(Welcome to my annual post about what I learned as a freelance writer this year!)
Six years! Six years of working full time as a freelance writer, folks. I can barely believe it — it doesn’t seem like that long ago I was trying to figure out how to even find a client.
Lately when I’m feeling frustrated with life, my husband likes to remind me that I literally made my own job, and have been doing it successfully for longer than I’ve worked anywhere else.
And I’m like, right. That is pretty badass.
I’m saying that not to brag. Because the reason I write these yearly wrap-up posts (you can read about Year 5 (2018), Year 4 (2017), Year 3 (2016), Year 2 (2015) and Year 1 (2014)) are because I hope to inspire writers who are a step or two behind me. And if that’s you, I want you to know that it’s entirely possible to build a freelance writing career from scratch — and have it be sustainable.
One thing about freelancing is that it can feel like you’re stuck on a treadmill — always running, but never actually making progress. That’s one reason I love these yearly check-ins! They’re an opportunity for me to take a deep breath and remind myself just how far I’ve actually come.
So without further ado, here are my lessons and successes from my 6th year as a freelance writer.
2019: A year of books!
In last year’s post, I mentioned that 2018 had been a year of writing books and stocking them up for release. The result? This year I put out six books:
- My third Durga System novella — Deviant Flux
- The first three Bulari Saga novels: Double Edged, Crossfire, and Pressure Point
- My productivity book for creative people, From Chaos to Creativity
- And because I got the rights back, I re-released my first novel, Shifting Borders, as From Earth and Bone
It was a wild ride! Along with learning the ins and outs of marketing all these books and going on a mini book tours to support From Chaos to Creativity, I also kept writing. I turned in the fourth Bulari Saga book (Heat Death) last week, and am already hard at work on the fifth and last Bulari Saga book (Kill Shot).
The more I write, the faster I get. Plus, my husband and I have been developing a system where he beta reads the books and offers me feedback as I go, which has been crucial in helping me spot big problems early on. Even as the later Bulari Saga books have gotten more complicated, working more closely with him as a beta reader has reduced my writing time.
One of the biggest things I learned is that writing the next book is the best marketing you can do. I’m looking forward to finishing the Bulari Saga so I can do more with marketing it as a complete series.
2019: A year of making my business work for me
I had a few really low points in the last year.
I quit my desk job to freelance 7 years ago because I wanted more freedom, but owning your own business can sometimes feel like a trap. I wasn’t traveling like I’d wanted to do. I was working weekends and evenings. I was scrambling to balance freelance work with fiction, and didn’t have time for any of the hobbies that used to bring me joy — like sewing or drawing.
I hit a wall this summer, and so for the latter part of the year I really worked on reining that in. I said no to more things, and let myself off the hook when it came to keeping up with personal projects. I kept reminding myself to take small steps and enjoy life, rather than barreling through it.
After all, what’s the point in owning your own business if it’s just going to stifle you? Wouldn’t you be better off working for someone else?
Practically, I gave myself permission to take time off. I stopped scheduling my days so rigidly, and started letting myself work on the things that sparked my interest.
The result was that I would get way more done, because I was doing what I felt like working on in the moment, rather than forcing myself to do something I wasn’t inspired to do yet.
Obviously, I still have to meet deadlines — so part of finding joy in my work again was saying no to work that doesn’t spark my interest. I dropped a couple of clients that had become sources of stress for me due either to the type of work I was doing, or the pay rate being too low, and doubled down on work I enjoy.
I also gave myself permission not to worry so much about money. After 6 years of freelancing full time, I know that work comes in cycles. For example, in two months, I billed nearly a third of my total income for last year — which meant when things slowed down afterward, I felt comfortable taking that time to work on my fiction instead of doing my usual “freak out about never having work again” dance.
That required trust, and at times it was terrifying. But the freelance cycle is the freelance cycle, and over the years I’ve built systems to help me weather the ebb and flow through savings and recurring income.
This patience and kindness towards myself is an energy I really want to take with me into the next year. Instead of burning myself out for my business, I want to shape my business into something that works for me.
Basically, I’m going to be a better boss to myself.
Because if I’m going to hate my boss, I might as well work for someone else, right?
Client analysis: How I make my living as a freelance writer
Every year, I sit down with my sales reports and figure out where my income came from, and use that to shape a path for the next year.
This year, I saw some really cool shifts.
- Content marketing/ghostwriting: 54%
- Business blogging: 24%
- SEO/website copy: 16%
- Book sales/royalties: 4.5%
- Knitting product copy: 0.5%
Every year I end up breaking things down different ways, sorry, but this year I found that 54% of my income came from my favorite type of work: story-based content marketing and ghostwriting.
That means reported articles, ebooks, case studies, ghostwritten blog posts, etc. (All of the ghostwriting I did in 2019 was blogging.)
It’s hard to get really granular, since I have several clients where I do multiple types of projects — but since I like them all, I grouped them into the top category.
The second category, business blogging, made up about a quarter of my income. This includes white labeled posts that rely less on interviews/storytelling, and are instead more straightforward content.
Website copy went down to 16% from 25% last year, which is great because it’s really not my favorite work. All of this year’s website writing income came from one client who’s been great to me over the years, but the work isn’t super engaging. I parted ways with them about halfway through the year in order to focus on another client who was giving me much more interesting work.
But my most exciting stat? Book income.
Last year, my book writing income was 1% of my total. This year, it’s 4.5%. Having more books in the market definitely helped that, as did having a traditionally published book come out, so I could count on the publisher’s reach and distribution to help get in front of more readers.
And knitting product copy is kind of ridiculous to put as its separate thing, but I just find it such an amusing data point — people will pay you to write all sort of things if you just look for it!
What’s ahead for 2020?
Fiction-wise, I plan to release the last two Bulari Saga books. Heat Death is already scheduled to come out March 24th (you can pre-order it here), and I’m hoping for a summer release for Kill Shot.
I’m not quite ready to talk about the next series I’m working on, but suffice it to say I’m REALLY excited about it!
As for my freelancing business, I’m going to lean more into ghostwriting, and ultimately stop saying yes to any projects that don’t bring me joy. That will free up space for the really fun work I want to do, as well as writing books in the downtime.
Five years ago, I would have loved to say no to boring projects — but I needed to pay the rent and I’d take what I could get.
This year, I’ve built a business that attracts amazing clients, and I get more inquiries than I can possibly say yes to. Being able to say no to boring work is a privilege, but it’s also the result of 6 years of hustling.
So here’s to an amazing 2020!
It’s going to be the year my business becomes a source of joy and energy rather than a hustle and a drain.
Because I definitely can’t afford to burn out — I’m way too unemployable at this point. 🙂
What are your 2019 takeaways and 2020 goals? Le’ve ’em in the comments.