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How to Reach Your Freelance Goals

Can a simple formula tell you exactly where you are in your freelance goals? The right equation can help you see your freelance goals more clearly—and quantify what you need to do to meet them. by Perry P. Perkins

Can a simple formula tell you exactly where you are in your freelance goals?

More important, can some quick math help you reach them?

Two years ago, my life changed dramatically: My wife and I had our first child and, at 38, I left my 10-year career to become a stay-at-home dad and writer.

I continued writing daily (as I had been for years) and faithfully submitting both finished work and queries to the appropriate markets. And I guess you could say it was going fairly well: My articles were selling, and even the rejections had nice things to say. But when it came time to pay the bills each month, it became obvious that the sales just weren’t coming in fast enough. There were ups, sure, but there also were more than a few times when we had more month than money.

It was frustrating.

One afternoon, while I sat staring at my monitor, I scribbled the following formula on a handy rejection letter (they make great scrap paper, you know):

(ei/ts) x x = gi

I know what you’re thinking: “Huh?” As a former straight “C” math student, I’m not usually given to scribbling equations of any kind. When we go out to eat, my wife usually has to figure the tip (that’s what happens when you marry a writer).

Still, I can add and subtract as well as the average sixth-grader, and I realized that if X number of submissions equals Y number of dollars, the easiest way to increase my income would be to increase my number of submissions. And thus the formula: TS stands for “Total Submissions.” This includes every written work and query I’ve sent off for possible publication in the last year, whether it resulted in an acceptance or not. EI is “Earned Income”: every penny brought in from my writing in the same period of time. And X is the factor by which I realized I’d need to increase my submissions to reach my Goal Income (GI). Put all this together, and you have a mathematical breakdown of any freelance writing career:

(Earned Income divided by Total Submissions) times X = Goal Income

Now, of course, the process of writing and submitting your work is not an exact science, but what this equation does is illuminate the overall average you need to hit to achieve your writing goals. The simple truth is, if you can produce quality work, then the only other factor you can control is how many paying markets you’re giving the opportunity to compensate you for that work. After “doing the math” I increased my average daily submissions from 2.5 to 15, and my sales figures exploded. Within 90 days, I was achieving my income goals.

Here’s how doing the math can work for you, too.

Putting Two + Two Together
Here are the figures you’ll need to get started in evaluating where you are now:

1. Total number of submissions you’ve made in the last year (a year is ideal, but six months or even three will work)

2. Total amount you’ve made in sales in the same period of time

3. Your monthly income goal.

The goal income is the biggie—and if you’re just starting out in your freelance writing and you don’t yet have No. 1 or No. 2, it’s also all you really need to start doing the math. For me, the goal income is what I need to be making to consider my stay-at-home-dad funds sufficient. For you, it might reflect an ideal supplementary income to your full-time career. Your goal should (and will) be flexible, growing as you meet each milestone, and as your skills and contacts improve. (In other words, over time you can and should be making more and writing less.) For now, be honest with yourself about your goals so you can create a realistic plan for achieving them.

Let’s say, as a simple example, that I made 2,000 submissions last year, and from these I earned $20,000. My average income per submission would equal about $10, regardless of the number of published articles to rejections.

Assuming five-day workweeks (that’s 260 submission days per year), when I do the math, this rounds up to about eight submissions a day. If my goal is to make $20,000 again next year, my daily average needs to be eight submissions.

Eight submissions per day?

Don’t freak out! We’ll get to that in just a minute.

Remember, this is based on averages. Some submissions will earn hundreds (even thousands) of dollars; many will earn nothing but a rejection to add to the pile. You never know until you query, and you’ve got to start somewhere.

Here’s a more detailed breakdown of the numbers:

2,000/260 = 8

Total yearly submissions divided by 260 = Average subs per day (rounded)

$20,000/260 = $76.92

Total earned income divided by 260 = Average daily income

$76.92/8 = $9.62

Average daily income divided by average subs per day = Income per sub

The figure $9.62, the income per submission, is the magic number. That’s what I’m averaging every time I click the “Send” button or drop a letter in the mailbox. Once I know that, I can determine how many more times I need to be clicking “Send” to be on task to reach my financial goals.

Let’s say my goal freelance income for next year is $35,000. If I divide that by my number of writing days (260), it comes out to about $135 per day. At an average of $10 per submission, I’ll need to make about 14 submissions per day.

OK, now you try it:

/ 260 =

Total yearly submissions divided by 260 = Average subs per day

$ / 260 = $

Total earned income divided by 260 = Average daily income

$ / = $

Average daily income divided by average subs per day = Income per sub

Now you can take your income per submission and calculate the average you need to hit to achieve your monetary goals for next year. But how are you supposed to make that many submissions every day?

Making More Efficient Submissions
If this equation overwhelms you, take a breath. First of all, you may not need to make $20,000 a year in writing income. In today’s economy, maybe you’re just trying to fill a gap created by an all-too-common “downsized” salary, or to compensate for that pay increase you didn’t get. Perhaps you’re looking for another $300 or $500 each month. Using the numbers above, that’s 1.5–2.5 submissions per day—or, put another way, an average of eight to 12 submissions a weekend, with the week free to focus on your day job and other obligations.

But what if you do need to make a full-time living from your freelance writing? Does this equation emphasize quantity over quality?

No. I’ve experienced that it’s possible to achieve both, with judicious use of resources, a focus on tight queries and the elimination of time-wasting distractions.

When I first began using this system, the first thing I had to do was change the way I utilized resources like Writer’s Market.

Instead of using it like I would a phone book—looking only to find specific information on a publisher I was interested in writing for—I decided to read through the book, cover to cover, to find every publisher that might be interested in my writing.

I’ve since had my writing published in dozens of magazines that I never would have heard of if I hadn’t approached Writer’s Market as a “help wanted” list instead of simply a Rolodex. I’ve also discovered that market resources can be brainstorming tools to create a list of article ideas—along with a matching index of publishers to query for each.

If you use this method, then you don’t actually need to find eight markets a day, think of an idea for each and then craft eight specific query letters.

Instead, I recommend you first spend a couple of days reading about hundreds of markets and conceiving as many ideas as you can. Jot down the name, page number, URL, preferred word count and pay rate of each potential market, then move on to the next. You can keep article ideas in the same file or in a separate one; take the time now to create a system that works for you, and it will (literally) pay off later.

Add to this list the occasional new market or article idea found in or inspired by e-mail newsletters, writing magazines, writing groups and the like, and you’ll never be short of markets (or potential articles) to query. Each day, pull an idea (or eight, or however many you need to reach your target submission number) from your files, reread the writers’ guidelines of the potential markets you’ve already found, and get busy on your query.

You’ll find it takes a lot less time to think up topics for a specific publication as you’re reading its guidelines than it does to conceive or write a piece, search for markets and then tweak your article idea to fit each publication. In fact, when browsing guidelines, you’ll often come up with several ideas at the same time. Pick one to query now, and file the others for later.

Perfecting the Art of the Query
As far as crafting query letters, many of us freelancers waste a lot of time on this. An excellent query should require only a minimum of customization for one publication or the next, as the basic concept of the article will remain the same. Save your query template by the name of the article idea it represents, and use it whenever you submit that query.

The only thing that usually needs to change, besides the contact information and suggested word count, is the “hook” you think will work best for that publication.

Remember, you’re not writing on assignment; you’re simply taking the initiative to recommend the assignment to an editor in advance. If and when an editor expresses interest, you’ll follow that publication’s style and guidelines in writing the article itself.

I’ve noticed that the tighter and more concise (read: shorter) my queries are, the faster I’m getting responses. With the increased workloads brought on by downsizing in the current economy, many editors would rather not take the time to wade through long, detailed queries.

Try condensing your queries down to a few highly targeted sentences, trusting that an editor will e-mail for clarification if you’ve piqued her interest.

Just FYI: That’s exactly how you came to be reading this article.

Practicing Your Math
With practice, preparing submissions should take no more than 20–30 minutes for new markets and as little as 10 for editors you’ve already worked with, or whose magazines you read regularly. Here are some more tips for efficiently reaching those target numbers:

SET REASONABLE GOALS. If you’re averaging $100 a month making 10 submissions a day, you need to realistically consider that goal income of $2,000 a month and adjust accordingly. You also may need to target your queries to higher-paying markets. Which brings me to the next point.

CAST TO THE BIG FISH FIRST. To steal a line from a popular movie, “It ain’t ‘show-friends,’ it’s ‘show-business!’ ” After you sit down with that market guide and make a list of all the publications that might be interested in your query, reorganize that list beginning with the highest-paying market. Then, start at the top.

QUERY RATHER THAN WRITING ON SPEC. Focus your energy on developing your ideas, perfecting your query letters and researching to find the most lucrative markets that need your work. Don’t put hours into an article that no editor has even considered yet. If you can write five good queries in the same time it takes to finish an unrequested article … well, you can do the math.

BUILD A CLIENT LIST. It should be a no-brainer to maintain relationships with publications you’ve worked with. If you don’t have a client list yet, the “doing the math” approach to submissions is the fastest way I’ve found to build one. The key importance of the client list (besides the income) is that it takes far less time to conceive and customize a query letter for a known market than for a new one. So once you land an assignment with a new market, work to make it a valued member of your list by submitting ideas regularly.

This isn’t part of the math analogy, but everything above is moot if you don’t give editors what they what, when they want and how they want. The biggest time and money waster for a freelancer is to shotgun articles to markets that don’t fit.

With a shrinking pool of publishers and an expanding number of part-time freelancers, knowing how much you need to earn, and how to earn it, is critical.

If, like many of us, you occasionally find yourself with more month than money, maybe it’s time to do the math.

Not sure how to get your freelance career started? Consider:
Starting Your Career As A Freelance Writer

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