They’ll provide insight into your business and make clear your shortfalls.
As a freelance writer, I define my success by two metrics.
First, am I happy and fulfilled? Am I getting enough days off? Am I enjoying the days I’m working?
Second, am I being paid enough? Am I not only maintaining my current income, but growing?
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, and it’s the numbers on the spreadsheet that tell me how my business is doing. I noticed a few months ago that I wasn’t really on the ball in terms of tracking how much I was bringing in per month. I didn’t know how efficient my pitching 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, I suddenly realized how easy it was. I realized that once the systems were set up, I could easily track everything with no additional work. (In the Freelancer Writer’s Complete Template Bundle, I share them with you!)
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 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, 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 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
Unsurprisingly, this is a number that most freelancers 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 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 invoice 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.
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 rotten 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 cash flow spreadsheet. 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 don’t have enough coming in for a certain month, 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 about nothing.)
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 unsure, make an effort to fix the blind spot. The ability to forecast your income accurately 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 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’ve talked before 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. If you can track how profitable each assignment is (or isn’t), it enables you to make better decisions when new opportunities present themselves.
6. Words written per day
Do you track how many words you write per day?
Your income depends on your 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 into the habit of producing work quickly and efficiently. Most career writers will track everything except this number. Words written per day is one of the most important metrics in the business. Every time you write the first draft of anything, 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.
Natasha Khullar Relph
Founder and Editor, 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 founder 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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