How much — or how little — could you earn and still be able to live above your “survival” threshold?
Who’s depending on you, and are you able to meet their needs? Could you make it work even if your income stuck you below the poverty line?
These are questions few people really need to answer, let alone consider. But not long ago, these weren’t just hypothetical questions I pondered. They were my life, day in and day out, for three years. Freelance blogging and editing became the answer to all of those questions. That, and a steely determination not to fail.
Today I’m sharing the ins and outs of what I did in my first three years of serious freelancing. Let me just say right here that my path from dabbler to successful freelance blogger and editor was not smooth. I had the skills to do the actual work of writing and editing, but I lacked skills in pretty much every other area necessary to get my business off the ground.
My story is not about a quick rise to the top. I never broke $4,000 in a single month, and I won’t tell you about how easy-peasy it was to become a successful freelancer. Because for me, it wasn’t easy. I made a lot of mistakes, learned most of my lessons the slow way, and wasted a lot of time.
That said, I did go from know-nothing beginner to being a paid blogger and editor capable of supporting my little family, with few resources and very little time to make it happen. Here’s how I did it.
Beginner freelancing, in high gear
After reading enough blogs and connecting with enough people to know that “making a real income online” using my writing and editing skills was possible, I wanted in. I’d dabbled and tinkered in freelance work since 2010, doing odd jobs here and there for friends’ companies, but I didn’t get serious about freelancing until 2012.
And it got really serious.
The turning point: In the final weeks of 2011, I watched my then-husband move out of our bedroom just before our first (and only) child was born. Jobless, newly spouseless, and with a baby in my arms, I was staring down my personal worst-case scenario.
I’d always wanted to be an at-home mom, and I wasn’t about to give up on that dream right when I was getting started. With no debt, a bootstrapped standard of living, and a low-rent apartment on my family’s property, I made the leap from Colorado to North Carolina and got serious about freelancing. I didn’t know much, but I did know I could figure it out along the way.
In 2012, I earned $8400
That year was pretty rocky and I didn’t work a full 12 months. It was probably more like 9 months, between the newborn haze and a cross-country move.
Because I’d already been dabbling in writing and editing online, I had some idea of what I could do to earn money. I evaluated the skills I already had and decided to commit to editing: I had a journalism degree, editing experience, and a network of freelance editors who mostly worked with academics. I also looked for writing opportunities, though I lacked focus and had no idea how to make real money.
As a newly minted Freelance Editor, I updated my website and started looking for work. And by “looking for work,” I mean “treading water until something came along because I had no idea how to find work.”
Editing commanded higher rates than the random virtual assistant work I was doing at $15/hr, but I had a hard time finding editing clients and quite honestly, I didn’t enjoy the work. A lot of my gigs came from referrals (past clients and friends-of-friends), and while the referral work was a huge relief, I felt like I was getting nowhere fast.
The baby kept me busy so much of the time (and the divorce was such an enormous drain) that I had very little mental energy to work up any kind of effective business analysis or strategy, which meant no significant progress. If I hadn’t been so distracted by motherhood and grief, I would have been really frustrated.
What I did wrong
I tried to force myself into a mold I didn’t fit. The only freelancers I “knew” were academic editors who’d been doing it for 20 years or more, and I felt like an outsider. Having their model be the only model for success that I saw meant I had blinders on to everyone and everything else out there.
I was also so focused on making my editing business work that I completely missed the whole “don’t write for pennies” thing, which would bite me in the butt later on.
What I did right
I knew there had to be something beyond $15/hour pay rates, and in my limited spare time I started sniffing out other opportunities. I also plugged into an in-person social network and developed some great friendships (including one with the guy I now call my husband). While these friends weren’t necessarily helpful in a business sense, they were a critical source of emotional support and stability when I felt like I was drowning in my life.
How you can avoid my mistakes
Don’t weld yourself to a specific brand or concept, even if it’s the only thing you can think of right now. Listen to your intuition: if your current income feels uncomfortably low, there’s a reason and there’s an alternative. Chase that hunch. And in the meantime, go easy on yourself — this is a really hard time but you’ll get through it.
In 2013, I earned $11,500
This is the year I lost ground, without realizing it. Like the previous year, I didn’t get in a full year of work; it was more like 10 months thanks to some health issues. Almost all of my work came from friends and referrals, because I still didn’t know how to market myself.
The big shift I made in 2013 was away from academic editing. The rigors, the dramatic clients, the deadlines that couldn’t be adjusted despite the fact that my manuscripts would come to me days late… it was no longer worth the hassle. I did want to keep with “regular” editing for authors and other clients, though, because that’s work I really like.
Despite being clueless about marketing and finding clients, I was branching out and becoming more comfortable with the concept of slightly higher rates. I picked up a new writing client, I did some copywriting and other work for a couple of local attorneys, and I worked on web copy and product descriptions for an ecommerce site. I also ran their blog, which taught me about SEO, marketing strategies, connecting with established blogs and pitching posts, etc.
I was also finally finding some good advice about running this business that I claimed to be running (but was actually running me into the ground).
What I did wrong
I was still pricing everything by the hour, using a low hourly rate. The blogging gigs were a valuable training ground in solidifying my ability to work with keywords and write for the web, but they ended up working out to about 3 cents per word. Ouch.
What I did right
I let go of academic editing, and that freed me up to explore alternative opportunities, like working for small businesses and drafting recommendation letters. I also listened to the mounting internal frustration over being unable to charge higher rates for what I was doing, and I took a hard look at the earning potential that blogging offered when compared to everything else I was doing. That examination led to a new (and necessary) turning point.
How you can avoid my mistakes
Find the people who are making a living as freelance writers and bloggers, and see what they’re doing that you aren’t doing. It’s time to start doing things that scale, and editing rates don’t scale. Focus on what you like and go for it, because a piecemeal career is not a real career.
In 2014, I earned $20,000
I had more substantial expenses this year, but even with those factored in, I was no longer living below the poverty line — a huge accomplishment. And again, I ended up taking some time off in the middle of the year, this time to recover from a dog attack. (It’s surprisingly hard to write well when you’ve got painkillers and traumatic flashbacks taking over your brain.)
But let’s start at the beginning. When 2014 dawned, I was looking (once again) at pivoting and starting over. The biggest change in my business was that I decided to focus on writing and editing for blogs.
No more hourly rates for writing projects. No more working without bylines. Definitely no more pretending I wanted to do academic editing.
Time to scale up and move into project-based pricing that offered much better than the equivalent of $30/hr. I’d done a little bit of freelance blogging, but I was basically starting a portfolio from scratch.
The early weeks of the year were spent laying the groundwork for this pivot, in between my existing obligations. I updated my website. I reached out to bloggers I admired (including Sophie), plugged into a couple of freelancer networks like the BAFB forum, and began applying for every gig I could find in my chosen niche.
In the first three months of 2014, I began prioritizing the business aspects of my business, and valuing my time. I developed a rate sheet and began say no to clients whose rates were below my floor. I also looked for places in my niche to land paid clips with a byline, even if it was $25 for a post, and then I used those clips to keep pitching and landing better gigs.
And I began looking for mentors, which ended up being the biggest step toward what felt like freelance blogging success for me. With their advice, I began to understand my real potential and — importantly — see how I could go about achieving something similar.
This was also the first time I really began to focus on an efficient, effective workflow. I didn’t have any childcare, and my son wasn’t going to start preschool until September. I had to make decisions every day about how best to spend my very limited working time. There was a constant struggle between working and mothering, and it wasn’t always easy to navigate.
All in all, I figured some things out this year, and the numbers showed it:
- My income for January was around $1000 (which took into account one week with no internet access).
- My income for December was nearly $3400, including some time off for my wedding, the holidays, and a move.
One logistical thing that moved the needle was having my son enrol in a half-day preschool program, but I also did a lot of growing in 2014, and it showed.
What I did wrong
Unlike many freelancers, I had everything on the line with very little in the way of a safety net. Because of that, I got stuck in the cycle of having no time to find good clients because I was using all my time writing for low-paying clients just to be able to buy groceries. I also spent too much time reading about how to do this or that to level up my business, and not enough time actually doing the work required to level up.
What I did right
While I did stay in a low-paying range for too long, I didn’t take any more pennies-per-word gigs, even when I felt desperate for the money. I kept clawing at the next level whenever I had time to come up for air, and about mid-year I started getting some traction.
I used some creative strategies for landing clients, some of which turned into great gigs I still have. I also built an awesome network of freelance blogging compatriots who provide valuable feedback, support, and even gig referrals.
And if I ever felt guilty for working too much while my son was awake, I pulled back on work and focused on being a present mother. That’s why I was sacrificing so much in the first place, after all.
How you can avoid my mistakes
Don’t listen to the fear. Everything will be OK. Don’t waste time “learning” — get the tools you need to learn, and then learn by doing. Absorb as much as you possibly can from your clients’ expertise. Take up any offer for help that comes your way. And go on a cash budget sooner — it relieves the money worries quite a bit.
Making It Work, Your Way
That’s a broad-strokes view of how I survived three years working from home as a freelance writer and editor, with my sweet baby at home with me.
My life looks very different now, with the addition of a husband and another baby due any day now. But some things never change: my career continues to develop, setbacks continue to crop up, and my vision for my business is still too big for the time allotted to making it happen.
Your story probably doesn’t look very much like mine, but if there’s one universal lesson I’d like to drive home to you, it’s to know your “why.”
When you know why you want to be a freelance blogger, and you have a fierce commitment to that reason, you’ll be ready to accept the sacrifices. My goal was never “big money” or replacing a full-time salary — it was being able to stay home with my baby. Keep your reason top of mind and lean on it when you feel discouraged.
You can do this. Believe it.
Now make it happen!