5 Tricky Financial Truths for Freelancers

By Christine Ro April 12th, 2019

When freelancers gather over drinks and commiserate, one topic above all tends to get the most attention—the pay. Keeping the bills paid as a freelance writer is tough, but it’s not impossible. It does, however, involve making some hard decisions. Here’s how you can create a stable income stream that also allows you also pursue your passion.

You probably need a non-freelance source of income

Kevin McElwee published his first freelance article back in college. He was pretty green: “I asked the editor, ‘Do I get paid?’ I still cringe when I think about it,” he said.

Savvier now, McElwee puts his technical skills to use as both a software engineer and a data journalist. He’s far from alone in wearing more than one hat. Lots of writers combine freelance journalism with steady part-time roles in teaching, content writing, social media management, corporate or nonprofit communications, and the like.

“If you’re not someone who can naturally ride the freelance seesaw of either having too much work or worrying that you’re never going to work again, then it’s important to find ways to bring stability into your life,” said journalist and content marketing consultant Harriet Minter. “One of the ways I did this was finding a few regular clients who I have a retainer agreement with—they pay for a day or so of my time each month over a twelve-month contract. It takes the pressure off and means I can focus on pitching the work I really want to do to the people I really want to do it for.”

Before going back to school, Kelsey Dayton freelanced for outdoor publications in addition to producing the magazine of the Outdoor Writers Association of America. “It was the perfect supplemental job to freelancing because it was doing the same type of work, but steady and also flexible,” she reflects. “As a freelancer, I really valued knowing that no matter what happened (I didn’t get work, or people weren’t paying me when they were supposed to), I would always get something every two weeks from that job.”

Shorter pieces often make more financial sense

For writers with a decent pitch-acceptance rate, less may be more, at least in terms of word count. While even a short piece can require considerable research time, the longer you spend pre-pitch and in writing mode means the longer you need to go without that pay day. Those freelancers living check to check might simply not have the ability to throw caution to the wind to spend weeks reporting out their hunches.

And because many publications pay flat rates, “shorter pieces tend to pay more per-word than longer ones,” said McElwee. In a recent story for Columbia Journalism Review, McElwee number-crunched the data on Who Pays Writers?, a website where writers anonymously submit details about their rates. “Assuming that you’re spending less time on stories with fewer words, and that you can secure stories consistently, writing shorter articles is a strategy to maximize pay per hour,” said McElwee. He advises writers looking to increase their per-word rate to focus on short front-of-book articles for magazines.

Prestigious publications don’t always pay well

Anyone who’s scrolled through The Freelancer’s Rates Database knows that distinguished publications don’t necessarily offer the best payment terms.

Freelancer Jen A. Miller writes about running for the New York Times and other publications, and is frank about needing to supplement this with less sexy work, like Global Aquaculture Advocate. As she wrote in a recent edition of her newsletter, there’s no connection between a publication’s prestige and its pay scale. “In some cases, a publication will use its prestige try to get you to take a low fee or no fee at all,” she said.

Trade publications, regional magazines, and smaller digital projects, on the other hand, are always looking for top talent. The pay might not be excellent, but it’s possible to create long-standing relationships that provide a base income while you pursue prestige.

Nonfiction is more reliable than fiction

Fiction is a hard game for people who aren’t independently wealthy. Of course, this doesn’t apply if you’re one of the superstar novelists who account for a disproportionate share of the publishing market.

Jen Karner is working toward becoming a full-time fiction writer, but recognizes that “nonfiction is definitely the way to go if you are in it for the money.” She has three anchor clients in the technology space, which provide financial stability. “If I finish an article, I know exactly when I’ll be paid for it, but with fiction I have plenty of pieces that have never sold,” she said.

Generally speaking, the barriers to entry are higher for fiction than nonfiction. Six-month response times and payment only in published copies are typical of many literary journals. No one expects livings to be made in this way.

Nonfiction stories, on the other hand, often hinge on timeliness, so you’re more likely to get a quick response from editors. Lifestyle and special-interest editors also tend to be more responsive to writers than fiction editors are. For writers who can’t afford to wait months to hear back from editors, and who’d like a more pleasing ratio of rejections to acceptances, it’s time to add nonfiction to your portfolio.

A high rate can be deceptive

My largest single-article payment has also been one of the hardest to obtain. It took more than six months to receive $2,000 from a publication that, it turns out, is notorious for paying writers late.

I admit to sometimes being seduced by a high rate, but this shouldn’t be the only consideration you make when looking for work. As Miller has pointed out, an assignment with a low rate might be a breeze, complete with no pitching, amazing editors, speedy responses, and quick payment. A publication that pays much better might require onerous edits, lots of time spent chasing sources, and a battle to actually get paid.

Rather than focusing on one seemingly impressive number, calculate your rate by the hour; it allows for a more accurate accounting of your investment—including time spent on pitching and admin—than a per-word or per-project rate.

None of these rules are hard or fast. And certainly there are the lucky few who can dedicate themselves to writing long fiction for renowned publications with low per-hour rates. But for writers on tight freelance budgets, it’s important to know which payment-related illusions they can’t afford to hold.

Photo Credit: Sharon McCutcheon

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