Wednesday, January 02, 2008

Figuring for Six

Thanks for the two week break, and for coming back! I hope you all had a wonderful holiday season and that you're ready for a new year. I know I am. My year was full of the worst lows, as well as the greatest highs, and I'm just ready to see what life has to offer in 2008.
If you're like me, your writing business goals include increasing your income.
Today, I interview Marica Turner, who speaks on six-figure freelancing, as well as doing an e-newsletter. To sign up, simply go to and sign up.
Enjoy and Happy New Year!

Tell us about yourself.

Well, I’m not one of those people who knew all their life that they were destined to be a writer. Far from it, actually.

My mother was a freelance writer when I was young, but I didn’t realize that until later. All I knew was that writing came easily to her and that, apparently, I had not inherited that gene.

Fortunately, I attended a liberal arts college (Wellesley), where I had to write papers – hundreds of papers, it seemed. And over the course of three-and-a-half years, I became more adept at the process of researching and writing. When I entered the University of Michigan MBA program and began receiving A’s on my papers, it dawned on me that I had become a decent writer. From there I began to seek out opportunities to write.

I went to work in marketing at a unit of Eastman Kodak Company here in Rochester, New York, and gained some great experience writing corporate pieces. I also wrote my first book – a guide for artists and gallery owners regarding how to market their work – during that time. From there, my writing career took off and I left Kodak to be on my own. I was offered a book editing gig, then another book project, and eventually figured out how to pitch magazine editors effectively and began getting magazine assignments.

Although I now have a fairly steady stream of book and magazine assignments coming in, I’m always in search of writing tools that will help me become more efficient and proficient at writing – that is, faster and better.

I know that many writers want a magic potion to increase their income, but we all know it is a business and it takes work. What is the first step, generally, that freelancers should do?

I think anyone who’s hoping to make a decent amount of money at writing, whether on the side or as a full-time or part-time career, needs to start by assessing what they’re good at, or what their interests are.

Many writers start by pitching a million different articles to a million different editors, most of which they are not qualified to write. But if they start by looking at the industries they’ve worked in, the circles they travel in, or what they spend their days thinking about, they’ll be able to choose three or so different areas of expertise on which to build a business.

Kelly James-Enger calls these specialties in her fabulous book, Ready, Aim, Specialize, but I don’t think you necessarily have to limit yourself completely to those one or two or three areas, just use them to establish a base of business for yourself. You can expand later, once you have a track record with several editors.

For example, I started by coming up with marketing-related articles based on what I had seen and heard through the years in the field. I also pitched small business stories, again, because that’s what I knew. And editors bought them. I pitched more and they bought those, too.

Once writers have identified a handful of areas of expertise, they should start brainstorming article ideas that makes use of their knowledge base and network. And then research magazines, trade journals, or book publishers that would most likely be interested in the subject. Sure, there are thousands of possible editors you could sell the idea to, but which are most likely to buy it.

Another piece of advice I’d offer is - if you are relatively new to freelancing - to go where editors are likely to give a new writer a shot. Editors at major women’s magazines, daily newspapers, or top business publications aren’t looking to give a new writer their big break. On the contrary – they only want to deal with writers who have a solid track record in their sector. So start with trade journals and regional publications that frequently have writing assignments at-the-ready, and work your way up to the household name magazines.

Similarly, in book publishing, start by identifying agents with whom you might like to work, based on the types of books they frequently represent. Then partner with one you like in order to market your manuscript ideas to top publishers.

What is the single biggest mistake that freelancers usually make in keeping their income level lower than they would like?

Well, if I’m any guide, I’d say the biggest mistake freelancers make is assuming they can’t make more than they already are. For several years I believed my income had peaked, presumably because I had simply reached my limit in terms of the number of assignments I could take on in a year. I was content with the amount I was making, but when I heard a fellow ASJAer reveal his $200,000+ annual income, I was inspired to take another look at how I was doing business.

I started by grading all my clients based on the hourly rate I could earn from them and the quality of the relationship – clients who were difficult to work for received a lower grade. And then I stopped writing for clients who earned a D or F grade and began pursuing better-paying publications and assignments to fill my A and B ranks.

I also committed to making the most of my time, so I could get more work done in a day. And I started tracking my projects using TraxTime, to make sure I was billing in full for my time and to verify I had a good handle on how much time each assignment required.

Earlier this year I spoke on the Six-Figure Freelancing panel at ASJA in the hopes of sharing some of what I learned about boosting my writing income – I’ve managed to move from around $30,000 to close to $200,000 in a few short years. I also started writing a monthly ezine to encourage other writers who wonder how to make a six-figure living, which is available at

As you said, it takes work, but any writer can increase their income by focusing on what they know and then pitching ideas on that subject to magazines and book publishers, and keeping the funnel full of upcoming projects, so there’s never a major lull in work or revenue.


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