Tracking Freelance Earnings: May Income Report From Nicole Dieker

Tracking Freelance Earnings: May Income Report From Nicole Dieker

We’re getting close to the halfway point of the year, which makes it a good time to check in with our freelancing goals and see whether we’re on target. This month, I take a look at my progress and ask freelancer Jessie Kwak to share hers.


First, my numbers for May:

Completed pieces: 64

Work billed: $7,074.31

Earnings received: $9,463.57

Between January 1 and May 31, I’ve billed $28,701.68 worth of work and received $27,674.24 in freelance checks. That’s well over my $5,000/month income goal — I’m averaging about $5,700 a month in billings — and I have enough work already booked that I can predict I’ll continue to hit and/or exceed my income target.

Nothing is guaranteed in freelancing — my client relationships could change at any time, just like they’ve changed in the past — but I’m very happy with my 2016 earnings, both current and projected.

I also set a goal to keep my workload manageable. I haven’t been as successful with this goal as I have with the income goal; you might remember me writing about working long hours in April. However, May was a much better month for keeping reasonable hours, taking lunch breaks, and ending work by 6:30 p.m. — and it looks like June will be the same.

Lastly, I set a goal to make this column a collaboration. With that in mind, I’d like to introduce another freelancer and her set of 2016 goals, as well as her progress towards achieving them.

Q&A with Jessie Kwak

Jessie Kwak is a freelance writer and author who writes everything from B2B marketing copy to short stories and novellas.

I interviewed Kwak in February to learn more about her 2016 freelance goals. I haven’t had the chance to share this interview with you yet, so read it below and then keep reading to learn about Kwak’s progress.

ND: What is your current freelance life like?

JK: Right now I work for about five-six clients, with some recurring blogging deadlines every week, and some [clients] giving me projects just as they come up. I’m definitely getting better at understanding my workload and scheduling out my deadlines so that I don’t get as overwhelmed — but of course it still happens sometimes that several clients need something all at once.  

Along with my freelance client work, I also write fiction. I try to get at least an hour or two on the schedule every day for fiction writing and marketing, but paying client work always takes priority for me. Most of my day is spent in my home office writing and researching, though I do sometimes have phone interviews and meetings scheduled in there, too.

And some days, when I get everything done early, I like to cut out in the afternoon and hit the climbing gym or go mountain biking. It’s nice being your own boss!

What would you like to improve about your freelancing career?

Right now I’m working on becoming more efficient in my writing. I’m getting good rates from my clients, but if I squander my time dithering on research or puttering around when I should be writing, my hourly rate totally tanks! I’m pretty happy with my clients and workload, though I’d like to narrow down on my niche even further.

What steps are you taking to help you get there? Have you had success so far?

This is my third year of freelancing, and it seems like each year has had a theme. Year 1 was, “Say yes any time someone offers you money for words.” Year 2 was, “Come up with standards in terms of types of clients and pay rates, and only say yes to those people.” Year 3 has been all about narrowing that focus even farther, and being really ruthless about saying no to clients that don’t fit into my niche.

For me, [that niche is] B2B software companies who want to hire me for ongoing content marketing work (blogging, case studies, white papers, special reports, etc.) I’ve had to let go of some clients I enjoyed, but it’s been worth it in terms of sanity.

I’m also starting to say “no” to one-off projects, because the amount of time spent onboarding and getting to know a new client just isn’t worth it if all I’m going to do is a single article or brochure and never hear from them again.

Do you have an income goal for 2016?

In 2015 my freelancing income surpassed that of the desk job I left to start freelancing, even after accounting for the higher rate at which that income is taxed. It felt amazing to realize that! In 2016, I’m less interested in growing my income, and more interested in growing my free time so I can spend that time writing fiction.

That said, I’d love to boost my income to $70,000 this year, but I view writing fiction as an investment in future earnings, so I’m OK with some stagnancy so long as I can become more efficient with my time and carve out those hours for fiction.

What steps are you taking to hit your income goal? Have you had success so far?

The mechanics of boosting income and free time are the same: take on better-paying projects from better clients, and learn to work faster. The biggest thing I’m doing this year to boost my income/free time is to narrow down on the type of clients I work with. Since I’ve started specializing in working with B2B software companies, it’s been easier for me to charge higher rates. And since I’ve got a full client list already, it’s been really easy to quote higher rates to potential clients.

That’s a catch-22 of freelancing. The more booked up you are, the more confidence you have to ask for the rate you want. When I was first starting out, I’d say yes to a $50 article that required two interviews because I needed to pay rent. Now there’s no way I’d take a project like that!

The last time a potential new client contacted me, I quoted them almost twice what I currently charge my lowest-paying client, and they said yes. I was blown away — both at my audacity and by their agreement. I never would have had the guts to quote so high if I was desperately relying on winning them as a client.

What is the hardest part of freelancing for you?

Despite all my big talk about rates above, negotiating and talking about money is the hardest part for me. I’m pretty shy, and building up the confidence to believe that I’m worth what I’m charging has been tough. I just keep going back at it, and the more I do it, the better I get.

That’s one of the great things about freelancing — you can learn a lot through trial and error. If you do your best but still screw up, it’s not that big of a deal. I’ve had awkward client breakups, but I went on to work with clients who really loved me. I’ve definitely quoted too low, but then I went on to quote higher to the next client. You can constantly experiment and get better at your craft and more confident as a negotiator each time.

What do you feel like you do really well as a freelancer?

I’m great at research and getting to know a new product or industry, which is a huge selling point. Most of my clients are in really esoteric fields, and they honestly aren’t expecting to find someone who’s an expert and also a good writer — they just want a good writer who’s knowledgeable about B2B sales and willing to research the hell out of their industry.

I’m also really organized and really reliable. If I say I’ll have something to you on Monday, I’ll have it. This sadly seems to surprise some of my clients, which makes me think that if you want to make it as a freelancer, the ability to nail deadlines is almost better than being a good writer. Apparently a lot of people are flaky out there.

Basically, I try to make myself as easy to work with as possible. After the first few assignments are turned in, my clients generally start to trust that I’ll work reliably with minimal hand-holding, and that’s a huge relief to them. They want to hire freelancers who make their jobs easier, not who require tons of micromanagement and editing!

What advice do you have for other freelancers?

First up, you need to treat your business as a business. Expect to hustle, and work evenings and weekends sometimes. Expect to invest time and money in equipment and marketing and a kick-ass website. Expect to have lean months and abundant months, and budget accordingly. Expect to keep track of your finances. Expect to deliver exceptional customer service. You wouldn’t open a coffee shop without these expectations — why start a writing business without them?

Next, don’t sit around waiting for the right opportunity to come along — just get started, and experiment as you go. I’ve had friends tell me they don’t have the experience to get hired as a freelancer, they’ve only written a bunch of press releases (or something like that). It blows my mind — that’s experience, and they’re completely discounting it! You don’t need a degree, or someone to tell you it’s OK to start freelancing. If you really want to start freelancing, you’ll do it. But it’s also OK to realize that you although you like the idea of it, you don’t really want to be a freelancer. It’s not for everyone.

Lastly, when you’re getting started, cast your net wide — but always be looking toward niching down into an industry or a type of writing. You might be surprised at what you like to do! If you’d told me two years ago that I’d specialize in content marketing for B2B software-as-a-service companies, I’d have said, “What the hell does that mean?” But by trial and experimentation, I’ve found a niche I like, I’m good at, and pays well.

May 2016 update from Jessie Kwak

Last month, I got in touch with Kwak and asked if she had any updates to share on her freelancing goals.

ND: I’m curious if you wanted to share a quick update on how your goals were going. I really liked your interview and I’d love to share how your year has gone so far.

JK: It was really fascinating to read through that interview and check in with my goals. Here’s an update:

One of my big goals at the beginning of the year was to narrow down my niche and start taking on bigger projects. I was doing a lot of blogging, and the constant deadlines were starting to wear me out! As of April, I dropped all my pure blogging clients, and have been starting to land some bigger projects, like white papers and an ebook. Right now, the bulk of my work is for three clients: copywriting for a big local website agency, writing regular reported articles for a B2B software company, and doing a variety of work for an editorial consultant who works with education technology companies. I still take on random projects for other people from time to time, but I’m not planning on picking up any more regular blogging contracts.

One thing this has done is created space in my schedule for writing fiction. I’m able to take at least one day off a week to work on fiction, which is letting me get so much done! Just this month I published a novella, Starfall, and turned in a draft of a novel set in the same world, which is coming out with a small press next year. I’ve worked hard over the last few years to level up my freelance career in order to balance it with fiction, and I’m excited to be closer to that goal.

How has your freelancing year been so far? If you set freelancing goals at the beginning of the year, have you met those goals? Did anything unexpected happen? I want to hear your updates!

Also: I’m looking for volunteers for my Pitch Fix column. If you have a pitch that’s striking out, email me at [email protected]

Filed Under: Freelancing


  • Kari Watterson says:

    Hi Nicole and Jessie, thanks for the great article. I find these monthly income reports so inspiring. While I admit I first came to this site to learn more about freelance earnings potential, I now find myself more interested in your review of the month’s ups and downs and the lessons learned. Two quick questions, if I may: 1) Do you both feel it is necessary to create a website before seriously pursuing freelance writing gigs? 2) Many places ask for writing samples before making the decision to hire. When you first started, did you have samples from previous jobs that you could point to, or did you write up samples to have on hand? Thank you, and continued best wishes for both of you! Kari

    • Jessie Kwak says:

      Hi Kari – glad you found this inspiring! As for your questions…

      1) I don’t think you need a website first, but it should definitely be on your short list of things to do as you’re getting started. Don’t let not having a website keep you from looking for work! Personally, I get way more queries from LinkedIn than I do off my website, but it’s a great place to host my clips and send people links when they’re interested.

      2) I did a combination of both when I first started. I got a full-time job as a catalog copywriter partly by writing up sample catalog descriptions in their house style, to show that I already got what they were doing. I also had some small articles I could point to, even though they were completely off topic.

      I find that most people just want to see that you can write and are reliable when you’re first starting out. If you need to write for free to get a few clips – or do what I did and make up your own clips – do it. Just don’t try to pass off made-up clips as something that was actually published. Say, here’s a sample I did to show how I would write [whatever project].

      I hope that helps!

      • Kari Watterson says:

        Nicole and Jessie, thank you both for your responses. Your feedback and advice are invaluable to those of us still navigating the freelance waters. I am excited to dig in and implement some of your suggestions. Thank you both again for the inspiration and motivation. I look forward to reading more of your articles and wish you both continued success! – Kari

    • Nicole says:

      I also didn’t really have a writers’ website before I started pitching, and when I didn’t have any clips to pitch I’d often include the draft of the article I was pitching to “prove I could write.” That was how I got my foot in the door!

  • Fantastic interview, Nicole! It’s great to see you with so much traction, Jessie 🙂

  • Impressive stuff, Nicole and Jessie 🙂
    Nicole, are most of your clients recurring/long-term, or do you find yourself replacing them because they only need work once? Hopefully most of them stick around, as new clients often means learning their guidelines and style.

    Keep it up!

    • Jessie Kwak says:

      Thanks, Elvis. I can’t speak for Nicole, but I can say that finding clients who need recurring work has been a crucial part of my business. It helps two ways – you get faster at their projects as you learn their style, and you don’t have to spend so much time marketing and onboarding new clients!

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