10 Ways to Make a 6-Figure Income as a Freelance Writer


by Robert W. Bly




            I started freelancing full-time in 1982, and except for that year and the next, I have earned more than $100,000 a year as a freelance writer for 20 consecutive years. Last year, I grossed $500,000, as I did the year before that.

            I tell you this not to brag, but to illustrate that making a 6-figure income is a realistic goal for even an average freelance writer like me (I’ve never written a bestseller, nor have I sold a script to the movies or TV). Following are some suggestions to help you achieve and exceed the $100,000 a year mark:

1. Get serious about making money. “Before we can accumulate riches in great abundance, we must become money-conscious until the desire for money drives us to create definite plans for acquiring it,” writes Napoleon Hill in Think and Grow Rich (Fawcett Crest, 1960).

If money is not a concern, you can write whatever you want, whenever you want, as much or as little as you want, without regard to the fee you will be paid, how long it will take to write the piece, or the likelihood that you will sell the piece.

            If you want to consistently make $100,000 a year as a freelance writer, you need to avoid the “poverty mentality” that holds so many writers back from earning a high income.

A doorman in New York City earns around $30,000 a year. If an unskilled laborer can make $30,000 just for opening a door, surely you can earn $50,000 to $100,000 for your skills.

2. Have a daily revenue goal. To make $100,000 a year, you need to earn $2,000 a week for 50 weeks. For a 5-day workweek, that comes to $400 a day -- a quite modest and achievable sum.  

            The question then becomes: What writing-related work can you do that people will pay you $400 a day for? Proofreading won’t hit the mark, but ghostwriting books, annual reports, fundraising letters, speeches, or ad copy probably can.

            Do you have to make $400 each and every day? No. Some days you’ll be writing queries or doing self-promotion, and earn nothing. Other days you’ll get into a writing groove, finish a $1,000 article in 6 hours, and still have time to write more queries. You’re safe as long as your average revenue is $400 a day, or $2,000 a week, or approximately $9,000 a month.

            Of course, the higher your average project fee, the easier it can be to meet your $400 a day goal.

            Robert Otterbourg specializes in annual reports, with an average price tag of $10,000 per project. By doing several of these jobs in a month or two, he can get way ahead of his income plan, leaving him time to write the career books that are his avocation.

            3. Value your time.  If you earn $100,000 a year and work 40 hours a week, your time is worth at least $50 an hour. You should base decisions about how you spend your time on that figure.

            For instance, if you spend an extra half hour to go out of your way to save $10 in office supplies, it costs you $25 in lost productivity, and you are $15 in the red.

            My time is worth at least $100 an hour. Therefore, virtually any service I can buy for under $100 an hour -- including lawn services, handymen, and tax preparation -- I outsource.

            Of the two resources, time and money, time is the more valuable. You can always make more money. But time is a non-renewable resource. Once it’s gone, you can’t get it back.

            4. Increase your personal productivity. Except for royalties and product sales, writers are paid only for their time. So the more efficient and productive you are, and the faster you write, the more money you make.

            Develop habits that help you get more done in less time. The easiest is simply to get up and start work an hour earlier than you do now -- say at 7 am or 8 am instead of 9 am. That first hour will be your most productive, because you can work in peace without interruptions before the business day starts, the phone begins to ring, and the messages come pouring into your e-mail box.

            “I am most productive at 5 in the morning,” says travel writer Jennifer Stevens. “It means I can get into the shower at 7 or 8 having made a dent in whatever I’m working on.”

            Nancy Flynn, author of The $100,000 a Year Writer (Adams Media, 2000), maximizes her productivity by avoiding in-person meetings unless absolutely necessary. “You can accomplish a tremendous amount -- including establishing and maintaining successful business relationships -- via telephone, e-mail, and fax,” says Flynn.

            5. Outsource. I have not gone to the post office in 8 years. Why not? Because doing so is an absolute waste of time I could be using to write and make money.

            The only thing you get paid to do is write, research, and think for your clients and publishers. All other activities are non-paying and therefore should be farmed out to other people who can do them better and more cheaply than you can.

            You do not need to hire a full-time secretary to outsource routine office work and administrative tasks. There are plenty of bright high school and college students eager to work with writers for the glory, glamour, and a relatively modest fee of $10 an hour or so.

Or you can hire a word processing or typing service; most advertise in the local town paper.

I once had a secretary on staff. When she quit about 6 years ago, instead of hiring a replacement, I started calling word processing services advertising in the classified section of my weekly town newspaper. I said, “I will buy 40 hours a week of your time, every week of the year, and pay you a month in advance. In return, I want a better rate.”

All were eager to take me up on this offer. I chose one, and she has been with me ever since.

            6. 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.

7. 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 get 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 two 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.

            8. 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 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 Web sites, 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 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?

9. The secret to solving the “supply and demand” problem. To earn 6-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, Web sites, 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 than generalists.

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.

            10. 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 client and their organization, 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.


            About the author:

            Bob Bly is the author of more than 50 books including Secrets of a Freelance Writer: How to Make $85,000 a Year (Henry Holt & Co.). He can be reached at rwbly@bly.com.