January 2019 marks five years since I went full-time as a freelance writer.
I got in the habit of cataloging my yearly lessons early on, when I realized so much of the advice that I was seeing out there was from freelancers who had been in the business way longer than I had. I figured this annual series would be a good way to pay forward all the advice I’ve been given to others who are a few steps behind me on the path.
It’s also been an eye-opening exercise for me, personally.
It’s so easy to just go with the flow, keeping your head down and hustling as fast as you can without taking much time to notice where you’re going and how far you’ve come.
Doing a yearly check-in allows me to take a quick breath and check both my progress and my direction.
For example, I didn’t reach many of the goals I set for myself at the beginning of 2018. Some because they were overly ambitious, others because they were part of a business plan I shifted away from.
That’s why I never see my yearly goals as my benchmark for success. They’re more of a roadmap that I plan to follow.
Unless those plans get derailed.
Maybe a project will take way longer than you think it will. Maybe life will get in the way. Maybe a new opportunity presents itself, and it makes more sense to pivot and take advantage of it.
Whatever happens, the goal of a yearly check-in is to take a thoughtful look at the map, and plot the next leg of your journey.
2018: A Year of Production
For me, 2018 was finally the year that I felt balanced in terms of the amount of time I was able to spend on freelance work versus fiction. I didn’t split my days 50/50 — instead, I was able to carve time around the natural up-and-down flow of client work to write 250,000 words of fiction across three books and a variety of other projects.
That’s 100,000 more than I did in 2017, which is a big boost for me.
Despite my January 2018 goal to publish four novels last year, I didn’t publish a single thing. However, I did get myself set up to a position where I can publish four Durga System novels next year, along with my creative productivity book, From Chaos to Creativity.
(From Chaos to Creativity is coming out with Microcosm Press in Fall 2019.)
As part of boosting my fiction production, I learned how to write faster and more efficiently. In 2017, I had only a single day where my fiction wordcount exceeded 3000 words. In 2018, I had at least a few of those days a month.
2018: The Year of Stress
I may have felt more balanced in terms of the amount of time that I spent on fiction versus freelance work, but I put more hours behind the computer screen in 2018 than the year before.
Back when I was starting my freelance business, I worked full time as a copywriter, then part time in two jobs as a waitress. I did all my freelance work on the side, hustling as hard as I could until it had grown enough to support me.
It was exhausting.
Right now, my fiction business is that side hustle. I’ve become more efficient (and commanded higher rates) in my freelance business, which allows me to go down to about 3/4 time, and gives me some breathing room to grow my fiction business alongside that.
But until my books are successful enough to shoulder some financial burden, I can’t afford to cut down my hours of client work any more.
(Plus, I like my client work!)
So in 2018 I learned to be more efficient with my time, said no to more things, and spent more evenings and weekends writing fiction.
The result is that I felt burned out and exhausted on a regular basis, but I went into 2018 knowing that would be part of the hustle.
For 2019, I don’t want to reduce the amount of time I spend writing fiction, and I can’t reduce the amount of time I spend on client work. But I also know I need to build more leisure time into my schedule if I don’t want to burn out completely.
I’m still working on that one.
Client Analysis: How I Make a Living as a Freelance Writer
I have made my living as a full-time working freelance writer for five years now. It seems incredible to me that I could build a business from scratch and have it sustain me — and not just pay me, but give me the freedom to live the lifestyle I want while making more than I ever did at a desk job.
How I’ve made a living writing has shifted over the years. I don’t love every single client project I say yes to, but I love 90 percent of them — and that’s pretty wonderful.
Here’s where my writing income came from last year
- Ghostwriting: 37%
- Website copy: 25%
- Bylined blogging: 14%
- Ebooks, white papers, and case studies: 11%
- Educational guides: 6%
- Fiction: 1%
- Teaching: 1%
- Knitting pattern descriptions: .07%
My goal for several years has been to take on more ghostwriting projects, and as you can see from the percentage above, I’ve been successful. Much of that has been ghost blogging, where I interview a client or a subject matter expert and write a blog post from their perspective. But I also took on my first business book ghostwriting project in 2018.
My total fiction sales doubled from last year, but because my total revenue also went up, the percentage of fiction sales only crept from .07% to 1%. Steadily climbing, which I like to see!
I expect that percentage to jump quite a bit in 2019, since I’ll be releasing at least five books.
Ideally, ghostwriting and fiction would make up the bulk of my income, allowing me to spend my days working on books — whether mine or someone else’s.
How Clients Found Me in 2018
The last few years, I’ve broken down where my clients come from.
From year one, the trend has steadily been from outbound prospecting and answering jobs ads towards inbound leads getting in touch with me.
This year, every single client except for one (who I’ve been working with since Year 2) was an inbound lead.
My marketing tactics in 2018 were primarily to attend networking events and to build my LinkedIn presence so that when people went there searching for a B2B SaaS copywriter or ghostwriter, they found me.
That more than anything has freed up the time I used to spend prospecting and hunting down clients to work on my fiction.
How Much Hustle is Too Much Hustle?
One of the big lessons I learned in 2018 is that I can really only hustle one “side business” at a time. Last year one of my goals was to grow my freelancing ghostwriting business at an aggressive rate while also writing and publishing fiction.
The problem is that I really only have the attention to force growth in one area. If fiction was going to be my side hustle, I needed to be content with where my freelance ghostwriting business was at, rather than pushing myself to tackle that, too.
My ghostwriting business has grown, with new clients reaching out to me via my inbound marketing breadcrumbs, and I have done more ghostwriting this year than in any year past — including my first ghostwritten business book.
But I didn’t have the energy to put into creating intricate content marketing funnels and products, into maintaining an email list, or building up my profile is a thought leader in my industry.
I could instinctively feel that I was spreading myself too thin when I tried to do both. It simply made more sense to concentrate my creative energy in one area and push there as hard as I could, rather than spreading my creative energy scattershot at a bunch of different projects.
Goals for 2019
Learn to ask for help
I’m going to publish at least five books in 2019. Which means that instead of keeping my head down and blissfully writing without telling other humans much about my work, 2019 will be the year I push myself out of my comfort zone and learn how to market — without losing my forward momentum writing new books.
My solution has been to look at ways to outsource. I hired a virtual assistant at the beginning of January to help me with common tasks like transcribing interviews for client work or marketing tasks that I would know I will need to accomplish this year. It’s too early to tell exactly how that’s going to work for me, but I can tell you that since I’ve made the decision to hire a virtual assistant, I’ve felt stressed less already.
Hiring someone doesn’t seem that scary to me. But you know what is?
Asking for help from my network.
Asking a friend to read my book and review it.
Asking my newsletter to share my book with their friends.
Asking a colleague to keep me in mind if they need a copywriter.
2019 is going to be the year I practice asking for help.
Focus my energy
For 2019, I know that my biggest hustle needs to be in marketing the books that I have already written, as well as continuing to put out new words.
As it is, my freelance business is it staying stable, which means I’m fairly confident I’ll have a steady flow of clients and projects even if I don’t do an intense marketing push. If I keep it my usual level of networking and marketing, I should do fine.
But if I let myself get distracted by shiny new projects, I’ll diffuse my creative energy too much to accomplish what I’ve set for myself in 2019. That’s why my goal is to focus my energy on what matters the most this year.
Learn to celebrate
Another lesson I’m taking away from 2018 is to celebrate accomplishments.
In my freelance business, it can like I’m trapped in a cycle: working for the same clients, picking up a new client, being ghosted by an old client, turning in a project then starting work on the next project.
Writing fiction is the same way: finish draft one of the book then send it off to my beta readers and begin draft two of the next book, head into revisions, send it off to my editor while beginning the next book….
I realized I need to start celebrating milestones, otherwise it can feel like it never ends.
For fiction, publication is obviously a great milestone to celebrate. But there’s also the moment when you finish the damn book.
Is the book finished when you have a complete first draft? When you send it to your editor? When you get the final copy back from your editor? When you’ve put into the design process? When you are holding the print proof in your hand?
I decided to start celebrating my book as “done” when it gets sent to the editor. That’s because up until that point it doesn’t matter if I have 20,000 words written or three chapters left to revise, the entire process feels amorphous and insurmountable. Creative, confusing, and messy.
But once I have a draft that goes to my editor, the hard work is done. Sure, I’ll have to get my creative brain back out for the edits, but beyond that it’s all procedural. Accept changes, reject changes, put the manuscript into Vellum, upload the files to the distribution sites.
Of course, publication deserves celebration, too. I did a book launch party for my very first novel, Shifting Borders, but haven’t done anything since. It feels too weird to ask a bunch of people to come together with you and to look at this thing you created.
(See “asking for help from my network,” above.)
My husband convinced me I need to throw myself a full-on book launch party with beer and cake and friends and wine and readings, sometime in April to celebrate the release of The Bulari Saga.
If you’re in the Portland area, sign up to my mailing list to learn details when I’m ready to announce the date and time.
2019: The Year of Being Bold
Every year I take a theme. For example, in 2017 my theme was Development, and I poured energy and resources into developing my freelance and fiction skills and business networks.
In 2018, my theme was Production, and I put my head down and did the work.
For 2019, after conversation with fellow writer Kate Sheeran Swed, I decided that this is the year of Being Bold.
Being bold in asking for the help I need.
Being bold when it comes to celebrating the fact that I poured sweat and tears onto the page and have written a series of books I’m incredibly proud of.
Being bold in promoting my work.
Being bold and asking for the freelance rate that I deserve.
Being bold in putting myself in situations that terrified me and saying yes to things I think I’m not qualified for and to introducing myself to people I think I’m not good enough to meet.
All right, 2019.
Let’s do this.
How was your 2018? Let me know in the comments below.