What I Learned in My 5th Year as a Freelance Writer

Welcome to my annual review post, where I take a look back at 2018 to see how I make a living as a freelance writer. Read about Year 4 (2017)Year 3 (2016)Year 2 (2015) and Year 1 (2014).

Cover photo by Ray Hennessy on Unsplash

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

Photo by rawpixel on Unsplash

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 blissful!

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.

That said, I did publish a nonfiction book designed to attract clients, as well as creating a SkillShare course about writing a business book for the same reason.

Screenshot of my SkillShare course, a video still of me talking

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.

But wait.

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.

I’m ready.

How was your 2018? Let me know in the comments below.

Read about my Year 4 (2017)Year 3 (2016)Year 2 (2015) and Year 1 (2014).

What I Learned In My Fourth Year As A Freelance Writer

Welcome to my annual review post, where I take a look back at 2017 to see how I make a living writing. Read about Year 3 (2016)Year 2 (2015) and Year 1 (2014).

First off — yep, I’ve been at this freelance writing thing for four full years.

(Well, four years and some change — I officially quit my desk job in April of 2012, but I waited tables for the rest of that year to make ends meet while I ramped up my writing biz.)

I think after four years, I can officially say I’m ruined for a regular office job. I just enjoy making my own fortune* too much to hitch my wagon back to somebody else’s star.

I like it all: the marketing hustle, the accounting boredom, the feast-and-famine puzzle, the wide variety of interesting clients, the ability to take off on a Thursday afternoon and go mountain biking when the weather’s nice.

At the end of every year, I take a look back on how my business year went and reflect on how I want to shift my business for the following years. I started blogging this review because when I first started out, it was hard to find concrete examples of freelancers at my level. I figured writing these posts would be a good resource for newer freelancers who wanted to learn how someone just ahead of them can make a living writing.

If that’s you, I hope you find this post helpful!

All right. Onward.

*Luck fortune, that is. Definitely not talking money fortune, don’t get any ideas.

2017: A Year of Development

For me, 2017 was a set-up year.

At the beginning of the year, I consciously decided I would reinvest my time and income into professional development — both writing craft and business. I also invested in putting some things into place that will help me reach my business goals in 2018.

What do I mean by that?

  • I took several writing courses, including a ghostwriting course with Derek Lewis and Ed Gandia, the Story Genius course with Lisa Cron and Jennie Nash, and the business master class from Kristine Kathryn Rusch and Dean Wesley Smith.
  • I launched a new website and brand for my ghostwriting and consulting business, Bassline Editorial. (Check it out!)
  • I attended the Smarter Artist Summit, 20 Books to 50K, and several local sci-fi cons, where I met amazing people and grew my network.
  • I published another Durga System novella and a short story collection.
  • I wrote a ton of things that will be published in 2018.

Bassline Editorial logo, blue and orange
My new logo for my consulting/ghostwriting business, Bassline Editorial.

In 2018, I want to continue educating myself, but my primary focus is going to shift to networking.

This will include attending conferences and conventions (including Worldcon in San Jose!), as well as being more deliberate about building online relationships through forums and groups. I’m also looking at local networking events aimed at entrepreneurs and business owners. I’m even toying with the idea of joining Toastmasters, though it sounds terrifying!

Networking will be important for my freelance business as I pivot more into ghostwriting and consulting, and for my fiction business as I plan to publish four novels next year. (More on that later.)

Achieving Balance in Business

Last year, I wrote about wanting to find more balance in my business. When I first started freelancing, I worked every evening and weekend, and was in a near-constant state of panic about deadlines and money. This year, I feel like my business has matured to the point where it doesn’t require my constant attention.

As I said to my husband just yesterday, “I don’t have to work on weekends* anymore, because I’m a pro.”

Along with no longer working weekends, I actually took a lot of time off this year, too — and still made my income goals. I even once (gasp!) set up an “out of office” message and took three days without checking my email.

It was amazing, and the world didn’t end.

Part of this has been replacing clients who had constant deadlines (like 2 posts/week) or who required 24-hour turnaround on things with bigger projects like white papers and case studies.

This lets me plan ahead more and shift my workload around if I want to take time off. It also means I can structure my days more how I like them. I can take time to exercise in the mornings, then spend a few hours writing fiction before switching gears to freelance work — without stressing that I was missing crucial emails.

The result is that I’m feeling more productive and less stressed out than I have in years.

Hell yeah.

* I often write fiction on weekends, or work on personal projects like blogging or marketing. I just don’t do client work anymore unless it’s a rush job — with a rush job price tag.)

Client Analysis: How I Make a Living Writing

It was a bit harder this year to categorize my income by project, since I have several clients for whom I do multiple things. This is a rough estimate of where my money came from this year.

  • Ebooks, white papers, and case studies: 46%
  • Ghost blogging: 23%
  • Website copy: 16%
  • Misc business copywriting/editing:  6%
  • Bylined blogging: 5%
  • Consulting on content strategy: 1%
  • Knitting pattern descriptions: 1%
  • Fiction: 0.7%

The thing I’m happiest about is that the big, meaty projects I like (ebooks, white papers, and case studies) made up the bulk of my income. I’m still doing a fair amount of blogging and website copy, but both those categories have gone down from years past.

And, as I mentioned in the section on balance, the types of clients I work for have changed, so the blogs and website content requirements aren’t as fast-paced and demanding on my availability.

That fiction number crept up from 0.5% in 2016, but it’s obviously not very impressive. As I said, 2017 was a set-up year for me — I’m hoping for much bigger things in 2018 when it comes to my fiction income.

New to the list is consulting, which is an aspect of my business I’m just dipping my toes into. My plan is to grow that number substantially in 2018.

How clients found me in 2017

Normally I title this section “how I found clients,” but the truth is that in 2017 I didn’t go hunting for a single client. This year, every new client approached me, rather than the other way around.

Clients found me through:

  • Referrals from past clients
  • LinkedIn searches
  • My profile on the Portland Copywriter Conclave
  • Meeting at a networking event
  • Reading an article with my byline

Even though I’m not particularly active there, I do keep my LinkedIn profile updated — and it’s worth it. Showing up in a LinkedIn search actually landed me four clients this year, including my biggest client!

Get More Leads book coverFocusing on inbound marketing has not only freed up the time I used to spend cold pitching companies, it’s also kept my pipeline full of some really high-quality leads.

(I actually started using Streak for Gmail to manage incoming prospect conversations, since I was losing track. It lets you sort emails into a pipeline, like Inbound Lead –> Meeting Scheduled –> Proposal Sent –> Negotiating –> Became Client or Snoozing or Dead Lead. It also lets you set reminders, so if you send a proposal to someone, you can snooze the email to pop back up in your inbox a week from today if the prospect didn’t respond.)

Bonus! If you want to learn how to build an inbound marketing funnel for your own business, I wrote a book to help other solo business owners: Get More Leads: How to Create a Constant Flow of Inbound Leads with Content Marketing.

In 2018, I’m going to double down on content marketing for my own business, especially as I pivot more toward ghostwriting and consulting on content strategy. I plan to start blogging regularly on my new freelance business site, BasslineEditorial.com, as well as focusing on guest posts.

I may even try to get on a podcast or two, if I can overcome my terror at the very idea.

My Fiction Business

NegativeReturnFinal-FJM_Kindle_1800x2700I was able to spend significantly more of my time working on fiction projects this year, partly because I’ve been able to command a higher hourly rate and take on fewer client projects. As a result, I published two books (Negative Return and the short story collection Business as Usual).

I also wrote a book on creative productivity called From Chaos to Creativity. That’s in the editing and revisions process now, and will be out in 2019 from Microcosm Press.

I’ve made headway on the next Durga System novella, as well as on a trilogy of full-length novels centered around Jaantzen and Starla. If all goes well, I’ll be releasing all four of these books in 2018.

Lastly, I wrote a handful of short stories, which are out circling the world, trying to find a home. Hopefully I’ll have some news on those soon, too.

When I compare my 2017 fiction output to other indies, it looks pretty sad — but we’re not doing comparisonitis in this post. Just typing out the above accomplishments is a good reminder that constantly plugging along leads to forward progress.

What’s Up For 2018

I had a phone call with a potential client today, who asked what it is that really gets me excited about my work.

He’s a long-time business owner who is clearly passionate and thoughtful about his own industry. I told him what excited me most is helping people like him — business owners with something powerful to say — craft and share their message.

I wasn’t just trying to land the gig, I was being completely truthful. I love working with individuals who are passionate about their businesses, helping them shape and share their stories and wisdom.

That’s the reason I started Bassline Editorial this year, to shift my business away from writing “5 Surprising Neutral Paint Colors that Will Make Your Dining Room Pop” to offering developmental editing and ghostwriting services to people and companies with something to say.

In 2018, I’ll be shedding the sort of work I don’t find interesting in order to fill my days telling my own stories, and those of my clients. It’s going to be a great year, and I’m looking forward to sharing things with you as they come up!

How was your 2017?

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

Curious about the evolution of my freelance writing business? Read my reflections on Year 3 (2016)Year 2 (2015) and Year 1 (2014).

Photo by Nicolas Tissot on Unsplash