From $12K to $150K, How I Built a Freelance Writing Career
How I became a freelance writer, mistakes I made along the way and how choosing a niche can set you up for success.
I started freelancing in 2011 with exactly zero knowledge of what that looked like as a career.
I knew I wanted to “be a writer,” but I spent years figuring out what that would look like in my reality. As I transition now from freelancer to entrepreneur (building Healthy Rich), I can look back on my 10+ years freelancing and see three distinct phases: starving artist, side gigging staff writer and six-figure freelancer.
Here’s what that journey has looked like for me and what I’ve learned about finding success as a freelance writer along the way.
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Mistakes as a new freelance writer
My biggest mistake as a new freelance writer was entering into this career without believing I could make it work. I loved writing and knew I’d do it no matter what, but I believed I’d have to be a starving artist. Or sell out. I didn’t know there was an in-between (what Buddhists call the “middle way”).
For four years, I crafted personal essays and ignored most freelance writing advice, assuming it wasn’t for creative spirits like me. If I’d have paid attention, I might have discovered a lot more places that would pay for my essays. Or learned how to write other types of content that would strengthen my writing, not diminish it.
Even though I relied mainly on freelance writing for my income during these four years, I never really cracked the ceiling into “professional.” I approached freelancing like a creative hobby that made me some money on the side — except that I wasn’t getting it on the side of anything. I was just broke, striving to make at least $1,000 per month and not always succeeding.
Some key mistakes I didn’t know I was making:
Not choosing a niche and developing some kind of expertise.
Not treating writing like a job — setting a schedule, goals and priorities, and sticking to them.
Not building a network that could send me clients.
Not setting income goals (with any real plan to achieve them).
Not saving money to keep my income stable during slow months.
I’m still happy for this period. It didn’t make me rich or successful as a writer, but it served me in lots of other ways as a person, which I needed to prioritize at the time. But if I were to start as a freelancer today, I’d skip a lot of the floundering I did for four years and avoid all the time I spent struggling to make it a career.
What I learned from a full-time writing job
The real breakthrough for my career came when I got my first full-time writing job.
I hadn’t been looking for a job, because I loved the freedom of freelancing. But one of my favorite people, Alexis (Lexi) Grant, was building an editorial staff for The Penny Hoarder, which had just acqui-hired her content management company. I’d worked with Lexi here and there, and I leaped at any opportunity to do it more, so I applied to be a staff writer and got the job.
The job quadrupled my salary (and it would grow quickly, as promotions come fast when you’re an early hire at a growing startup), and I went into an office every day, where I was surrounded by a staff of creative, brilliant writers, editors, journalists and marketers. Opportunities to soak up knowledge and experience were endless, and I thrived.
Through that role, I learned how to be a professional writer. I worked on a roughly nine-to-five schedule, met deadlines, learned content strategy, looked at analytics and understood business goals.
I thrive on a stable schedule, not the chaotic long nights and late mornings I’d adopted in my early years as part of my persona as an artiste.
How to write for a variety of contexts, audiences and purposes.
How to write for an assignment, rather than wait for inspiration to strike.
How to work with a team — collaborate, be accountable and manage expectations.
What clients want out of content (I eventually moved onto TPH’s branded content team and worked directly with advertising clients).
Everything about on-page SEO, which, truly, is everything about understanding your reader and what they need from you.
This role showed me how writing fits into a larger business context, whether that’s for a media company or through content marketing. It gave me the structure I needed to make writing a viable job, appreciating the ways that stretched my creativity rather than snuffed it.
I continued freelancing on the side of that job, and it was easier than it had been for the entire four years I’d spent trying to do it full time.
How choosing a niche changed my freelancing trajectory
One of the most important things my job at The Penny Hoarder did was put me deep into the personal finance niche. Every day, I learned about finance, financial technology and economic trends, as well as what others were doing in the industry.
When I left that job after four years and went full-time freelance in January 2020, I didn’t have to look for work. A hundred people I’d helped welcome into the growing startup were now scattered across the industry and happy to refer clients to me.
If I did approach a personal finance site, my deep portfolio of content in the niche made it easy for them to say yes and bring me on as a contributor. I deliberately landed work with a slew of multi-author personal finance sites so wherever you would go in the niche, you’d see my name. It helped that I’d spent four years focused on the topic full-time, so basics like credit scores, debt payoff methods, checking accounts, student loans and more came naturally to me.
When I left my full-time job, I was earning a $67,000 salary. In my first year back to freelancing, I earned $72,000. In my second year, I brought in $150,000 in revenue ($105,000 in profit after subcontracting and other expenses).
Committing to a niche helped me in several ways:
I knew where to focus new training and expertise (like earning my CEPF certification) to make myself more valuable.
Colleagues tended to stay within the niche, so they’d refer work or hire me when they moved to a new company.
I built a portfolio of relevant clips to show potential clients I was a subject matter expert.
My bank of knowledge meant I didn’t have to do as much research for every assignment, so I could earn more in less time.
My LinkedIn profile and personal website were optimized when someone searched for “personal finance writer.”
It’s important to know that choosing a niche doesn’t have to restrict your work.
For much of 2020, I was doing a lot of work outside of personal finance, but I was still building my portfolio and brand as a personal finance writer. I worked with clients in personal development and entrepreneurship, areas I absolutely love. That work informed how I approach personal finance and helped keep my voice from being the same as everyone in the niche.
You might or might not have a niche in mind when you start freelancing. Maybe you’re coming from a professional career you can bring into your writing — or maybe you just want to be a writer, and you’re starting from scratch like I did.
You don’t have to commit to anything right away, but stay open to topics you could explore deeply and develop some expertise. I resisted niche writing in the early part of my career, and it cost me a lot of potential work and income.
I’m grateful I gave personal finance a chance — I thought it would be dreadfully boring, but I fell in love with it! And now I’m building my own business in the space.
But first, write
Too many pieces of advice for freelance writers ignore the most important part: Above all, focus on your writing.
At every turn, I got work because I could write. Regardless of my expertise, clips or network, if I could get a chance to write for someone, I was in. That’s because I started with the writing. I’ve remained focused on honing this craft above everything else — and it’s paid off.
You can spend a lot of time developing strategies for recruiting clients and managing pitches, tweaking your website and networking on social media. But it’ll all come with a lot more joy and ease if you just learn how to write well. Do great work for everyone who hires you, and they’ll be eager to work with you again and recommend you to anyone who needs a writer.
Plus, being a good writer transcends the niche or the platform. Continue to build this muscle, and you can use it to propel you to whatever you want to do next.
About the author
Dana Miranda is a Certified Educator in Personal Finance® and founder of Healthy Rich. She’s written about work and money for publications including Forbes, The New York Times, CNBC, Insider, NextAdvisor and a column for Inc. Magazine.