In this post, freelance journalist and writing coach Jodi Helmer explains why you might be unintentionally undermining your own success and limiting your ability to meet your freelance income goals. — Michelle Rafter
When I started freelancing in 2002, I worked more than full-time, building a portfolio by churning out articles for local magazines and gratefully accepting any assignments that were offered.
By the end of the year, though, I’d earned less money than an employee at a fast food restaurant — and I didn’t get free fries!
If you’re not meeting your income goals, you might be making the same mistakes I did.
If any of the following scenarios sound familiar, you need to change how you do business to improve your bottom line:
1. You’re working on volume.
Freelancing is a feast or famine business, right? And that means you need to gorge yourself at the assignment buffet when work is plentiful.
Consider this: If your goal is to make $50,000 a year and you plan to work 50 weeks, you need to make $1,000 a week. Taking 10 assignments that pay $100 each will help you reach your income goal – for a week or two. But the amount it takes to research and report that many stories in that period of time is a surefire path to burnout.
Feverishly cranking out stories takes away from the time you could be spending querying publications or clients that offer higher rates.
2. You’re obsessed with per-word rate.
Who doesn’t want to get $2 per word for every assignment? There is nothing wrong with aiming for premium rates. But turning down work based solely on the per-word rate is a mistake.
In most cases, writing for magazines that pay top rates requires a lot more work, including extensive outlines to nab the assignment and multiple rewrites. Accepting an assignment with a lower rate, like 50 to 75 cents per word, not a few pennies per paragraph, often leads to a higher per-hour rate.
When it comes to reaching your income goal, it’s the amount you make per hour, not per word, that matters.
3. You accept what’s offered.
There is a warm, fuzzy feeling that comes with having an assignment land in your inbox. But before emailing the editor to accept, consider the terms.
Small changes to a contract can lead to significant payback. For example, a well-known women’s magazine offered me $1.50 a word for a 1,500-word article. I asked the editor if there was wiggle room in the budget for a higher fee and snagged an extra 50 cents a word. The extra added up to $750 — enough to cover my monthly mortgage, and all because I asked.
Also, asking for a first rights contract instead of an all-rights contract gives you leeway to sell reprints of the article for an additional fee.
4. Your research isn’t working hard enough.
Boosting your bottom line is all about working smarter, not harder. For freelancers, the easiest way to do this is recycling interviews and information.
When I visited a farm for an assignment, I turned the experience into three stories:
- An essay about working as a farmhand for a regional magazine
- As part of a roundup for an in-flight magazine
- A profile of a green destination for a wellness magazine
Consider additional ways you can reuse information: You could pitch a profile of a source to their alumni magazine or use an interesting research finding for an FOB in a national magazine.
5. You’re not investing in your success.
You know the old adage that you have to spend money to make money? It holds true for freelancing.
Membership to websites like FreelanceSuccess.com and Mediabistro.com provide valuable connections and insights into the business of freelancing. Attending meetings such as the annual American Society of Journalists and Authors’ writers conference give you the tools to further your career.
Concerned about making that kind of an investment? I’ve earned tens of thousands of dollars from these resources over the past decade, more than enough to cover the membership fees for a lifetime.
Journalist and author Jodi Helmer writes for magazines such as National Geographic Traveler, Shape, Entrepreneur, Natural Health and American Way, and offers classes and one-on-one coaching to help writers launch freelance careers. Visit her online at JodiHelmer.com.
[Flickr photo by NathanF]