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To Plunge or Not to Plunge? Becoming a Fulltime Freelancer
by Moira Allen

Return to Starting Your Writing Career · Print/Mobile-Friendly Version

Wouldn't it be great to quit the rat race? To leave bosses and timeclocks behind, skip the commute, ditch the heels or tie, and work in the same clothes you wear to weed the garden?

It's called "taking the plunge," and if you're at all serious about writing, you've probably dreamed about it. But you may also have regarded that dream as, at best, nothing more than an improbable fantasy. Writing may be the career you love, but chances are it's not the career that's keeping food on the table and a roof over your head.

I can't tell you whether you can make that dream a reality. But I can offer a few tips on making the decision: To plunge or not to plunge!

When to Plunge -- and When to Stay Safely Ashore

The first question to ask when considering "the plunge" is: Where is your writing career today?

If the answer is "just getting started," stop right there. If you have only a few clips to your resume, or no clips at all, you're unlikely to be able to support yourself at your craft.

I hear from many writers who say they would like to quit their jobs and "start writing." To such writers, I say: "Start writing now. Quit later." If you haven't started yet -- or if you're just starting -- you simply won't know enough about this complex business to earn a living. So start writing. Get your feet wet. Find out what you can and can't do, what you enjoy, what you don't enjoy. Discover your strengths, and the areas that could use improvement. Find out whether you really wish to pursue writing as a business, or whether you'd rather pursue it as an avocation.

Writing can be a career or hobby or anything you care to make it. Writing for a living is a business, pure and simple. If you wouldn't dream of quitting your day job to run, say, an auto repair shop without any training as a mechanic, then don't dream of quitting your day job to become a writer without a comparable level of experience.

But how much experience IS enough? Should one have been writing for a year, or three, or five? Can writing experience even be measured in terms of "years"?

I suspect it can't. The real question is "where you are," not how long it has taken you to get there. The following checklist may help you determine whether you may be ready to consider "plunging".

A Writer's Checklist

I write more than 5 hours per week, every week.
You have discipline. It's tough to find five hours a week for writing when working a day job. You've already passed one of the biggest hurdles writers face.

I submit at least one new query or article per week.
You have a high output. Clearly you don't spend those five hours a week (or whatever) repolishing old material, or stuffing your work in a drawer. You're already "in the marketplace."

More than 50% of my queries and/or articles are accepted.
You know how to target markets effectively, and you obviously write well enough to impress the majority of the editors to whom you submit. (With that kind of acceptance rate, there's a good chance that your rejections aren't due to poor quality.)

More than 50% of my markets pay more than $100 per article.
You've found the guts to break out of the low-paying "ghetto". You have confidence that your work is worth more. You won't be held back by self-esteem issues.

I have at least one "regular" market that has accepted several of my articles.
You have a steady source of income.

I have at least one "regular" market that contacts me with assignments.
You must be reliable and dependable. You meet deadlines and produce quality work. Otherwise, editors wouldn't come to you with ideas.

I am familiar with the practices and terminology of the publishing marketplace (e.g., I know what "FNASR" and "SASE" mean and I know how to format a manuscript).
You know the basics, and won't have to waste precious time "gearing up."

I own at least one current market guide.
You know the importance of obtaining the tools of the trade.

I subscribe to two or more writing publications.
You keep current with your field.

I know how to cope with rejection.
You won't be daunted by the inevitable disappointments of this type of career.

I earned more than $5000 from writing activities last year.
It won't keep a roof over your head, but it's more than many freelancers ever make in a year. It's one of those invisible lines: If you know how to earn this much, you know how to earn more. Probably the only thing holding you back is lack of time.

I currently report writing income for tax purposes, and know how to maintain proper business/tax records of income and expenses.
You know that "writing" isn't just putting words on a page. It's also a matter of records, accounting and good business practices.

I keep a household budget.
You already have an idea of what it will take to support your household -- which means you know how close you are to being able to go full-time.

While scoring 100% on this checklist is no guarantee that you're ready to quit your day job, a low score is a pretty good indication that you need to build up more of a foundation for your writing career before attempting to rely on it for a paycheck.

Making a Plan

So you've scored a perfect 13, you're totally fed up with your day job, and you're sure this is what you want to do. What next?

For most writers, the answer is not "quit your day job today." The answer is "make a plan." Typically, if you hope to become a full-time writer, you'll need to plan at least six months to a year ahead before actually "taking the plunge."

What will you do during that year? Lots! Here are some of the steps you'll need to take before saying farewell to a regular paycheck and "hello" to the joys and uncertainties of the freelance life.

1) Discuss your desire to become a fulltime freelancer with everyone in your personal life who will be affected by that decision (e.g., spouse, significant other, children). Presumably, your desire to write won't be a total surprise. However, family members who supported your "hobby" may not be as enthusiastic about losing a significant chunk of family income. They may not be happy about making adjustments, such as providing extra income themselves or accepting cutbacks and lifestyle changes. Don't be surprised if you encounter resistance or even sabotage. (I've heard of some wacky "conditions" imposed by spouses.) Don't dismiss those concerns as unfeeling; if your decision will affect others, the needs of those others should be a part of the decision-making process.

2) Evaluate your household income requirements. If you don't track your monthly expenses, this is a good time to start. Before you can make an effective plan, you need to know exactly where every penny of your income goes. Try tracking expenses on a simple spreadsheet, with categories such as:

  • Rent/mortgage
  • Groceries
  • Utilities
  • Insurance
  • Auto (gas and repairs)
  • Medical
  • Household expenses (e.g., maintenance)
  • Clothes
  • Children's expenses
  • Meals and Entertainment (e.g., restaurants and movies)
  • Miscellaneous

It's also wise to break "miscellaneous" into more detailed categories, such as "books, CDs, videos, pets, crafts, subscriptions," etc. A good rule of thumb is to establish a separate listing for every category that exceeds $50 (or even $20) per month.

If you're never tracked your expenses in such detail before, you could be in for a shock. You didn't know you spent $100 a month on books? Or that those twelve magazine subscriptions (that you never have time to read) cost more than $500 per year? Your budget may be a rude awakening, but it can also be a welcome one, as certain categories emerge as ripe for cost-cutting.

3) Create a projected budget. It's "trim the fat" time. Go over your current expense list, and determine what you can cut and what you can't. Be realistic: Don't imagine that you can go a year without buying a new CD or book, or without eating out even once. (By resolving to buy those CDs or books used instead of new, however, you can immediately cut those categories in half!) Be sure to budget for unexpected expenses; you can bet that sometime in the next year, the car will need repairs, the dog will get sick, or the roof will leak.

4) Determine the difference between your projected budget and your current take-home income. If, for example, you can trim $10,000 in expenses, and you take home $30,000, you'll need to earn $20,000 -- one way or another.

5) SAVE. Most writers suggest having a full year of income saved (or at least enough to cover a full year of expenses). You need a cushion to pay those regular bills while waiting for irregular checks. Savings will be easier once you trim the budget, however. For example, if you've determined that you can cut $10,000 in expenses, you can save that over the next year. You can also ramp up your writing (by producing more articles or seeking higher-paying markets), and bank every penny of that income as well. If your shortfall is $20,000, and you save $10,000 in expenses and earn another $10,000 in writing over the next year, you'll have covered the difference.

6) Create a business plan. Determine your existing income sources, and explore ways to increase that income. Should you pitch more articles to your regular customers? Should you seek new, higher-paying markets? Should you focus on a specialty or expand your range? For more tips on this stage, see my article, Building a Writer's Business Plan.

7) Be realistic. Nothing will sabotage your dream faster than setting impossible or unsatisfying goals. One writer I know attempted to increase her regular workload AND double or triple her writing output. Needless to say, this didn't work, and her "plunge" has been postponed indefinitely. Another common cause of failure is "plunging without a net" -- with no savings backup. It only takes one missed rent check to get you back behind that hated office desk.

Your goal is to improve your life, not ruin it. Many writers take the plunge so that they can spend more time with loved ones -- so don't create a schedule that shuts those loved ones out of your life! Many also want to find more time to do what they love -- so don't create a plan that forces you to give up the types of writing you love in favor of higher-paying projects that bore you to tears. In short, don't sabotage your plan -- or your life -- in your attempt to make that life better.

Find Out More...

Balancing Act: Ten Reasons to Keep Your Day Job, by Denene Brox

Fifty Tips on Taking the Plunge, by Moira Allen

Making the Leap from a "Real Job" to Freelancing, by Kathy Sena

Ready to Quit Your Day Job? by Hasmita Chander

To Job or Not to Job: A Writer's Question, by Antonio Graceffo

Copyright © 2001 Moira Allen

This article may be reprinted provided that the author's byline, bio, and copyright notice are retained in their entirety. For complete details on reprinting articles by Moira Allen, please click HERE.

Moira Allen is the editor of Writing-World.com, and has written nearly 400 articles, serving as a columnist and regular contributor for such publications as The Writer, Entrepreneur, Writer's Digest, and Byline. An award-winning writer, Allen is the author of eight books, including Starting Your Career as a Freelance Writer, The Writer's Guide to Queries, Pitches and Proposals, and Writing to Win: The Colossal Guide to Writing Contests. In addition to Writing-World.com, Allen hosts VictorianVoices.net, a growing archive of articles from Victorian periodicals, and The Pet Loss Support Page, a resource for grieving pet owners. She lives in Maryland with her husband and the obligatory writer's cat. She can be contacted at editors "at" writing-world.com.


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