since you started freelancing? Share your biggest lessons — or your thoughts on Nicole’s lessons — in the comments.