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What I Learned in My Third Year of Freelance Writing

Welcome to my annual review post, where I’m taking a look back at 2016 to see how I make a living writing. Read about Year 2 (2015) and Year 1 (2014).

It’s hard to believe I just finished up my third full year as a freelance writer. Every year has been a little different — and every year has gotten me that much closer to where I want to be in my business and life.

I like doing these end of year posts — in part because they help tie a nice, tidy ribbon around the year, and in part because they help me see how much I’ve grown.

I’ve spotted a theme in each of my last few years of freelancing:

  • My first year was about growth — saying yes to everything and growing as fast as I can.
  • My second year was about refining my niche and focusing my efforts.
  • My third year has been about finding balance between my freelance business and my life.

Balance? Yeah, balance.

I just reviewed my 2016 goals post in my freelance accountability group, and one year ago I was thinking a lot about work-life balance.

I was feeling pretty overwhelmed with client work and unhappy with the amount of fiction I’d produced. (It didn’t help that my husband had just started a new job and working long hours himself.)

One year ago I needed to find a better balance — not just for me, but for both of us.

I’m happy to say that while I’m not 100 percent to where I want us to be, we’ve made huge gains. After two full years of working almost every weekend, I now take weekends off. I never work on client work in the evenings anymore, and mostly don’t write fiction in the evenings, either.

Two main focuses helped me get here: better-paying clients and smarter time management.

Finding better paying clients

The first part of the equation was to clean up my client list, attract better-paying clients, and switch to projects where I can better manage my time and energy.

For example, in 2015, 25% of my income mostly came from blogging. At the peak, I had blog post deadlines at least once per day — and sometimes as many as two or three per day. No surprise I had a hard time arranging my schedule to accommodate more time for writing fiction.

Now, the majority of my income comes from larger projects like e-books, white papers, and website content. These pay better, and have deadlines that allow me to organize my work week more efficiently.

(I’m not trying to imply that blogging is entry-level and new freelancers should aspire to move past it. It’s just that for me, the constant deadlines interfered with my need to have more solid blocks of time for deep fiction work.)

Smarter time management

Over the last year, I’ve become much better at organizing my time and avoiding distractions.

  • I’ve increased my focus and willpower.
  • I’ve used tools like Stay Focused and Freedom to shut off distractions.
  • I’ve said no to more things.
  • I’ve started using dictation to dictate faster first drafts.

But the biggest thing? Taking back my mornings.

I’ve wasted a lot of time in the past by letting anger, frustration, and despair at the news hijack my energy first thing in the day. Or by letting random emails hijack my day’s priorities. So in 2016 I started a practice of avoiding social media, news, and email in the mornings.

Instead:

  • I now try to start my day with meditation, exercise, and 30 minutes of fiction writing.
  • I stopped listening to NPR while I make breakfast, and started listening to podcasts instead.
  • I’ve found my willpower isn’t strong enough to keep me off email and Facebook, so I installed Freedom and set up a recurring block session from 6-9am every morning.
blowing bubbles with the kids

Pictorial evidence that I take time off to blow bubbles with my sisters kids sometimes.


I’ve spent so much time over the last year trying to tweak my creativity and productivity that I’m starting a new weekly newsletter to share my insights: the Monday Morning Blast-Off.

If your productivity needs a kick in the pants every Monday morning, sign up here.


Client analysis

I do a client analysis at the end of every year to help me figure out who and what I’m spending time on so I can tweak that in the year to come. I won’t be throwing out specific numbers or names, but I’ll be as transparent as possible about how I’m making money.

Again, my goal in writing these “Year-in-review” posts is to give newer freelancers who want to make a living writing a practical look at the way someone a couple steps ahead is earning an income.

If you have any questions, feel free to shoot me an email!

How I make a living writing

When I left my desk job three years ago, I crossed my fingers and hoped I’d be able to replace my copywriter’s salary.

This year, I got close to doubling it.

Here’s where my income came from in 2016:

  • Website copy (through an agency): 35%
  • Content marketing (ebooks, whitepapers): 24%
  • Ghost writing*: 20%
  • Blogging for businesses: 14%
  • Print book**: 2%
  • Guest blogging: 1%
  • Knitting pattern descriptions: 1%
  • One-off projects (website content): 0.5%
  • Fiction: 0.5%

* Primarily ghost blogging.

** This wasn’t one of my novels — I was contacted by a travel company to write copy for a picture book on Portland.

What this tells me:

  • Fiction is growing in revenue, though not in percentage. Last year, I also made 0.5% of my income from writing fiction — but this year I’m making more overall. I wasn’t as productive in this area as I wanted to be, but next year I hope to see a substantial change in the percentage.
  • Website content is still my biggest earner — but it’s not my favorite. What the numbers don’t show is that most of my website content work happened earlier in the year. Since about October, I’ve transitioned into doing more long form content marketing, like whitepapers and ebooks. I expect those sorts of projects to make up the bulk of my income next year as I transition away from projects I don’t enjoy as much.
  • Ghostwriting made up a significant portion of my income. I was surprised to see just how much I earned ghostwriting last year. It was mainly in the form of ghost blogging — partly for one regular client, and partly through a couple of different jobs that were primarily marketing. Next year I’d like to grow that percentage — hopefully by adding on ghostwriting business books as well as blog posts.
  • Blogging still pays the bills. Blogging made up 25% of my income in 2015, compared to 14% this year. Although I’m still doing it I’ve restructured my approach. Rather than having hectic weekly deadlines for multiple clients, I now sell a package of posts that I deliver in one go. That allows me to manage my projects better. (I also now say no to anything that I don’t personally find interesting — I find I burn out pretty quickly otherwise.)

How I found writing clients in 2016

I was going to break down my marketing efforts for this year — but then I realized I’ve literally done no intentional marketing. Every client I gained in 2016 was referred to me, found me on LinkedIn, or saw a bylined article I’d written.

That said, niching down has helped my inbound marketing efforts immensely: Nearly all of my clients are B2B SaaS companies.

I was surprised to find last year that B2B SaaS (software-as-a-service) clients made up a big chunk of my revenue. This year I doubled down on that niche, which I find both fascinating and enjoyable. (And profitable!)

I’m really happy with my current clients — they’re all in industries I find interesting, and doing work that is making some sort of difference in the world. That’s something I want to focus on in the future. Not to say I want to only work for non-profits — just that I’m no longer interested in taking on a client just for the paycheck. I want to know they’re doing good work.

Fiction income — Will it be worth the effort in 2017?

StarfallMy income from fiction — book sales, short stories, and royalties — made up only a tiny fraction of my total income.

Yet, when I think about how I want to spend my days and how I want to earn a living, I would rather it comes from residual sales of book — passive income — rather than from services. A book is an evergreen source of revenue, whereas a client may disappear or decide to go a different direction.

In an ideal world, my revenue percentages from website content (35%) and fiction (0.5%) would be swapped. If I want to make a living writing fiction, how do I make that happen?

First of all, I need more assets. I can’t expect to replace a big client with a single novella. That means if I want to achieve this goal, I really need to up my game when it comes to how much fiction I’m writing.

I went through several dry spells in 2016, where I let my productivity be held captive to motivation, rather than focusing on building a strong writing habit.

In 2017, I plan to focus on daily and weekly habits, rather than setting myself lofty word count goals with no support structure.

Over the last couple months I’ve built a habit of writing 30 minutes every day, something which has hugely impacted the amount of fiction I’ve been able to write — even when I’m busy with client work. I’ll definitely keep that habit up in 2017.

How was your 2016?

I’d love to hear how things are going with you, in business, creatively, and in life. Leave me a comment or drop me a line!

Want to learn more about how a new freelancer can make a living writing? Read my reflections on Year 2 (2015) and Year 1 (2014).

Cover photo by Ian Schneider, via Unsplash.

2 Responses

  • Paul Osas
    Jan 2, 2017

    Hi Jessie,

    I stumbled upon your blog while researching writers I can learn from.

    I particularly find your simplicity and sincerity in writing intriguing and would really love to be mentored by you in making a living writing.

    Thanks for sharing your progress–It gives those of us starting out a kick in the right direction.

    Paul Osas Jan 2, 2017
    Reply
  • Jessie
    Jan 10, 2017

    Thanks, Paul – I appreciate you taking the time to comment! I’m glad you got a kick in the right direction out of it. 🙂

    Jessie Jan 10, 2017
    Reply

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