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Six Figures vs. Barely Getting By: A Tale of Two Consultants

By Katherine Gustafson

Last year, I had a coffee networking meeting with a fellow freelance writer in my city. We chatted about the ins and outs of freelancing, but it became clear to me almost immediately that we were talking about two very different types of jobs.

We both call ourselves “freelance writer,” but our approach to the work, and our earnings from the work couldn’t have been more different. This same conversation could have taken place between two consultants of any type.

A Tale of Two Writers

I was in the midst of my first six-figure year as a freelancer. I was increasingly thinking of myself as a businessperson. I had developed strategies for pricing, networking, and management. I was hustling like a maniac, signing new clients, and learning in the process that my potential as a freelancer is only limited by my own imagination and time.

My companion sipped her coffee and told me she’d love to break $30,000 that year. She lived in a small apartment and couldn’t afford health insurance. I heard about her work writing newsletters for a small nonprofit and her background in another profession that she was hardly leveraging at all to help her freelance career.

To me there were obvious ways she could expand into higher-paying work. But when I asked if she’d considered these options, she simply shrugged. She seemed resigned to freelance writing being a low-earning struggle.

Why was there such a difference in our attitudes and realities?

Over the next few weeks I was on the lookout for information about what other freelance writers might be earning to try to understand this better.

In online groups, I heard plenty of comments from those whose earnings were not measuring up to their needs or desires. I also heard from high earners, including one person who made $250,000 in the last year working as a freelance writer.

That writer makes more than eight times as much as the person I met for coffee, yet both have the same job title. What gives?

Finding the Balance

Obviously one factor is that the term “freelance writer” covers a lot of territory — referring to everyone who does any kind of writing on a freelance basis, from community newspaper stringers to high-profile business writers. So it’s logical that there’d be a big spread in income when there’s also a big difference in the type of jobs these writers are doing, and the industries they’re working in.

However, all freelance writers are engaged in essentially the same activity — selling their writing skills for pay. So on a fundamental level they are doing the same thing. The issue is just that there are so many different ways to do it.

Freelancing is like the Wild West of the work world; there are no set ways of doing things. It’s each person for themselves, figuring out how to balance doing work that satisfies them with earning a decent living.

In many cases people choose to earn less than they could because they want to do work that feeds their soul, or at least doesn’t bore them to tears. But even when that is the case there is a wide range of how much one can make.

In the case of my coffee date, she was clearly doing work that felt important to her and accepted the low pay as part of that deal. However, there seemed to be ways she could make more and not end up hating her work life. She just didn’t seem receptive to doing things differently.

Why not? I don’t know for sure, but I’ve thought of a lot of different reasons that people might get stuck making less than they could. Here are a few:

1. Lack of confidence

Many people suffer from impostor syndrome — a persistent feeling that you’re not as competent as you need to be. If you suffer from feelings that you aren’t capable of being the higher-earning freelancer you want to be, then you’re likely to resist asking for more money, or reaching out for stretch opportunities.

2. Perfectionism

Perfectionism is freelancer enemy number one. If you feel that you have to make everything you produce absolutely perfect, everything will forever. Even then, the client is still likely to want changes simply because they have their own ideas and priorities. Don’t spend so much time on each assignment that you end up making $10 an hour. Give it your best shot, and then let the client have their say, and incorporate that into the final product.

3. Fear of selling out

Many freelancers are interested in doing work they love or believe will change the world. They want to write meaty articles on cultural issues instead of composing corporate blog posts. Or they want to photograph animals for nonprofits instead of working weddings. Earning more often means compromising on what kind of work you’re going to do, which some may feel is selling out their ideals about their work life or their identity.

4. Victim mentality

Freelancing is hard — you’re entirely responsible for your career, and you have to think independently and constantly problem-solve in order to move forward. This can feel burdensome, especially if you didn’t proactively choose to become a freelancer. A sense of resentment can build if you dislike the mechanics of the profession, and that feeling can keep you stuck railing against the system instead of using your energy to progress toward better things.

5. Resignation

Did I mention that freelancing is hard? It’s much harder than a lot of day jobs, where you can show up, do what someone tells you to, and get paid regularly. When you don’t meet success with your earnings right away, it’s tempting to just decide that the field is too competitive and low pay is all you can get.

Attitudes of High-Earning Freelancers

By way of contrast, what kinds of attitudes are freelancers like the $250k writer cultivating?

1. A focus on client needs

People who earn more understand that clients are looking for specific things, many of which have nothing to do with you producing the most amazing literary work anyone has ever seen. Most clients will value you highly if you make their lives easier. It’s easier to see the value you’re providing if you know that half the job is simply being responsive and getting things in on time, and another quarter of it is being pleasant and easy to work with. The final quarter is producing decent work that meets the client’s baseline for quality.

2. Thinking like a business person

High-earning freelancers think of themselves as running a business, which means they weigh opportunities based on factors besides whether they love an assignment or not. They think in terms of how much each gig will earn them in a given amount of time and how likely the client is to be good to work with and to pay on time. They may also consider what they’ll learn and what skills they might acquire from a particular assignment, and perhaps how a particular client might add to their resume. They don’t “sell out” so much as think pragmatically about how to balance income and soul-food in their freelancing.

3. A problem-solving mentality

Freelancing is a constant series of problems to be solved. How to get the next client? How to execute everything on time? How to do the right type of research for the thing you’re writing? How to get the right equipment for the job? Proactively solving these problems is part of being your own CEO, and thinking in this way is the opposite of being victimized by circumstances beyond your control.

4. Opportunity mindset

Freelancing is bursting with opportunity. Around every corner is something new you could try and a new client to work with. Sure, it may be a challenge to find those clients and that work, but they are out there. And if you approach the profession with an eye toward all that opportunity you’ll be more likely to figure out how to get some of those opportunities for yourself.

5. Knowing what’s possible

There’s one other huge factor that figures in the gap between those making poverty wages and those living large as freelancers, and that is the knowledge that it’s possible to make great money freelancing.

Many who are stuck in a rut with low-earning gigs simply don’t realize that they could be earning so much more, so they accept what they see in front of them. Once they hear that they could in fact be making twice, three times . . . heck, eight times as much, they often transform their resignation into an opportunity mindset. Results come quickly when this happens.

One of the major reasons I was able to switch into high gear and improve my business to a point where I am making three times what I made in my last full-time job is that someone told me it was possible.

Until that person told me she was in fact doing it and I could too, it hadn’t even occurred to me that freelancing could ever be more than a “can I scrape together enough this month?” affair.

That sense of opportunity pushed me to crank my efforts up a notch and think more like a businessperson. The effects were almost instantaneous.

A version of this article previously appeared on the site she runs for women freelancers, All the Freelance Women.

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About Katherine Gustafson

Katie Gustafson is a freelance writer based in Portland, Oregon, focusing on content writing for business, tech, finance, and nonprofits.

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