What I Learned In My 2nd Year As A Full-Time Writer

My most popular post on this blog was last year’s look back at being a full-time writer in 2014. My goal in writing that post – and this one – is to share my story with others who are just dipping their toes into making a living with their writing. And, of course, others like me who are managing to make it pay the bills, but aren’t at “guru” status just yet. 🙂

At the end of every year, I like to do a client analysis that helps me get a grasp on where I’m spending my time, and what are the most worthwhile projects. The surprising thing I discovered was that the bulk of my good clients are in the B2B software-as-a-service niche. In other words, I write for companies that sell cloud-based software to other companies.

I wouldn’t have been able to tell you what that meant two years ago, and now it’s my biggest niche – such is the way of freelancing!

And now that I know that, it will help me say no to anything that’s not in that industry. In the last few months I’ve already dropped five smaller clients who weren’t in that niche.

How I made a living writing in 2015

(Again, I’m not going to throw out any specific numbers, but I’m going to be as transparent as possible about this journey. Feel free to get in touch if you have any questions for me!)

The exciting thing about looking at my finances at the end of this year was that in this second year, my paycheck* from my freelance business is now more than that of my desk copywriting job!

Plus, have enough saved up in my business saving to cover 3 months worth of my salary and biz expenses. That’s allowed me to invest some extra money (and time) in writing and producing fiction this year.

*To see what I mean about “paycheck,” check out this post on how I work my freelance finances.

What kinds of writing work paid my bills?

Here’s where my income came from in 2015:

  • Website copy (through agencies): 37%
  • Business blogging: 25%
  • Website copy (long-term client): 20%
  • Content marketing projects*: 16%
  • Ghost writing: 5%
  • Misc. business marketing collateral**: 3%
  • Social media management: 3%
  • Product copy: 2%
  • Magazine articles: 1.5%
  • Fiction: 0.5%

* I separated out my ongoing clients for whom I do a variety of content marketing (including blogging) from those for whom I only blog.

** These were all one-off pieces for clients that didn’t turn into ongoing content marketing work, and so I separated it out.

*** I just added that up, and it adds up to 112%. Because I’m that rad.

What this tells me:

  • I’m less reliant on one income stream. Last year, 57% of my income came from a single client. That client’s still around, but their contribution is now only 20% (and I’m doing about the same amount of work for them, so that tells you something!). A major goal of mine last year was to be less reliant on a single client, so I did well there.
  • I made more from Fiction than last year. Last year, Fiction represented only 0.1% of my total income. Now, 0.5% isn’t anything to write home about, but it is an increase! Next year, I’d like to increase that number by a more substantial amount – and I’m poised to do it, with one novel out already, and several more in the pipeline.
  • Blogging actually paid a lot of my bills. Another thing I anticipate changing in 2016 is the Business Blogging category. I separated it out from Content Marketing to differentiate between clients that I do a variety of work for, and those that I only blog for. I actually dropped almost all of my “just blogging” clients at the end of November, and in 2016 I’ll be concentrating on growing that Content Marketing category. Seeing just how big a percentage of my income came from only blogging gives me pause about that decision, but I think in the long run this will be better for business. Onward!
  • Those one-off projects aren’t worth it. For weighing in at only 3% of my total income, those random one-off marketing projects just aren’t worth the time onboarding a brand new client.
  • I’m not a magazine writer. A lot of the content marketing work I do for ongoing clients is similar to magazine writing – I do interviews, work with an editor, provide snazzy quotes and interesting angles – but it also pays better with less hassle. 2016 is probably the time to stop taking low-paying article assignments and focus on business clients.

Where I found my clients*

Outbound (11):

  • I answered a job ad: 5
  • Met at a networking event: 2
  • Already a friend: 1
  • I sent a cold pitch: 2
  • Saw my ad on Ravelry: 1

Inbound (13):

  • Referred by another client: 7 (3 from the same client. Thanks, Melanie!)
  • Saw my writing on another site: 4
  • Found me on LinkedIn: 2

(* These are all people I worked with this year, though not necessarily are all new clients from this year)

Takeaways:

Start building a reputation, and you won’t have to work your tail off marketing.

These numbers don’t show one trend – that most of my outbound marketing efforts took place earlier in the year. I haven’t checked a job board, sent a cold pitch, or gone to a networking event since probably…. Actually, all but one of those clients in the Outbound list are carry-forwards from last year. And the one new client is someone I met at WorldCon, a sci-fi/fantasy convention that only loosely falls in the category of “networking event.”

Keyword the hell out of your LinkedIn page.

My biggest source of inbound prospects has been through LinkedIn, although as of posting this only 2 have become clients. I wrote about what I did to spiff up my profile last year, so you can head there if you’re curious.

Referrals and bylines help.

Referrals were my biggest total source of new clients – which is a good reason to keep your clients happy! I was also pleasantly surprised 4(!) times this year when someone emailed me to say they saw my writing on X Site, and would I pretty please also write for them?

My second biggest source of clients was job boards.

There are some gems out there in all the crud that clogs up the job boards. Don’t waste time going after things you’re not right for, and focus on the good boards.

Overall, this has been a good year.

Although I still stumble into regular periods of overwhelm and anxiety, has managed to find a better balance than I had my first year freelancing. I’ve been able to travel more with my husband, taking overnight trips with him throughout Oregon (he’s a sales rep in the state).

I’ve found more time for writing fiction – and it’s not always after dinner when my brain is already bleary from staring at the computer screen all day.

I sometimes take weekends off, even.

My big takeaway at the end of the year is that stress is a killer. I’ve started to become better at recognizing the warning signs of burnout before it comes – although I don’t think I’m always very good at avoiding it.

I also haven’t been very good at saying no to new projects, which is led to some pretty rough periods of overworking myself. In my first year of freelancing, this seemed inevitable – after all, I needed to make ends meet. But in the second year, when I had enough clients who are paying me well enough that I didn’t have to say yes to every tiny project that came across my plate, I still had a hard time saying no.

Doing this client analysis has been a good way for me to hone in on my priorities:

Say “Yes” to more ongoing opportunities in B2B software, say “No” to one-off projects, magazine writing, and anything that’s not in my niche.

Honing my focus will free up a lot of extra administrative time, which I can use to grow that Fiction category from a measly 0.5% into something a bit more substantial!

How was your 2015?

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

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.