For those who love the written word, a career as a freelance writer may seem like a dream come true. Not only can you write from anywhere you can access a computer, but you also get to create content for others to read.
However, you might not know where to get started and how to earn a living. These tips should help.
How Much Do You Need?
First, you have to figure out how much you actually need to earn to make a living as a freelance writer. If you’ve been working outside the home, you’re already aware that you have some expenses you won’t have working from home. For example, you won’t need a costly separate wardrobe, you won’t be eating lunch out, and you’ll save money on childcare and transportation costs.
Once you’ve figured out how much your family needs for you to earn, add a percentage to cover taxes and figure in any costs you’ll have, running your business from home. Most experts recommend putting aside about 30 percent of what you make to cover the federal and state taxes you’ll have as a self-employed person. However, you’ll also get some tax breaks for purchases related to your writing.
Find Gigs With Recurring Revenue.
To create a steady stream of income, you’ll want to look for writing gigs that offer you the same assignments month after month. These clients will become the bread and butter of your business.
You’ll know you can count on a certain number of dollars a month from Client A because he wants five articles for his local business blog each and every month. You may even be able to get a client like this to sign a contact with you.
A word of caution here, though: Take care to have a mix of different types of clients within your writing niche. The last thing you want to do is put all your eggs in one basket with a single client or two. If one client goes out of business or suddenly fails to pay you, your primary source of income will be gone.
A good rule of thumb is to never let one client account for more than 20 to 25 percent of your income. Let’s say you land a great client. He suddenly has a ton of work for you, but he is taking up most of your time, and the income you’re getting from that single client equals 75 percent of your overall income. Tomorrow, the CEO of this family-owned business dies unexpectedly, and the new CEO decides they don’t need a freelancer, as they’re going to use in-house people. You’ve just lost 75 percent of your income, a blow from which it's hard to recover.
Set Up an Emergency Fund.
The first thing you should do as a freelancer is create an emergency fund with enough in it to cover:
- Three months’ worth of your income (some experts recommend six to eight months)
- Emergency equipment replacement or repair (to buy a new computer or printer)
- A small buffer for anything you’ve forgotten that comes up
Should you grow ill and be unable to work for two months, you’ll be covered. Should your computer explode, you can go out and buy another one. An emergency fund is vital to survival as a freelancer.
However, there is another reason you want to have this fund in place. It keeps you from being desperate. If you’re desperate for money, you may take less pay than you’re worth or deal with a difficult or overly demanding client far longer than you normally would. An emergency fund also helps you focus on building a list of high quality, high paying clients.
Set Up Payment Schedules.
One big mistake that a lot of new freelance writers make is to wait until they complete a huge project before being paid. Instead, you should be receiving payments for milestones you meet along the way. The Freelancers Union suggests a model of asking for 30 percent of your fee upfront, 30 percent after the first draft is completed and the final 40 percent upon completion of the project.
You’ll also want to write up a simple agreement or work with your attorney to draft a basic contract to have clients sign. This should outline any payments, when they happen and under what circumstances they happen.
You may also want to include a kill fee. Should you get halfway through the week before a client decides they no longer want the project to move forward, you still have a right to be compensated for your time.
Stay on Top of Billing.
Jay Foonberg, an expert on running a successful law practice, has one main rule of thumb to avoid getting stiffed by a non-paying client: Get paid upfront! This is great advice and something you can ask for with every new client. However, anyone who has worked with a freelance writer before may balk at this request.
If you can’t get 100 percent upfront, get as much as you can upfront. After that, though, make sure you send invoices when they are due and keep track of those invoices. Programs like FreshBooks and GoDaddy Bookkeeping are excellent for freelancers, as you can input the invoice and due date ahead of time and even schedule when reminders will be sent. Also, at a glance, you can see who has paid and who hasn’t paid.
If a client fails to pay for long enough that you no longer wish to work with them and just want your money, there are a few things you can do.
- Add a late fee (make sure this is spelled out in your contract ahead of time).
- Hire a collection agency.
- Take the client to small claims court.
- Talk to your lawyer about whether you can legally file DMCA notices with Google for any content they’ve published and for which they've refused payment to you. If they don’t pay you, then you still own the material. They have no right to publish it without paying you. They’ve broken the contract. Still, be certain of the ramifications of having a literary attorney look over the contract and specific details of your situation.
Ask for Referrals.
When you first start out as a freelance writer, you’ll have to hustle to get a few assignments. You may need to go to local business owners and explain your services, making cold calls until you find work. However, once you have a few regular clients, you can gain new ones and build a better income by simply asking your clients to refer you to others.
In the writing world, word of mouth is often the best way to gain new clients. Simply send a quick email to your current clients and let them know you’re looking to take on more work and ask them to refer you to anyone that they know is looking for a writer.
Guard Your Writing Time.
You can land the best five clients any freelance writer has ever had, but if you don’t sit your butt in front of the keyboard and get your assignments completed, you won’t keep those clients. Figure out how much work you are reasonably able to take on based on your day-to-day family and personal commitments.
Figure out when you can write and guard that time. If you plan to send your three-year-old to preschool for six hours a week, don’t spend that time cleaning house. If you have to go to the local library or a Starbucks to distract you from housework, then that is what you should do.
Meeting deadlines and turning in quality work will land you repeat and steady business over time.
Building a steady income as a freelance writer takes time, patience and extreme organization. While your income will never be 100 percent the same from year-to-year as clients will come and go, you can implement these strategies to create an income that is within a certain range. The rewards of freelancing are numerous, and the drawbacks can be beaten.
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Sarah Landrum is a freelance writer and career blogger sharing advice on finding happiness and success in life and at work. You can find her dishing out advice with a side of wit on Twitter and her career advice blog, Punched Clocks.
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