If you want to earn more money as a freelancer, here are the steps I suggest you take.
First, a little background: I’ve been a full-time freelance writer since 2012. During that time, I’ve essentially doubled my income, going from $35K (pretax) to an annual $70K average.
As my career grew, it also changed — moving from one distinct phase to another like I was transitioning between levels in a video game.
So if you want to earn more money as a freelancer this year, figure out what level you’re on.
Then figure out how to get to the next one.
Level 1: Pitch
If you’re in the early stages of your freelance career, you’re not going to get work unless you ask for it.
For freelance writers: I’ve written a handful of “how to pitch” guides, including one for The Write Life and one for 49Writers. Read them both to learn how to pitch a story instead of an idea, how to follow the basic pitch template, and what to write if you’ve never pitched a story before.
If you’re in a different freelance industry, there are probably similar pitch conventions out there. Get familiar with them, so your pitches are as professional as you are.
Because at this stage of the game, people aren’t going to come to you with work. You’re going to need to hustle for it yourself — and the more work you hustle up, the more money you can earn.
Level 2: Build relationships
Having to hustle for every gig you get takes time and effort — so as soon as you find a client or publication you like working for, it’s time to build a relationship with that client and turn it into a recurring income source.
In other words: once you close out a project, pitch that same client again. Ask for another gig. Let them know how much you enjoyed working for them.
Your goal is to develop the kind of client/freelancer relationship where they can count on you for work and you can count on them for money. The kind of relationship where they offer you more work before you even have to ask.
Of course, this means being the type of freelancer who’s easy to work with. Hit your deadlines; turn in work early if you can. Let your clients edit your work and give you feedback, and take their feedback respectfully. Respond to emails or Slack notifications in a timely fashion.
As you continue to build these client relationships, you’ll be able to spend more time working and less time pitching new clients (since you’ll be getting a recurring stream of work from your current clients). This means your income will continue to grow.
Level 3: Negotiate higher rates
Once you’ve got yourself a slate of recurring client relationships, it’s time to raise your rates.
Not right away, of course. Try to spend a year with each client before you bring up rate negotiations.
Also, keep those negotiations reasonable — clients have budgets just like you do, and they generally don’t have a lot of wiggle room. Depending on your industry, that might mean trying to increase your per-client income by $100 per month, not $100 per article or job.
If you have five recurring clients, that’s an extra $500 every month — or $6,000 per year.
Level 4: Build your reputation
At this point in your freelance career, you’ll probably find yourself developing a certain reputation — or, as they call it in the writing world, a “beat”.
When I began freelancing, for example, I wrote about anything and everything: personal finance, A/B testing, Harry Potter, how we can prevent humans from contaminating Mars… if I could get a gig, I’d find a way to write about it.
As I developed my long-term client relationships, my beat started narrowing. These days, I write primarily about personal finance, with a couple of sub-beats in the “how to freelance” and “how to optimise your life” fields.
I also built up a reputation as “the writer who is transparent about her income and her processes,” which meant that clients looking for writing in that very specific niche knew who to ask.
Once you’ve built up a reputation as a certain type of freelancer, clients who are looking for your kind of work might start reaching out as well.
This means you’ve moved out of the stage where you have to pitch every job you get. You’re now in the stage where clients pitch you.
That’s where the real money is.
Level 5: Leverage your expertise
At this point in my career, I get more job offers than I can accept. This gives me leverage — I can turn down the jobs that are too time-consuming or aren’t a good fit, and I can set my own rates (again, within reason) for the jobs I accept.
If you’re also at the stage where clients are reaching out to you, don’t be afraid to say no. If you can say “not now, but maybe later,” or “not now, but here’s another person who might be great for this gig,” that’s even better — you’ve just shown that prospective client that you’d like to build a relationship with them even though you can’t say yes to the work they’re offering. (Maybe that relationship will pay off in the future.)
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Likewise, don’t be afraid to ask for what you’re worth. As I’ve written before, I look for gigs that can pay me at least $100 per hour — and when clients ask me to name my rate, I give them a number that’s just above that figure. That way, when they offer the inevitable slightly lower number in return, I still get what I want (and if they say yes right away, I know I need to ask for more the next time).
I don’t know what comes after this level. I haven’t gotten there yet. But when I do, you can trust that I’ll tell you all about it and offer advice on how to get there yourself.
Until then, enjoy levelling up — and enjoy the extra money you earn.