A few months ago, I was talking to a fellow writer online. She was new to freelancing and she was (as we all do) panicking a little about making it work.
Could she really get enough clients to make ends meet? How many hours did she need to work in order to make freelance a reality? How did more established writers do it?
With those questions, she posted online asking other writers to weigh in. To talk about our processes. About how many hours we worked. About how long it took us to get our careers off the ground.
So I told her my story. I told her about quitting my ad agency job, taking a more predictable corporate job while I started my business on the side, and then going freelance. I told her it took a couple years to feel like things were steady. And then it took a couple years again once I changed course.
I also told her that now, seven years into freelancing, I had cut my hours by half and committed to a part-time work schedule.
Because at first I’d pushed myself too hard. And my health—mental, physical, emotional—was enormously improved when I cut back.
Which begged another question from her:
How can you make a living as a part-time freelance writer?
The answer, friends, starts with doing the math.
First, you need to know: how much do you need to live? What are your monthly expenses? What do they need to be? What is the baseline number you need to hit in order to keep yourself covered? And what’s the number you need to hit to meet your savings goal?
Once you know that, it’s just a matter of how many billable hours you need to work to hit those numbers.
Rates are fluid, shifting, variable things, but from what I’ve seen, for US freelance copywriters, these seem to be pretty normal:
Junior-level writers with a few years under their belts charge about $50 per hour.
Mid-level falls somewhere around $75 per hour.
And senior-level goes up from there. $90. $100. I’ve seen up to $150.
So, if that holds true for your region and niche, the math goes like this:
If you need to make $2,000 a month to cover your expenses and you’re a junior-level writer with some experience, you’d need to work 40 billable hours a month to make ends meet.
If you need to make $4,000 a month to cover your expenses and hit your savings goals and you’re mid-level, charging $75 per hour, you’d need to work about 54 billable hours a month.
And so on and so forth.
Now, before there’s any confusion: these are billable hours. Which means hours you can bill to a client. So that doesn’t include time you spend on sales, marketing, taxes, accounting, updating your website, etc. etc. So those billable hours aren’t the only hours you’ll work.
But even if you need 40 billable hours per month and work an additional 20 non-billable hours, that’s still just 60 hours per month, or about 15 per week. Not nearly a full-time schedule.
And here’s another important note (something a reader wrote to point out after I first published this): you don’t have to charge hourly. Those hourly rates can be charged hourly, certainly, or you can use them as a guide for charging fixed rates.
For those unfamiliar with the term, fixed rates simply mean that instead of tracking your time and charging clients by the hour, you charge the client a fixed amount for the project. This is great news for the client because it’s not variable. They know exactly what they’re spending, when, and for what specific service. They also know that they aren’t spending more if you’re having a slow or distracted day. And it’s great for you because the more productive you are on a fixed bid project, the more you make per hour.
If, let’s say, you’re shooting for a rate of $90 per hour and you do a fixed bid on a project you’re assuming will take you 10 hours ($900 fixed bid)…if you are incredibly efficient and the client loves the work and skips the built-in round of revisions, perhaps that project might only take you eight hours. In which case, you’ll have made $112.50 per hour. And the client isn’t paying any more than they already agreed to.
Of course, sometimes fixed bid projects go the other direction. You may spend 11 or 12 hours instead of 10. In which case your hourly rate goes down. But for the most part (after perhaps some early trial and error) this is avoidable. The big keys here are:
1) Knowing how to keep yourself productive (for me, this means working mornings – my most productive hours – minimizing distractions, and completing first drafts without interruptions or breaks)
2) Being very specific in your contracts (I specify number of pages, maximum number of words per page, how many rounds of revisions/changes the client can request, how many meetings/interviews are included, if any, and whether any content upload, SEO, photos, or other services are included in the price).
Keep in mind that you can always say yes to more work. If the client wants another round of revisions/changes, great. If the client wants you to upload the content directly into their CMS, excellent. But if it’s not included in the fixed bid, say so up front, and when they ask for it, send over a new estimate for the new work.
Finally, keep in mind that fixed bid doesn’t always have to be based on your hourly rate. That’s how I figure out mine, but there are plenty of smart professionals who base it on value instead. If you know writing online tech help content is going to save your client $15,000 every month in support calls and you want to charge $5,000 a month to create and maintain said content, that’s still a great deal for that client.
Of course, there are plenty of caveats to these answers about whether a part-time copywriter can make a full-time living. You (obviously) need to be a good writer. You need to be the kind of person who can juggle all the bits and pieces of freelancing. You need to be comfortable with the sales process and the uncertainty of where the next client is coming from. You need to be a planner. You need to be good at deadlines.
Copywriting, in other words, is not a get-rich-quick scheme. It’s not an easy thing to break into. It’s not the simplest route to quitting your job and traveling the world (basic coding is quicker and more lucrative to learn if you’re looking for the fast track).
But for all those out there who do have the copywriting skills and are willing to give freelance a go, the answer to the question—can you make a full-time living as a part-time copywriter?—is a definite yes.