[The Freelance Life] This Will Either Make Everything Better or Everything Worse

I’m going to interrupt the Business Plan Writing series real quick here, because I want to show you this. Brace yourself. It’s a lot.


I’m posting that as big as Dashboard will let me — if you’re all squinty and can’t read it, click the image and it should get bigger in a new window. (If that doesn’t work, try zooming in your computer screen’s view.)

This, my friends, is the amazing color-coded spreadsheet that runs your entire Freelance Life. Now that you’ve learned how to set your income goals (or are maybe still digesting all of that), I thought it would be helpful if I showed you exactly what tracking those goals all year long looks like.

This spreadsheet is not a requirement. There are many good systems (Quicken, a big wall calendar, an intricate series of emails to yourself… ) but this is the one that I live and die by and have been refining for the past seven years.

So what the hell are you looking at?

Let’s break it down by looking just at Quarter 1: 

The top yellow line is your guide to all of the categories all across the page:

  • Inv#: Means invoice number. When you file invoices, you usually need to number them. Somewhere along the way, some company told me my invoice numbers had to be seven digits, so I started putting 8677 in front of all of them. You can invent your own numbering system. Fun!
  • Assignment: This is where you write the name of the story or project. For these purposes, we’re making it all up, obviously.
  • Publication: Otherwise known as your client. Who you are writing the what for.
  • Accrual Date: This is an important one. This is the date you GOT the assignment (I usually choose the date where I get an assignment note via email from the editor, specifying the pay rate and due date, because waiting for the actual contract to arrive can take forever). You must, must, must track this because due dates can often be far in the future, so this is the date you use to track your income accrual goals.
  • Proposal: A lot of magazines ask you to submit an outline or proposal before you write the full draft. Sometimes this happens as part of the pitching process, sometimes this happens after you’ve nailed the assignment. Either way, note the due date and make this deadline.
  • Due: This is when your first draft is due. Very big day. Don’t f*ck it up.
  • Revise: No matter how fancy you become, you’ll virtually always have to do a revise. This is where you track that due date.
  • Rate: Note here whether you’re being paid by the word, by the hour, by the day or a flat fee for the project. I’ll write a post down the line about why the type of rate used doesn’t matter all that much (it’s all about what your time is worth) but it’s good to track nonetheless so you know what language to speak when negotiating with a client.
  • Amount: How much you are being paid. You want to pay attention to that.
  • Contract Sent: The day you mailed back the signed contract. Because they get lost.
  • Invoice Sent: The day you submitted an invoice or the editor put through payment (a lot of magazines don’t bother with invoices if they have you on a contract). Either way, this is a critical date to note because you should get paid within 30-90 days of it happening.
  • Date Paid: Because you’ll need to track when you actually get paid for tax purposes.
  • Pre-Tax Amt: Should match up with the amount they assigned you. Always good to double check.
  • Taxes 34%: How much you pull out of every paycheck and stick in a really-hard-to-access (but hopefully interest-producing) savings account until it’s time to pay your quarterly taxes. The actual percent will vary anywhere from 25 to 35 percent — 30 is generally safe, but talk to you tax accountant to be sure you’re setting aside the right amount.

So, now every time you accrue an assignment, you list it on a new row of the chart and fill in the appropriate information for each column.

But wait, you ask, why the color-coding? This is because once you’re up and running, you could have as many as a dozen different assignments going at once, all in different stages of pitching, being assigned, writing, revising, invoicing. You need to be able to see at a glance where you are with each one.

  • BLUE: Paid! Done and in the bag. We like a lot of blue.
  • RED: Late! When an invoice has been sitting for more than 60 days, I change the line to red and start being more ah, assertive, in my follow-ups. We like not so much red. (Usually you don’t have more than a couple of red lines going at once, don’t worry.)
  • HOT PINK: Invoiced! Money coming soon! (It varies publication to publication, but most likely within 30 to 60 days.) My second favorite color on the spreadsheet.
  • GREEN: Active assignments! This can mean the piece is either in the proposal, draft, or revise stage. (You could break that down with even more colors and sometimes I do, but frankly, aren’t you already sort of freaking out about the color thing? The bottom line is, this is the sh*t you have to be doing every day.)

Now obviously, my actual Quarter 1 has a lot more assignments listed than what you see here — every time something new comes in, I just add a new row and keep going until the number in the yellow “Total Accrued” box adds up to the number I’ve listed as my INCOME GOAL in the Quarter 1 box above.

Since we’re done with Quarter 1 and at the start of Quarter 2, I stuck another fake assignment in that section to give you an idea of how this all continues. By the end of the year, I typically have 50 to 70 assignment lines spread between the four quarters. (Not equally — some quarters I might be doing a lot of quick web assignments so the assignment count really adds up, other quarters I might be ensnared in a book project for months at a time.)

At the bottom of the spreadsheet, you’ll see a section called “Pitching.” This is where I track stories that I’ve pitched but haven’t accrued yet. If a story gets rejected, I mark the line gray. (I don’t delete it, because I might want to keep the idea in mind to rework for another client.) If a story gets accepted, I move it up to the appropriate quarter to be tallied.

At any point in time, you can get a sense of how you’re doing for the year by checking these places on the spreadsheet (obviously these are just fake numbers in the current total fields for our amusement):

  • The “Total Accrued” boxes for each quarter. (See top image.)
  • The big yellow “ACCRUED” total for the whole year, all the way at the bottom. (Above left.)
  • The big yellow “TOTALS” all the way on the bottom far right, which tell you how much cash you’ve actually earned year to date, and how much of that total you’ve set aside for taxes. (Above, right.)

At least once a month, I spend an hour scrolling through the spreadsheet and following up as needed on any contracts that need returning, invoices that need sending, payments that need chasing, or pitches that require follow-up. Yes, it can be tedious (and even a little scary if you’re off your goal one month or having a hard time shaking money out of a slacker client) but this is regular maintenance is essential to running a healthy business.

And that, kittens, is everything you need to know about tracking your freelance work. Next week, we’ll get back to finishing up your business plan. I promise, there is only one more spreadsheet to go!

Questions? Comments? Fellow freelancers, I’d love to know what system you use or how you’d tweak and improve this! 

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1 Comment

One Comment

  1. Posted July 25, 2013 at 5:13 pm | Permalink

    Thanx for the accounting info for freelance writers. I have written and been paid over the years but am wondering how much is a fair price in today’s market. Just finished a 543 word article for an attorney and we are talking about me ghost writing a book for her….also expanding the article as a series for a mediators’ newsletter published in our state, (GA)…any advice or good place to check for fees…based btw, per hour or flat rate…

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