A six-figure journalist and bestselling author on how to set effective income goals and the process she used to meet hers.
I’m a very goal-oriented person. I have weekly goals, monthly goals, and yearly goals. I also have daily goals.
While some people view goals as limiting, I’ve found that setting the right goals and moving towards them has actually allowed for more freedom in my life. As creative freelancers, it is often much too easy to come to the desk in the morning and be completely paralyzed by the sheer number of things that we need to get done. By setting goals you allow yourself the clarity to see what you need to be working on and focus your attention on the things that will move your career forward.
I feel the same way about income goals.
One of the most common questions I see on freelancer forums and Facebook groups is from writers who don’t know where to begin with pricing themselves. They get a job offer and they’re not sure whether or not to take it because they’re unclear on how positively or negatively it will impact their overall income.
While external factors are certainly important, I’m a big believer in the idea that knowing what you want to earn and need to earn is essential in learning how to price yourself and navigating through what is or isn’t acceptable for your business and your stage of freelancing.
That all starts with setting income goals. Here’s how to go about doing that.
Setting Income Goals
The most important aspect of income goals is to set them. You have to be realistic, but you also want to challenge yourself. I recommend calculating two numbers: Your base income and your target income.
The base number is the minimum you should be earning given your circumstances. So you might, for instance, be able to survive on $500 a month, but you may have noticed that you can, without much effort, easily bring in $2,000 a month with your regular work. That then, is your base income.
When trying to arrive at this number, I generally recommend sticking with the average of what you’ve made in the last quarter. If you make $2,000, $4,500, $3,000, and $2,500 in the last four months, I’m going to say that your base income is $3,000 and that you should be making at least this much each month without any additional effort or pain going forward.
This number is what I generally treat as the floor. As in, I won’t go below this unless the floor is being pulled from under my feet and I’m in circumstances that require desperate action.
Your target number is really the number we’re going to focus on when it comes to income goals. This is the number that makes you quiver in fear but also makes you smile when you think about hitting it. It is also somewhat achievable in the next three to six months. This is meant to be a number that you truly believe you can hit, not some random number that is completely unreasonable, unrealistic, and unachievable. If you’re averaging $1,000 a month right now, setting the target for $10,000 a month, while possible, only serves to discourage you if you don’t hit it. Try reaching for $2,000 or $3,000 instead.
Remember, your target should be a number that seems just a little bit out of reach. Not so far that you can’t even see it. You can see it, but you can’t touch it. Yet.
Meeting Income Goals
Meeting income goals essentially comes down to willpower. Let me explain.
1. Learn to say no
Every time you get an acceptance or the offer of an assignment, you have to learn to look at it objectively, see whether it helps or hinders your from meeting your goals and only then, either accept it or turn it down.
That may sometimes mean saying yes even if it’s a dry topic that you dislike and will have to suffer through.
That may sometimes mean saying no to a low-paying “opportunity” for visibility.
This is not to say, of course, that you can’t or shouldn’t take on passion projects. You can and you should. Just don’t count them with your “income” goals. They may add to it and if so, great, but don’t start relying on them if you’re serious about meeting your income goals. (Or reassess whether your income goals are really yours or just an ego-driven exercise.)
I often ask my students to calculate the hourly rate they need to be charging based on their base income needs and the number of hours they work. If someone is working 30 hours a week, of which only 20 hours are writing (80 hours a month) and they need to be earning $4,000 a month, then their rate needs to be at least $50 an hour ($4000/80). If they don’t earn that for every assignment, they won’t meet their income targets. It’s that simple.
Don’t cram your schedule so much with $20-an-hour work that you never have the time for the $100-an-hour work to even show up.
2. Market routinely and consistently
If you have 30 hours a week in which to work, and 20 of those hours can be devoted to writing, then the only way you’re going to meet your income goals is by filling up those 20 hours with writing work and assignments. This is, in fact, the hardest part for most writers because it requires planning, thinking ahead, and of course, working efficiently.
(Want to know why you’re not making the freelancing income you want? Read this.)
When you do this, however, you allow for a steady stream of work to fill up your hours. Ideally, you’d fill up the next two week’s 20 hours much in advance so that your marketing is future-focused. Needless to say, this is harder to do as a new writer and gets easier the more experienced you become.
3. Find recurring sources of income and clients
For content marketing and corporate writing work, recurring clients are a lot easier to come by than for magazine writers and journalists. (Here’s how to get them.)
The only way to build recurring revenue with your magazine clients is to pitch consistently. I send 30 queries a month once every quarter and that sets me up for the next few months. It’s become habitual almost, a part of my routine.
Every time you finish an assignment for a client, send them a new pitch. This means that even if you’re not on an official schedule, you will manage to get work more consistently than you would otherwise.
With content marketing and corporate clients, especially in the early days when you need to fill up your hours, push for quantity and offer to drop your rates a little. Once you’ve done good work, you can raise your rates, but building that regular client base has to be top priority because it gives you income that you can depend upon, schedule for, and build from.
(New to content marketing? Here’s a 10-part series that will get you started.)
Where most writers fail in the setting and achieving of income goals is that they either aren’t realistic about setting targets or not focused enough to keep tracking how they’re doing as the month goes by.
If you get those two things right, you’ll be well on your way to meeting any income goal that you set for yourself now and in the future.
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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