Earn Money Writing: 4 Big Lessons from a $126K+ Freelancer
Want to earn money writing?
No, not pocket change or beer-fund cash.
Real money. Enough money to pay your bills, save for a rainy day, take a vacation, and you know…enjoy the freelance life.
In 2020, I had my second six-figure year as a freelance writer, grossing $126,683 before business expenses and taxes.
When I started trying to earn money writing in 2012, I quickly realized that I could do this.
But I had no idea that I would eventually earn six figures a year — especially during the early days when I was writing recipes and how-to articles for 3 cents a word.
Been there? Done that?
If you want to earn money writing, content mills and bid sites might seem like a good place to make some quick cash. But it’s a recipe for high-volume work at low rates followed by burnout.
So how did I go from a content-mill worker to a six-figure freelancer?
Here’s 4 lessons I learned about how to earn money writing.
Earn money writing like freelance writer Nicole Dieker
I’ve always been a writer (ask me about the speculative fiction novel I wrote in high school).
But I became a freelancer by accident. In 2012, I was trying to make it as a singer-songwriter in Los Angeles, and I needed a way to earn money writing between gigs.
A Reddit forum suggested I look into a content site called CrowdSource, which was hiring freelancers to write 600-word articles on various topics.
I took CrowdSource’s writing test, passed it, and began completing as many CrowdSource articles as I could fit into a single day.
A year later, I was the fourth-highest CrowdSource earner of all time. (They had a leaderboard, and I was very near the top of it.)
At that point, I knew I wasn’t going to make it as a songwriter. But I might be able to make it as a freelance writer. Why? I was able to:
- Write to spec
- Hit my deadlines
- Turn in near-perfect copy
- But also because the CrowdSource team had started to offer me higher-paying assignments, including jobs that involved editorial work.
If one client values my writing enough to offer me better-paying gigs, I thought to myself, other clients will too.
All I had to do was find them.
That epiphany put me on the path to freelance success, earn money writing, and finally hit the six-figure mark.
Here are the four big lessons I’ve learned along the way:
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1. Anchor clients are the key to your success
CrowdSource was technically my first anchor client, providing steady work and predictable income as I worked to build my freelance career.
A good anchor client will help you stay afloat without tying you down.
But a bad one? If an anchor client:
- Demands all of your time
- Constantly asks for nitpicky revisions
- Is somehow hard to work with…
You’ll have less mental and emotional energy available to send out the pitches and build the relationships that lead to higher-paying work.
And I was pitching — a lot.
I made it my goal to send out a new pitch every day.
Every day, I spend time trying to determine what kinds of sites might be interested in my writing, AND how much they might be willing to pay for it.
I wrote about travel, motorcycles, and college life for multiple publications.
Then it happened…
I pitched The Billfold a series on how a freelance writer makes a living. That was in 2014, and by the end of that year I had grossed $40,966.48 from freelance writing.
I also turned The Billfold into my newest anchor client and established what would become my primary freelance beat — writing about money.
- Do you have any anchor clients?
- How often are you pitching, sending LOIs (letter of introduction), and reaching out to prospects?
- Are you happy with your freelance income OR do you want to move up and earn more?
2. Tracking your freelance income will help you earn more
Editor’s Note: Freshbooks (30-Day Free Trial) makes it easy to track your income and manage your freelance finances.
I didn’t become a personal finance writer out of nowhere. Right after college, I got interested in finance when I happened to stumble on a copy of Your Money or Your Life at the public library.
I had been following all of the big personal finance bloggers for years:
During my brief singer-songwriter career, I kept a blog in which I tracked how much money I was earning from my music.
I kept this financial tracking habit going when I transitioned into freelance writing. And it was the best thing I could have done to increase my earnings.
Every week, I would:
- Tally up my income and my output
- Review my results and previous goals
- Set new goals to increase the first number while lowering the second one
In other words: I wanted to earn more money while writing fewer articles.
Focusing on these two numbers, week after week, helped me look for strategic ways to achieve my goals. I started…
- Saying goodbye to my lowest-paying clients and saying hello to better-paying ones.
- Negotiating rate increases, so I could earn more money for the same amount of work.
- Sending out pitches, with a more strategic approach
If a potential client isn’t likely to increase your income, improve your visibility or offer you additional work after I completing the first assignment, that may not be a prospect you want to spend time on.
It was a lot of work. But then clients started reaching out to me — which changed everything.
3. When clients pitch you, it’s a sign your marketing is paying off
Around 2016 — four years after I started freelancing — I began getting emails from prospects I’d never worked with before.
These prospects were familiar with my writing and/or my reputation, and they wanted to know whether I was interested in any new opportunities.
In other words: They were pitching me.
That’s what you want. This doesn’t happen by accident. You have to do the work.
This was the beginning of a huge shift in my freelance career:
- Since these clients were reaching out to me, I suddenly had the upper hand.
- I could name my rates, instead of waiting for them to tell me what they were willing to pay for a specific article.
- If they pitched me an assignment that looked like it might take a lot of time or effort, I could request a higher rate to compensate for the extra work.
By the end of 2016, I was regularly writing for 50 cents a word. I grossed $88,062 that year — which was not only more money than I’d ever made as a freelancer, but also more money than I’d ever made at any other kind of job.
But there was one more thing I needed to learn before I could become a six-figure freelancer.
4. Move on from long-term clients — even when it’s hard
In early 2019, I made the difficult decision to stop running The Billfold.
Over the past five years, I had gone from columnist to contributor to senior editor. And at that point I was the sole person responsible for ensuring that the site kept publishing.
In 2020, I made a similar, though slightly-less-agonizing decision — to end my relationship with a long-term anchor client that had not only offered me steady work, but also helped me grow my readership.
In both cases, I worried that I was making the wrong choice. But in both cases, it turned out to be the right one.
Saying goodbye to a freelance opportunity that is no longer right for you — even when it’s hard — gives you the TIME, ENERGY and MENTAL SPACE to find the opportunities that are right for you.
The work I found after I stopped doing the work that was no longer working (if you’ll forgive the turn of phrase) was:
- Less time-consuming
- More in line with my long-term freelance and personal goals
Take a look at your list of clients. Which one(s) need to go?
Can you replace those clients with better paying ones? Absolutely.
Follow your own path to freelance success
Where your freelance career go next, and what will you learn along the way?
I can’t say for sure what’s next. I hope I have more six-figure years in me, though I am smart enough to know that freelancing income is rarely guaranteed.
That said, I’d like to think that the work I’ve done so far has prepared me for the future— and that the lessons I’ve learned as a freelancer can help you earn money writing and build your freelance career.
Need help learning how to earn money writing? Let’s discuss in the comments.👇
Nicole Dieker is a freelance writer and author. She’s written for The Write Life, The Penny Hoarder, The Billfold, and many other publications.
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