In 2016, I decided to get serious about my freelance writing career. The problem was that, after spending the previous four years as a stay-at-home mom, I was afraid I wouldn’t be able to hack it as a “real” writer. So I lowballed my earning power, giving myself the modest goal of bringing in $1,000 per month — and even that felt untenable.
I didn’t tell anyone my plan. I don’t think I even wrote it down. But I exceeded my goal every month except one. And at the end of my first year, I made double the income I thought I would, to the tune of just over $22,000.
Buoyed by my relative success, I decided to make some seriously lofty income goals for 2017. More than that, I went public with them. I wrote them on Facebook, on my personal blog, in freelancing groups online, everywhere. I was hoping that going public would help keep me accountable, and that I would find community in a sometimes lonely profession.
Here’s what I shared:
My Previous Year’s Income. Not only did I share that I had reached $22,000, I also detailed exactly how I made that money. While I did write some features for a couple big, glossy magazines, the bulk of my jobs were far less glamorous and lucrative. I shared that I had jobs ranging from a $25 reprint of a blog post, to a $1,600 magazine article — but that most were in the $75 to $150 range. I thought it was important for people to know that pay can really vary, and that it takes a lot of hard work and hustle to make a career out of freelance writing.
Mistakes I’d Made. When I started, I had no idea what “reasonable” rates were. I was developing, photographing and writing recipe posts for $10 a piece — that didn’t even cover the cost of ingredients. In an effort to pick up steam, I didn’t stop to think about whether what I was being paid was fair, and I wanted others starting out to keep this in mind when deciding whether assignments were worth their time.
Big Goals and Mini-Goals. Instead of setting a small, achievable goal and keeping it to myself, I decided to be ambitious — and share it with the world. I put out there that I wanted to make $40,000 in 2017. I also publicized a few other mini-goals: Set work hours for myself daily to avoid writing against deadline in the middle of the night; get my work placed in four print magazines; make half my income from steady gigs — that is, ones that I didn’t have to constantly pitch; and write for four new dream publications.
Progress. Every quarter, I gave updates. I talked about the highs and lows of freelance life. There are those days when you land a great new assignment or publish a viral article, but there are also times when you get seven rejections by 7 a.m. I wanted to be real about the scope of my experience, and it turned out to be eye-opening.
A year later, I can honestly say going public with my goals helped push me. I doubled my previous year’s income, making a total of $44,000. I wrote for four new dream outlets, including one that helped me land a book deal. I didn’t publish any articles in print magazines — but I did write my first set of travel articles and move into the world of nonfiction publishing. Here are some of the insights I gained:
The author, here in her home office, set strict work hours for herself in order to meet her income goals.
Expect Pushback. I didn’t share my income goals to brag about how much I made. I wanted accountability as well as to help demystify the world of freelance writing. But I soon found that sharing rates was taboo in many circles, especially if you work for both smaller, lower-paying publications and the bigger ones that pay well.
“Rate-shaming” is rampant in some online freelance groups, and admitting that a lot of my work landed in the “subpar” range made people uncomfortable — especially because I was finding success by mixing and matching small and big jobs. There were a few who chastised me for taking jobs that were below the rate writers “deserve,” saying I was enabling large, underpaying content mills. Of course, I would love to exclusively work for high-paying publications, but that is not the reality for most writers working their way up. Being honest about that was important.
It Built Solidarity. Breaking down the mystery of how I made a living did leave me feeling exposed, but it also felt like I was paying it forward. I wish someone had shared their financial behind-the-scenes with me when I was floundering. For every person who trolled me, there were at least 10 more who thanked me for being open and honest.
I also connected with fellow writers who were tired of the taboo surrounding talking about money. Now I have a community of like-minded freelancers who push each other. We share in the triumphs and failures, and it is so much better than going it alone.
Big Goals Need Little Steps. I broke down my goals by month, then by week, to help me know if I was staying on track. I became hyper-organized about how I approached my income, instead of just hoping that I’d made it after tallying up my jobs at the end of each month. I wrote down small action items when it came to pitching stories, sticking to a writing schedule and finding a good mix of jobs. I also let my husband know my work hours each week, so he’d know when he’d be fully in charge while I worked behind closed doors.
While it was nerve-wracking to put myself and my income out there, I don’t think my year would have been nearly as successful without the accountability that going public afforded me. Talking about how much I made helped me set goals in a much more ambitious way, helped me be more strategic than I’d ever been about my finances — and got me to exceed my own expectations.