I’ve been a full-time freelancer for nearly seven years, and although I was able to rapidly increase my earnings during the early stages of my career, I quickly realized there was a ceiling to what clients—even the best ones—would offer for certain projects. During the first few years of my career, my income jumped by $20,000 per year. Once I passed the $60,000 mark, that growth started to flatten out.
First, it became difficult to find better-paying clients in my beat. Second, my existing clients weren’t increasing their rates year over year.
If you’ve been a freelancer for any length of time, you’ve probably had similar experiences. However, if you want more income without running yourself into the ground, you do have options.
Don’t rely on negotiation
Let’s start with a little bit of what not to do. Your first instinct when trying for a better rate is probably negotiation. And while it’s an option, I haven’t found it to be successful. Surprisingly, higher-paying clients have balked the most at raising my rate, usually because they have less wiggle room in their budgets. It’s much easier to get a client to go from $200 to $250 than it is to get one to go from $700 to $750. Sometimes the money just isn’t there.
This is not to say that you shouldn’t ask—just don’t bank on repeatedly being able to bump your rates with the same client. I’ve found that the first conversation with a new client is the best to negotiate, especially if they reached out to you. While the prospective client probably has a range in mind, you have the opportunity to set your own rate.
Not sure what you should be charging in the first place? Check out this post for tips on figuring out how much to charge for your freelance work or visit The Freelancer’s rates database to see what specific companies pay.
Avoid assignment overload
You may be tempted to pile on new assignments to make more money, turning a 40-hour work week into a 60-hour grind. Yes, you’ll bring in more money for a while, but it’ll more likely lead to burnout than a long-term strategy.
Some freelancers try to speed up their turnaround time so they can take on more work and collect more paychecks without having to add more hours. Again, there’s a natural limit to this growth curve. You’ll get faster at research and interviewing and revising, but at some point you’ll hit a maximum number of pieces you can complete in 40-plus hours.
Diversify your work
At this stage in my career, I’ve started to realize that sustained income growth has to come from different channels. Although writing still makes up a little more than half my income, I’ve been able to make more money and push my career forward by taking on editing, teaching, publishing, and small-business ownership.
That work has led to a few more hours, but because each new area comes with a different rate ceiling, my overall income can continue to increase even if one or two streams stagnate. That’s far more bang for the buck.
There are two big ways to get into editing: You can do editorial work for a publication, the way I became the senior editor at The Billfold, or you can put out your shingle and do developmental editing, copyediting, or proofreading for authors. Both paths open up new income streams, and the advantage of becoming a developmental and/or copyeditor-for-hire is that you can set your own rate. Of course, you have to have a large enough following that authors will want to work with you. But your income here could come easier since you don’t have to develop everything from scratch.
Owning a business
I made a big career change this year. After freelancing for The Billfold first as a writer and then as an editor, I was invited to become an owner. My new role as a small business owner has potential for significant income growth, but it also comes with significant risk. I’m now very aware of exactly how much money it takes to run a publication—even a small one. And I’m as focused on growing The Billfold’s revenue as I’ve been on improving my own bottom line—especially because we’re hoping to increase what we pay freelancers this January.
Teaching has the lowest income ceiling of these additional paths, which is unfortunate and unsurprising. I bring in about $150 per three-hour course. I teach because I love helping students improve their writing. Teaching is also a good way to meet new people, and I value the connections I’ve built with both students and staff.
Publishing a book
Publishing a book of your own, whether you go the traditional or self-publishing route, can lead to compounding returns. You could write a bestseller (I haven’t yet, but I’ll keep trying.) But even if you don’t, your book can still support all of your other projects, and vice versa. It adds credibility to help you negotiate higher rates on your work, and if people respond to your work, they’ll be more inclined to buy the book.
Your career path may not look exactly like mine, but expanding your professional abilities is still an important step if you want to increase your income. Even if doing so pulls you away from freelance writing, you’ll be able to make connections, bring in projects with more earning potential, and write that 10-book paranormal romance series you’ve been thinking about.