How to Predict Freelance Writer Pay

Carol Tice

How to Predict Freelance Writer Pay. Makealivingwriting.comHow long does it take to start earning income as a freelance writer, and how much do they make? A new freelance writer, Kathy, wrote me recently with this question.

Her computer needs a memory upgrade, and she was wondering how long it would be before she could pay off the expense with her freelance earnings:

I just need some reliable data from somewhere that someone who is beginning at freelancing (as I am) is not going to have to wait two-three years to make $800-$1,000 a month on a quasi-regular basis.

I’d love to get started at grantwriting and other more lucrative assignments, but I imagine it takes quite a bit of time to actually get an assignment.

As it happens, there are studies about how much freelance writers make. The Writer’s Market notes typical rate ranges for various writing gigs. Copywriter Chris Marlow sells a survey on what copywriters make.

But here’s the problem: These surveys don’t tell you anything about what you will earn.

Why? You are not a statistical average. You are an individual. Your situation is unique.

Like the auto-industry people like to say, your mileage may vary.

What will Kathy earn? In my view, that depends on the answers to a few questions:

  • Are you willing to take a class in grantwriting, if that’s your interest?
  • Do you have previous experience in grantwriting?
  • Why are your earning goals so low? A typical full-time freelancer makes quite a bit more than your stated range.
  • Are you able to wait up to three years to start making money? I don’t know many would-be freelancers who could hold out that long — most need to make it happen sooner. I’m curious why you bring up such a long timeframe. In my view, if you’re two years in and not getting any paying work at all — or even six months in — it may be time to reconsider your plans.
  • How crazy-hot are you to become a freelance writer? If you’re burning up to do this, maybe you’ve got the drive to make it happen.
  • Why do you assume it will take a long time to get assignments? It might not take long at all, depending on your writing background and whether you’re willing to aggressively market your writing. You might cold-call and find a great business client your first week.

Assumptions are powerful in the freelance-writing game. Your mindset will often shape what comes to pass.

For instance: When I got back into freelancing in 2005, I thought I could build my freelance-writing business fairly rapidly. Whaddaya know — within six months, I was earning as much as my previous salary as a staff writer.

How to tell what you’ll make, and how soon

Yes, every writer is unique, and it’s difficult to predict how quickly any one freelance writer will start earning, and how much they’ll make.

This is the type of question my friend Anne Wayman likes to call a “How long is a piece of string” question.

How long will it take? How much will you make? In large part, that’s up to you.

But I do have a theory about how you can tell.

In my years of mentoring other writers, I’ve discovered there are some basic factors that tend to predict freelance-writing success. I’ve turned them into a quick, 10-point quiz. I’ll post the quiz later this week and you can check it out.

What do you think predicts writer success? Leave your factors in the comments below.

Do you have questions about how to earn more from your writing? Learn more in my  freelance writer community — take ecourses, attend live events, ask writing pros your questions in our forums, and use our exclusive Junk-Free Job Board.

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  1. Susan

    To Kathy who posted the question,

    I asked the exact same question when I wanted to quit my job and become a freelance writer, and I even took a friend who was a freelancer to lunch and asked him how much he made—not because I was nosy, but I wanted some sort of guarantee that I, too, would make money.

    A few people pointed out to me that in the worst case scenario, you try your wings as a freelancer, you don’t get gigs, and you go back to work. The best case scenario is that you make your former salary or better as a freelancer. If you want to do this, the cost is not very high (a few months and you will know that you tried).

    I also was able to make it as a freelancer, within a few months. I don’t think that this can be guaranteed for anyone, and as Carol points, it is an individual journey. I do also believe people can do things to make it more likely to succeed (I don’t see that part of Kathy’s background addressed, but if she does grant writing work now with samples — she may be ready to jump, but if she does not have this experience, perhaps working as a grant writer at a company for a year or two will help her succeed).

    I also believe that quitting any full-time job will make you hungrier for success (find those clients!), but that also may be different from person to person.

    I’m trying to say to Kathy, use the fear of failure and the drive to succeed as a motivating force, provided that you do have some of the grant writing background.

    Good luck to Kathy on her journey.

  2. Demian Farnworth

    I second Susan’s comments: when you quit your job you put yourself in a position to live or die. And I think that’s a good predictor of someone who will be successful.

    However, experience as a copywriter is equally important.

    I didn’t take the plunge until I was confident I could write as good or better as most freelance copywriters out there. So you have to ask yourself: how do I measure up to the competition?

    Other factors include: How much advertising are you doing? My rule of thumb: If I’m not working on a project, I’m working on exposure.

    Are you writing guest posts, working your contacts? Think of these activities as lead generation. The question is: How many leads are you generating? Both quality and quantity are important.

    In the end, your success and potential income is tied to your experience and ability to generate leads. It will obviously take you longer if you don’t have either. But the nice thing is both can be learned. In time.

    Be patient Kathy and you will succeed.

    • Carol Tice

      I like how you think, Demian!

      The luck fairy is not going to bring you a gig. It’s about proactively marketing yourself out there and finding clients. The more you do that, the faster you will ramp to the earnings level you need.

      We’ll be talking loads about how to do that at the Webinar.

  3. Karen

    Freelance writing (and any other kind of freelancing) can be unpredictable, but as you say it’s not really the fault of the ‘luck fairy’. When I look back on my freelance writing year, the months I earned more were the months I worked hard (or maybe the result of the previous months’ hard work). The dry spells are usually a sign of decreased productivity, either planned (school holidays) or unavoidable (illness). I also think that now, more than ever, freelance writing success is about more than writing ability. Business skills like marketing and selling are more relevant than ever. Some of the most successful writers now aren’t the best writers, but the best all-round business people.

  4. Howard Baldwin

    Not to be too granular, but any new freelancer has to figure one metric into their budgeting when they’re starting out — the lagtime between when you submit and when you get paid. With one magazine, it was NINE MONTHS from the time I pitched the story to the time I got paid (needless to say, that was the last time I wrote for that publication). Publishers are hanging onto their money longer and longer these days, and that can be a real hassle. I had to fire one client who promised payment 30 days after posting (which was too long to begin with) and then stretched it into 60.

    That said, in 10 years of freelancing, my first year was the only one where I made less than I did as a staffer. Bon chance!

    • Carol Tice

      That’s one of the big reasons writers turn to mills — the fast pay, tiny though it may be. I did a post a while back about cash management so that you can go after the better gigs…it’s essential.

      I too drop slow payers. It’s a problem I call “Bank of Carol” — clients have confused me with a bank and taken out a loan by borrowing what is really my money (if they’re past the payment date) to keep running their business. I do my best to keep that Bank closed!

      I too was earning more than my staff gig about a year out, and it’s been nowhere but up since then. I couldn’t imagine going back at this point. The real job security in our new economy is in being a freelancer.

  5. Ali's writer blog

    I agree with Kathy… it all depends on your inner-self and the ‘level’ of knack you have as a writer, background also matters but obviously you can get a good start if you have a knack… that’s how I got my career as a freelance writer on the right foot 🙂

  6. Missy

    This was an excellent post, Carol. I have a lot of people who ask me how much I make, how much they’ll make, and why they’re not making what I make. I think I’m going to start referring them to this post. Thanks.

    • Carol Tice

      Feel free!

      My friend Anne Wayman at About Freelance Writing calls that the ‘how long is a piece of string?’ question. It just depends!

  7. Jessi Chapman

    Hi, there! As a freelance writer, I am constantly asked this question myself. It’s such a difficult, but important one, to address. I remember when I was just starting out how desperate I was to have some idea of what I should charge, and how much I could earn in the future. Unfortunately, I had little luck finding any definitive answers, because as you said, we are all unique and have specific skill sets.

    Check out the blog post I worked up addressing freelance writer pay, and the difficulty of explaining to others just how much you earn.

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