An award-winning journalist and bestselling author on why you might not be making the freelancing income you want (and how to!)
One of my students emailed me a few weeks ago asking for help. She’d been trying to get new clients and increase her freelancing income for a while, she said, without much success.
I asked her the same question I ask anyone who tells me they’re not getting enough work as a freelancer or not making the income they desire: How frequently are you marketing?
A couple of times a week, she replied.
Do I even need to spell it out or is it obvious to anyone who’s reading this what the problem is here?
“Don’t even bother with anything else until you’re marketing at least five times a day, five days a week,” I said to her. “THEN, if you’re still not getting any traction, call me and I’ll show you how to fix it.”
Here’s the deal, people: If you don’t do the work, you don’t get results.
Clients do not magically find you. YOU have to go out and look for them. YOU have to show them how you can provide value to them. YOU have to offer them stories so irresistible that they can’t NOT buy them.
YOU are the one trying to sell something here—an idea or a service. And therefore, you have to learn to market.
I hate to be mean, but it really is that simple.
I talk to dozens of freelancers a week and it always comes down to this: They’re not marketing enough. Therefore, they’re not earning enough. It’s a direct correlation. Change one variable (the marketing), and the other automatically changes, too.
My student sent out dozens of pitches and letters of introduction the following week. Within a month, she had new work and regular assignments.
Let me be straight with you: If you’re not making the income you want from freelancing, it is not the market’s fault, it is not the industry’s fault, it is not because of a recession, and it is not because there are no longer any good clients left in the world. In fact, many freelancers are doing incredibly well.
If you’re not making the income you want from freelancing, it is YOUR FAULT.
The good news is that this is a fixable issue and if you decide to put in the work, you can change the situation around very quickly.
Here’s why you’re not making the freelancing income you want and some quick and easy ways to fix it.
1. You’re not marketing at least five times a day, every day
If you’re a new freelancer with little to no work, you simply have no excuse to not put every hour of freelancing time into marketing. That is all you should be doing all day, every day for as many hours as you can afford to. In between the marketing, write essays and humor pieces and work on that novel, but all that has to come after the marketing, not instead of it.
If you want to make any kind of living with freelancing, you need to learn to get clients. And in order to get clients, you have to not only learn marketing, but learn how to market well, and learn how to market frequently.
If you write for publications, here’s a blog post on how I sent out five pitches a day during the early years of my career.
If you’re looking for content marketing and blogging clients, here’s a list of 21 ways to find them.
2. You’re relying on websites such as Upwork and Fiverr
If you’re relying on these sorts of freelancer websites to get work, let’s be honest, you’re missing out bigtime. You’re hoping to put up a profile and get clients to find you and give you work. You apply for jobs, sure, but you’re really not required to make much of an effort.
If you’re serious about making an income, you need to dump the websites with the low-paying clientele and get serious about learning how to find and pitch clients directly.
Are newspapers like The New York Times and tech companies like HP and Google likely to be hiring freelancers off Upwork? No, they’re not. So if you want to build a career that involves writing for national publications, doing content marketing for big brands, or making a good per hour rate, ditch the websites and start reaching out to editors and content managers directly.
3. You haven’t yet mastered the art of a good pitch
Knowing how to write a good query letter is one of the most basic tools in a professional writer’s arsenal. If you don’t yet have that, it needs to be one of the things you learn about first and most urgently.
Handily, I’ve written a lot about pitching and querying on this website. Here are a few posts to start you off:
When it Comes to Pitching, Should You Aim High… or Low?
The Nuts and Bolts of Turning a Story Idea into a Query
The 6 Essential Traits of Query Letters That Work
The Real Reason You Haven’t Cracked the Nationals Yet
What Gets Your Queries Assigned? A Top Editor Tells All
4. You’re not building relationships
What do you do when you get a rejection? Move on to the next publication on your list?
That’s what I used to do.
Now I do something better: I take the query letter that’s come back rejected and send it to another publication and, in addition, I send the editor who just rejected me another pitch. That way, I keep the conversation going, my name top of mind, and queries always in circulation.
Most people see rejections as a big fat NO. Instead, if you can learn to look at rejections as the start of a conversation and the building of a relationship, you’ll learn to approach them differently and learn to use them as a stepping stone to acceptances.
When an editor rejects you, don’t wait forever to send her another idea. Use the rejection as a conversation starter and send her another idea as soon as you can.
5. You’re inconsistent
Most writers pitch. But in my experience, only 1% of new writers will pitch with any kind of consistency. Therefore, it is those 1% of writers who won’t ever struggle for an income.
The remaining 99% have excuses. You got busy with the work that came from the earlier marketing. You don’t have any ideas at the moment. You’re so tired of the constant pitching and need a break. Etc.
If you’re not seeing the results in your income that you want, create a consistent pitching and querying schedule. It doesn’t matter how you do your marketing, just that you do it. Once you’re more established, have regular clients, and are making the money you want to, you can afford to cut down on your marketing. Until then, pitch away.
6. You’re wasting time on useless tasks
Ever spent a day checking email, puttering about on Facebook, updating your blog, creating graphics for social media images, and just basically wiling away your time doing work that doesn’t necessarily translate to new work or meeting current deadlines?
See, when you fill up your day with mindless minutiae, you get to the end and have no energy left for the more important tasks for the day. That is why it is essential that you do the writing and the marketing first and then move on to other things such as email and networking on Facebook.
7. You don’t believe that you can
Finally, let me just say: You will never achieve anything that you don’t believe you can achieve. I frequently post tips on many Facebook groups on how to increase your income or be more prolific, etc., and there are always those one or two people who simply cannot fathom that a six-figure income can be made without working 80-hour weeks or that there are authors who routinely write 5,000 words a day. They not only question it, they vehemently insist it can’t be done. And for them, it can’t. Because they don’t believe it’s possible.
If you think it’s impossible, it will be. If you think it’s possible, it will be. That’s the way it works.
Change your mindset, get into the habit of marketing, and reach higher. The income you want will inevitably follow.
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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