Do you work on freelancing projects that take more than a month to complete? As longer projects become a more significant part of my freelance workload, I’m rethinking how I track my income against my monthly earning goals.
Here are my February numbers:
Completed pieces: 55
Work billed: $4,670.93
Earnings received: $3,330.38
I wrote nearly 56,000 words in February, with an average per-piece earning of $85. I didn’t hit my $5,000-a-month income goal in February, but I didn’t expect to. Every February, I take a week off to attend the JoCo Cruise, so I knew my “work billed” number would probably come up a little short. (The cruise is totally worth it.)
On the subject of “work billed”: It’s a little complicated this month. If I were to calculate all of the fully completed and billed work, February’s number would only be $3,420. I spent most of February doing work on projects that will be complete in March, so I’m listing the $4,670.93 number because it more accurately reflects the amount of work I got done this month — and helps me determine how close I am to my $5,000 income goal.
Taking on larger — and longer — projects
My income tracking is becoming more challenging because I’m taking on bigger projects that can’t be completed in a month. When I got started as a freelancer, I wrote six short pieces a day for content farms; now I’m working on pieces that require significant research and take several weeks to complete.
The longer a piece takes to complete, by the way, the more likely the deadline will shift at some point during the process. This has less to do with the dreaded “scope creep” than it does with the idea that it’s difficult to plan out all the details of a complicated project in advance.
As my clients and I begin working on these projects, we often find we need to go after an additional source or spend an extra day looking for answers to a question — which in turn pushes back the deadline.
What does that mean for me? Well, it’s harder to accurately track how much money I earn every month, for starters. If I spend two months working on a project, it isn’t useful to me to say “In February I earned nothing on this project, and in March I earned $4,000.” When I make my freelance spreadsheet, I need to prorate that $4,000 over the length of the project so I know that $2,000 counts for February and $2,000 counts for March — and I still need to earn $3,000 extra each month to hit my income goal.
In case you’re an accountant: This is my informal income-tracking spreadsheet that helps make sure I’m on target, not the spreadsheet I use to do my taxes! That’s a different system, and tracks income in the month it was earned.
It’s also harder to plan my workload, since I have to include overflow time for deadline changes, last-minute revision requests, and other tasks. This month, I’ve tried to solve this problem by turning Mondays into “buffer days” — instead of scheduling other work for Mondays, I’ll keep them open and flexible for whatever needs to be done. I’ll let you know how it goes!
It’s one more thing you might have to figure out, as you move up in your freelance career: How to track long-term projects against your monthly goals, and how to manage a workload that might include shifting deadlines.
Let’s switch focus and look at a freelancer who is just starting out. What are his freelancing goals, and what steps is he taking to achieve them?
Q&A with Robert Lynch
Robert Lynch is a freelance writer in Adelaide, South Australia. He recently started working as a freelancer, and has already picked up a weekly contract. He’s also making smart choices — like negotiating better rates, investing in his business and improving his pitches — to help build his career and grow his income.
ND: What is your current freelance life like?
RL: I’ve just finished university and finally have the time to pursue a writing career. At this point I’ve been freelancing for only three and a half months. In that time I’ve had some significant breakthroughs. I’ve sold one-off pieces and I picked up a regular weekly contract copyediting, which paid $170 a week. After two months at $170 per week I successfully negotiated with the client to increase my workload to [earn] $300 a week.
What would you like to improve about your freelancing career?
At the moment copyediting is my only freelance income. I’d like to build up other income streams to support me. I’ve written short stories, some accepted and some rejected. I’d like to be able to know whether what I’m writing is a good fit for a publication, so that I decrease the chance of rejection. This is something I’m sure I will get better at with time and practice.
What steps are you taking to help you get there? Have you had success so far?
I try to send one piece of fiction work away each week for consideration to be published. I write sci-fi mostly. This kind of freelancing has an 8-12 week lag from sending in the work to getting feedback, so if I send in work regularly after that initial lag I will get feedback regularly. At this point, I haven’t received feedback for the first piece that I sent away, so I have no idea whether this has had success or failure yet.
I’m also trying to view freelancing as a small business, so there are business aspects that I have focused on. I’ve dedicated a lot of time in the last 14 weeks to building a writing platform. Getting my website/personal blog (www.robert-lynch.com) built and published; building a twitter following (@BobLynchBSc); and to a lesser extent commenting and replying to content that other people have produced.
Success in this endeavour is hard to measure. People have come to my website and have read the content I have posted there. That’s good. I have no comparison on whether those numbers are high or low for a blog about a writer’s journey. I’m happy with what I have so far and I look forward to growing that following by producing content that helps other writers with their own journeys.
Do you have an income goal for 2016?
My income goal is to earn more than $500 [AUD] a week, which amounts to earning more than $26,000 in 2016. This is the minimum I can earn where I can then devote myself to writing full time. This is the number in which I get freedom from looking for work elsewhere. At the moment I’m working as a barman to make ends meet and I’d rather spend those hours writing.
What steps are you taking to hit that income goal? Have you had success so far?
I’m trying to get a few blogs published off of my site. From there I intend to start pitching regular blogging series to websites. I have already learnt a lot from your Pitch Fix series, so hopefully I will have some success. Some of these pitches will be to writing sites like The Write Life, but also some specifically science-based blogs. I have a science degree after all and since scientists are not known for their creative writing skills, I’m hoping to be able to help bridge the gap between real science and the general population. I don’t think that I’m going to build up these relationships overnight, but if I can, I see a future where I’m regularly earning as much from blogging as I am from copyediting.
Another revenue stream I see as achievable this year is to be regularly selling fiction. I have found a number of magazines and websites that will pay for fiction. By sending in regular stories for consideration for publication I’m hoping to better my writing and be regularly aligning with editor’s needs by the end of the year.
There are a few other revenue streams I’d like to try, but their ability to earn scales directly with the size of my writing platform, so they aren’t viable in the short term.
With the $300 a week I already have coming in, I think that from just blogs and stories it’s more than achievable to be earning above that $500-a-week goal.
What is the hardest part of freelancing for you?
Fitting everything in. I want to transition to writing full time this year. At the moment I’m working 15 hours a week copyediting, trying to learn the writing business, trying to write 1,000 fiction words every day, keeping an active Twitter presence, trying to start blogging, running my own website and blog (which includes fortnightly videos on YouTube), working in a bar, still looking for work that I might get using my degree, volunteering as head medical trainer at my local football club and acting as the chairperson of my local writing group. After all of these things I still need to find time to spend with my girlfriend.
Generally, I can’t fit everything in. That means that I have to prioritise those things that pay me money right now and some of the long-term business stuff suffers for it.
In order to get better at this, I’ve mapped out a time management plan. If I stick to it then I think I’ll be able to fit everything in. I don’t have a history of sticking to routines though.
What do you feel like you do really well as a freelancer?
I have a strong work ethic and I’m actively pursuing feedback or advice to improve myself.
Neil Gaiman did a commencement speech a couple of years ago where he said that to be a successful freelancer you need to do three things: Submit work on time, do good work, and be nice to work with. I am completely in control of whether the work is done on time, so I make sure that I don’t miss deadlines. Whether my work is good or not I can only know if I get unbiased feedback, so I actively seek it out. And I try to build good business relationships, which so far has got me repeat work and better pay.
What advice do you have for other freelancers?
In the short time I have been freelancing, all of my successes have come from taking risks and trying new things. In every case the worst thing that could have happened was that people didn’t like what I was doing or contractors just said no to my proposals.
If there is anything that I have learned so far, it’s that you have to take a risk to get anywhere. If you never try, you’ll never have any success.
What advice would you offer Robert Lynch? Also, what advice would you offer me, as I start working on longer projects? Share your thoughts in the comments.