How to Develop Multiple Streams of Income

This is a guest post by Jennifer Lawler. Jennifer is the author of more than 30 books, inlcuding Dojo Wisdom for Writers, and has written for magazines ranging from Family Circle to Cooking Light. She teaches a copyediting class at the University of California, San Diego and was formerly a freelance editor for ATA World magazine. We’re excited that Jennifer is teaching the e-course Freelance Editing 101 for The Renegade Writer. Her next session starts on July 12—that’s this coming Monday, so sign up now!

Multiple streams of income. You—ve probably heard that as a freelancer you should have them—but how? And why?

Simply put, having multiple streams of income means you earn money from various sources. A staff reporter has one source of income, her employer; a freelance writer may have ten or more, depending on how many clients she’s juggling at any given time.

Beyond that, though, and what I think is most important for freelancers, is the concept of having a variety of types of income. This makes intuitive sense to most people. If you have one spigot, and it gets turned off, you’re going to go thirsty. If you have ten, and one gets turned off, well, you still have nine to draw water from.

That’s the key to surviving the often-turbulent waters of freelancing. For many years, writers who wrote exclusively for consumer magazines did very well for themselves—and then the economy tanked, and print media was devastated, and those writers were left scrambling to regroup when assignments stopped coming. Going from 80 to 0 in a couple of months is like slamming into a brick wall. It takes a while to shake it off. Writers who weren’t so heavily invested in writing for consumer magazines had an easier time of navigating the new waters.

The problem—which I’m sure you can immediately see—is that you can get too scattered chasing all kinds of opportunities and end up with nothing much to show for your efforts. Everyone has a limited amount of resources (time, attention, energy, knowledge). If I’m trying to break into magazine writing, should I also be trying to break into book publishing and corporate writing at the same time?

Probably not. Although I now have many sources of income—book advances, book royalties, magazine writing, teaching, editing, coaching—I certainly didn’t start that way. I didn’t pursue all of the possibilities at the same time.

I started with books, mostly because I’d always wanted to write them. I focused on martial arts related topics (a subject matter I knew pretty well). Then I started to write for magazines: first, I wrote for magazines that published martial arts content, then I wrote articles with a martial arts slant for general consumer magazines. Then an opportunity arose for me to edit a martial arts magazine, so I branched into that. In the meantime, because I had become familiar with book publishing, and I had some editing skills and deep intimacy with the Chicago Manual of Style (from grad school days), I started doing copyediting and developmental editing for book publishers. Then came chances to teach writing and editing skills at various universities (as well as online courses I develop myself).

What’s effective about this approach is that I got pretty good at one skill (say, writing books). Then I branched out and got pretty good at another skill (say, writing magazine articles). Then I spent time mastering yet another skill (editing magazines). Each time, I was getting paid for mastering the skill, and I didn’t try to take on too many new skills at one time.

In practice, how does this work? Each year, I look at my income, creative, and personal goals. I look at the mix of work I have, consider what I would like to be doing, and make adjustments. If I have too much of one kind of work, I will tend to solicit another kind. For example, a few years ago I felt I was relying too heavily on magazine income, so I started doing more teaching. If one area is dead (nonfiction books is an area I’m not spending much time in now), then I concentrate my efforts elsewhere (right now I’m doing more editing).

How do you get started creating multiple streams of income? First, look at where the opportunities are. I recently got a question from a reader who wanted to know how to make a living writing short stories and poetry. If I had that secret, I would sell it for ten million dollars and go to the islands. There just aren’t many opportunities to make money selling short stories and poetry. That doesn’t mean they aren’t worth doing, but that work needs to be filed in the “personally fulfilling” category and not the “how I’m gonna pay this month’s rent” category.

The opportunities are going to be a little bit different for everyone, depending on what your skills are, what network of freelancers you’re linked into (they’re going to be one of your best sources of leads to new opportunities), and what you find interesting to do. In other words, you need to make logical connections. If you write articles about a certain subject matter, could you write a book? Could you give classes? Could you edit other people’s writing on the subject?

One of the best ways to get started is to expand your horizons with your current clients so you can get the skills, experience, and portfolio you need to work in another field. So, for example, if you write for a website, and you’d like to do more photography, it’s a fairly simple proposition to propose a photo-heavy piece to your editor. Now you have a solid credential to show to potential clients. I know one writer who has turned his photography skills into a steady stream of business shooting other writers for book jackets and promotional material. He happened to make the connection between the facts that 1) he had good photography skills and 2) he knew lots of writers who needed photos for various PR-related purposes. It didn’t take him a huge investment of time, money, or effort to let these people know that he could help them solve a problem (how to get a flattering photo from someone who understood their needs).

What skills and relationships do you have that you can make connections between? For example, I’m a member of a nonfiction writers? group that includes people wanting to write books. After I’d been a member of a while, it became clear that I knew more than most of the members about how to write book proposals because I’d written so many of them. I realized that many of the writers would happily sign up for a class on how to write a book proposal. So I connected with the group’s moderator/owner, got her blessing to develop the class, and have been offering it periodically for several years. It is one of my most lucrative streams of income, and I don’t have to do that much work to promote it. In fact, many members of the group actually promote the class for me. It fills a need, so I don’t have to do any arm-twisting to get people to see the value in it.

The key to developing multiple streams of income is to make those kinds of connections in your own career and life. What do your clients wish they had that they don’t? Who is the connector in your life—the person who knows everyone and what they’re up to? Does that person know that you’re looking for connections? Be open to new possibilities, but also let things evolve. When Linda first proposed that I teach a class for the Renegade Writer, I knew I wanted to do it, but I didn’t know what I wanted to teach. I already had a successful book proposal class and didn’t want to just duplicate that. I tossed around various ideas. Then, as I was teaching a copyediting class for UCSD, I got so many questions from students about how to find freelance editing work that I realized that was the class I should teach. So I am. But Linda and I first talked about my teaching a class for her several years ago.

The lesson? Plant the seeds, cultivate them, make adjustments as you go along. we’re looking for a flower garden here, not a field of corn, so your seeds shouldn’t all look the same.

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10 comments… add one
  • Jennifer\Linda:

    What was the last thing, Linda, that you told mewhen you “busted my myth” in may? “As for writing for businesses instead of magazines: Well, business writing certainly pays more! But it’s always good to diversify so that if one market dries up, you still have others to rely on.”

    Wisdom from two excellent practioners…


  • Great advice, Jennifer! In addition to my writing and blogging work, I teach writing and self-published an eBook on the topic. The sum of all these different projects helps me maintain enough income to live on and also fuels my creativity because I’m not doing the same thing day after day.

  • Sometimes those darn seeds take forever to grow, and then when they do sprout, it’s just teeny weeny sprouts…. Branch out, take classes, connect on websites and social media. Be wise, be professional, be a little assertive. I’ve been at it five years and I’ve just now started to see little sprouts of progress. It’s so exciting. So get in there, get around, get busy, and don’t give up.

  • What a great post! Thanks for reminding me about the importance of finding more than one source of income and by showing me how you did it yourself. I’m still working on doing so and was wondering if you would recommend first getting really good at one thing (maybe be an expert in a particular field) and then branching out by writing about that specific topic? Or is it better to get good at a particular skill first like you did with writing books? It seems as though at least initially you need to focus on one thing then spread your wings when you get good at it.

  • Steve, thanks for the kind words! Diversify is the idea, and it can mean diversification of subject matter, markets, etc.

    Susan, I agree that one benefit of multiple streams of income is that you aren’t doing the same thing day after day. You use different skillsets. I find that I do better problem solving and can tackle projects with fresh energy when I have a variety of tasks on my plate, instead of the same thing over and over (no matter how much I may love doing that one thing).

    Karen, “plant the seeds” is a phrase Linda uses with me all the time! We’ve known each other a long time and she has always been incredibly encouraging and supportive. The wisest thing she does is remind me, time and again, to keep planting those seeds.

    Brandi, thank you for your kind words. I do believe that it makes sense to have some mastery of subject matter before you branch out, but you don’t have to be a complete expert. As I alluded in my note to Steve (above), diversification of subject matter is as important as diversification of markets. I’m all for niches and getting good at one thing, but you also run the risk of becoming obsolete. For example, tech writers had a disaster in the early 2000s when the tech bubble burst, though for a number of years before they’d done quite well. So, there’s a sweet spot of knowing enough about a subject to be able to solve problems for people (write intelligently about it for periodicals/websites, write a book, edit other people’s work) and also not getting pigeon-holed or stuck in one area. For me, knowing a lot about martial arts opened a lot of doors, but then I piggybacked on things I learned from that (like how to write a book proposal). So that was a different subject matter expertise I could market. Hope this helps!


  • Star

    I am certified as a govt contractor now–a splodey-head paperwork experience. I took an online course from the SBA and am digesting it and might take it again. First Wed of the money–contact me if you are curious. I am a woman-owned business, not 8A. You have to unravel all that stuff. Now to find someone to subcontract to..another whole set of challenges. I would not mind having a contracting “coach,” though I may get one through SBA. Ack! Oh, well–all this new stuff and concentrating and so on is supposed to stave off the Old Timer’s.

  • Star

    First Wed of the MONEY? I may already have the Old Timer’s. I meant MONTH. Also being half or three-quarters vision-compromised isn’t helping me.

  • That is a great idea, expanding what we do for current clients in order to offer more to prospective clients. Of course, we truly want to develop the skill set. I would hate to be known as a jack of all trades and master of none. It is certain a concept worth examining. I try to constantly self-examine in order to look for ways to expand. Thanks for the ideas!

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