Freelancing in Pie Charts – 2018 & 2019

freelancing

This post is shamelessly inspired by writer and photographer Lola Akinmade‘s yearly work updates, where she tracked her pitching and income breakdown for an entire decade. She retired the series last year, but as someone who is still new to full-time freelancing, it seemed like a useful exercise for me to try to adopt.

Freelancers: I’m hoping this is useful in some way to see how another writer’s year looked, from how I made money to how often my pitches were rejected, ignored, or resulted in assignments.

Friends who are not freelancers: I’m not sure how much you’ll gain from this, other than a sense of what life is like behind the travel photos and desk pajamas, and an idea of what kind of money I’m making*. Which, if I’m honest, makes me both deeply uncomfortable and feel a little radical. Why AREN’T we talking about money?

*I think it’s important to also say that I am married and very much benefit from my husband’s stable income, health insurance, and desire for lightning-fast internet.

**The main image for this post is from canyoneering in Da Lat, Vietnam earlier this year. I descended into a waterfall known as the “Washing Machine” and then had to let go. Freelancing for me has felt a lot like that waterfall: slippery, terrifying, and it will pummel you, but if you go for it anyway (and nothing too horrible happens), you’ll get safely spit out the other side having had an exhilarating adventure.

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The Year in Freelancing 2018

  • Articles written in 2018: 314  (I’m tired just writing that)
  • Editing: 3 short-term contracts with two different companies
  • New publications: 16
  • Days traveling for work: 46
  • Days traveling total: 51

My Favorite Assignments in 2018

I Tried Bumble BFF & Here’s What Happened – SheKnows

Friendship is one of those things I find intensely fascinating, and it was fun to try to make friends with a bunch of people in a short window of time. The woman I talk about in the article and I are still friends, though she’s now moved to Bosnia to do work with urban development (she is definitely cooler than me).

Whatever Happened to Moderate Fitness? – SELF

This was one of the first stories I pitched that was for a bigger byline and involved reporting. It also started shaping the way that I viewed wellness, which is that most of it is a bunch of marketing hooey.

Tackling the 7,000-Mile Great Western Loop – Outside

Outside is one of my favorite publications. I’d been following Jeff Garmire’s story after meeting him after his Calendar Triple Crown, and I was thrilled to both get this assignment and get to highlight Jeff’s story. This was also the story that made me realize I needed to be less afraid of pitching bigger outlets.

How to Travel and Explore Vietnam – REI

Fun fact—I actually wrote this story *before* I went to Vietnam. I told the editor I was heading there in January, but he needed it by December. I essentially got paid to do deep-dive research on my upcoming travel. At the time, it was the biggest amount I’d been paid for a single article and also the longest word count I’d written.

How Pitching Went 2018

Number of pitches: 159

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This pie chart looks a lot better than it felt. That no response column looks slender because nearly all of my pitches were one-line title suggestions to editors I already had relationships with.

The vast majority of those pitches were for low-paying clients, so even when I *did* land an assignment from a pitch, it wasn’t moving the needle much in my bank account.

What was really padding my year was the fact that those editors also sent me assignments that I hadn’t pitched (out of pity for how many weren’t a fit? maybe), even though those assignments were often low-paying, too.

How Money Went 2018: ~$51,000 Gross (before taxes, expenses, deductions)

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Overall feeling about the year: I was stressed to the max and at full capacity at every turn, often for less money than it was worth. But hustling this hard was a good crash course in writing quickly and effectively. By the end of the year, I was so burned out that I said “eff it” and pitched some bigger publications—and much to my shock, got the work (and the pay.)

Key takeaways:

  • Focus on higher paying clients
  • Pitch bigger publications, they’re not the boogeyman
  • Get some anchor clients

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The Year in Freelancing 2019

  • Articles I wrote: 83
  • New editorial publications: 6
  • New/ongoing content marketing clients: 3
  • Editing clients: 2
  • Days traveling for work: 64

My Favorite Assignments in 2019

Away from Vietnam’s tourist circuit, a Pacific Northwest travel writer finds comfort and charm in Seattle’s sister city – The Seattle Times

I’d told the editor that I was headed to Vietnam and that Seattle had a sister city there that I was considering exploring, and she said to shoot her a draft when I was back. Instead, I visited, went back to my hostel and wrote up the story in a single sitting. It’s one of my favorite pieces of writing from the year.

Outdoors for All: Plus-Size Climbers Challenge Stereotypes – REI

I started getting into climbing this year, and as I tried to find climbers who seemed to better-reflect my body type, I realized there was a real lack of visibility for large climbers. The people I spoke to for this story were candid and passionate and I was so grateful that I got to shine a spotlight on the factors that hold larger climbers back, including lack of visibility in the industry and sizing limitations in harnesses.

Where to Travel for the Best Canadian Wine – Budget Travel

I’d been trying to break into Budget Travel for a year and was happy to have finally done it and to get to highlight the Okanagan, which I had such a blast exploring this year.

How Pitching Went 2019

Number of pitches: 70

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Accepted is clearly a much smaller slice of the pie, but it’s important to note that I pitched way less this year and I was often pitching higher-paying or new-to-me publications.

In other pitch-development news, in September I went to a travel writing conference that allowed me to meet with editors from top magazines and that was a great learning experience that also resulted in a couple of assignments. I’ll be going again in May (to SWITZERLAND!), and then I’ll probably cool it on conferences for a bit.

How Money Went 2019: ~$60,000 Gross (before taxes, expenses, deductions)

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Average per article rate: 150% increase over last year. (That’s a bit misleading because if you look at just the second half of the year, it bumps up even further to a 292% increase. So my average rate *did* take a big leap this year, it just took a while to get going.)

Overall feeling about the year: SO much better than last year. That’s primarily because I had one major anchor client and a few other regular gigs that made money much more reliable and allowed me to focus my energy on assignments that paid well.

Other wins: I was smarter about the travel I did—I took two long plane trips (Vietnam and Chile) and a few closer-to-home trips, rather than a bunch of short trips on weekends, so I got most of my weekends back and felt a lot less stressed. I focused on doing more near home, spending time with friends, and pursuing hobbies rather than just work, work, work.

Key takeaways:

  • I need to stop sitting on my weird/complicated/SEO-unfriendly pitches and just send them, somebody might bite (I didn’t do this much this year but I should have)
  • A little bit of reporting before pitching can be helpful for some stories (and is less scary than it seems)
  • Taking fewer back-to-back trips means there’s more time to pre-research, which means I get more story ideas
  • Anchor. Clients. Are. Key.

2020 Goals

If next year was an exact repeat of this year, I wouldn’t be bummed at all. But having things to work toward keeps me happy (within reason), so here are a few things I’m keeping in mind for next year:

  • Maintain sense of sanity developed this year around the amount that I was working and traveling; ambition is good, burnout is bad
  • Grow per-article rate (which also helps with sanity)
  • Maintain current anchor clients and pursue one or two more
  • Pitch ‘weird’ and specific ideas I’ve been hesitant about
  • Pitch bigger — bigger reporting ideas, bigger bylines, bigger pay rates
  • Pitch consistently, whatever I can figure out that works for me (monthly? bi-monthly?)
  • Continue to develop my photography skills

For any freelancers reading this: How’d the year go for you? What are you working toward in 2020?