Last year I met for coffee with a fellow freelance writer in my city, a typical kind of networking meetup. We chatted about the ins and outs of freelancing, but it became clear to me almost immediately that we were talking about two very different types of jobs.
We both call ourselves “freelance writer,” but our approach to the work and our earnings from the work couldn’t have been more different.
Two different writers
I was in the midst of my first six-figure year as a freelancer. I was increasingly thinking of myself as a businessperson and my freelancing as a business. I had developed strategies for pricing, networking, and management. I was hustling like a maniac, signing new lucrative clients, and generally learning that freelancing’s permutations and potential are only limited by one’s own imagination and time.
The person I was sitting with sipped her coffee and told me she’d love to break $30,000 that year. She lived in a small apartment and couldn’t afford health insurance. I heard about her work writing newsletters for a small nonprofit and her background in another profession that she was hardly leveraging at all to help her freelance career.
To me there were obvious ways she could expand into higher-paying work. But she shrugged when I asked her about those options. She seemed resigned to freelancing being a low-earning struggle that she didn’t have much power to change.
Why was there such a disconnect between our two attitudes and realities?
Over the next few weeks I was on the lookout for information about what other freelance writers might be earning to try to understand this better.
In online groups, I heard plenty of comments from those whose earnings were not measuring up to their needs or desires. I also heard from high earners, including one person who made $250,000 in the last year working as a freelance writer.
That $250k-earning writer makes more than eight times the income of the person I met for coffee, yet both will give you the same job title when you ask “what do you do?”
Obviously one factor is that the term “freelance writer” covers a whole lot of territory — referring to everyone who does any kind of writing on a freelance basis, from community newspaper stringers to high-profile business writers. So it’s logical that there’d be a big spread in income when there’s also a big spread in the type of jobs these writers are doing.
However, all freelance writers are engaged in essentially the same activity — selling their writing skills for pay. So on a fundamental level they are doing the same thing. The issue is just that there are so many different ways to do it.
As I always say, freelancing is like the Wild West of the work world; there are no set ways of doing things. It’s each person for themselves, figuring out how to balance doing work that satisfies them with focusing on earning a decent living.
In many cases people proactively choose to earn less than they technically could because they want to do work that feeds their soul, or at least doesn’t bore them to tears. But even when that is the case there is a wide range of how much one can make and still feel satisfied.
Why Some Freelancers Earn Too Little
In the case of my coffee date, she was clearly doing work that felt important to her and accepted the low pay as part of that deal. However, there seemed to be ways she could make more and not end up hating her work life. She just didn’t seem receptive to doing things differently.
Why not? I don’t know for sure, but I’ve thought of a lot of different reasons that people might get stuck making less than they could. Here are a few:
Lack of confidence
A feeling that you’re not really as competent as people believe you are is identified by women in freelancing circles as impostor syndrome. If you suffer from feelings that you aren’t capable of being the higher-earning freelancer you want to be, then you’re likely to resist reaching out for new opportunities.
Perfectionism is enemy #1 of freelancing; if you feel that you have to make everything you produce absolutely perfect, everything will take you forever. And the secret is that even if you “perfect” something to your standards, the client is still likely to want changes simply because they have their own ideas and priorities. Those who aren’t able to start fitting their work style to client’s actual needs and ways of working will continue to spend too long on each assignment, which is not only stressful but also a good way to be stuck in lower earnings.
Fear of selling out
Many freelancers are interested in doing work they love or that excites them or that speaks to them on a deep level. They want to write meaty articles on cultural issues instead of composing blog posts for companies. Or they want to photograph animals for nonprofits instead of working weddings. Earning more often means compromising on what kind of work you’re going to do, which some may feel is selling out their ideals about their work life or their identity.
Freelancing is hard — you have to think independently and constantly problem-solve to make your career move forward. This can feel burdensome, especially if you’ve been thrust into freelancing and didn’t proactively choose it. A sense of resentment can build if you dislike the mechanics of the profession, and that feeling can keep you stuck feeling victimized, which is a sure way to stall your progress toward better things.
Did I mention that freelancing is hard? It’s much harder than a lot of day jobs, where you can show up, do what someone tells you to, and get paid regularly. When you don’t meet success with your earnings right away, it’s tempting to just decide that the field is too competitive and low pay is all you can get.
Attitudes of High-earning Freelancers
By way of contrast, what kinds of attitudes are freelancers like the $250k writer cultivating?
A realistic sense of client needs
It’s not that people who earn more have more natural confidence (though perhaps this is true; I don’t know how you’d measure). It’s that they understand that clients are looking for specific things, many of which have nothing to do with you producing the most amazing work anyone has ever seen. At the end of the day, most clients will value you highly if you make their lives easier. It’s easier to be confident if you know that half the job is simply being responsive and getting things in on time. Another quarter of it is being pleasant and easy to work with. And the final quarter is actually producing decent work that meets the client’s baseline for quality.
Thinking like a businessperson
High-earning freelancers think of themselves as running a business. They are the CEO of that business, which means they weigh opportunities based on factors that include more than whether they love an assignment or not. They think in terms of how much each gig will earn them in a given amount of time and how likely the client is to be good to work with and to pay on time. They don’t “sell out” so much as think more pragmatically about how to balance income and soul-food in their freelancing.
A problem-solving mentality
Freelancing is a constant series of problems to be solved. How to get the next client? How to execute everything on time? How to do the right type of research for the thing you’re writing? How to get the right equipment for the job? Proactively solving these problems is part of being your own CEO, and thinking in this way is the opposite of being victimized by circumstances beyond your control.
Freelancing is bursting with opportunity. Around every corner is something new you could try and a new client to work with. Sure, it may be hard to find those clients and that work, but they are out there. And if you approach the profession with an eye toward all that opportunity you’ll be more likely to figure out how to get some of those opportunities for yourself.
Knowledge is half the battle
There’s one other huge factor that figures in to the gap between those making poverty wages and those living large as freelancers, and that is a knowledge that it’s possible to make great money freelancing.
Many who are stuck in a rut with low-earning gigs simply don’t realize that they could be earning so much more, so they accept what they see in front of them. Once they hear that they could in fact be making twice, three times… heck, eight times as much, they often transform their resignation into an opportunity mindset. Results come quickly when this happens.
One of the major reasons I was able to switch into high gear and improve my business to a point where I am freelancing three times my salary from my last full-time job is that someone told me it was possible.
Until that person told me she was in fact doing it and I could too, it hadn’t even occurred to me that freelancing could ever be more than a “can I scrape together enough this month?” affair.
After I knew it was possible to do what she was doing, I simply decided I would, too. And that sense of opportunity pushed me to crank my efforts up a notch and think more like a businessperson. The effects were almost instantaneous.
I wish my coffee date could have that experience too. But ultimately what she does with her freelance career is up to her. And that’s the beauty of it.