What I Learned In My First Year As A Full-Time Writer

[Note: I lost all the wonderful comments on this post in a website transfer. Sorry, guys!]

I was inspired to do this post by Joanna Penn of The Creative Penn, who always does a year-end post on her business goals and accomplishments. Mostly this post is meant to create accountability and a place for reflection for me, but I also offer it publicly in the spirit of helping other writers out.

There’s so much writing advice out there, and so much of it is fantastic – but it doesn’t all apply to writers who are just getting out the starting gate. Or it doesn’t all apply to people who want to combine a career in freelance copywriting and fiction. I thought it would be helpful for other beginning freelance writers and novelists to see what my experience has been like.

I’m not going to throw out any specific numbers, but I do want to be as transparent as possible. Feel free to shoot me an email or leave a comment if you have any questions.

How I made a living as a full-time writer

OK, so I’ll be the first to admit that this first year of freelancing wasn’t exactly a living. I haven’t entirely crunched the numbers yet, but I believe that – after taxes – I made approximately half what I did working at a desk copywriting job.

This would be disappointing to me if a) it wasn’t expected, and b) I wasn’t about to launch into 2015 with WAY more momentum than I had at the beginning of last year.

Two related things at the beginning of 2014 launched me into full-time freelancing before I felt financially ready to take the plunge: we moved to Portland from Seattle, and so I quit my safety-cushion waitress job. Without a side job I had no way to pick up the slack in my burgeoning freelance business, shifting more of our financial burden onto my husband’s job.

The plus side? This year I’ve had endless amounts of time to work on my business – and a burning drive not to be a “kept woman” really honed my focus.

What kinds of writing work paid my bills?

Here’s where my income came from in 2014 (rough numbers, since I still don’t have everything for December):

  • Ongoing web copy for Main Client: 57%
  • Business blogging: 20%
  • Product copywriting: 15%
  • Business marketing: 4%
  • Misc. projects: 3%
  • Magazine articles: 1.5%
  • Fiction: 0.1%

Yikes – most of my income comes from a single client.

What this breakdown shows me is that I’m relying on one single client for almost 60% of my income – which is a terrifying prospect, and something I’ve been keenly aware of as their business has gone through its own dips. I’ve been on a major marketing push to try diversify my income, but as I go into the new year I’ll definitely be focusing on growing other clients to mitigate the risk of my main client drying up.

Most of my client work was ongoing

The great thing this breakdown doesn’t show is that most of my income comes from sources that are ongoing, like blogging and the web copy work I do for my main client. That means that I know roughly how much I’m going to make each month as a base salary, and any extra one-off projects I can land go on top of that. This model is fantastic for peace of mind.

My fiction sales barely covered my husband’s most recent Powell’s bill

As you can see, my fiction writing is currently the least lucrative thing I do. This year has been mainly about building my freelance business, so although I’ve taken some time for my fiction I’ve kept myself pretty focused on paying the bills. Again, as I go into 2015 I hope to feel more stable in my freelance income, so I can take more time to write and publish fiction. It’s my hope that next year the Fiction column of my income breakdown will be a bit more substantial.

Where I found my clients

I just scanned down through my Freshbooks client report, and here’s the breakdown of where my clients came from:

  • I answered a job ad: 6
  • I sent a cold pitch: 4
  • Referred to me by a client: 3
  • Already a friend: 3
  • Found me on LinkedIn: 2
  • Saw my ad on Ravelry: 2

I’m also in conversation with several other clients right now:

  • Found me on LinkedIn: 2
  • Met at a networking event: 1
  • I answered a job ad: 1

You can still find some decent clients on job ads

Sure, there’s a ton of shit out there on Craigslist advertising “great exposure” for writers who want to work for pennies, but there’s some good clients lurking there as well. My two best clients came when I answered a job ad – including the one that paid 60% of my income this year. (I’ve been writing for them for nearly two years in total.)

The trick is to know where to look for job ads. Don’t spend hours scouring Craigslist. Instead, learn to quickly sift through the chaff, and don’t bother applying for something unless you’re pretty perfect for it.

Here are the jobs boards I check regularly.

LinkedIn is your friend

In the last few months I’ve gotten 2-3 decent leads a month from potential clients that found my LinkedIn profile. They’ve all been local to Portland, and have been split 50/50 between recruiters from staffing agencies and solo business owners.

I’ve spiffed up my profile quite a bit over the last year, adding in visuals to my profile and tons of keywords in my job titles and descriptions. An anecdote to prove that’s helping: prior to about 3 months ago I didn’t have much B2B copywriting experience, but I wanted to break into that niche. I changed my description to say I work with B2B retail companies, and now nearly every inquiry has been from a B2B company.

Here are some tips on how to up your LinkedIn profile from a blog post I wrote for GovLoop.

Other writers should also be your friends

Something these numbers don’t show is that three of the job ads I successfully applied for were sent my way by other writers. One came through a writer I met in the Freelance Writer’s Den, one I met through Be A Freelance Blogger’s forum, and one I know through the Portland cycling community.

I’ve referred work to other writers twice this year – once when I left a client who couldn’t afford me after I raised my rates, and once when I had a client ask me about a type of work I wasn’t interested in doing.

My point? Other writers aren’t your competition. There’s a TON of work out there, and it literally pays to get to know others in your industry.

But you still need to put in the elbow grease

The second larges sources of new gigs for me was cold pitching potential prospects. At the end of 12 full months of freelancing I’m to a point where people are coming to me, but I’m still sending out letters of introduction and phoning up prospects – because that’s how I’m going to keep moving up.

My advice to writers who want to make a living:

The wheels turn slowly. I’ve found that it can take up to six months from a client’s initial contact with me to the point that I do a project for them. If you’re wanting to break into freelance writing, make sure you have a safety net – ideally income saved up to cover your first six months of expenses, or a part-time job to pick up the slack. Or, a fabulous partner who believes in you, if you get caught in a spot like I was.

People hear about you in random ways. Marketing is like sowing seeds – but not like putting a seed in the garden, marking the spot, and watching it grow. No. Marketing is like scattering a bunch of seeds in your garden, only to have them eaten by birds who fly throughout the neighborhood and shit them out in other people’s yards. What I’m saying is that you have to keep sowing those seeds, and don’t be surprised at the random places you’ll find them growing.

Just start. Don’t worry about getting your website perfect, don’t worry that your LinkedIn profile is barren, don’t worry that you sound like a moron on the phone (I still do), don’t spend a whole week polishing a cover letter. JUST START. It’s way better to bumble through things as you go than to never start because you’re procrastinating yourself with perfection.