At the end of June, when I was assessing my finances, I was completely shocked to see that I had basically hit my target income already.
That must be a fluke, right? But it wasn’t. My trusty Google Sheets had the right formula, and I double checked to make sure all my invoices were documented correctly.
“Welp,” I thought to myself, “I already hit $50k” (my target income). “I could just give up on working for the rest of the year.”
Of course, I didn’t. At the time, I didn’t strategize for a six-figure year, but towards the end of Q3, when it was looking more and more likely that I could hit that goal without overworking myself, I thought, why not?
I know 2020 is a strange year to be making money as a freelance journalist. Publications have shut down. Some have entirely cut their freelance budgets. Over the last year, I’ve coached nearly 100 other freelancers, so I am very much aware of how difficult it is to get freelance pitches commissioned — and commissioned at a fair rate, at that.
As I close my books, I want to share my numbers, and a few tips on how I made this possible.
Gross income: $107,000
Net income: $103,300
50% journalism (writing)
19% journalism (fact checking)
16% non-journalistic writing (trade pubs, brands)
10% from podcast
5% from coaching
Vacation days taken: 35–40.
Clients (excluding coaching and podcast): 34
Lessons I learned
- Calculate a ‘rock bottom’ hourly rate. Then, use that to determine your ‘secret hourly rate.’
In season one of my podcast The Writers’ Co-op, which I run with Jenni Gritters, the two of us advocate for all freelancers to come up with an hourly rate to match their target income. It’s a simple calculation: take your desired earnings (based on your living costs), and divide them by how many hours you want to work a year (which accounts for “paid” vacation days)
That hourly rate is great — I call it my ‘rock bottom’ hourly rate — but all freelancers need to account for non-billable hours. You know, the hours you spend developing a pitch, updating your CV or website, promoting the work you’ve published, building relationships with your clients, and more. This is why I’ve started instating a ‘secret hourly rate.’
A secret hourly rate should be at least 2x as much as your rock bottom hourly rate, which is what I will now call your ‘rock bottom rate.’ Hell, it might end up being more (based on the project — more on that in a second). That secret hourly rate should be what you’re always aiming for.
If I’m remembering correctly, when I initially did my numbers, my rock bottom was $50/hr, so my ‘secret hourly rate’ would have been at least $100/hr.
The reality is, when I started tracking my time, I realized I was actually able to work much faster than I thought I could, which only made my hourly rate go up.
2. The secret hourly rate should stay secret.
As much as I advocate for transparency, I believe that your secret hourly rate should remain a secret. At least, to your clients :)
To do this, I advocate for all freelancers to negotiate project rates.
I cannot overstate how important it is to come to a project rate with a client — whether it’s a newspaper or magazine, or a trade publication, a brand, nonprofit, whatever.
Coming up with a value for the work you’re about to deliver helps absorb a lot of costs. It also absorbs the fluctuations that are inherent in the editing process (for instance, if you’re getting paid by the word, you may want to write more words to get paid more, only to have them cut out). I find that coming up with a project rate (even based on per-word fees) makes me stress less about how many words I’m filing the story at.
This year, I learned that hourly rates are… sort of the demon. Sure, they can pay you more if a client is notorious with scope creep. But, more commonly, hourly rates punish those who are experienced (and thus, efficient). I have one client who I fact-check for regularly. It turns out the rate they had me at ($50/h) was already topping out on their range of hourly rates. I was ready to drop them when they told me they were amenable to project fees for fact-checking. This made things way better, and I encourage other freelancers to think about project fees in the same way: What is the value of having an edited newsletter? An accurate book? An accurate podcast episode?
It is an arbitrary process to set up project fees. The way I like to calculate project rates is always with my secret hourly rate (from #1) x the number of hours I think it will take, pad that with three extra hours of work, + 20% to account for taxes — but it all depends on who the client is, and what your client’s budget looks like.
To give you a sense of how project fees can work in your favor:
One client of mine pays me $1.50 per word, but I invoice at a project rate. Usually, that work comes to $1500 for a one-source story. I don’t spend more than 5 hours, so my hourly rate maths out to around $300.
Another (journalism) client of mine pays me $1/word for a single-source story that gets assigned at around 1400 words, and it takes me, say, 4 hours. My hourly rate works out to around $300/hr or more.
3. Turns out, travel is a money sink.
At the beginning of the year, I spent a whole month in the Southwest, reporting on two separate stories.
Travel used to be a staple in my freelance business — I’d try and take about two big trips a year. But it’s hard for me to multitask when I’m gone. I can’t take on fact-checking assignments or report other pieces because I’m so engrossed in getting the story right with the limited amount of time I have.
But when the coronavirus shut down travel, I realized I could often multitask on quite a number of projects. This obviously helped, because the more I can take on, the more money I can make.
4. Look for projects that clock in at least $1,000.
As I look at the invoices I’ve sent out in 2020 (which I track with a simple Google Sheet), I’m noticing that nearly all the stories I’ve done have netted me no less than $1000.
It’s tiring to pull together some semblance of a freelance ‘salary’ if you are stringing together $100 or $500 stories. (If you’re in this boat, consider negotiating a ‘package deal’ with a client!) In the before times, I used to equate a $1500 story as a week’s worth of work. But at home, I’m finding I can do around 1.5x that. I started looking for assignments that would net me at least $1k per project, especially for writing. That would at least make my time worthwhile.
This year, I took on big projects. One fact-checking project paid $9,000. My features paid me at least $1/word (one was supplemented by a grant) and up to $1.95/word.
5. Plan ahead.
We talk about this on the podcast, but whenever I am in a lull with freelance work and don’t want to spend more time pitching, I reach out to my regular clients.
Diversification is key as a freelancer. In addition to my journalism, I write for trade publications, brands and university magazines, run my podcast, and coach other freelancers. Even though these streams of income are individually significantly less than what I make from journalism alone, they provide a good buffer in the slower months. We describe this on our podcast as “rotating stability.”
If I’m coming up on a slow month, I’ll email my clients. It’s a simple: “Hey, how are things going? I have some availability DATE ONE — DATE TWO. Is there anything I could help with?”
I’m always surprised by how much work turns up.
Based on a lot of conversations I’ve had with colleagues, I’m starting to think that around $100–150k is topping out as far as freelance writing salaries go. (If you’re already making $90k, it might not be possible to double that without taking a major hit to your mental health.)
Of course, making six figures — or doubling your freelance income — isn’t for everyone. In fact, I’m not even advocating for people to double their salaries. For some of us, it might be downright impossible if we are saddled with taking care of family members or wrangling children on a daily basis. But for those of you who are interested in making more because you have the capacity or desire to do so, I wanted to provide this sort of roadmap for you.
Still, I think the idea of a six-figure freelance writer is something we should be normalizing. After all, $100k as a freelancer amounts to around 60–70k as a staffer since we don’t get benefits, like a 401k match, healthcare coverage, and paid vacation days. I like to think that all of us can get to that place if we’re strategic and deliberate.
I have often wondered if I want to do this again next year. After all, there were a few high-intensity weeks where I felt myself pushing deeper and deeper into the burnout hole. After I crunched my numbers, I realized that I could put money towards my Roth IRA, pay for six weeks of vacation, healthcare, and my other expenses if I made around $75–80k a year. But, who knows, maybe my business will get stronger in the years to come. I’m looking forward to seeing how that pans out.