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Making Money and Meaning: Freelance Writer Nancy Monson Turns a Side Job Into a Six-Figure Career

Making Money and Meaning: Freelance Writer Nancy Monson Turns a Side Job Into a Six-Figure Career

One of the most popular career questions I get is about how to build a career that meets both your fulfillment and financial goals. Nancy Monson has managed to achieve this balance for over 20 years now, as a freelance writer, covering health/medicine, nutrition, lifestyle, travel, pets, crafts and creativity. Nancy’s initial career choice was acting, which she pursued for seven years in NY and LA. To make ends meet, she worked at a medical communications company, eventually taking on increasing responsibilities in editing and reporting on medical meetings. She then branched out to assignments for consumer magazines, translating medical jargon to language accessible to the layperson, and her freelance career was born. How did Monson build a career that makes money and meaning?

Tailor your career choice to your interests and values

I didn’t want to promote drugs and I liked writing for magazines, so I made a concerted effort to meet and pursue magazine editors. I went to meetings of the American Society of Journalists and Authors to learn about consumer writing and eventually became a member. From there, I’ve allowed my expertise in health and nutrition plus my personal interests in art, pets, movies, books, TV and travel to dictate the types of stories I pitch to magazines and blogs. – Nancy Monson

Many careers, not just writing, can fit into various industries, so choose proactively based on your interest in the subject matter or a specific value (e.g., I don’t want to promote drugs). If you like what you’re doing day-to-day, switching to a different industry might be enough to re-energize your career. Or if you like the industry you serve but not your role, you can look at a lateral move within your same company. Monson got her start in freelance writing as a side hustle to her primary career in acting. So you might also experiment with a side hustle to make extra money or put more meaning into your career.

Set work boundaries

When I was first starting out, I worked as much as I had to—nights, early mornings, and weekends—but I soon found work was taking over my life and I needed to establish some boundaries. I stopped answering work calls at night or on weekends. Today, I only work beyond 9-to-5 if an expert can’t talk to me during the day or I’m covering a conference. I take frequent breaks, and in the past few years I’ve taken time out of the day to work out with a trainer once a week and play tennis. As a health coach and health/medical writer, I’m trying to practice what I preach! – Nancy Monson

Sticking to a set schedule (9-to-5 or otherwise) and proactively making time for breaks are great suggestions for avoiding burnout. I know other freelancers who prefer working fewer but longer days and taking a long weekend away. Experiment with the work pace that allows you to be at your best sustainably.

[Related: From 9-5er to Entrepreneur: The 10 Lessons I've Learned Along the Way]

Build the right support system

I was lucky enough to find a really great mentor, a male editor who gave me lots of opportunities and taught me the business. He (and my father) also ingrained in me that I should value my services and ask for more money than is offered. I also lucked into finding a very supportive female editor for a national magazine who was willing to teach me a bit and give me a chance when I was transitioning to consumer magazine writing. I also advocate joining some industry groups—for me, the groups were ASJA, the American Medical Writers Association, the Association of Health Care Journalists,Freelance Success and MediaBistro. These groups were a lifeline to other writers and industry news and trends. – Nancy Monson

Mentors and industry groups are invaluable to freelancers and traditional employees alike. For freelancers, entrepreneur groups, which cut across industries and functions, are also helpful for accountability, inspiration, and business-related resources. For employees, check to see if your company has affinity groups, also known as employee resource groups, which cut across different functions and levels and allow you to get involved with a different set of colleagues than your typical day-to-day.

Continue learning

I have a curious streak—that’s the hallmark of a journalist, I guess—and I like learning new things and looking for new ways to expand my business. In 2012, I took a year-long, mostly online course in health coaching with the Institute for Integrative Nutrition to get certified as a health coach. In 2015, I got accepted into graduate school at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth to pursue an MFA in Fiber Art. I ended up getting a certificate instead for various reasons, and I would like to transition into an art career when I retire. I also got certified to teach a structured, pattern drawing technique called Zentangle this past spring and will be teaching classes in that in the Fall in two adult continuing education groups in Connecticut. I always recommend taking classes to update and expand your skills and meet new people: I’ve taken courses in SEO, blogging, graphic design, PowerPoint, essay writing, among others and many, many art courses. -– Nancy Monson

It makes sense that Monson who writes frequently on medical issues and who authored Craft to Heal: Soothing Your Soul with Sewing, Painting, and Other Pastimes, would take courses relating to writing, media more broadly, wellness and art. While art and health coaching are not primary sources of income, they are possible second career options and provide some income diversification. Notice too how Monson pursued a mix of learning outlets -- from online programs to graduate school certification to ad hoc courses. Today’s professional needs to continually adapt to changing markets by continually learning. In addition to online, brick and mortar schools, and the one-off course, consider conferences, specialty publications and blogs, and company-sponsored training.

Manage risk appropriately

Don’t go freelance unless you have a pipeline of gigs or you’ve saved money to live on for six months or more…..I’ve never been laid off when several of my friends with steady jobs have been. – Nancy Monson

While Monson acknowledges that you need some start-up capital to sustain yourself as your freelance career gets going, she also highlights that her career has been steadier than some of her friends with supposedly “steady” jobs. So, there is risk to freelancing but also risk to traditional employment, and all professionals (employees and entrepreneurs) need to manage this risk appropriately. This includes cash savings, but also maintaining a full pipeline of opportunities and staying connect with your network.

[Related: Got a Hobby? How to Turn What You Love Into a Paying Business]


Caroline Ceniza-Levine is a career and business coach with SixFigureStart®. Her latest book is Jump Ship: 10 Steps To Starting A New Career (Forbes Media, 2015). She also writes a weekly advice column on Forbes (where this post originally appeared).

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