An award-winning freelance writer and journalist on the only numbers she keeps track of in her business and what makes them so crucial.
As a freelance writer, I define my success by two opposing metrics.
First, am I happy and fulfilled? Second, am I being paid enough? An emotional response is the only way I can answer the first question. The second requires numbers.
Words are how I make money as a freelance writer. It’s the numbers on a spreadsheet I track to know if I’m succeeding.
I’ve been organizing the systems I use to track my freelancing income and the work I’m doing, even more than I already had. (And I’m a geek, so trust me, I had systems.)
But I noticed a few months ago that I wasn’t really on the ball when it came to seeing how much I was bringing in per month. I didn’t know how efficient my querying was, or where I was falling short. I needed to improve.
My husband, who is unquestionably worse than I am at keeping track of income and expenses, sent me a spreadsheet he’d used at his former job. As I filled in my numbers on that sheet, suddenly I discovered just how easy it was. I realized that once the systems were set up, I could easily track everything without any additional work.
This spreadsheet provided so much information about my business that it made complete sense to swallow my distaste and just spend a week doing numbers. What do you know? Not only did I set it up, I actually enjoyed every bit of the process.
I learned in the process that there are a few numbers that no freelance writer can afford to ignore. These numbers shine a spotlight on your business and make clear your shortfalls. They tell, very starkly, where you need to improve.
1. Number of clients
I divide my client list into two parts: regular clients and occasional clients.
The regular clients are those, at least the way I define it, who give me work at least once a month. The regular clients are people I constantly want to be in touch with. I track when I next need to communicate with them. If one of these clients has me on assignment with them, great. If not, I need to either send them new ideas, follow up with them, schedule a conversation, or something. These are clients who like and appreciate my work so I try to stay on the ball and have assignments from them as frequently as possible.
Your goal as a freelance writer should be to, first, get to the point where you have 3-5 regular clients and second, to no longer have to solicit additional work from new clients unless you’re actively looking to grow your income.
2. Amount earned
Unshockingly, this is a number that most freelancers do keep track of, and for good reason. The amount earned, as I define it, is the dollar total of the assignments I’ve received in a given month.
For instance, an editor just offered me $1,200 for an assignment. I won’t invoice until next month and I won’t see the paycheck for a couple of months. But I got the assignment this month, so I’m going to count it in my amount earned column. As a freelance writer, this helps me keep track of how efficient my pitching is and helps me make sure that I’m regularly bringing in additional work.
3. Amount billed
The amount billed per month is a measure of how efficiently you’re working. It’s the number I’m always trying to beat. It’s a metric I have control over. If I finish four assignments this month, I can invoice for four assignments. If I write and finish eight, I could potentially be invoicing double. I like this a lot.
I’m always trying to improve my efficiency. Being able to see in a spreadsheet that greater efficiency means more money in the bank each month is a great motivator for me. I use Freshbooks (and highly recommend it; that’s my affiliate link) and it makes the whole process of tracking all these numbers exceptionally easy.
4. Amount received
This is the area in which freelance writers will find they have the least control. The good news is that if your amount earned and amount billed are on target each month, barring a few bad apples, your cash flow shouldn’t suffer too much.
To counter the grappling in the dark feeling that I was experiencing regarding how much money I had coming in, I created a spreadsheet earlier this year. Every time I get an assignment, I figure out exactly when I’m likely to get paid. If I have an article due today that will be published next month and the magazine pays on publication, I can accurately forecast when I’ll receive payment. That anticipated income goes in the spreadsheet for the month I expect to be paid. It could be earlier if the client is super efficient or later if I have to follow up a few times, but I plonk that number down. Do that for every assignment and you can see, at a glance, what your cash flow is going to look like two or three months down the line. If you haven’t enough coming in, you can see in plenty of time to fix the problem. (Or maybe you can actually relax because it’s looking good and you were worrying for nothing.)
You can download that spreadsheet for free HERE.
Do you have enough money coming in over the next three months or do you need to start pitching and getting some quick assignments? If you’re the kind of freelance writer who isn’t sure (the normal kind), make an effort to fix the blindspot. The clarity of being able to accurately forecast your income lifts a lot of the stress that comes with a freelance career. It gives you more headspace to devote to pitching and writing.
The thing I love about this particular spreadsheet is that it allows me to see what kind of work I need to bring in. If next month is looking tight, then I need to really ramp up my marketing and get some hourly consulting work or assignments from online publications that will pay quickly. But if I’m okay for the next two or three months, it’s easier for me to pitch a feature to a woman’s publication that might take about four months to publish and six months to pay (and pay substantially more). I know when I have time to devote to work I really love, and when I need to just bring in the money.
5. Hourly rate per assignment
I talk here about how tracking my time and calculating my hourly rate per assignment is helpful. I can see, in black and white, how profitable an assignment really is for me. Suffice it to say, if you can track how profitable each assignment is (or isn’t), it enables you to make better-informed decisions when new opportunities present themselves.
6. Words written per day
Do you track how many words you write per day? Income is entirely dependent on productivity. For a freelance writer, the best measure of productivity is how much you’re actually writing. Whether it’s for an assignment, a blog post, or a query letter, writing something creatively each day is what’s going to get you in the habit of producing work quickly and efficiently. Most career writers will track everything except this number. As far as I’m concerned, words per day is one of the most important currencies in the business. Every time you write, you’re practicing. You’re sharpening your knife, honing your skill set.
Take care of this one number and the rest will mostly take care of itself.
How to Pitch: Pitching guidelines for 200+ publications
We know that finding markets to pitch your story ideas, understanding what they’re looking for, and making sure they pay an amount you’re comfortable with can be the most time-consuming and frustrating part of the job. So we’ve tried to make it easier for you.
Here’s a list of publications, organized by subject and with a note of their pay rates, each with a link to their guidelines.
Natasha Khullar Relph
Publisher, The Wordling
Natasha Khullar Relph is an award-winning journalist and author with bylines in The New York Times, TIME CNN, BBC, ABC News, Ms. Marie Claire, Vogue, and more.
She is the publisher of The Wordling, a weekly business newsletter for journalists, authors, and content creators.
Natasha has mentored over 1,000 writers, helping them break into dream publications and build six-figure careers. She is the author of Shut Up and Write: The No-Nonsense, No B.S. Guide to Getting Words on the Page and several other books.
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