Search This Blog

Thursday, May 30, 2013

Six-Figure Freelancers Share their "Secrets" of Success

In 2005, Random House published my book, Six-Figure Freelancing: The Writer’s Guide to Making More Money.  The book sold well, but eventually Random House let the book go out of print. I’d anticipated that and had been pressing the publisher to revert rights back to me—which it finally did at the end of 2012. I was thrilled at the prospect of being able to update and expand the book, and to publish it myself this time.
To do so, I contacted and interviewed almost all of the two dozen freelancers quoted in the original version. It had been a decade since I spoke with them, and I found that nearly every writer’s business model had changed radically. The only two writers whose careers had stayed pretty much the same during that time were also the two writers having the hardest time succeeding as freelancers—and I don’t think that’s a coincidence. Happily, the majority of them were thriving, due to factors like the following:
Pursuing new markets. Early in my freelance career, I wrote almost exclusively for consumer print markets, and  the original version of Six-Figure probably put too much emphasis on these publications. Today, I found that even writers like me who used to focus on print markets have branched out, whether they’re writing for websites, trade and custom magazines, or corporate clients—or a mix of all of the above.
“Nearly all of my work now is done online, though I have an assignment for Good Housekeeping magazine right now—my first magazine assignment in over a year,” says Leah Ingram. “Everything else is either paid blogging, blogging for myself, or writing custom content for branded websites.”
Robert McGarvey hadn’t considered trade magazines as potential markets until fairly recently. After he wrote a number of stories about credit unions for The New York Times, he received an email from the editor-in-chief of Credit Union Times, the industry's leading weekly, asking if he would be interested in writing for a trade. “I had done very little writing for trades, ever, but this was 2010 and a changed publishing world,” says McGarvey. “She was talking about a regular gig. She came to me because she'd seen the NYT stuff. Oh, she asked if I would agree not to do future credit union-related advertorial. I agreed. Today work relating to credit unions probably constitutes half my income.”
Diversifying. Smart freelancers don’t only diversify the types of markets they write for—they diversify their skills, too. Erik Sherman has done theater in the past, and now moderates Webcasts and live events for a number of clients. Wendy Helfenbaum, who is bilingual, does translation and adaption work for clients.
Andrea King Collier segued into doing health care policy writing when she saw a need that few writers could address. “I don't do a lot of health care marketing work [anymore] but I do more health care policy writing work for publications, and for foundations. It was just the natural ebb and flow of things. I do also the occasional white paper,” says Collier. “But because there are so few journalists that really have the rolodex and the context to do strong health care policy and health disparity work, it created a solid demand for me.” 
Steve Slaunwhite was originally a copywriter who began offering marketing advice and strategy to clients. Then, after publishing The Wealthy Freelancer, a book on copywriting, he began offering workshops on copywriting and freelancing. Now he continues to perform a mix of work. “What I do well, and enjoy doing, is coaching, writing, and training,” says Slaunwhite. “While most of what is do is writing, I also do one-on-one coaching and consulting with clients, and I do training and workshops. They’re all related and tied together.”
            Consistent marketing. Wendy Helfenbaum has three major clients, two of whom make up two-thirds of her income. “Mixing in corporate work has been by far the smartest decision I've made. I've worked for CN [Canadian National] since 2006, and have written hundreds and hundreds of stories for them,” she says. “I work mostly for CN's internal communications team, but now have done stuff for their marketing, recruitment and social media departments too.” She plans her schedule on the needs of her three big clients, but continues to reach out to other new markets.
“I still market aggressively, pitching stories and markets I'm interested in (I do tons of alumni profiles, parenting stories and architecture/design stuff, all of which I really enjoy),” says Helfenbaum. “I love the ‘game’ of pitching, the challenge of landing new clients. I do not take my three regular clients as a given—I know full well any or all could disappear tomorrow, and if they do, I'm ready to replace them.”
            Social media savvy. Finally, the importance of social media cannot be overstated. When I started freelancing 16 years ago, there was no Facebook, LinkedIn, Google+, or Twitter. Now most serious freelancers use social media to at least some degree to network, nab assignments, and develop their platforms.
“More and more editors are expecting writers to be on social media and to promote their work, plus being on social media can lead to more work,” says Lisa Collier Cool. “For example, I just landed a nice corporate gig that includes both writing articles and providing two Tweets to promote each article, because the client is very impressed that I have nearly 80,000 followers on Twitter. I'm also active on Facebook, Tumblr, Pinterest, Google+,, and LinkedIn.” 
Gwen Moran realized early on that social media could be an effective tool for freelancers. “Social media is important to my business in a couple of ways. First, by building up a following of engaged friends/followers, I get a wealth of good information and contacts, as well as a social component to my day that's lacking when working from home. I consider it my office chatter—I a window open and check several times a day. It's a great way to fill that empty few minutes before an interview or conference call,” says Moran. “And I've gotten a great deal of work and referrals just by being authentic and passing along good or funny material on Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn.”
In this competitive business, nothing is constant but change. Six-figure freelancers—and those who strive to be—are continually adapting to the market, and finding new ways to continue to find clients, nab assignments, and make money. You should be doing the same.

**Want to be a six-figure freelancer—or at least make more money? Six-Figure Freelancing: The Writer's Guide toMaking More Money, second edition is for you. The updated edition includes a new chapter on markets; a new chapter on writing books (including ghostwriting and coauthoring); new queries and templates; information about using social media to attract clients; and the latest advice from successful, six-figure freelancers. It retails for $19.95 and is available through any brick-and-mortar or online bookstore. You can also order copies directly through Improvise Press;  use the discount code "IMPROVISEPRESS" (all caps/no breaks) when you order for 20% off of each book. 


  1. I'm curious: what does health care policy writing include? That is, what sorts of documents does Andrea write?

    1. Sorry for the delay in getting back to you: Andrea's answer:

      I write both health and medicine stories and the stories about health care policy. Believe it or not health care policy is more business and politics than it is the traditional wellness work. And because so few people understand it, it can be very specialized and lucrative.

      Health care policy focuses on the distribution of health care resources and in many cases legislation around health care. the biggest example is the Affordable Care Act and what it means to insurers, businesses, and consumers. It is very complicated and rolled out over time. there have been constant challenges to it. So I am writing a lot about what it means, how people can access it. What the realities mean, etc. It means having a great rolodex of resources to talk to as things evolve and change.