10 Ways to Make a Six-Figure Income as a Freelance Writer, Part 2

[Last week, we gave you Bob's first 5 steps to making a six-figure income as a freelance writer. Below are his remaining steps to getting higher paying assignments, royalties, and sales – and his secret for eliminating writer's block.]

  1. The secret to eliminating writer's block.

    Profitable writers are productive writers. We write consistently, every day, whether the mood strikes us or not. "The professional writer must establish a daily schedule and stick to it," writes William Zinsser in "On Writing Well" (HarperResource, 2001).

    The best way to maintain a steady output and avoid writer's block is to have many projects on various subjects and in different formats. The variety keeps you fresh and prevents you from getting bored or fatigued, which are the key causes of writer's block.

    This is the method I use, and it has never failed me:

    If I am writing a magazine ad and get stuck on the headline, I can put it aside and switch to the direct-mail package I'm writing for a software company. If I get to the point where I need more information from my software client to proceed with their sales letter, I can put that aside and work on an article or book.

    You can decide the mix of assignments and workloads that works best for you. Personally, I always like to have half a dozen projects in the works at any one time. Less limits my variety and my options.

    "My interests remain varied," says Robert Lerose, a freelance direct-mail copywriter. "I try to go after work in other areas, such as speechwriting and editorial writing." Another freelance copywriter, Sig Rosenblum, has written poetry, novels, short stories, a musical comedy, movie music, "and a few other forms." Gary Blake, a book and magazine writer, branched out into teaching business writing to corporate executives.

  2. The secret to getting paid more.

    I have read at least 100 articles and letters in writers' magazines that go something like this: "I was writing for a long time for a magazine that paid 10 cents a word. Finally, I told the editor that I could not work for less than 15 cents a word. At first, he said no, but I stuck by my guns and, by gosh, he paid it. See … you CAN get paid more for your writing!"

    To me, the practice of going to low-paying markets and trying to convert them into high-paying markets is unproductive. Even if you get an extra 5 cents a word – which in my example represents a 50 percent pay hike – we're talking about only $50 more for a 1,000-word article.

    If you really want to start making big money from your writing, don't haggle over nickels and dimes. Don't try to get a penny-a-word market to pay 2 cents a word, and then feel pleased that you doubled your fee. It's still pennies. Instead, target high-paying markets and assignments – large-circulation consumer magazines, Fortune 500 corporations, and mid-size businesses. These folks are used to paying top dollar, so you won't have to do a song and dance to get the fee you deserve.

    Moving to higher-paying assignments accelerates your climb to the $100,000-a-year mark. It's much easier to meet your goal of $400 a day when you get $2,000 per project instead of $200.

    When considering the profitability of assignments, calculate your earnings per hour rather than per project or per word. If it takes you 10 eight-hour days to do a $2,000 feature article for a glossy magazine, you make $25 an hour. If an industrial manufacturer hires you to write simple press releases for the trade at $500 each and you can do two per day, you make $125 an hour.

  3. Royalties, sales, and mark-ups.

    Dentists have a saying: "The more you drill and fill, the more you bill." That means, despite their high pay, they are still in essence hourly laborers, getting paid only for their time – just like writers.

    Dentists get around this by hiring other dentists to work for them in their practice and by collecting more in revenue from the work of these dentists than the salaries paid to them. For writers, there are basically three options for escaping from the limitations of "drill, fill, and bill":

    —Royalties

    When you write books or music, you get a royalty for each book or CD purchased. You can make thousands of extra dollars a month from products on which you are paid a royalty – without doing any more work. Direct-mail writer Dick Sanders, for instance, charges his clients a mailing fee per package mailed in addition to his flat fee for writing copy. If a publisher pays him 3 cents per package mailed, a mailing of 1 million pieces earns Dick an additional $30,000 in mailing fees.

    —Sales

    You can create and sell your own information products, such as books, e-books, subscription websites, newsletters, videos, audiocassettes, and special reports. This is the "self-publishing" option Dan Poynter discusses in his book "The Self-Publishing Manual" (Para Publishing) and in his columns in Writer's Digest.

    —Mark-ups

    Some writers make money by buying products or services, marking them up, and reselling them to their clients. For example, a freelance corporate writer may supervise the printing of the brochure he wrote for his client. The printer bills the writer directly. The writer sends his own printing bill to the corporate client, with the actual cost marked up 20 percent to compensate him for his project-management services. On a $20,000 print bill, your mark-up would be $4,000. "Never miss out on the opportunity to coordinate printing," says Flynn. "The profit potential is too great to pass by."

    These three strategies may enable you to make money outside of your own hourly labor, but they are not without pitfalls. What happens if you print 3,000 copies of your self-published book and sell only 100 copies to friends and relatives? What happens when the corporate client declares bankruptcy (can you say "WorldCom"?) and you are stuck with a printer's bill for thousands of dollars of color printing?

  4. The secret to solving the "supply and demand" problem.

    To earn six figures as a freelance writer, you have to be pretty busy most if not all of the time. Writers who suffer prolonged periods without work are going to have a difficult time meeting their revenue goals. If your goal is $2,000 a week and you make zero this week, you're going to have to make $4,000 in an upcoming week to get back on track.

    To minimize downtime and ensure a full writing schedule, you have to create a demand for what you are selling. And one way to make sure you are always in demand is to specialize.

    You can specialize in a subject: gardening, content management, wastewater management, investments, interpersonal skills, health and fitness. Or you can specialize in a format or medium: multimedia presentations, websites, e-mail marketing, direct mail, speeches, annual reports.

    Must you specialize? No. But as a rule, specialists earn more than generalists, are more in demand, and have an easier time finding work.

    A few more words about specializing:

    • Being a specialist and a generalist are not mutually exclusive. You can develop a specialty – even several specialties – and still take on general assignments as they come up. My friend Richard Armstrong has three specialties: writing direct mail for publishers, speechwriting, and political fundraising. Dan Poynter also has three specialties: parachuting, self-publishing, and being an expert witness.
    • The narrower and more focused your specialty, the greater your value to clients and editors who need someone to write on those subjects. An example of a narrow focus is mutual funds, a sub-topic within the broader area of investing and personal finance.
    • The less popular your specialty is with other writers, the greater your competitive edge. If you are only one of a handful of known experts on your topic, the demand for your writing services will exceed the supply, and you can pick and choose your assignments.
  5. The secret to getting repeat business.

    The most profitable assignments in freelance writing are repeat assignments from current clients. Why? Because you are familiar with the clients and their organizations, your need to learn about them diminishes with each new assignment. You can charge the same price per job, or maybe even more if they like you – but you can do the jobs much faster because of the knowledge you have accumulated.

    How do you get lucrative repeat assignments?

    • Give every writing job your best effort. The more satisfied the client, the more likely they are to give you another job.
    • Provide excellent customer service. Don't be a prima donna. Clients avoid working with writers perceived as difficult or demanding.
    • Ask the editor or client for another project. Often, you won't get the work unless you ask.

    Doing good work stimulates referrals as well as repeat business. Freelancer Charles Flowers was chosen to write "A Science Odyssey," a companion volume for the PBS series, because the editor knew him from another project.

May I share a secret with you? In the aftermath of 9/11 and with the anthrax scare, my main business – writing direct mail – got hit hard. And 2002 was the worst year I'd had in some time. Yet, despite that, I still grossed well over $300,000.

The point? There is no "bad time" or "good time" for freelance writing. There is only now. And right now, you can make $100,000 a year writing. Just follow the advice above and watch the checks come rolling in.

The Professional Writers’ Alliance

The Professional Writers’ Alliance

At last, a professional organization that caters to the needs of direct-response industry writers. Find out how membership can change the course of your career. Learn More »


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Published: September 1, 2003

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