The 80/20 Rule For Freelance Writers

Melinda J. Irvine -- the 80_20 rule for writing professionals

Working as a freelance writer is all about finding the balance between doing what you love and making enough money to enjoy a full life. This short blog is all about applying the 80/20 rule to your writing time so you can make money AND still have time to work on your pet writing projects. After all, those poems and shorts stories are probably the reason you became a freelance writer in the first place.


No time to write what he loved

Let’s start with a story.

The life 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 by the Western canon 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 he made from the detective stories would allow him time 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 of ‘murder’ was met with public outrage. Tens of thousands of readers cancelled their subscriptions to the magazine, and people stopped him in the street and abused him. I can’t remember who it was exactly, but even someone like the Prime Minister or a Royal contacted the magazine and demanded that Holmes be resurrected (which he was).

Perhaps if Sir Arthur had applied the 80/20 rule to his writing projects, he could have spent 80% of his time milking the Sherlock Holmes cash cow — leaving 20% of his time to writing ‘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 drive 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.

The rule implies that 80% of your efforts should directed 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.

quote by oprah winfrey on perseverence

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 are close to your heart. So if you worked a 10 hour day — spend 8 hours on your freelancing work and 2 hours on your poems, screenplay, or fantasy 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 10-12 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 Sherlock 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 a novel, 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.

quote by zig ziglar about time management

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. This would  give you time to write more books, short stories, or novellas.

Then as an author your updated 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, with 20% of your time getting started on the sequel. The 80/20 rule can be applied to your whole day, or (if you are working a full-time day job) to your free time on evenings and weekends.

It’s really up to you how you make up the time, but the 80/20 rule will only work if you plan your days, then work to the times you allocated to each project. Plan your time well (followed through with great writing) and you could eventually be living comfortably — spending 80% of your time writing that human rights or environmental blog, and 20% managing your residual income and freelancing.

Let’s get writing.

Is the freelancing life for you? Hook into neXtDRAFT, my weekly zine for writers and freelancers.

No spam, just real writing.