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The 80/20 Rule For Freelance Writers

Working as a professional writer is all about the balance between doing what you love and making enough money to enjoy a real life. This little blog is all about applying the 80/20 rule to your writing time so you can make money AND still work on your pet writing projects.

“MANY MEN GO FISHING ALL OF THEIR LIVES WITHOUT KNOWING THAT IT IS NOT FISH THEY ARE AFTER.” henry david thoreau

No time to write what he loved

The story of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle has always fascinated me. I remember reading about him in my late teens and how he wanted to be recognised as a serious writer. He concocted an idea to write about a funny little detective and sold a series of short stories to a weekly magazine. Thinking the money would allow him time now to write serious historical fiction, Sir Arthur was dismayed when the magazine kept ordering more and more stories — about Sherlock Holmes. 

Exasperated, he killed off Holmes in the ‘last’ of the series so he could spend time writing ‘serious stuff’ but this ‘act’ was met with public outrage. Tens of thousands of readers cancelled their subscriptions to the magazine and he was met in the street with anger and hostility. I can’t remember who it was exactly, but someone like the Prime Minister or a Royal even contacted him demanding that Holmes be resurrected (which he did).

Perhaps if Sir Arthur had applied the 80/20 rule to the his writing projects he could have continued to milk the Sherlock Holmes cash cow and still written his ‘serious’ novels and works of non-fiction. And without all the public grief.

What is the 80/20 rule?

The 80/20 Rule (also known as the Pareto Principle) asserts that 20% of your actions will account of 80% of your results. Some real world examples …

  • 80% of the world’s wealth in the hands of 20% of the population
  • 80% of workplace injuries caused by 20% of the hazards
  • 80% of your income coming from 20% of your clients

So the rule then suggests that 80% of your efforts should applied to the 20% area which delivers the most results. Does that make sense? Let’s look at it more closely for professional writers like you and me.

“YOU CAN HAVE IT ALL. JUST NOT ALL AT ONCE.” OPRAH WINFREY

Applying the 80/20 rule

If you’re a freelancer (and like Sir Arthur Conan Doyle) are driven to make money from your writing projects, simply spend 80% of your time working on the products that deliver the bulk of your income. Then set aside 20% of your time to work on the writing projects that really speak to you. So if you worked a 10 hour day — spend 8 hours on your freelancing work and 2 hours on your poems, screenplay or novel.

The most important thing that the 80/20 rule does, is it keeps you in touch with the creative projects that are at your core; and probably the reason you started writing in the first place. Spending 10 hours every day working as a freelancer with a plan to ‘get the novel done’ sometime in the future will likely render you as unhappy as Sir Arthur Conan Doyle who always felt that Holmes took his mind from better work.

Another practical way of applying the 80/20 rule if you are a freelance writer is to use the 20% to work on projects that will eventually generate residual income and royalties. This might be the novel we mentioned in the first paragraph, but it could also be white papers, online courses, eBooks, and informational webinars.

CAVEAT: the 80/20 rule only works if you make a plan and stick to it.

“LACK OF DIRECTION, NOT LACK OF TIME, IS THE PROBLEM. WE ALL HAVE 24 HOURS EACH DAY.” zig ziglar

Personal productivity and time management

The way you allocate your 80/20 time will evolve along with your writing practice. You could make a plan to transition out of freelancing as your residual income starts to make a real contribution to the monthly bill payments, giving yourself time to write more books, short stories, or novellas.

At times your 80/20 rule might be 80% writing your latest novel and 20% of time keeping up with admin duties. Then when the book is finished spending 80% of your time marketing and promoting your book and 20% of your time getting started on the sequel. The 80/20 rule can be applied to your whole day, or (like if you are working full time) only to your weekends and free time in the evenings.

It’s really up to you how you make up the time, but the 80/20 rule will only work if you plan your working days, allocating time to writing projects. And then sticking to the plan. Plan your time well (and following through with great writing) and you could eventually be living comfortably, spending 80% of your time writing that human rights blog and 20% managing your residual income and freelancing.

Let’s get writing.

Aim above morality. Be not simply good, be good for something. henry david thoreau

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