Tracking Freelance Earnings: May Income Report From Nicole Dieker

Tracking Freelance Earnings: May Income Report From Nicole Dieker

Hi! If you’re new to this column: I track my freelance income every month and share it with all of you. This is my third year of public income tracking, and my first year sharing my income with The Write Life.

How often do you stop and take stock of how far you’ve come as a freelancer, and where you’re headed?

Last month, I focused on taking stock… and now I’m thinking about where I need to go in the future. Having a good handle on how much I’m earning goes a long way toward helping me make those decisions, so let’s have a look at my income for May.

This month, I met my $5,000/month income goal — whoohoo! — but only received $3,300 in client payments. I also found myself with a snowballing workload. In both cases, I’m planning to solve the problem with a renewed focus on regular contributor gigs and reassessment of how many one-off client assignments I should take on.

First, let’s take a look at the data: In May, I wrote 57,000 words and had an average per-piece earning of $67. My highest-paid piece was $300, and my lowest-earning piece was $35.

Completed Pieces: 80

Work Billed: $5,336.25

Earnings Received: $3,383.05

Wow. Although I continued to hit my goal of earning $5,000 a month, only $3,000 got deposited into my bank account. A lot of the work I completed in the past two months won’t get paid until June, and even though I’m expecting a big payday by the end of this month, I still feel a little strapped for cash right now.

I don’t know how your freelance payments usually arrive, but my regular clients tend to pay either on the 15th or the 30th of the month. When I write a one-off piece for a client, it pays around 30 days after the article is published, but there can sometimes be a three-month lag between final draft submission and article publication.

So that means you occasionally get months like this May, where you only get paid for a portion of what you bill. The money will still land in my bank account — I’ve only had one instance in my entire freelance career where a client hasn’t paid for the work, and in that case I was able to sell the piece to someone else — but it might take a few months to arrive.

A new regular contributor gig

On the positive side, I added a new regular contributor gig to my roster in May, for JoCo Cruise. This is the geek-themed music and comedy cruise I wrote about in my February income report when I described how I rearranged my entire workload to go on vacation.

I’ve been on that cruise four times, so when the cruise team invited me to blog for their website, I was thrilled. More than thrilled. There may have been some jumping up and down involved.

Last month one of our commenters asked about how much writing I do “for love” and how much writing I do “for money,” and with this client, I get paid to write about something I love.

These are the best gigs of all, but they’re also sometimes the hardest; when I’m emotionally invested in a subject, I’m more likely to second-guess myself or overthink my work because I’m so determined to find the perfect way of communicating my emotions. It’s much easier to whip off a quick piece about a goat farm essay contest, and I’d like to think that the ideal freelance career would have a balance between these shorter, easier jobs and the more emotionally involved ones.

The client snowball effect

The Matthew Effect applies as much to freelancing as anything else; if you’re a highly visible freelancer, clients contact you to offer gigs, and if you’re not a highly visible freelancer, you have to contact potential clients and ask for work.

This means that the more freelance work I complete, the more clients contact me to offer new jobs. It also means that I’m now at client saturation, and have started referring new clients to other talented freelancers I know.

If you’re at the point where you’re getting more client requests than you can handle, don’t just say no; say “no, but I can recommend another freelancer.” That way, you help spread the wealth, and you never know who might recommend you in return. This is how freelancers get jobs that aren’t publicly visible on job boards. Networking is a huge part of the freelancing business.

Because I’m at capacity, one of my big projects for June is to figure out how to reduce my workload. I have a lot of contributor gigs and plenty of one-off assignments for new clients, and my workday just gets longer and longer. In March, reducing my workload wasn’t a priority. This month, it is my top priority.

How am I going to cut back? Well, I’m not going to cut any of my regular contributor gigs, since those are both the most rewarding and also provide the closest thing I get to guaranteed recurring income. Instead, I’m going to be a lot pickier about my one-off assignments.

These assignments tend to take up an excessive amount of my workload, often because each one-off piece comes with a brand new editorial team and a new set of expectations to learn. (Don’t underestimate the value of working with the same editor for over a year. Things go so much faster that way.)

One-off assignments also, as I noted above, tend to have a several-month lag time between final draft and payment.

So for June, I have to tell myself: no one-off assignments for new clients unless it’s a dream job.

How will I know if it’s a dream job? If the idea of taking on this assignment makes me jump up and down, I’m in. If not, I’ll refer the client to another talented freelancer.

What would you consider a freelancing dream job? Also, do you feel like there’s a difference between the writing you do “for love” and the writing you do “for money?”

Want to learn how Nicole has come this far in her freelance career? Check out her past income reports for The Write Life:

Filed Under: Freelancing


  • Dustin Tingue says:

    Hey, Nicole!

    I’m not sure if you’ll get a chance to see this as it comes about a month after the initial post but I just caught wind of it via the Untamed Writing Students Facebook group. I just signed up for Karen’s class that starts in late July and I’m eager to get into it.

    Your method of tracking your income is super smart and something I will be doing once I’m out there looking for work and landing clients.

    Although I’m unfamiliar with the term “Matthew Effect” I have read plenty about the method of landing work by getting your name/face out there on blog discussions, forums and other comment sections. Seems like a proven method and a smart way to network yourself.

    To answer your question about a dream freelancing job, I’d have to say that if I were paid to write about football most of the time, that’d be a dream come true. That said, the direction I’m taking with my writing right now is to learn SEO writing from Karen’s class and then segue into copywriting and blogging. Aside from that I don’t think I’d mind doing things like newsletters, brochures or other one-off type things.

    Not for nothing but seeing what you pull in from writing is extremely inspiring for me. I’ve never been the most confident person but after 16 years of bouncing around from one uninspiring job to the next, I’ve made the decision to follow my urge to create something of my own. I’ve known for a while that if I wanna be happy/comfortable in an occupation, I need to be creative. I’ve been writing in some form or another since I was young. Why it took so long to dawn on me that maybe I should try to earn an income from writing I have no idea. I’m just happy the realization came to me at all.

    I’ve been reading, studying, taking notes and learning as much as I can about the industry so I can (hopefully) avoid some of the pitfalls that happen to newbies. One of the best ways I’ve been able to learn is by reaching out to people who’ve found success in this field.

    I’ve bookmarked your site as I know I can learn a lot from you. Thanks for sharing this and I look forward to reading more of your work!


  • Ugh, I love these posts.

    I totally hear you on the dream job work sometimes being more time time consuming than the not super fun stuff. But right now 100% of my freelance time is with regular clients who, thankfully, pay me enough so that I can spend a few hours every day on my personal writing, which currently pays me zero. I love that I don’t have to worry (right now) about pitching or coming up with article ideas. I primarily write for corporate blogs telling customer stories and doing content strategy. It’s not horrible, but it does nothing for my long-term writing goals which involve personal essays and books and mostly just writing about my feelings.

  • NZ Muse says:

    Ah yes, the old writing for love vs writing for money. I feel like I’ve had a really stark year of contrasts between the two (some stuff that’s really fun to write and some that’s just godawful). But you’re so right about wanting to spend more time on the fun stuff and potentially eating away at that effective hourly rate. Sigh.

  • Tracy Line says:

    Thanks for your honesty, it’s great to learn with you as you go through this process!

  • Gina Horkey says:

    Great post Nicole! Love your take on this. I just said, “No, but I know someone…” this week. It’s a GREAT feeling. Keep it up girl!!

  • Emily says:

    I always love seeing these monthly reports — It’s helping me manage the business side and maintain a reasonable but ambitious perspective since I went from agency to freelance in April. Thanks for sharing so much!

    I’m totally with you on the regular contributor gigs being the best ones … would love to hear more about how to you get them. Networking with editors? Are you pitching column concepts to publications? Do these relationships just evolve over time as editors get to know you? Or maybe these are business bids instead of publications?

    • Nicole says:

      A few publications have offered me regular contributor gigs right away, but most of these are developed over time. I’ll write a handful of pieces, and the editor will say “We like your work. How’d you like to commit to writing X pieces per month?”

  • Loving this series, Nicole. This is one of the best things on the web for freelancers right now. It takes guts and it’s inspiring to see this type of accountability and transparency. I suspect it’s also helping you move forward too, which in turn helps others as you effectively remove yourself from the competition pool and refer work out to others…great cycle and it all starts with you. Nice work. 🙂

  • Amel says:

    Thanks for sharing your progress each month, Nicole. It is interesting to see how different writers structure their businesses.

    If you find you’re saturated with work, my recommendation would be to double (or even triple) your rates for all new clients. If they say no, you won’t lose anything since you already have enough work to keep you busy. If they say yes, then you can drop a low-paying client and free up more time in your schedule. Eventually, both your income AND your free time will increase.

    I agree about the one-off assignments. These can be interesting but time-consuming if they don’t lead to regular work or another tangible benefit.

    • Nicole says:

      I’ve gotten that advice from more than one person, but I’m not sure it’s that easy. For example: for a year-long column, a client and I will agree on the rate at the beginning of the year. If I suddenly announced that I was raising my rate, that would feel like a breach of the agreement we had made. However, at the end of the year, we could have a new discussion about work and rates.

      What do other freelancers think? I feel like with regular clients, raising rates should be a once-a-year discussion, yes?

      • Nicole says:

        Sorry—you meant new clients, not current clients. 🙂

      • I think it depends Nicole.

        Suppose you’re charging a regular client a rate far below the rate you should be charging him. You raise the rate, but for some reason it still falls well short of the appropriate rate (e.g. you flinch during the negotiation process). There’s nothing wrong with revisiting the rate six months down the road.

        Twelve months is a long time to work at rates below where they should be. I’m sure many of us can speak to that point from experience. Remember, our shelf life as writers isn’t unlimited.

        The above assumes the absence of a contractually-obligated year-long rate commitment.

  • Sarah says:

    Congrats, Nicole!! You are doing awesome!!

    I definitely think freelancing is a dream job, but I’m biased since I am one myself 🙂 The only (major) downside is you really, really have to work for your money. When I worked in an office, there was SO much downtime. With freelancing, if there’s downtime, you’re not getting paid. But – that’s how it should be in all careers technically!

    Keep up the great work!! 🙂

  • Nice, that’s pretty awesome. I wish I could make that much! I need to put more effort into marketing and pitching!

  • Just awesome, Nicole. You’re monthly posts on your freelancing continue to inspire (and impress) me.

  • Pimion says:

    That’s quite impressive. Does that amount of money remain permanent every month?
    How much do you spend for freelance writing per day?

    • Nicole says:

      I’ve been earning around $5,000 per month pretty steadily this year. I don’t spend much to run my freelance business, except the occasional cup of coffee or research material thing. (And CPA services now and then.) So it’s pretty cost-effective!

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