Monday, October 25, 2010

How much time does it take to earn a real living as a writer?

I cringe when people martyr themselves and take a flying leap into freelance writing. I frown when people speak nobly about the dare to launch into self-employment. Especially when they say nothing about how they structured their lives to do it.

Because most just close their eyes and jump.

How do you know when you can afford to write fulltime? Let's say you write ten hours a week and earn $500 per month. That's $6,000 a year. Once you do that for a year successfully, consistently, diligently, then you can justify extrapolating that ten hour-week into a forty-hour week. In other words, $500/month becomes $2,000/month, assuming you work a full forty hours -- no fudging.

But that's gross income. Deduct from that your vacation time or time used for family needs, because every hour you lose as a freelancer is a decrease in income. Also, consider health insurance you may have had with whatever job you cast aside for your dream. Never leave the day job without a health insurance safety net. Nothing kills a freelance career faster than health issues. The current federal health plan is long from being implemented, and it will be altered between now and then by political shenanigans and politicians coming and going, so don't bank on it. When the government says "trust me," run the other way.

But let's say you're just starting out. You're already working fulltime elsewhere, but you have this burning fire to write. You want to quit tomorrow so badly you can taste it. Here are the steps you take:

1. Determine the hours you'll write per week. When I started out as a writer, I worked another career. I wrote an hour (or two) each night and six to eight hours on the weekend. I did it for three years before building the nerve to leap.

2. Set a goal to maintain that schedule for a year. Whether you follow through on that schedule or not determines how sincere you are about permanently freelancing. No ifs, ands, or buts. If ten hours don't work, do eight. If ten works easily, do twelve. But note the time investment so you can calculate your hourly income, and therefore, your annual income. One or two months cannot denote a trend. A year takes into account the changing fiscal and seasonal changes throughout a full cycle. Not just your changes, but also those of your niche, your clients, your contract employers, and your readers. For instance, FundsforWriters' income dropped in June for seven of its eleven years. Therefore, I plan harder for that month by offering specials or querying more in April and May.

3. Identify what you will give up in your life in order to write. You are adding these writing hours into your schedule, let's say, ten hours per week. Currently you aren't twiddling your thumbs for ten hours a week. You stay busy. Since God hasn't handed you more than twenty-hour hours to aid your effort, you have to sacrifice something. Chances are you sacrifice more than one or two somethings. List them. Cut back on cooking. Delegate chores. Lose a little more sleep each night. Give up social outings. Limit Facebook to fifteen minutes a day. Cut out the overtime. Take the train instead of commuting, or car pool and write along the way. Let calls go to voice mail, then selectively return them. Carve out those hours. Don't expect them to happen on their own.

4. Hold a monthly staff meeting. I literally analyzed my income, expenses, hours and productivity once a month when I started. I culled markets that wasted my time, noted goals for the next month, measured the results of the previous month's efforts, and revisited how much income I wanted to earn. Don't say you have all that stuff in your head. You have a junk drawer in the kitchen, too, but I bet you can't name everything in it.

This economy sucks. To own a business, you have to plan, measure accomplishments, and constantly shift your horizon. No one can afford to be an artist. But with smart calculations, you can afford to be a business person who happens to be earning a living in the arts, assuming you take running the business seriously.


Ellie Garratt said...

Some great advice because you should never leap without a safety net! As much as I'd like to become a full-time writer, there is no way I would consider doing it without having first secured a regular income or a book-deal.

T. Powell Coltrin said...

Needed to hear this. thanks

Alexis Grant said...

Great points, Hope. I found out the hard way how difficult it is to make a living on your own (especially without health insurance or supplemental income from a spouse) this year. So much tax! You need to bring in a lot more than you think to have enough to live.

Anonymous said...

Going back to the "gross pay" point, Hope - self-employed ppl need to calculate income tax deductions in addition to health insurance figures.

Also, if you're getting paid via paypal or other electronic method, make sure to realize that there's a service fee (usually a percentage of the transfer) taken off the top -- this figure can really add up over time. Any job bids should always take this into consideration and also added to business-related expenses on your income tax return.

Malcolm R. Campbell said...

In addition to being able to write consistently, to earn a living wage, there are hidden costs that show up.

One is that most self-employed people are going to pay far more for health insurance since most companies offer very few policies that compare with those we got at a good employer.

In addition to federal taxes, the amount of FICA will double, since an employer is not going to be paying half of it.

If you work as a contract writer as opposed to a novelist or a magazine feature writer, you may be forced into getting a local business license even if you work out of your home. Novelists usually aren't burdened with this since they don't have daily clients coming to their houses like, say, a freelance brochure writer or technical writer.

Of course, one plus is being able to deduct a portion of your household expenses depending on what percentage of your home is used as a fulltime office.

Much to think about.


Ada said...

This is exactly what I needed to hear right now. Thanks for such an enlightening post.

Barb Hodges said...

Thank you, Hope. This wannabee writer needed to hear these points. You are very helpful.