Wednesday, August 30, 2017

How to Start Freelance Writing

After reading roughly one million personal finance blogs, you begin to hear a common reframe. "A side hustle will help you get out of debt, save for emergencies, and retire early." While I have some issues with the idea of glorifying the side hustle (wouldn't it be great if we all made enough money at our regular full time jobs?) I must admit the truth. Freelancing on the side helped us to wipe our credit card debt, and allows us to successfully live off one income. As it turns out, the best way to make progress on your financial goals is to make more money. 

Related: 5 Ways to Pay Off $13K

A number of people, online and IRL, have asked me for advice on freelancing - how I got started, how to do it successfully, and how to actually make money at it. While every person's experience will be different, I hope my story answers some questions, puts things in perspective, and helps other decide whether the freelance lifestyle is for them. 

How (and Why) I Started Freelancing 

My freelance journey began in late 2013. I was about to start my last year of graduate school and spent a lot of time thinking about what I wanted to do once I'd finally earned that bright and shiny MFA in creative writing. The city where I live doesn't have the best job market, and I wasn't keen on spending 40 hours a week in an office. Instead, I decided I would try to earn my keep as a full time freelance writer. Had I ever written for money before? Not really. Did I have a background in business or marketing? Nope. Was I a good writer? Yes, of course - I wouldn't have scuttled my career and gone into debt for an MFA if I didn't think I was talented. 

I knew that diving in to freelance life the day after I graduated probably wasn't a good idea. It would be better to ramp up slowly, get my feet wet, and figure out what the hell I was doing before my rent depended on my success. Just as I was wondering how to do this, an acquaintance posted to Facebook that a local woman she'd been freelancing for was looking for a new writer, and was anyone interested? I messaged the acquaintance, met with the local woman, and landed my first client. I started working for her in January 2014, ghostwriting 600 word blog posts for small businesses for $50 a pop. It wasn't a lot of money, but it was something. More importantly, it gave me the confidence and the clips I needed to get more work. 

Ramping Up My Freelance Empire 

As graduation loomed, I knew I needed to find more clients. At this point, Google was my best friend. I stalked places where jobs might be posted, such as Craigslist and ProBlogger. I decided early on that my minimum rate was $0.10 a word, which worked out to $50 per 500 words. At this point I was mostly interested in blogging, since I'd been writing on the web for over a decade and felt comfortable in online spaces. As I applied for jobs and read more about what I was trying to do, I discovered the term "content marketing" and realized the career I thought I'd made up was already a real thing. (Want to learn more about content marketing? I highly recommend HubspotContently is also a great resource, and offers slick portfolio services for free - here's mine.) I sent letter of interest to local businesses I liked, telling them I was available for hire and including specific examples of how I could help them increase sales or leads or brand awareness. (I learned a lot of marketing buzzwords, which helped.) And I pitched ideas to all the local print magazines - because I live in a touristy town, we have quite a few. A number of these panned out, which was great. Local publications offer less competition and the pay was better, plus I got to write about things in my own community. 

Early on, I landed what is known as an "anchor client" - a regular gig that made up roughly 50% of my income. I was writing about alcohol for a local startup, and it was an awesome opportunity that I held for nine months. Even though I was only part time, I had office space, company lunches, and all the free wine I could drink. (I can drink a lot.) Between this client, the local woman I was still writing for, my various other assignments, and a class I was teaching at the university, I was making decent money. (Before taxes, that is.) Everything seemed to be going pretty well, and then the inevitable happened. 

Losing My Anchor Client 

Yup. The startup that was filling my pockets and making big promises? They cut the blog I'd been writing and decided to put their marketing dollars elsewhere. No hard feelings - business is business - but my bank account felt otherwise. Losing 50% of my income was pretty devastating, especially since I was still fairly new to freelancing. When I started, I didn't have a cushion built up in my savings account, or an emergency fund I could draw from during lean times. We were living paycheck to paycheck, which is a precarious way to run a business. At this point, I realized how naive I'd been. I assumed my empire would continue to grow, without planning for inevitable setbacks or slow months. You might say it was a wake up call. 

When you're a full time freelancer, you never stop looking for new clients and pitching stories to publications. I kept doing that, but I also started looking for full time jobs in Wilmington. At this point, I had a decent portfolio of work and a good understanding of marketing, which could make up for the fact that I didn't have a background in business or communications. I wasn't giving up exactly, but realizing that freelancing full time is a lot harder than it looks. The constant hustle ate up so much time, and cut into the time I spent on my own, non-paying projects - like writing a novel. I wanted more balance in my life, and working for someone else seemed like a good way to find it. 

Full Time Job + Successful Side Hustle

Reader, I got the job. While I missed many things about freelancing (working from home, making my own schedule, going to yoga in the middle of the day) there were many other things I was glad to leave behind (constantly pitching to new clients, waiting for checks to finally arrive, wondering if I would make enough to pay my rent). The best part, however, was that the freedom of a dependable salary made freelancing on the side so much more enjoyable. Yes, that's right - despite my new job, I kept up my side hustle, and continue to hustle to this day. The difference is that now, I can be picky about the extra work I take on. I only write for publications I really love, like The Billfold, or for those that paid very well, like the local print magazines. If I go on vacation using my hard earned PTO (no such thing for freelancers!) I can take a break from freelance without feeling guilty. 

This balance - the steady job and the side hustle - had been great for both my sanity and my bank account. It keeps my skills sharp and allows me to add to my freelance portfolio, and the extra cash (around $300 to $500 a month) is extremely helpful, especially for long term needs, like a new used car or a Nebraska wedding. Of course, freelance work ebbs and flows. Sometimes I don't have a due date in sight, while other times (like this summer) I'm overworked and stressed out because I took on too much. Finding that balance is (never mind finding time to work on my own projects) is something I'm still working on.

Do you have a side hustle? How much extra does it pull in? Have you figured out how to strike that perfect balance yet? If so, will you share your secrets with me? I could certainly use them.